Lessons in crisis mismanagement


All my life I have been behind the times. I wore my bell-bottoms for years after the fashion had died, and in fact only abandoned them after they had shrunk up and become sort of bell-knickers.

I kept listening to Elvis for long after he had left more than just the building, and I voted for George McGovern — even in the recent U.S. election.

Yet, there is one way I can say I’m really with it: I hit my midlife crisis years ahead of most people. In truth, I think I hit it back in junior high. And I have continued to hit it with fair regularity ever since.

“Did you know,” says my wife at breakfast, with her nose sunk deep in the morning paper, “that studies show most murders in Japan are committed by people in their late 40s? It’s like — after years of working hard — they just suddenly snap!”

As she says this I calculate her age and slide a bit farther from her, at least till she puts away her knife and fork. And I think: So what? Why is pressure in your 40s tougher than pressure at any other time?

Gosh, my whole life has been a crisis — from the days when I used to wash with Clearasil to the time I discovered my fly undone in the midst of my first job interview and up to just today when my son pushed his algebra book before me. Tests, bills, jobs, deadlines, dating, marriage, kids . . . I can’t think of any noncrisis time. And, in my case, this unceasing joy buzzer has been wired with extra voltage from a life lived largely apart from my own culture.

“And . . . did you hear that Jack and Betty filed for divorce?”

Now my wife has shifted from front-page headlines to back-porch gossip, “Jack and Betty” being friends we used to see almost every week and these days virtually never.

Startling news, for sure. Yet not as startling as their actual marriage — she a lovely and talented woman and he a sofa cushion with a mouth. In Betty’s case, love was more than blind, it was decapitated. For the life of me, I could never figure out why a knockout like her ever fell for a goon like . . . “And people used to say Jack and you were so similar.”

I freeze and take a slow look at my lovely and talented wife. Followed by an even slower slurp of coffee, coffee that tastes like it has been percolated to sludge during its own midlife crisis. “I guess they just wore down,” my wife continues. “They hit middle age and ran out of gas. Maybe they should have called it quits years ago.”

Maybe. Yet, I myself suffer from a case of the “maybes” everyday, maybes that echo louder and louder as I age. As in: Maybe I should have lived my life someplace else. Maybe I should have married sooner, later or never. Or maybe I should have changed the dang filter in the coffee maker.

“People can be divided into two general groups,” spouts an artist friend of mine. “Those who have always known what they’re after and those who can never settle on anything, no matter how old they get. Then there are those who think they’ve got things figured out, but in midlife discover they were wrong.”

“Um . . .,” I tell him, “that’s three groups.”

He ignores me and plows on, artists being much better at imagery than math.

“They are the ones who hit the wall, kick the cat, eat the spoon, pluck the turkey, kiss the cabbage . . .”

He is starting to froth, so I seize my own image and plug the dam.

“So . . . people like me are better off?”

He bends his brows. “You mean people who — after all this time — still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up?”

“No, I mean people who don’t want to grow up.”

“You’re as young as you feel,” he preaches. “Though you yourself look rather numb.

“But the important thing as you grow older,” he tacks on, “is to live each day like it’s your last.”

Hmm. While such gluttony sounds attractive, it also sounds expensive. In my case, I have enough savings to live to my heart’s desire for approximately one week. Then I would either have to die or become a Puritan.

The memory fades and once again I sit with my wife at breakfast. Gossip over Jack and Betty has now been swapped for scientific commentary.

“Did you know that researchers have isolated the gene that determines aging? In the future, people may reap life spans 40 years longer or even more!”

What?! Forty more years of crises!? With those who don’t smack theirs till midlife having to wait till age 80!

“Maybe that’s time we need,” my wife philosophizes. “Time to really understand what it is to live. Time to better know and care for others. Time for all the world’s Jacks and Bettys to make amends. Time to at last get things right.”

“I don’t need to get things right,” I yap, breaking my breakfast silence. “I’ve got this crisis experience down pat!”

But I suppose — if I must choose — I’d rather face prolonged life than the alternative. For in the end, being either behind or with the times doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the times keep coming.

And who knows? Tomorrow’s crisis might finally be one that I can handle.