Last week, as I was bicycling home from work, about six or seven real cyclists blew by me with the speed and precision of a small squadron of fighter-bomber planes zeroing in on some clueless bastard worshipping his Condi Rice shrine in a cave or a group of sailors, unaware of that they’re about to be blown to bits, playing poker on a battleship in the middle of the Pacific. At least that’s what happens in the movies. WOOSH . . . WOOSH . . . WOOSH . . . they went, pedaling with power and grace, perfectly synchronized, as only athletes fully devoted to their training regimen could be. Once upon a time, say twenty or thirty years ago, I would have taken being overtaken personally, and started out after them. Pass me? Fuck you. Faster than me? Really? Fuck you again. “Passing on your left . . .” Passing? Fuck you a third time.
But now, twenty or thirty years later, two things are very different than they were back then. First, I just turned 50. Second, because I just turned 50, I just don’t care. There is, come to think of it, a third thing as well. I was never a serious cyclist and I’m not now. I was once, though, a pretty serious runner, particularly between the ages of 20 and 35. Back then, if I’d been out for just a routine training run, I would have said something like, “How far you going?” toyed with him for a while, and then said, “Gotta get going. Thanks for the run,” and left him in the dust. Then I’d find someone a few phone poles up ahead, draft him and then cruise right on by, refusing to return his “Hey, how’s it going?” courtesy greeting because I was a SERIOUS runner, and serious runners didn’t acknowledge “joggers.” Or run with portable music players – remember, there were no iPods until 10 years ago. No chance, no way. Not when you are monitoring your mile splits or calculating whether you are a few seconds ahead or behind your time from the previous day or week.
Yes, yes indeed. Twenty or thirty years ago I cared whether I could hit golf ball straight, or draw or fade it to suit my shot. I cared about finding the time to even play the damn sport. I cared about whether my records were arranged in the correct order, spending more time than any normal person should debating whether my Weather Report albums, or, later, CDs, should go in the Jazz or Rock section of my shelf. I cared a lot more about who came and went in the latest incarnation of the Allman Brothers, whether Branford and Wynton Marsalis were on speaking terms, or whether anyone found out that Paul McCartney, not John Lennon, was always and still is my favorite Beatle. I cared a great deal if the fast pitch softball team I played on while I was in graduate school was going to make the City of Atlanta playoffs, and I cared even more about where my team’s manager put me in the batting order. I cared about qualifying for the Boston Marathon while I was at my running peak during my early 30s, something I did, although I was unable to compete in the race because of an injury. I cared what people thought who might come to my apartment or house or wherever I was living at the time thought about my books or the posters I had decided to frame that I had interpreted as art. I remember caring about turning 40, and thinking that my friends all cared about that, too, so much so that I threw myself a birthday party. I cared about all these things and many more lesser things as well.
Then, as if on cue, I stopped caring so much about whether Braves choked again in the playoffs and whether the world would continue to turn after Bobby Cox retired. I stopped getting into arguments with opposing fans at baseball and hockey games because I realized we were arguing about someone or something that had nothing to do with my own welfare. Really, is it worth getting ejected from a game you paid to watch because the guy next to you thinks that Alex Ovechkin sucks, or that the Washington Nationals are just one quality starter and an everyday center-fielder away from going to the World Series or whether Jayson Werth is worth $126 million when it's not my money? Politics? Fortunately, I stopped caring about politics a long time ago, shortly after I moved to Washington. Actually, that's not quite true. I never really cared about the game of politics . . . who's up, who's down, who is working for whom or what the polls allegedly tell us 18 months before a mid-term congressional election, who got elected or why, or what an unseasonable winter in D.C. might mean for the 1988, 1992 presidential election, or the antics of former D.C. Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. Ideas, yes. Politics, posing and the self-importance that goes with it? No. I once believed that Washington was a place where "serious" people thought about "serious" ideas and had "serious" conversations about them, sometimes even on television. Then, one Sunday morning, about twenty years ago, as I was watching some television political impresario scream at some reporter about why he was wrong about something that didn't matter, an anonymous voice grabbed my ear and asked, "Why the hell are you watching this shit?" I didn't have an answer. It didn't matter that the voice was lodged somewhere inside my head. All that mattered is that I heard it. I had no answer. And that was the end of that. Then, the following Friday night, I had the same revelation while I was watching "Washington Week in Review," the straight-laced PBS show where "serious" reporters sit around a table pretending to be interested in each others' opinions. The difference between this show and the others was that they were intent on being civilized, or "agreeing to disagree" about the big issues of the day. Peel back the veneer just a bit, and you realize that the Washington establishment doesn't really disagree on much of anything. Its members are all in on the joke, collecting ridiculous speaking or appearance fees to give their eager admirers desperately wanting to connect to this selective fraternity the impression that their "insider" status somehow translates into some very important information that they really, really need to know. Bulletin: what these "insiders" know isn't very important, unless you consider an advance warning that a deputy press secretary for some second term congressman is about to get fired something essential to your daily existence. Coming into possession of this important knowledge will not affect my life or yours, unless you're the person about to get fired. But it will give you something to talk about with your friends, and that little, bitty piece of information, for a sadly significant number people in Washington, is worth caring about.
A friend of mine who turned 50 about six months before I did told me that, when it comes to your work and career, once you hit this magic number you become part of the furniture. Smart man, my friend. Since the beginning of this year, I have indeed become the invisible man in my office corridor. I was once under the impression that the doors to our offices had hinges and the extra chair or two that we all have were for our guests to sit down. If you felt the necessity to talk to your colleague about the colleague across the hall or next door, your new dependent variable, or the exciting new conclusions you have "found" in your research ("In conclusion, we find that politicians are likely to talk when they campaign, but it's unclear that what they talk about matters to voters or to the media who cover them. We believe that further research, preferably funded by a grant that gives me a course reduction, is needed"), you could invite that person in your office, close the door and have a conversation. But no more. Now, my younger colleagues, brimming with all the excitement of college freshman living away from home for the first time, think nothing of holding court on the status of their path-breaking research with their doors wide open, lest any of us miss out on their glorious new findings. Better yet, I'm often treated to doorway discussions of the latest rumblings of the barflies at the most recent academic conference about what department is falling apart or which young star professor will soon be leaving for even less teaching, more money and less accountability to the taxpayers or the undergraduates that pay the tuition that supports their all-important research on some arcane topic that matters not at all to anyone who lives in current political world . . . or whoever lived at all. Once I realized that there was no point to getting frustrated or upset with my colleagues' behavior, which would not change even after a polite request or two or six, I asked for and received permission to move out of my building. I seriously doubt if my colleagues will even know I'm gone, transfixed as they are with their model-building, hetereoscadasiticty and the occasional bout of kurtosis.
Understanding that 50 is not the new 30 means much more than waking up even sorer than you were ten years ago after playing ice hockey the night before, or giving up even the occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer because it makes you sick, passing on the hot sauce, turning down gigs that require you to begin playing at 10 p.m. and end at 1.30 or 2 a.m., squinting so that you can see better the potential side effects of the vast assortment of purple pills that drug companies are marketing to guys my age or . . . and I take no pride or pleasure in saying this . . . when you don't laugh when you see the trailers for the new Farrelly Brothers or Will Farrell feature when you're at the movies because you don't find their movies funny anymore. No, it's about letting things go, learning not to care about things, people and events that don't really matter and embracing the reality that the cycle of life applies to everyone.
On the other hand, I have noticed that I've knocked 1.15 seconds off my 5K times since July. Hmmm . . . maybe I should think about entering a race, perhaps in the Masters' category.
Or then again, maybe not.