Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I am fifty years old today.

One of my little psychological quirks strongly predisposes me to think more about the future than the present or the past. I'm not a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. And the past is a country I don't visit that often. Nevertheless, hitting the half-century mark seems to require that one spend a moment reflecting on where one has been before looking to the future.

I was born four and a half months after Sputnik was launched. I grew up as a child of the Space Age. The world was made of big things. For some reason, I still vividly remember New Year's Day of 1964. I remember thinking that, before (from my lofty perspective as a five year old), the world looked drab and old-fashioned but now, 1964 was all shiny chrome and glass and plastic. 1964 looked like the future.

I was too young to understand the adult fear that the sixties represented. I don't remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember queuing up to leave kindergarten when the principal announced that JFK had been assassinated. My friends and I wondered what would happen as we walked home from school but we weren't frightened. I remember flying back from Maine to Detroit in the summer of 1968. As the plane banked into final approach, the pilot pointed out the smoke rising from Twelfth St. I couldn't understand why somebody would want to burn down their neighborhood. I still can't.

Like most kids my age, I was enormously excited by the space program. When I was young, space represented everything good that my country could do. Space was difficult. It required huge energy--physical, intellectual, societal energy--to conquer space. I couldn't understand why anybody would want to cut the Apollo program short. I still can't.

I spent the early seventies out of the country. My father worked for Ford and I spent junior high in Japan and high school in Brazil. My experience of Watergate and the other Nixon scandals was more the experience of a foreigner than of an American. We were puzzled: how could the most powerful country on Earth rip itself to pieces over what appeared to be some fairly modest corruption? As an American teenager, I understood dimly that this was probably a big deal. As a resident of Brazil, I was alarmed at what appeared to be the capriciousness of the US.

My infatuation with space lasted all the way to college. I entered MIT fully intending to build rockets. But my time there was not happy. For the first time in my life, I wasn't the smart kid. I was intimidated. I wasn't disciplined enough to work through the intimidation. The realities of big system engineering weren't nearly as glamorous as my imagined version of them. Instead of thermodynamics and aerodynamics and structural engineering, I learned more about uncertainty and drugs and depression.

Well, drugs and depression and software. When I left school, sans degree, I left with the knowledge that I had a talent. I understood, almost intuitively, how software systems should be constructed. I had a skill. I was employable. Oddly enough, my first job was at Rockwell, doing software for the Space Shuttle. I wasn't an aero and astro engineer, but I still had some residual love for the space program.

I got married early and had kids early--three of them by the time I was twenty-seven. I'd like to tell you that I was a good father back in those days but that would be a lie. Instead, I was a good provider. I worked like a crazy person. Perhaps I worked as a crazy person. Work was a sanctuary from what turned out to be a very bad marriage. Work was my identity. That lasted until my kids became teenagers and everything blew up. The marriage ended. My children suffered because of my inattention when they were little. I think I did better once I realized the mistakes I'd made but things were bad for while.

My second wife was the best thing that ever happened to me. I still don't quite understand how she knew that there was a sane person trying to emerge from the morass of dysfunction that surrounded my relationship with my kids, but she did. The first few years were touch-and-go but it's amazing what you can accomplish when you know that the person you love actually expects things from you. At the age of thirty-eight, I finally became something like a well-rounded adult. My wife saved four lives.

Depression and I are old friends. We may drift apart but we always touch base every five years or so for a visit. Recently, my old friend has come for a visit where he's kinda worn out his welcome. I suppose you can't be smart, deeply flawed, and fifty without having a doozy of a mid-life crisis. Still, I'll be happy when this one's over. Literally.

One of the things I've learned about being preoccupied with the future is that you can't do it without being terrified of death. After all, when you're preoccupied with what will happen instead of what is happening, death really gets in the way of your plans. When you're an atheist, things are even harder. If I believed in an afterlife, perhaps I could jolly myself into believing that I'd still get to see what happens next. Sadly, I can't believe, comforting--and convenient--though that would be.

At fifty, it's hard to deny death its due. It's out there. Sure, I'm still hoping that Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey will throw some terrific down-field blocks for me. But the field is finite.

There's been a lot of fear in the last eight years, the "oh-ohs," as I like to call them. I am not one to deny the appropriateness of fear when it is appropriate. I worry about my country, not so much because there are people out there that want to destroy it; that's ultimately part of the American condition. You identify those people and you pull their teeth with as much charity as you can get away with. But we are clearly in a period where titanic, historical forces are rumbling beneath the surface, bursting forth in an unsettling pattern that isn't yet quite discernible. We live, as the Chinese like to say, in interesting times.

I worry about my kids and how their lives will turn out. They're all adults now. My son has a family of his own. My children are all still struggling to make their way. For some of them, success is not yet assured. And yet I'm more hopeful about their futures than I've been in a long time. There are still lots of things that could go wrong. But there are lots of things that can go right.

Ever the dweller of the future, I worry about whether, at the end of my life, I'll look back on it and be content with what it was. The outcome of that worry is within my control. If I were run over by a beer truck tomorrow, I'd give myself a passing grade but it certainly wouldn't be an 'A'. I have talent that I haven't always put to the best use. I have people in my life who love me and I haven't always done my best for them. I'm no longer young, and I wish I'd made more of my youth. I have examined my life as best I can and haven't always picked up on the important things until much later. Still, I have a family that I love and who loves me back. I've been moderately successful professionally. I haven't been bored. I've been happy at least as much as I've been sad.

I resist change, as I think many do. Still, when I must change, I do it pretty well. I've coasted for some years, but change has been coming for me. This time, I have resisted it about as long as I can. I feel a second act coming on. In it, I'll be older and slower, but I hope I'll be a lot more comfortable in my own skin.

I'm fifty. Time to grow again.

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