Inspired Immaturity

The midlife crisis as a patriotic duty

I turned forty recently, so it's time I started planning my midlife crisis. I'm not going to have it right away, but something this humiliating requires preparation. First I've got to set some general parameters. For example, I envision something more dramatic than a red convertible but less drastic than a sex-change operation. I'm not inclined toward the Brian Wilson-style spend-three-years-in-bed crisis; on the other hand, I wouldn't want to go off soul-searching amid Tibetan Sherpas at a Himalayan base camp, which involves more physical exertion than I'm up for. I want to achieve the traditional goals of the midlife crisis—several acts of epic selfishness, maximum possible embarrassment to my children, maybe a hair weave—but I don't want to do anything that might cause my wife to cast meaningful glances at the butcher knives.

I face an additional challenge, in that my wife, while admitting that I am capable of causing embarrassment, doesn't think I have it in me to be phenomenally asinine. She thought I was pushing the limits of my daring when I came home from an unexpectedly long business trip with some European underwear. And she didn't worry in the least that I was merely warming up for grander things when she caught me listening to old Meat Loaf albums. She is going to be blown away when I come home one day on a new Harley-Davidson equipped with a front-mounted spud gun. When she sees me in possession of a weapon that can propel potatoes through plywood, maybe she will recognize the extent of my inner vitality.

One can't even think about a midlife crisis without heavy-duty financial planning, because it is an essential element of the American creed that anything worth doing stupidly is worth doing at great expense. Fortunately, in a little-noticed amendment to the 1997 Defense Authorization Bill, President Clinton and Dick Morris created tax-deferred Second Adolescence Savings Accounts, which allow men to save up to $2,000 a year tax free, as long as the money is eventually spent on something covered in chrome. With a few years of careful saving and several months of voracious credit-card accumulation, it should be possible to ensure full financial access to excess.

The next step on the road to a midlife crisis is the most important one: deciding just what sort of crisis to have. Women have it easy. Their path is clear: 1) Visit the plastic surgeon to get cheek skin stapled behind head. 2) Go see The Vagina Monologues. 3) Pour some decaf and have a really meaningful conversation with a friend. But I am exploring the male point of view. Men have to choose between two basic types of midlife crises: the sensitive New Age spiritual quest and the vulgar materialist binge.

The New Age quest is for those who have a bias toward self-discovery techniques that are performed while barefoot. It suits men who believe that everyday life is full of trivial distractions and who want to discover inner joys and deep harmonies, which can then be used as fodder for self-adoring monologues before captive dinner-party audiences. The quest usually starts with a few afternoons in the spirituality section of the local bookstore. Several months of journal keeping, bread making, yoga classes, and suburban Buddhist epiphanies follow. Pretty soon Hermann Hesse novels begin to seem intelligent; the garage has been transformed into a pottery studio; the days start with chants to Eos, Goddess of the Dawn; and it seems like a good idea to grow a ponytail on the back of your head even though there's no hair left on top.

The spiritual midlife crisis is the near exclusive province of a certain kind of soft-spoken, upscale Democrat. Decibel-rich, upscale Republicans tend to opt for the vulgar materialist binge. This course is for those who realize that they finally have the money and the status to do the raunchy things they could only dream of when they were young, awkward, poor, and unattractive. Up to now, the man on this course realizes, he has been too selfishly concerned with his career. Now he is going to be selfishly concerned with his pleasure.

The middle-aged hedonist usually starts small—a $500 titanium Big Bertha-style golf club with a head the size of a small oil drum, or a set of wet-bar stools with seats made from the foreskins of endangered whales. But pretty soon he perceives that the priests and the philosophers have been suppressing a vital truth: Possessions can make you feel good. Money can buy happiness. It really is more fun to hang around superficial, fun-loving people who would be unnerved by the thought of having sex not in the presence of a video camera. From then on the path is obvious. One must have enough diamond-studded Bulgari watches to outfit a Saudi family. There is nothing wrong with using a Humvee as a golf cart. An hour spent experimenting with multi-channel surround-sound home theater/audio systems is an hour well spent. The middle-aged hedonist becomes a Jacuzzi connoisseur, an acolyte at the altar of the Montblanc pen. He experiences a surge of pleasure each time he lounges aboard his fifty-four-foot Chris-Craft wooden cruiser, taking cigar reviews seriously while sipping brandies three times as old as his date.

All of this can lead, of course, to only one place: Vegas. Pretty soon the hedonist will be sitting at the baccarat table in a low-cut pec-neck sweater and alligator loafers, failing to observe the distinction between witty banter with the cocktail waitress and sexual harassment. His skin will have that effervescent glow that Donald Trump's takes on in the presence of gilded metal and ceiling mirrors. He will radiate self-approval as he realizes that a life of unexamined smugness is really the only life worth living.

As for me, although I haven't decided which course I'll choose, I hope it will be something that will make the men around me privately envious and sensible women publicly retch. And I want to make it clear that I will not be embarking on my crisis, whatever form it takes, for my own benefit. I'll be doing it for the good of society. America is suffering from a midlife-crisis crisis. The institution was vibrant in the 1970s: Woody Allen made a movie about his fantasy affair with a teenage Mariel Hemingway; Marin County was packed with paunchy pyramid worshippers; waterbeds seemed cool. But over the intervening years the very concept of a midlife crisis has come to seem passé, like Freud, fondue, and Swedish movies. Our last hope for national leadership in this area died when Bill Clinton left the White House. Our current President had a reverse midlife crisis, deciding at age forty to grow up. Now the most admired man in America goes to sleep at nine-thirty.

The biggest threat to the midlife crisis is the new era of seriousness. Wartime necessarily encourages a culture of earnestness. Nowadays, looking around the nation, one sees relatively little in the way of epic silliness. The dot-com jockeys have been tamed. The investment bankers seem relatively chastened. College students are behaving sensibly. Young people seize career opportunities. Middle-aged people watch their cholesterol, and even the big rock groups, such as U2 and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, are ripe for Geritol sponsorship. We have entered an age of prudence.

All of this is troubling. For one thing, the continuing decline of the midlife crisis would destroy certain industries—think of the impact on men's necklaces alone. More important, without midlife crises our civilization will stagnate. There is a bogus Tocqueville quotation floating around out there (politicians like to cite it) to the effect that America is great because America is good. In truth, America is great because America is bad. Ours is the most vibrant nation on earth because it is the most childish, and therefore the most creative and daring. Over the years thousands of immature pioneers have dreamed dreams of incredible superficiality, and out of their dreams have come the institutions—rock music, Hollywood, message T-shirts—that helped to make this country what it is today. We neglect this spirit of inspired immaturity at our own peril.

Over the course of the past two hundred years Americans have vacillated between two great fears—fear of chaos and fear of conformity. During some periods we worried that individualistic energies would tear apart the bonds of community. During others we feared that our national élan was being enervated as we tamed our personalities in order to climb the corporate ladder and lead sensible, respectable lives.

Today conformity is once again a bigger threat than chaos. The forces of seriousness and maturity are everywhere closing in. If this trend continues, we will soon be living in a country unworthy of the greatness that was P. T. Barnum, our true Founding Father. It is up to the Boomers, and especially the male Boomers, to tap the wellspring of their own narcissism, and so unleash the testosterone-befogged dynamism that has always powered this nation to new and ever shallower realms of discovery. Some generations are called to war, some to pioneer new land; ours is called to stare adoringly at ourselves in resort hotel-room mirrors, while observing that from some angles our love handles really don't look that big.