The Worst Birthday in a Man's Life

IN conversation one day with Colonel Roosevelt I happened to mention that I was approaching my fiftieth birthday.

‘The worst birthday of your life,’ was his instant comment.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because you can’t help translating it into the fact that it is half a century and because it is n’t likely that you will live as long as you have lived. In other words, the realization is brought home that you have lived the larger part of your life.’

‘But you have no fear of the end of life?’ I asked.

‘Not a bit,’ came the quick answer. ‘Not an iota. I ‘ve had a wonderful time. But so much to do. The world is so interesting.’

When I did reach my fiftieth year it was true: I had exactly the feeling which Colonel Roosevelt had pictured, and so, I fancy, has nearly every man.

I

It is really funny to watch the average man when the calendar one day tells him the time has come to change the first figure of his age from four to five. There is something psychological about the half-century mark that he does n’t like. Whether it is the realization, as Colonel Roosevelt said, that the span he has lived is longer than the span he will live, or that his vanity is touched by the fact that he can no longer be rated in the young-man class, a man simply does not like his fiftieth birthday. Inevitably he begins to take stock of himself; he convinces himself, so far as a touch of lumbago, or a slight murmur of the heart, or a lettingout of his belt will permit him, that he feels just as fit as he did at thirty. Then he goes out and proclaims it to all his friends. ‘Keener than I ever was!’ ‘Wonderful how I can sleep.’ ‘Eat? Eat more than I ever did,’ and all the familiar mental caperings that come with fifty.

And the friend to whom he proclaims all this wonders why Ned is stressing these things since never before has he felt compelled to give an inventory of his health to everyone he met. Probably the friend begins to suspect that Ned has reached and passed the fiftieth milestone. He may listen politely to Ned’s protestations, but he smiles and chuckles as he walks away.

Meanwhile, Ned is busy with another little problem that comes with fifty. He sees the young man of thirty with whom he compares himself coming along, and worse still he sees — almost feels — the young man of forty at his heels. He does not like the pace of either of them: particularly the fortyyear-old who seems to be crowding him a bit. He looks ahead and sees the sixty-year-old man secure in the contentment of his age of wisdom, and he does n’t like that picture either. He gets the feeling of being between two walls. He feels sure he is at the very top of his stride, and yet — ! He is not so sure of it as he wishes he might be.

He must exercise, he decides. Golf, and when the weather does not permit golf, then — ‘twelve daily lessons to music.’ He has heard, too, that it is very good for the girth to be able to bend over and touch the tips of your feet with the tips of your fingers. Then his dress. His shirts may be just a little gayer of design, perhaps; he has noticed that there are some specially beautiful shades of red in cravats this season. The cut of his clothes could be a bit snappier. Of course, he must see ‘old Doc’ about that little twinge; that foolish little stiffness which seems to come and go; there’s a hump that should n’t be there.

‘They ‘re nothing of course; a man can’t be one hundred per cent,’ he argues. Still one might see what ‘ Doc ‘ has to say. The teeth, too, might stand a bit of looking over, and, when he comes to think of it, he has n’t had his glasses corrected for three or four years.

II

To himself — of course, only to himself — the half-century man reads what I have written here and thinks, ‘That chap knows.’ You see I have been there. I do know and, let me add, I know the foolishness of it all. What we need at fifty is a little more common sense — a realization of the facts; then no excuses or self-deception, but an honest admission and a readjustment. Why this pretense of being a thirtyyear-old when we cannot meet the specifications? Why offer this excuse, and create that alibi or try to fool ourselves with futile explanations, when, in reality, we fool no one — not even ourselves. Why be ashamed of being fifty? What is there to be afraid of? The span of life is lengthening, and it is very largely within our own hands to determine how long we shall live and enjoy fife!

It gets us nowhere, however, to proclaim ourselves to our friends as what we are not. We did not do this before fifty; why call attention to the fact now by assuring everybody that we are as keen as a razor and as bright as a new penny? Our friends know a fiftyyear-old penny when they see one, although they may be too considerate to say so. All we have to do is to take reasonable care of our health, confessing first to ourselves, and convincing ourselves of it, that we cannot endure at fifty what we did at forty; nor can we eat the same things; nor as much. Of course, a man will immediately say, ‘How can you prevent yourself from catching the diseases that are all around you?’ We can — in a measure; but the chief truth to get lodged in our minds is that the diseases which really lay us low are not those which we catch from others, but which we present to ourselves. We cannot ‘catch’ a valve in the heart or the fatty degeneration of that organ. Nor is it anyone’s fault if we strain our heart to the point where it puts us out of the running. Our arteries are not hardened by others; we accomplish that process ourselves. No one gives us Bright’s Disease, or diabetes, or a case of strained nerves; we present these to ourselves, and we do it by excesses — not of the other fellow’s making, but of our own. The contagious diseases to which we are exposed by others’ carelessness are bad enough; but why make the battle harder by personal and self-imposed contributions? If it be true that a man can give the organic diseases to himself, is it not then also true that he can keep them from himself?

III

It is a very satisfying statement for some to say that a man can, at fifty, play thirty -six holes of golf a day and feel just as fresh as he did at thirty. Some men can, but they are exceptional, and the chances are rather against your being the exceptional man. Besides, golf is determined not so much by the number of holes played a day as by the manner in which you play them. ‘ I can walk ten miles a day and not feel it.’ is a proud boast. But, unless one is a letter-carrier, why walk ten miles a day? The body does not require that amount of walking a day to keep in trim. Let common sense rule. It can easily be demonstrated that two miles a day are infinitely better at fifty, just as satisfying and certainly wiser, and that eighteen holes of golf are just as efficacious as thirtysix, if not more so. The extremes are never wise because unnecessary.

It is astonishing, too, how susceptible the average man becomes at fifty to the faddists and the charlatans who have as many notions of how to keep well as there are days in the calendar. The general start is with ‘only five minutes of this exercise every morning just after you wake up.’ If the exercise is one that has to be taken while you are in bed, before rising, then someone comes along and gives another ‘fiveminute exercise ‘ for the bathroom. The third acknowledges that while these may be good, they are not sufficient for an all-around exercise, and he prescribes a full dozen, some with music, and others without. Of course, the musical exercises always depend upon whether the bathroom can accommodate a Victrola, in addition to the bathtub and other accessories. If the size of your bathroom does not permit such demonstrations, the booklet of instruction advises doing the exercises in your bedroom; which raises the point whether others may not wish to sleep at just the time when the music is inspiring you to kick in various directions or to fan the air wildly with your arms.

The advertisements, of course, do not present these obstacles, but experience does, and that perhaps is why so many exercises with music are put away in closets to exercise the patience of the housewife who must find room for them ‘when no one uses them.’ I confess I had at one time some six or seven of these early-morning diversions prescribed by doctors, dentists, aurists, and oculists, until I found myself taking from an hour to an hour and a half to dress, with each diversion deemed more ‘important’ than any other by the prescriber! I never tried the twelve daily lessons set to music because, while I may be peculiar, I prefer my music without exercise at the same time. But I did try to raise myself up from the floor by lifting the abdominal muscles only; to touch the toes with the legs erect; to stand on my head and wave my feet rhythmically in the air; to shape the inside of my hands like a cup over my ears twenty times and pull the hands away quickly; to take twenty-five deep breaths standing before an open window; and to stretch my abdomen thirty times. In addition to this, I learned to eat two raw eggs before breakfast; to drink eight glasses of water while dressing, and to run floss through the crevices between my teeth. As a result of these exercises I found a day’s work, if I were nimble, beginning at eleven o’clock in the morning! And I was pretty tired when I began!

IV

Where the half-century man most often errs is in the comfortable belief that he can eat everything he could at thirty and digest it just as well. ‘I can eat nails,’ he says; and he does everything short of trying to prove that he can. Phrases and so-called truisms are perhaps the most misleading things we have; we forget in the acceptance of a truism that it was, after all, but the utterance or opinion of one man who was just as likely to be wrong as to be right. There is, however, one truism that has a basis of hard truth, and this is that we ‘dig our graves with our teeth.’ Very few men, however, like to have their diet disturbed. This is particularly true of the man who has always eaten what he chose. He is a slave to his palate, and so the road which leads to a sour stomach, to flatulence, unpleasant breath, palpitation, and dizziness beckons easily to him, and soon he begins to travel on it, wondering all the while what is the matter with him. That it is his diet is the very last point he will concede. A physician of forty years’ experience with stomach troubles said to me recently: ‘There are two things a man does n’t like to be told: to eat less and to smoke less. The moment I tell him those two I generally find I have lost another patient. And yet,’ he added, ‘that is just what the average man should be told when he passes fifty.’ Another stomach specialist said: ‘If only the average man would give food to his stomach with the same care with which he gives gasoline to his automobile, we stomach specialists would have to seek some other profession.’

The average man seems unable to attain the reasonable mean between eating too much and what he calls a starvation diet. Suggest taking anything away from him, and he immediately sets up the cry either that you are ‘springing new-fangled notions’ on him, that the doctor is ‘a nut,’ or that his wife is starving him. He will recognize no middle-ground. He will assure you that he needs all that he eats: he can’t keep going unless he does eat just so much. He must have a hearty breakfast (meat, generally!) to start the day; his luncheon must have something to it after an ‘exhausting’ morning; and of course, in the evening, he ‘ simply must have a complete dinner ‘! Then he goes to ‘fix the car for to-morrow’ or to ‘fix the furnace for the night,’ absolutely oblivious of the fact that, if either of those inanimate objects had been fed as he has fed himself all day, the car would n’t run and the furnace would be clogged with fuel. Make this comparison clear and he waves it aside with the all-sufficient (to him) argument that you cannot compare an automobile or a furnace to a human being. But make the comparison to fit his ideas of eating, and he will at once agree with you. ‘Sure!’ he will say. ‘That’s what I always say. A man must be stoked just like a furnace — fill it up.’ And the gases which fill his house during the night from the overstoked furnace tell him nothing of the gases in the stomach which make him belch or hiccup or feel a ‘stitch in his side.’

Man, with few exceptions, is a glutton, and he will not have his eating interfered with. You may argue all you like with him about speedier fermentation of food after fifty, less perfect elimination, digestive processes that do not work with the same cream-like smoothness with which they did at thirty, the less need for the same amount of food. He listens, perhaps with patience, perhaps with irritation, according to his nature, and then goes on and does exactly as he did before. If he does slow up, it is for a short time only; then, feeling the healthful reaction from a more moderate diet, he falls again into the old rut of overeating. If it were true that organically a man is the same at fifty as at thirty or forty, all this would be correct. But the organs are not the same, and will not perform at fifty as they did with the fresher, more youthful, and freer flow of blood at thirty. A food specialist has said that a man at fifty should eat thirty per cent less food than at forty, and that for every five years thereafter he should take off ten per cent until he reaches fifty or sixty per cent reduction. Of course, no table of percentages is applicable to each and all, but in the main it is conceded by stomach specialists that this moderation is by no means too drastic; if anything, it is too conservative. Then, of course, the quality of the food comes in, and there must be taken into consideration the question of well-balanced meals.

The point of the whole matter, however, is the realization of the need of a reduction in food when a man reaches the half-century point in his age: the amount of that reduction must be decided by the individual. Drinking (water) he can increase, and wisely; but to eating he cannot hold as in the past, and the sooner he gets the truth of that idea securely fixed in his mind the better. It is truly amazing, when one tries the experiment, to discover how little food is needed not only to keep a man feeling fit, but also to enable him to do a prodigious amount of work. Gradually I have cut down my eating until sometimes I seem to my family to belong to the family of orchids. But invariably with such reductions my health has been bettered, my mentality has become much more alert , and there is no diminution in the quality or quantity of work accomplished. ‘Enough is as good as a feast.’

V

The physiologists tell us that the life of a man is divided into cycles of seven: that during each of these cycles his organism undergoes change, and that the time between the seventh and eighth cycles — that is, between the forty-ninth and fifty-sixth years — is a period that should receive the particular attention of every man. Of course, this is but another way of saying that at this time of a man’s life there should come a readjustment of his habits of eating, a moderation in his exercise, in the speed of his activities, and in his general watchfulness of himself, if he would reach his sixtieth year with any degree of vitality and with the blood flowing freely in his arteries.

The particularly watchful point of observation is the appetite, which has a way of taking on an avariciousness during this cycle out of all proportion to the needs of the body. It is, then, either by gratifying or curbing his appetite that the man determines his future health and longevity. If simply because he has a craving for food he satisfies the appetite, he will find the entire organism weakening under the pressure, and trouble begins. If, on the other hand, he curbs his appetite and trains it according to the needs of the body, a healthy vigor takes the place of a torpid condition. A man can wisely eat only what he can easily digest; and this truth means simply that his digestive organs will not take care of the same quantity of food between the seventh and eighth cycles of his life as during the sixth and seventh periods. Because the palate craves food it does not by any means follow that the digestive organs can take care of it.

After all, there are only three points to which a man at fifty should pay attention: less food, with a more generous drinking of water; a rational amount of exercise; and eight hours’ sleep. These, with a contented mind which casts off worry, are very likely to lead to a ripe old age.

The wise Marcus Aurelius was right when he wrote, ‘Remember this: that very little is needed to make a happy life.’