Skip to main content
Original Issue


Dreams of athletic glories ebb, a shadow no larger than a man's hand becomes a menacing cloud, stabs of pain grow into unsubsiding aches and then—fair warning having been received—a man faces up to 40

How many times in your life, when some great event is about to take place, can you orchestrate that event to your own taste? Think back to when you were drafted or when your wife had her first baby. Who was steering the ship that day, eh? Not you; not I. But I faced a rare day not long ago, with one of life's critical landfalls looming ahead, when I felt the old ship to be superbly in hand. This was early last spring, in the month leading to my 40th birthday, that symbolic portal to middle age. My wife and I were celebrating with a ski trip to Alta, Utah where, on this particular day, we were unpacking for three glorious weeks of charging down the deepest, darkest ski mountains in America.

The two of us, if I may say so, were both in superb physical condition at the time of our arrival in Alta, she by dint of the R.C.A.F. exercises, I by running a mile and lifting weights on alternate mornings and playing tennis two nights a week. So we had no trouble adjusting to the extreme altitude. As we climbed onto the chair lift for our first run I, for one, felt no qualm about taking on such a heavy dose of high-mountain skiing. At the top we found 15 inches of new powder on the headwall, with the snow still sifting down. Joyfully, we whirled off into the gray morning, swooping, shouting, turning, blind as two bats in the storm's flat light but filled with the rapture of the high country. I went out again that afternoon, along with a trail-breaking gang of four instructors whose average age was about 25. And, well, perhaps one should not mention this, but it was rather pleasant to see how, after the first few turns, they stopped looking back for me and began instead to tend very much to their own skiing.

After the last run I came to our room and slid into a scalding tub with a glass of Cognac. At dinner my wife and I shared a steak, fresh bread, salad and Bordeaux. And I remember thinking how sad it was that other people seemed to have so much trouble coming to grips with their middle years. You know the old saws: Franklin P. Adams saying that "Middle age occurs when you are too young to take up golf and too old to rush up to the net"; Joe Louis, after a splendid knockout over Lee Savold, observing wistfully, "My age, what happen all depend on how you feel when you get up that day"; and that famous poisoned dart about how "Some people grow old gracefully, others learn to rumba."

Such words had always seemed to me like tired excuses for tolerating slippage in the machinery. At a prizefight I had seen one recent victim of the rumba syndrome: Norman Mailer, age 44. He kept wandering around ringside in a many-strapped trench coat, two fascinated blondes close in his wake and a manila envelope bulging with typescript clutched to his collarbone, much in the style of Linus clutching his blanket.

Another example appeared just after dinner that first night in the ski country. I phoned an old friend, a gray-haired ski-shop owner, to join us for a nightcap. He roared up to the hotel in a Goldfinger-type sports car, bedecked with dozens of dashboard dials and eyelids on the headlights. He himself was wearing winkle-picker boots, Italian pants and a 3-month-old haircut. I asked him, in an offhand way, how he felt about being middle-aged, at which point he lobbed back one of those bits of capsulized joviality that ski people keep around to toss to outlanders. "Ho, ho," he said. "When I was young, my face was smooth and my pants were baggy. Now I am old, my pants are smooth and my face is baggy." That was pretty good, but then he saw I was serious and he became first morose, then panic-stricken. "Growing old graciously is a stupid idea," he said eventually. And soon he fled.

Impatient with these hints of mortality, I asked my wife if she was having any qualms about her own proximity to 40. She pondered before replying, "I think the main thing for a girl is that she knows she can't possibly have an affair with a ski instructor unless she's rich." This did not seem to be advancing the ball very far either, so I retired.

It is hard to describe the next morning. As best I could tell on awakening, I had turned into a pillar of salt. My mouth was dry and cracked, and my joints seemed to have crystallized. I lay still for perhaps an hour, but then it was apparent I was going to feel no better on this particular day. Everywhere I had fallen—which was just about everywhere—hurt in a dull way. I decided to try standing up, theorizing that at least there were no bruises on the bottoms of my feet. Disturbed by my lamentations, my wife lifted her head to reveal a flourishing crop of overnight fever blisters and a pair of oddly swollen eyebrows. Seeing them in a bedside mirror, she bleated and disappeared beneath the sheet for the rest of the morning.

Despite my acute physical discomfort, it did not occur to me to do anything so sensible as go back to bed. After all, I had always felt a little stiff the second day of any sport. Why, back in college there had been some groanful mornings at the beginning of the basketball and baseball seasons. But then and since, after a couple of good, sweaty hours—or at worst a couple of days—the old frame was oiled up and moving better than ever. Besides, I had been reared long ago in a kind of cold-hip-bath-and-bowl-of-gruel tradition, one which tolerated no modicum of self-indulgence or in-turned pity. My principal tutor in this ethic was my mother, Catherine Drinker Bowen, a long-shanked, straight-eyed Philadelphia lady of much literary talent and competitive drive, to whom the thought of giving in to physical frailty, particularly the frailty of middle age, was repulsive. In fact, the concept made her nervous. She used to remind us at least once a month that Mozart had expired at 35, Shelley at 29. These facts provided clear evidence that life's cruelest joke was to strike down creative people at the height of their powers.

"I can hear the roar of the cataract," she would announce at sudden, odd moments, savoring the doom-cry of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the elder. To which my Quaker stepfather—about whom, more later—would reply, "Dearie, thy hearing must be very keen indeed."

Indeed it must have been. At that time she arose every day at 7:30, wrote for five hours, then tapered off by walking two miles (winter) or by swimming in the surf, riding horses or playing tennis (summer). Each day was like a round in a prizefight, the purpose being to win all rounds by a knockout, or at least by a big margin. This was especially evident to anyone who took her on at tennis (my sister, a 1966 Seattle Tennis Club champion, surrendered to Mother for good in the summer of 1939) or at a family card game called Pounce, in which the main rule was that if you were going to cry, you couldn't play. It has always been my hope that the Great Scorer turned his face from these games for her sake as well as for mine. My entire Pounce career was spent sniffling on the bench.

As for tennis, after my 237th consecutive loss I said to her one day at the net, "Just think, as you're getting weaker and weaker, I'll be getting stronger and stronger." She reacted to this filial warmth by going to bed for three days with a sore throat. (Since, by the family code, it was immoral to show any conventional stress signs, my mother's reflex in the face of adversity was always to get a sore throat, which, being of uncertifiable origin, provided the moral sanction for a brief collapse into bed.)

In any case, my comment at tennis, besides being a wretched thing to have said, turned out to be a very poor assessment of impending circumstances. The present year is my mother's 70th and, though she has abandoned both tennis and Pounce, largely for lack of suitable opponents, her only real concession to age is that she now breaks her walk with 20 laps in the heated pool of a friend who lives a half a mile from the house. For my part, while there have been various minor peaks—and a number of major valleys—in the years since, on this particular morning at Alta my strength was by no means waxing.

Nevertheless, propelled in part by maternal heritage and in large measure by confidence that the proper juices would soon start flowing, I headed up to the mountain. At the top, alas, I could see that a number of depressing changes had occurred on the ski slope overnight. The snow struck me as heavier, and very patchy, with funny transitions all over the place. It seemed dangerous that other people were skiing so fast; terribly lucky for them, too, that they were making it all right in such bad stuff. After a good deal of cautious sideslipping, I tried two turns, butchered the second one, got up and crashed again right away. Sitting in the snow at the head of a steep gully, I became aware that my toes were numb and cold from clutching at the innersoles of my boots. Moreover, my goggles were fogging up and, when I raised them to clear the lenses, the sun seemed unnecessarily bright. Things stayed pretty much this way all day. Finally, at 4 o'clock, I wrote off the day and staggered back to the lodge. Tomorrow morning would be better.

But tomorrow morning was just terrible, too. Every bump was a surprise, and I always seemed to be going too fast. I quit at 11 for a sauna and an extended lunch. Feeling somewhat restored, I spent the afternoon taking a private lesson and went to bed early, set for a breakthrough next morning. I am sorry to report, however, that there was no morning breakthrough. Nor was there one in the afternoon. The fourth day was bottoms. Still hurting in various bones and sinews, I went out with a pair of avalanche patrolmen to ski a tree-strewn cliff that was mantled with another yard of fresh powder. I tried terribly hard. At trail's end, one of them said, "Say, you know, you're a good sport." Lay translation: "You stink."

Wounded, I sought wifely comfort, and wifely comfort is what I got. She was on the sun deck, reading something on Henry James. I told her what had happened, and that, dammit, I was going to take three days of private lessons if I had to, because I just wasn't going to be that bad. "I think you're being silly," she said, striking just below the waterline, and returned to Henry James.

Coming as it did, with the range and velocity of obvious forethought, this was a particularly damaging shot. It seemed to imply something not just about the past few days, but about many, many days past—not to mention an indefinite number of days ahead. About the days past, it seemed to say that any man on the threshold of middle age was, expressly, silly to knock himself out trying to hang onto something that was going to get away sooner or later no matter what he did. It never occurred to me that I had fallen into this foible, simply because I had been at some pains to insure myself against it, the way anyone else could who really cared to. By the simple exercise of self-control, any man could see to it that he ripened in carefully controlled sections. That is, while his head grew gray and calm, the rest could be kept keen and springy. And, thus, he would be ever better equipped to meet all challenges, both physical and mental. This, however, is not at all what my wife seemed to be saying.

About the future, I thought I caught in her words the more specific message that the time for conquest of the vigorous sports had simply run out. This was terrible news indeed. By conquest, I do not mean just getting a little better than the next guy, particularly if the next guy is a soggy commuter who is perfectly happy paddling about in a quiet lagoon of slow stem Christies, mid-90s golf or middle-aged doubles. I mean getting really good, like an athlete should. And I could not imagine or remember a) wanting to be counted anywhere but among the really fine athletes or b) believing that there was not still time to make it. I mean, there had always been time.

There had certainly been plenty of time way back when this passion had first taken hold. That was in 1933, as I recall, in the second grade, when the keenest ambition of most small boys around the country was to be a baseball player, a pitcher like Dizzy Dean or a slugging first baseman like Lou Gehrig. In Philadelphia, however, the spirit of baseball fantasy had long since been broken by the ghastly spectacle of the Phillies and the A's, whose pitchers then had names like Boom Boom Beck and Line Drive Nelson and whose most memorable first baseman, in my book, anyway, was a baggy-kneed disaster named Talmage Abernathy. For almost a decade while I was growing up, these men committed prodigies of malfeasance that left their teams 20 games in the cellar and all surrounding boys with the conviction that major league baseball was a garbage heap to which no sensible boy need aspire. Under these circumstances, the thing to be in Philadelphia was a football player, and preferably what was then called a triple-threat halfback, like the ones at Penn and Princeton.

Right up through the first year of high school I had shared this dream with another skinny, slow-footed little boy named Neddy Dillon. Of course, neither of us showed anything like the proper physical promise. Then, one fateful September day, he came back from summer camp 30 pounds heavier and much swifter afoot, with leg muscles and tufts of hair here and there and whispered knowledge of unmentionable things. Soon thereafter he was, in fact, a triple-threat halfback on the school varsity while I, along with three million other 10th-graders, was still little and skinny and slow. For the next 25 years, there had been a temptation to keep looking ahead to one's own share of Neddy Dillon's miracle in which, through the mystical awakening of latent hormones, you became powerful and quick and surpassingly skillful, able to call forth at any moment whatever physical resources the situation demanded.

But these years tended to slide by in relatively unrequited order. And while it occurred that I came back first from camp and later from the Navy both taller and stronger—though alas no faster over 100 yards—something far more fundamental happened at the same time: the current crop of triple-threat halfbacks all began to have birth dates after mine, in years like 1930 or 1932. And no matter how skillfully one might manipulate the theoretical variables—such as being red-shirted through half a dozen seasons or even waiting to blossom as a nonrunning quarterback on a professional team—the raw mathematics became a formidable obstacle for a future football star born in 1927. Furthermore, there was progressively less sustenance to be had from the illusion that player A or B was better than me because he was older.

After college it had been necessary to readjust the secret goal away from football, since all college players and too many professionals were now younger. Fortunately, at this time there was an upsurge of elderly prizefighters, such as Tony Zale, Gus Lesnevich and Joe Walcott, who were fighting title bouts at 35 or so. That left me a good 10 years to make it as a fighter. At the same time I began to think far more kindly of big-league first basemen, since I now saw that first base on some teams was a kind of pasture for mature athletes who could still hit, though some were older even than their managers.

But, of course, setting up these alternative goals turned out to be no more than a simple-minded delaying tactic—as was the addition at age 35 of professional golf—because the process that takes a man past the point of possible triumph in football also sweeps him beyond the ages of the heroes in these other sports. Eventually there was no more hope on the horizon of major national competition, save the shining beacons of Archie Moore, Stan Musial, Charlie Conerly (I guess I never truly gave up on football), Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, men who clung to the pinnacle of their game right into middle age. But you could hardly sit around on the brink of 40 looking forward to being one of them. What I mean to say is that, while at 15 it may have been both logical and immensely comforting to believe that in six years one might be as good as a 21-year-old Stan Musial, now that I was nearly 40 and Musial was 46, we were both simply too old to play baseball—having left, meanwhile, quite different imprints on the national culture.

For some odd reason, that truth had been very difficult to perceive, though I must confess that there had been ample clues along the way to aid in its perception. For example, quite apart from the looming fact of geriatrics, several winters ago my sons, now 11 and 12, established a reference point known as, "Your day, Daddy," as in, "Back in your day, Daddy, did they 1) have television, 2) know about rockets, 3) ride cool motorcycles, 4) only get 60¢ allowance, 5) have to go to bed at 9:15 when all the other kids, etc...?" That should have been a fair clue that my day might not be tomorrow. Another clue, in the slowly clearing light of hindsight, should have been visible in the fall of 1965 when the boys suggested that henceforth I might like to referee the neighborhood touch football games, in which I had previously functioned as a lordly pass-thrower for both sides. And surely another hint was made distressingly available at the yacht club summer before last when, after watching a children's swim meet, I dove in and swam a hard lap to pull up, puffing and dripping, at the feet of the college boy who coached the team. Grinning at the stopwatch in his hand, he said, quietly, "Mr. Bowen, it seems that you are one of my slower 10-and-unders."

None of these, however, had come through with quite the impact of my wife's comment on the sun deck at Alta. Maybe that is what wives are for. In any event, I excused myself. Feeling a sore throat coming on, I went to our bedroom to lie down for a while. There I discovered in my wife's open suitcase a kind of vest-pocket library whose titles—The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man, and so on—confirmed more clearly than any other bit of recent evidence that the middle-age process had been taking hold of me for some time, with no orchestration whatever on my part. For want of any firmer course of action, I started to thumb through the books, thinking in a spiritless way that they might contain some guidance for the middle-aged triple-threat man. But, of course, books like this never say anything about sport.

The first one, The Revolt, offered principally the stale scold that I was headed for an emotional second adolescence. A second book, The Middle-Aged Crisis, accused me of a number of other things, all true, such as having erotic fantasies and not making enough money. There was a magazine story containing the grim notion that how one went about being 40 was of no consequence because the whole world was headed for a youth-in, during the course of which the abyss of middle age was being eroded back from 40 to 30 to the narrow ledge of 25. Finally, I dug down to the bottom of the suitcase and discovered that old, standard work, Life Begins at 40, which presented the following antithought: "By nothing more than self-analysis...anybody reaching 40 can learn to live more abundantly." This is like telling the town drunk that by nothing more than running faster, he can learn to be an Olympic champion. Then, the author added heartily: "To live at one's best, one ought to have some 10,000 distinct experiences of satisfaction annually."

Clearly none of these people knew any more about the whole shabby business than I now did. And what I knew, it seemed to me, was that a man cannot mature by controlled sectors, no matter how much weight lifting, wind sprints, youththink or other forms of Geritol are poured into the project. Rather, he gets older all over, and pretty much all at once. And if he is not aware of it, everyone else sure is. Furthermore, when it happens, the proper time for conquest is definitely past, no matter what sports we are talking about. In sum, there was no use continuing to fight the fact that life had definitely changed. From now on we were going to have to play with a whole new set of rules. The only problem was, what were these new rules to be?

I suppose everyone has his own answers to this question, but for me, in view of all that had happened, it seemed logical to begin with the notion that at 40 I was not going to be a whole lot better next year at any given sport. As a corollary, it seemed necessary for me to abandon the limp but historically sustaining illusion that the performance of athlete A or B had been better because he was older. Henceforth, athletes A, B and on through Z had to be judged better simply because they were better or, more pertinently, because they were younger. This last idea, on first contemplation, seemed the heaviest blow of all. It obviously propelled the middle-aged athlete past the point of no return. But, as I thought about it, I realized that if I could ever come to accept the notion, it would be far easier to live with than the old, opposite concept. It would automatically free me from the compulsion to keep trying to get lots better. After all, practice as I might, I could never become younger.

In skiing, particularly, I could begin to see that it was perfect nonsense to try to keep up with all those supple young animals who wore instructor's patches or ski-patrol parkas. The people in skiing who are really good have become so somewhere between the ages of 13 and 20. And though some instructors remain supple and precise right up to about 40, after that they tend to become heavy and to sweat a lot. But they still retain a certain élan, and this thought led me to my theory of Prowess and Cool. We all have an athletic graph on which there are two lines, Prowess and Cool. These are the two essentials for athletic achievement—in fact, for any achievement. Professional athletes possess large quantities of both. Hence, on their graphs the two lines begin close together, very high up on the scale, and run parallel for an indeterminate time. If, at any point in mid-career, the professional is momentarily deserted by his Prowess, his Cool will usually come forward to sustain him.

With the amateur, on the other hand, Prowess begins, let us say, about halfway up the scale. Cool, of course, is nowhere in sight, as any honest man will concede if he has ever stood over a two-foot putt or tried to put away a duck-soup smash at the net. For a remarkably long time, the Prowess line runs level, with only minor peaks and valleys, until at about 35 it starts a long, steady slide. At the same time, Cool, hopefully, will make its first appearance, rising in a sharp upward swoop to cross Prowess at some single point. Unfortunately, this point may occur at an instant when you are riding a train or are sound asleep. If, however, you are terribly lucky, the crossing will come during a sporting day and occupy a period of some three or four hours, during which you suddenly perform magnificent deeds, say, on the foredeck of a racing sloop or destroy a tennis opponent 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. In either case, the wise man must neither anticipate the moment nor try to recapture it once past.

As this crossing and diverging of the lines takes place, it is extremely important not to panic or rush off and learn to rumba. There is nothing sadder, I now realize, than a freshly minted 40-year-old who, having been handed the middle-aged blessing of Cool, forthwith blows it in a compulsive hot war with the calendar. It is doubly sad since, having outlived the possibility of really competing with the young, there lies ahead, as I have since confirmed, the pleasant fact that against other middle-aged opponents, Prowess is not of much consequence. A middle-aged tennis player can easily observe that at 40 nobody can run fast anymore except, perhaps, some unattractive types who are not necessarily running after the right things. But Cool does matter. If a man can hang onto it long enough, it is possible to wind up like my Uncle Rowly, a first-class tournament doubles player whose Prowess at tennis had sunk to zero at 75. But by that time he had so much Cool he couldn't have cared less. He simply withdrew into a benign dotage of lawn bowls, played on a court of his own making in a game uniform featuring an ascot, a marvelously shaggy tweed coat and a pair of 1932 Spalding saddle shoes—on any thermometer, as cool a Cool as you will ever find.

Along the way to such a distinguished goal, it is possible, in fact quite essential, to take on a benevolent, even patronizing, attitude toward the whole concept of Prowess, and of youth, too, if you like. In the still brightening light of hindsight, it has become evident to me that this was an attitude possessed in heroic measure by men like my Uncle Rowly. Men like my stepfather, too, for that matter. He and Uncle Rowly both ripened in an era when middle age was a paunchy and still dignified estate to which, in time, a man properly came.

For my stepfather, particularly, the fact of growing older was in no way traumatic. To him, middle age was simply one more way station in a journey that, before it ended, included such other checkpoints as the Second Battle of the Marne, Pearl Harbor, a spectacular plane crash, the ownership of two pet eagles and marriage to my mother. Moreover, he was both a philosopher and a skillful surgeon. In this dual role, he had observed that life's end was unquestionably the grave, and he saw no sense brooding over any increased proximity thereto. Most particularly, he felt that the loss of youth was good riddance, for with it should vanish the eccentric behavior of that age group.

He believed that no grown man should waste time at games, such as tennis and squash, which he judged to be for the very young or for former collegiate champions—a species abounding at the nearby Cricket Club—who charged about in the hot sun until overtaken by coronary thrombosis. Golf he considered insufferable nonsense, a poor use for land that might otherwise be given over to falconry, the cross-breeding of exotic trees or to landing the various small aircraft he owned until my mother shot him down with an ultimatum about flying. He was, moreover, very aware of the prerogatives of age and enjoyed them enormously, rising in a baronial way at table's end to carve the Sunday roast, thundering in ecstasies of rage whenever Roosevelt spoke on the radio (this reflex was expected of all mature Philadelphians, just as hating Custer was once the proper stance of all right-thinking Sioux), reading Dickens aloud and making periodic forays downtown to Bookbinder's restaurant for soft-shell crab—an indulgence that always felled him beneath hideous spasms of gastroenteritis. As for the new-wave ethic of skiing, skin diving or jogging four miles each morning, any middle-aged man who behaved thus was a dangerous lunatic, lurching through the autumn days with his eyes fixed on a vanished season.

It was with my new perceptions carefully stowed in the barn, so to speak, that I eased through the last two weeks at Alta in a series of slow skier's waltzes with my wife and a group of other people that I can only describe as "our age." We packed and headed home, and I was very curious to see whether, against the familiar backdrop, I would find that I was really possessed of fresh knowledge or just so much more illusion.

The first day home was terribly cold. It was also the day that Mr. L. L. Bean, the fine old mail-order supplier for outdoorsmen, died. In deference both to Mr. Bean and the weather, I put on my L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoes and walked slowly through a series of snowy roads and fields to a frozen pond, where a pickup hockey game was in progress. Besides various hockey personnel, ranging from age 9 to about 14, two of whom were close relatives of mine, the ice was littered with an assortment of skidding dogs, small children in rubber galoshes, babysitters pulling even smaller children on sleds and one sedate father in knickers and speed skates who was making slow, elegant circles on the pond, hands clasped behind his back.

The hockey game had been temporarily held up by the departure of one player. After a brief conference it was requested that I fill in at goal for the depleted team, on the theory that a goalie, even a father-goalie, could function adequately in hunting boots. For a subsequent, surprisingly serene hour, I stood there experiencing stress only from my eyes, which were watering from the cold. Occasionally a clutch of bodies would approach, out of which would dart the puck, sometimes to bounce off my Maine Hunting Shoes for a save (loud cheers from our side), sometimes to skitter between them for a goal (loud silence from our side).

Toward teatime the air turned so bitter cold that my wet eyelashes began to freeze to one another, making it very difficult to carry out even the benevolent pretense of attempting to stop the puck. I therefore asked to retire. The kids agreed, and we departed for home, my sons and I, to make hot cocoa. En route I stopped to pick up a can of what I call marshmallow whip to put in the cocoa. My sons told me, however, that it was not marshmallow whip at all, but Marshmallow Fluff, which nobody puts in cocoa, Daddy; you spread it on white bread, like an open-face sandwich. I put it in my cocoa, while my oldest son kept telling me my way was all wrong.

No doubt he was right, but the cocoa was good. And so was the day, a day in which no superb deep-powder ski turns had been made, no 40-yard passes thrown to foot-drumming halfbacks, no crackling line drives gained from tough young pitchers, no sudden cheers from glowing maidens earned—but a very good day indeed. Perhaps it had been the best of all my sporting days. Certainly it had been the Coolest.

Now a year has passed since my moments on the sun deck at Alta and I can say, perhaps to my own surprise, that my ease has stood the test of time. There will be no late miracles for me, no more teams for me to make. But there is, in fact, a very good team called the Hornets, with two players having my name. Neither one is me, although to tell the truth they are both me, in left field and behind the plate, swatting Lilliputian line drives to their father's utter joy—and to the total boredom of all the mothers who dislike Little League. For a brief time last summer we even led the league. So, here I am, not with Musial on the Cardinals, but with my own two boys on the Hornets, sitting in the grandstand, having my game and watching it, too.

My wife, of course, complains. She says that while I have indeed passed 40, I passed it going in the wrong direction, that now I never play with anyone who is more than 12 years old. This may be quite true. I mean, who else will have a catch with you?