Halfway

I

THERE was nothing particularly remarkable about my thirtieth birthday. My wife gave me a present which she should not have afforded; my mother wrote me one of her fine loyal letters, which gave me, as similar letters must give other sons, a guilty feeling of shortcoming. And on the evening of the occasion two bachelors whose friendship goes back to the war, and a couple of whom we are fond, came to dine. We had a little champagne which was probably bottled in Brooklyn, and afterward settled down to an inexpensive game of poker. I was thirty. That was all.

But though I was sensible of no change, I had, as it were, stepped across a Mason-Dixon line. So long as I was in my twenties I classified myself as young: three — or six — years ‘out of college,’ and so on the sunny side of life. But with the thirties I made the first step into middle age. My mind did n’t register this at the time. It was n’t until talking with my uncle, who has had more fun in life than any man I know — it was n’t until he remarked that ‘the damnedest thing is the way life goes by without your knowing it’ that I realized that my own time was about half gone. Ever since I can remember I have had the habit of subdividing time. I begrudged the day when half the summer vacation would be gone. I divided my detention after school in halves and quarters. By measuring time I get the illusion that I can stretch out the hours or speed them up. Now, about half of my time is up. How best can I stretch out the days to come?

Stock taking is a good American trait. But I don’t believe we take stock of ourselves quite as frequently as we do of our bank accounts. This, for instance, is the first time I’ve done it in thirty years. Well, it’s uncomfortable, for one thing. If you’re candid with yourself you begin to see mistakes that should n’t have happened, half honesties that do you no credit, accidents that would have ditched you but for providence. And unless you are hardy you will be apt to invoke self-pity, which above all should be shunned.

Self-abasement has gone out of fashion these days, along with the three-hour sermons and revival meetings which undoubtedly aggravated it. But though we are less willing to have human agents revile us openly for our weaknesses, this is not to say that in private we are any less given to humility than our ancestors were. We may not keep pious journals, we may not write down those pathetic programmes for self-betterment which were found among Samuel Johnson’s literary remains, but I dare say our standards of perfection are as high as those which came before us, and that in our failure to reach them we suffer quite as instantaneously from self-reproach. The difference is that we forget our failures quicker than our ancestors did. We have not the long Sabbath to remind us of our transgressions, and we have many more distractions to relieve the mind of its annoyance. New Year resolutions have come down to us as a standard joke, which makes me think that many of those who took such pledges were quite apt to fall off the wagon at the first jolt. To-day no single cure, no single pledge, has power over us. We scent salvation on each fresh wind and are unsuspicious of mere hot air. Some counsels of perfection we find in self-improvement books, — Outlines of Philosophy, Minds in the Making, Coué, — in lectures, psychology, and in a score of isms down to the Western Aimee; but too seldom do we turn to that periodic examination which only we can give ourselves.

II

I am halfway to sixty. Naturally I’d like to get there and perhaps even further. But I won’t if I don’t take more care with my driving. I pass as an ordinary motorist and have never been arrested for speeding. But every now and then, and always when I least expect it, I squeeze through a tight corner that might have been my last. We’re an aggressive people; and for all our four-wheel brakes we do make cars that are too fast for our temper. Motoring in this country would be far more pleasurable — and healthy — if we could enjoy it without the ceaseless necessity of passing the fellow ahead. An American crowd that will jostle their way slowly and good-naturedly into the Polo Grounds or the Yale Bowl will begin to snarl, hoot, and crowd each other the instant their cars have begun the homeward run. Public opinion cannot be too hard against drunken driving, but it could be harder against the competitive motoring that makes every highway a race track. Personally, if I’d think more about my driving and less about my health, I’d be better off.

At thirty, you begin to realize that there are physical limits. I know, for instance, how many cigarettes or pipefuls a day will give the most enjoyment and the least irritation. I know by the pit of my stomach and by the condition of my finger nails — which I am apt to chew — when I have been pushing myself too hard. I know about howmuch exercise I am good for: thirty-six holes on a hot summer’s day are too much, as I realize that night; but in the cool of the autumn I can tackle them creditably. I observe that my older friends are beginning to strain their backs and to groan about their sacroiliacs. I do not know how to avoid the colds that plague most city dwellers. But I do know — the next morning — when I have had too much to drink, and though I console myself with the reflection that some alcohol is good for the system, there are times when I doubt whether the alcohol I have consumed would be good even for a dead snake.

For reasons of their own, young married couples are apt to drink more than is good for them. In any American summer resort it is they who raise the racket which gives such vicarious satisfaction to the rocking-chair brigade. Such drinking antedated Prohibition, but it has been aggravated by the increased use of hard liquor for which that law is responsible. It is begun, I suppose, when the first wonder of marriage has faded and when the couples feel the need for a little stimulating illusion. The trouble is, the illusion is apt to make the other fellow’s wife the more attractive, sometimes with unhappy consequences for all members concerned. Most of us outgrow this middle-distance recklessness, but I’m bound to say that we’d be better off without so much of it in the first place.

I have no doubt that in certain moods I am irritating enough to drive anyone to drink. Why I should return from an afternoon’s golf only to be carping and critical at the dinner table is a mystery to which my score is perhaps the answer. And of course my wife’s extravagances (every husband thinks that his wife is extravagant) and her casual memory often rub me the wrong way. It has been said that the happiest marriages are those which allow the maximum selfishness to either party, and if one discards the cynicism a kernel of truth remains. If I can contrive to keep my own selfishness within bounds and to forbear when I cannot sympathize with that of my wife; if I can contrive to work off my temper on the golf course where it belongs and to accept an occasional mediocre meal in peace, I believe I ’ll be easier to live with. I am dwelling, you understand, on the grumpy moments. That they are far outweighed by our happiness goes without saying.

I think what I envy most in other men is that apparently inexhaustible supply of energy which seems to be possessed by a few. I should like to be able to relish eighteen hours of the day without having my time sapped by fatigue. Edison seems to do it, and I suppose that much of his industry is due to the way in which he rests. I have been told that he has a couch in his laboratory and that he has trained himself when tired to sink down for three or four hours of solid sleep.

My social duties often make it impossible for me to sleep when I should most like to, — at dull plays and polite evenings, — but I have found that a forty-minute nap before dinner helps to sweep the office dust out of my mind, and that even such a simple thing as putting one’s feet up takes some of the load off one’s strength. In the war I often had little or no sleep for a length of time, but when we were relieved I could replenish my reservoir at once. I wish I could apply more of that habit to my daily life now, instead of going through the various stages of weariness that send one to bed yawning when the night is yet young. If for half of my time I felt as well as I do on an October morning, I almost believe I could set the world on fire. But the pace at which we live in America is so taxing that the strength stored up in one summer simply cannot last till the next. By mid-February the blood runs thin, and for a good many of us March is seldom a month worth living. The wealthy go South. But for the rest of us there ought to be a compulsory week-end holiday at least.

I need more energy if I am ever to do the work I have half formed in mind, and I need, as well, more confidence in myself. Want of confidence more than anything else is responsible for the unhappiness that goes with adolescence. I lacked it when I first became self-conscious, and as a boy I remember reaching the finals of five tennis tournaments before I had command enough to play my best game and win. Want of confidence simply panicked me before my college entrance examinations, and, though I eventually passed, I made my parents impatient and myself wretched at my poor start. In college I was fumbling about for the right direction, — to the plain-spoken irritation of my father, — and Heaven knows where I should have landed if the war had not come along to wake me up. It seems to me that confidence is acquired by doing things, and though by now I have a moderate share of it I must have still more if I am to handle myself right in times of difficult decision. I find I need my confidence most and am less sure of it when circumstances compel me to fight with people.

I am not naturally bumptious, but occasionally I wish I were. I have learned to be aggressive in games and to be tenacious about my own work, but I certainly do hate to fight with people. Some men and women enjoy being aggressive even to the point of being plug-uglies, and we all know that their hardness can often be made a successful weapon. I have served on one or two minor committees where strong differences of opinion led to constant suspicion and angry checkmate. No wonder Wilson came back from the Peace Conference a broken man! With me — to pass from the sublime to the ridiculous — the sudden imminence of a fight, whether it be involved with calculating competitors, the newspapers, or the law courts, gives a reaction not so much of fear of the consequences as of perplexity that my motives have been impugned or that there has been deliberate duplicity or disloyalty on the part of others. This is naïve, but I dare say that most beginners in professional or business life have to learn not to be too trusting.

It sometimes seems to me that American business integrity is not as high as it should be. I have had too little experience abroad to know whether other nations are superior to us in this respect, but even without this comparison there is enough evidence to show me that we preach a higher standard than we practise. Mutual suspicion keeps competitors in many a trade from reaching an equable standard; in the open market, or in secret business, loyalty too often passes to the highest bidder, and in times of depression, such as we have been enduring, contract jumping has been indulged in with an almost cynical disregard of one’s word. To make things worse, we are prone to justify our actions in the after event and to protest an injury not always undeserved.

This may look differently to me when I am sixty, but at the present I’m inclined to think there’s something a little rotten in the state of Denmark.

III

‘At thirty,’ said a friend of mine, ‘you begin to realize that the world docs n’t owe you a living.’ In the years just after college I think many men are apt to be uncertain and a trifle condescending about their jobs. The work does n’t seem to be exactly what they want to do and, of course, the pay is low. But they play along, half assured that opportunity will present itself, and meanwhile enjoy their week-ends and the invitations that come to a young bachelor. Then, as matrimony claims them, things begin to change. Unpaid bills begin to appear, and insurance and savings become more insistent than in the earlier hand-to-mouth days. At about this time we begin to take hold of our work and we are apt to make better use of the added responsibility that comes our way. The first evidences of one’s capability are a powerful stimulant to the ambition. These first feelings of strength, the pressure for money, and the verbal encouragement of those above, can and do change a man from ‘a passenger’ to a very reliable workman in an astonishingly short time.

But no matter how great his gumption may be, a young married man eight or ten years out of college has got to sail pretty close to the wind — unless, of course, he is being towed by his parents or has the leeway of an inheritance. In the stepping up of our scale of living, for which we have Mr. Ford and mass production to thank, the professional man in his early thirties has come off distinctly second best. His salary has not been pushed up proportionately as the purchasing power of the dollar has been pushed down. Nor have his or his wife’s tastes been simplified. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind so luxuriously that a college graduate thinks he must have a car and a membership in a country club, money for football tickets and the movies, a summer bungalow for his family, cocktails for his friends, a radio for his wife. Others have them. Advertising and the force of example have tended to make these things not luxuries but necessities if a man is to hold his head up in a community. When these are added to the inescapable items, the sum is apt to exceed one’s earning capacity.

I should put $4000 as the minimum that a college graduate of thirty and his wife can live on in a city; $5000 if they have a child. The average earnings of men eight years out of college and five years out of their professional schools, in law, architecture, engineering, and teaching, are less than $4000. Children later in life or not at all is the easiest answer. Nor has the professional man much redress against his employer; as the colleges increase their output the professions have more and cheaper men to draw on.

This is not to say that I am setting out to organize a revolution for the underpaid. The truth is, I have trouble getting enough for myself, and that modicum might cease if I took to a soap box in Central Park. I should soon be selling apples. But for the underpaid there are compensations in this current depression. My barber is no longer playing the market for a profit that made me sick; he’s cutting all the hair he can. With more people trying to live within their earnings it will be easier for me and my wife to catch up with our spending and to make headway on those savings and that home in the country which we shall want when I am sixty.

A business man, my senior, whom I much respect, told me that on coming of age he determined that before he was nine years older he would have thirty thousand dollars of his own in the savings bank, and he had. In his latest book, Winston Spencer Churchill states that when he was twenty-six he had earned £10,000 by his writing and lecturing. These gentlemen are far ahead of me in their thrift. I merely cite them as illustrations of the will to provide that comes to us all early or late.

In a country where it is a shame to be poor, money getting must be taken seriously. But to take it seriously requires a sacrifice. It seems to me that the more hard-headed, the more proficient, we become in our earning, the more quickly we lose that amateur spirit which was ours on leaving school or college. We lose something of open generosity, something of that enthusiasm for many things, something of pure sportsmanship: we become intent, guarded; we calculate the effect; we realize that in dealing with competitors or subordinates we must command a certain advantage if profit is to be made. In short, we have stopped playing for the fun of the thing; we are playing for money — and when you play for money you have to look sharp.

We have become professionals, and unless we watch ourselves our looks betray us: the lecturer assumes a platform manner, the salesman his winning smile, the lawyer that disputatious exactitude, the artist his pose, the banker his acuteness, the writer his superiority complex. I envy the Englishman the orderliness with which he can do his day’s work — and do it well — and then come home with his mind free for his garden, his books, or his other hobbies. We Americans don’t stop at taking our business home; we take it to bed and toss and mutter in our sleep. I have seen something of this in the faces and manner of some of my contemporaries — as no doubt they have observed a change in me. There comes a certain brusqueness, or maybe a suave insincerity, a tightening of the lips, an unwillingness to listen, a thirst for gambling, a pride about wealth, or telltale lines of nervous fatigue; these are evidences of the strain of money making, — of professionalism, — and as they come we lose something more than our youth.

I do not mean to lament, as young poets do, the salad days that are past. As a matter of fact, I personally am closer to happiness to-day than when I was in college. There is a zest in living thoughtlessly and there is a zest equally keen in ordering your time — in thinking, as Woodrow Wilson did, that a man’s groundwork should be done between twenty-five and forty and his best work between forty and fifty-five. There is a distinct accomplishment in marking out certain objectives and in reaching them near schedule despite the wire entanglements of time. This sense of direction, this honest strategy, are indispensable in financial success; the pity of it is that in our absorption in money making, in taking our business home with us and keeping it on our minds over holidays, we forget that the same foresight, the same endeavor, are equally indispensable in leading the good life which Plato prescribed. In this connection I remember what a friend said to me at the close of an argument on education. ‘The real result of education,’ he said, ‘is to teach us to live more happily on less money.’

IV

‘ One of the hardest things for a man to realize,’ said a wise teacher, ’is that he is not very different from other men.’ This is an admission I am not ready for yet. I want to be different, not as eccentricity is different, but as individuality is different from the commonplace. That part of my life which belongs to my wife and to myself, and which is free from the claims of business and society, I want to enjoy with the freedom which in college I had fancied was requisite to every day. I relish a good party as much as anyone, and yet there is not a winter that I do not rebel against having said ‘yes.’ There is a good deal more to time than merely ‘going places and doing things,’ as I realize on many a Monday following a spent week-end. I see no point to devoting the whole of a Saturday night to contract, the whole of a Sunday to golf. I want Sunday to set me free from ordinary considerations; then and in a good fraction of my evenings I want time for a correspondence, time to tinker with pencil and paper, time to hear and understand more music, time to read the history which I love and the physics which I do not but ought to comprehend, time to take one of those long unsettling walks which are good for every constitution.

I have reached a stage where friendships are becoming rarer and more to be valued; I must have time for my friends. We are an open-hearted people. We make friends easily, and then, thanks to the circulation of American life, we move away and those we were fond of fade into a memory much warmer than the reality of an occasional chance reunion. I was born and brought up in a small Eastern city. To-day when I return for a brief visit with my parents the houses which I used to respect have become filling stations, apartments rise on the lots where I played baseball, the reservoir has been drained. The land of my boyhood has gone — and so have the four best friends I had for fourteen years. College, the war, then business, have moved us apart. Ed we lost in France. The others of us are separated by several hundred miles and by time that is hard to bridge.

I do not intend this to be sentimental. It is the kind of uprooting which is all too common in the United States, and which by a kind of envy makes us peculiarly susceptible to the old stone and ivy of England. It was to be expected that the singularly dependent, honest, and irascible friendships that developed overnight in France would — save in a few cases — hardly survive the diminuendo of peace. But the associations of one’s youth go into more permanent soil and cannot be uprooted without a feeling of loss.

At home, in college, — and if there’s a war, — friends come and go, and where reunions occur it needs a high alcoholic content for us to slough off the strangeness we seem to have grown and to relive the dear, dead days. And after reunions we return to the community in which — very likely in the late twenties or early thirties — we have come to rest. As in my case, this community may be quite different from that in which we were brought up; we enter it with few or no family connections, and by virtue of our tastes and disposition we make new friends, friends of maturity.

Freshness and those partitions so often erected in college have ceased to shut us off from others; our feelings are not so easily violated by the unconventional, and we discover worth in unsuspected places; if we are lucky, we have married a wife and are content to learn about women from her — in short, we are more mellow and ductile members of society.

One of the first indications of this is the pleasure that we take in the companionship of our elders. I wonder how many sons really reach an understanding with their fathers before thirty, how many — before that time — have come to close grips in seriousness and in relaxation with men a generation older than themselves. It is, I suppose, this final coming of age that qualifies a man for the older clubs in his community. Such a masculine and elderly society is apt to offer the junior member an intimacy with his seniors, half friendly, half reserved, but wholly sagacious and delightful — an intimacy, I dare say, which grows with the years in appreciation.

It is this friendship, along with the more competitive, louder-laughing companionship of my contemporaries, that I want to make the most of. And I should like (I often entertain this idea, but only seldom put it to the test) time to follow up by letter those others who are so indelibly — at least in my mind — associated with my earlier years and for whom affection still survives, even though it be feeding only on a memory. To be kept alive, friendship needs feeding.

Time is what, we make of it, and I think it is rather curious that with so much of it before us we spend so relatively little on our heart’s desire. There was a Frenchman with hours to burn who estimated the amount of time a septuagenarian would have devoted to the routine of life. A man of seventy, he calculated, had given nineteen years to work, twenty-three to bed, nine to amusements, six to eating, three to dressing, two to sickness, two to shaving, and one to church. That would seem to leave him five years of unrestricted liberty on this fair earth; but when one stops to subtract the time spent on repairing the car, petty quarrels, one’s income tax, the newspapers, and mending broken shoe laces, one is forced to conclude that such liberty as most of us will ever know has got to be found in the course of our marching routine.

I read not long ago a poem by an Englishman, Seymour Poole, which went like this: —

AT FIFTY

I have stood still — a watcher by the wayside
For a procession that has never come.
The day has been fine enough, the road quite pleasant,
And once I caught the far thrill of a drum.
Waiting in hope, I have not been unhappy,
For there were birds, flowers, trees, and the open sky;
And, when the time lagged, I made songs and stories
About all these, and about the passers-by.
Then, when I heard it — the incredible music
Of life at last, life to the full and sweet! —
It seemed for a minute to be coming toward me:
But it went down, after all, someone else’s street.
No doubt I ought to have tackled life — gone to meet it,
Seized on a banner, become importunate;
But I just was n’t made so, did n’t know how to treat it,
And so am lost, like all who hesitate.
There was to have come a place in the procession
That I should have recognized as being my own;
I was to have been caught up in color and movement
By one sure hand — to have been no more alone.
But nothing has happened, and the day grows chilly;
A cold bed waits for the going down of the sun,
It seems a curious way to have spent a lifetime —
Strange to be nearing the end of what was never begun.

Frankly, I want a good place in that procession. I want to do something that I shall be remembered by, something a whole lot better than my contemporaries might do. I believe this is a fairly common aspiration among young men, and I don’t think that it springs primarily from vanity. We don’t put much stock in platitudes, which too often are the sage counsel of the weary, but I dare say there are a good many of us who derive some hope from the saying that ’you ’ll come pretty close to what you’re after if you try hard enough.’

Most of us in the neighborhood of thirty are not content to be classified with ‘the average.’ We know that we’re better than that, and we’re out to prove it. Most of us are still hitched to somebody else’s cart, learning the paces and feeling the harness; most of us realize that our best performance — the thing we may be remembered by — must grow out of the work we are now doing. Some pessimist, some life-insurance statistician, may face me with figures which show that most of us will probably die in our harness, good hacks to the last. But it does n’t interest me. Why should it, with thirty years to kick over the traces!