never stop learning

A blog by KJ Mazidi
Jan. 9, 2018, 4:35 p.m.

Reading about Middle Age

I have become reasonably comfortable with being middle-aged although most days I think my inner 12-year old is still in charge. She's a quiet, nerdy girl who loves to read and go on long solitary walks. Every once in a while she surprises herself by taking on adventures she thinks she's too timid to try. Imagine her surprise when I look in the mirror and see my much lived-in face.

Technically, if I am "middle-aged" that would mean that I'm going to live to 118, so this is just a euphemism for getting old. My parents have been good role models for getting older. My dad lived to 85 and in his last years when someone would ask how he was, he'd joke about being "on the right side of the dirt". He was happy and he enjoyed life, and we all enjoyed life more when we were around him. My mother is now 87, still lives in her own home and still drives. She is the strongest person I know.

Whereas youth is all about possibilities, mid-life confronts you with certainties. To put this is AI terms, think of life as a search through an expansive space of options. As you proceed through life making choices, branches are cut off, narrowing the search space and leading to one ultimate end. At mid-life you still can't see the future but you know there is less of it to see and fewer possible outcomes. This is not necessarily as bad as it sounds, particularly if your past offers you pleasant memories and informs your present life with meaning.

So, given my age it is natural that I have been drawn to a couple of middle-age themed books lately. The first is "Midlife: A Philosophical Guide" by Kieran Setiya. The second is "Vacationland" by John Hodgman. Both are interesting whether or not you are middle-aged.

Setiya's book is full of delightful anecdotes and great ideas from thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Virginia Woolf and many more. The book is a philosophical and even spiritual exercise in grounding yourself to what matters most to you. He also points out that researchers have observed a U-shaped pattern of life satisfaction, with that low point coming in the middle years, probably because we have so much on our shoulders during those years in terms of work and family responsibilities. The good news of that research is that it's all up the second leg of the U from here on. I'm ready.

John Hodgman's "Vactionland" is a much lighter read but equally profound in its own way. The book is a series of vignettes about his family home in Massachusetts and later their vacation home in Maine. Each vignette is humorous and speaks to issues beyond the action of the story: accepting that you are no longer young and cool (if you ever were the latter), checking your white and/or economic privilege, understanding that your children will leave you, people you love will die, you have to give up places that were once home, to name just a few mid-life certainties. The book is funny and insightful and what more really can you ask of a book?