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Ask your friends if middle age is right for you
Hello & welcome to another edition of Situation Normal! I’m excited to share an essay about a subject I’ve been waiting 45 years to tackle: middle age. The piece is funny (🤞), but also a tad melancholy, which maybe says something about how I feel about aging. Hopefully my aging angst makes you laugh, think, and feel. If it does, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
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One sign you’ve reached middle age is that it takes longer than it once did to enter your date of birth on an internet drop-down menu. Another sign you’ve reached middle age, these days anyway, is that internet drop down menus weren’t a thing when you were a kid.
Speaking of kids, middle-aged people say things like “kids today” in earnest. For example, the other day, I told a friend, “Kids today have it so easy because they don’t have to endure the protracted scroll of the drop-down menu.”
If that joke made you groan, know that groaning is another marker of middle age. But it’s not just any groan. It’s a specific groan called—wait for it—“the middle-aged groan.” The name lacks marketing pizzaz, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone of a certain age is familiar with the groan.
“I couldn’t find any research on what I’ve termed ‘the middle-aged groan,’ but every expert I consulted knew, instantly, what I was talking about,” Jancee Dunn wrote in The New York Times.1
After speaking with a professor of physical therapy, a professor specializing in health promotion and aging, a kinesiologist, and a psychologist, Dunn, who is eleven years older than me, according to Wikipedia, concluded that the middle-aged groan could be mental, physical, voluntary, or involuntary. In other words, middle-aged people groan, but it’s not clear why we groan, or what our groans mean.
I first noticed the groan after reading Dunn’s article. I reached up to retrieve a serving dish from a cabinet, and I let out a tiny sigh of a groan. And so it begins, I remember thinking. The following Sunday, I heard the groan again—more guttural this time—when I paused the TV and got up from the couch to use the bathroom. Now, I hear the groan all the time. When I bend over to pick up something from the floor. When I kneel down to tie my shoes. When I get out of bed in the morning. I groan, therefore I am middle-aged; also, I am middle-aged, therefore I groan.
I didn’t bother asking my doctor, but I’m sure there’s a pill for the middle-aged groan. There’s a pill for everything, including pills to treat the side effects of the other pills. I’m not a pill-popper, but I am middle-aged. I know this because I recently purchased a pill organizer to keep track of all my pills.
My pills are supposed to help me live longer, but they make me feel old. Aside from a daily Flintstones vitamin, my childhood was pill-free. In my teens and twenties, I thought I would live forever, so I stopped taking my vitamins. In my thirties, I felt guilty about that, but I also felt fine, so I told myself vitamins were a lie. But in my forties, I just don’t feel like I used to, so I turned to pills.
I take seven over-the-counter pills each morning and one prescription pill at night. Christina sorts my pills for me. My wife runs a tight ship, and let’s be honest, buying the pill organizer was her idea. It’s a lovely gesture—or, as Christina calls it, an act of service. But sorting pills for your husband leads to some dark places.
“I know how Michael is going to die,” Christina told a friend. “I’m going to pass away, then a few weeks later, he’ll die because Michael has no idea what pills he’s supposed to take.”
In middle-age, I think about death about as much as I did when I was young. But when I was young, death felt hypothetical—something that happens to other people. At forty-five, thinking about death hits different. I’m too old to think that I’ll live forever, but I’m too young to die. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to do something about my eventual, inevitable, demise. Actually, I feel compelled to do everything I can. But living right only prolongs your life, it’s up to you to make sure that the life you live is a meaningful one.
To me, interrogating your life’s meaning—or, choosing to avoid those really uncomfortable questions—is the quintessential act of middle age. That’s why middle age is the only life stage to have its own crisis. I’m not an expert on mid-life crises, but I think they come in two flavors:
I got what I wanted, but I’m unhappy - These are the middle-aged people who accomplished everything they said they would accomplish when they were young. Their problem is this: their accomplishments just don’t do it for them anymore—and maybe they never did. The world’s smallest violin plays for these middle-aged people, but their struggles are real.
I didn’t get what I wanted, and I’m unhappy - These are middle-aged people who failed to accomplish their goals, or never bothered to set goals in the first place. They’re sure they’d be happy if things had just worked out differently. The thing that triggers them most is the tiny violin playing for the first group of people, not because they envy the so-called “winners,” but because they can’t hear their own disappointment over that damn tiny violin.
The problem with both mid-life crisis flavors is that they taste the same: bitter. The reason for this is that their active ingredients are identical: the naiveté of youth gone rancid, nagging discontent, and a relentless need to compare yourself to others. The only real variations are the serving dishes that are the vessels of our mid-life crises.
For some, a good mid-life crisis serving dish is a car they couldn’t afford when they were young. That was a classic Boomer mid-life crisis, I suppose. The cost-adjusted Gen-X / Millennial twist on that classic mid-life crisis is Van Life, if you believe what you see on TikTok.2
An affair with someone who makes you feel young and alive is an evergreen mid-life crisis, handed down from one generation to the next. The upfront costs of an affair are low, but you have to watch out for hidden fees that can really take a toll on your life. Also, STDs.3
Changing careers is a seemingly safe mid-life crisis serving dish because hustle culture rewards the hustle. But after twenty years of doing one thing, it’s difficult to convince LinkedIn that you can do something else. And in this economy, you have to consider the very real possibility that the machines are coming just as hard for your old job as your new one.4
Honestly, none of these serving dishes appeal to me. I like my career—most days, anyway. I love my wife. I’ve never been a car guy, and Van Life lost whatever appeal it had when I learned about the bathroom situation.
My mid-life crisis is a subtle dish called ennui. It’s a generalized funk that materializes when you notice yourself dwelling on the indignities of internet drop-down menus, mysterious groans, and the unwelcome arrival of pill organizers. I’ve embraced ennui because it’s free, relatively low in calories, and it’s unlikely to cause indigestion. To make mid-life crisis ennui, all you have to do is marinate in the feeling that your best days are behind you.
Are my best days behind me? I want to say no, but whenever the topic comes up, most of my friends say yes. They’re not talking about me—that would be rude. They’re talking themselves. But instead of saying, “I’m getting old,” they say, “we’re getting old.”
It’s the royal we that stings. It’s a reminder that no matter how hard I try to resist the march of time, my cohort is on the march. I’m marching too. What other choice is there? I just hope we’re marching forward, because as much as we’d like to be young again, I don’t think I could take another go at a mid-life crisis.
And if you’re on Substack Notes, please select your favorite line from this piece and hit that “Restack” button.🙏🦾
Stick around and chat
You know the drill. I’ve got questions, you’ve got answer.
Is middle age on the horizon for you, in the rearview mirror, or are you in the thick of it?
How does the concept of middle age make you feel?
Assume that money is no object and morality of no concern. What’s your mid-life crisis fantasy?
Were internet drop-down menus created to punish us as we age? Explain.
If Christina is right about how I’m going to die, can I count on the situation normie community to intervene and help me sort out my pill situation, or am I fucked?
Read a paid story from the archives here👇
Want more slice of life humor?
Pick up a copy of my book, Ride/Share: Micro Stories of Soul, Wit and Wisdom from the Backseat. It’s fantastic, but don’t take my word for it.
Michael’s book is a great way to keep yourself entertained on a long flight! Also, the ebook is only 99 cents, which is great because I’m on a budget.
— D. B. Cooper, bookworm, budget shopper, hijacker
See “What’s Behind the ‘Middle-Aged Groan’?” in The New York Times, March 24, 2023 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/24/well/middle-aged-groan.html?smid=url-share
Pro tip: don’t.
Seriously, if you’re stepping out on your partner, the very least you can do is use protection.
Let’s see what happens when AI hits middle age.