"Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they're gone you can't tell where, or what the devil you did with them." (The Magnificent Ambersons)
Today I turned 37 years old, which, by my reckoning, means that this year I will cross into middle age. Everyone who is dealt a reasonably playable hand, health-wise, seems to get 75 years on Earth. (After that, you're on bonus time and shouldn't really complain much.) If my math is correct, 75 ÷ 2 = 37.5, so here I am, a few steps from the summit of life and looking down on the other side of the mountain.
This will not be a soul-bearing post in which I share the things I've learned along the way (a lot), and lament the mistakes I've made (a lot). This isn't blogging-as-therapy; I'll leave that to the Tumblr people. The truth is I don't do well on birthdays in general. They do depress me, and I do take measure of my life and see where I've fallen short, and I do compare myself with my heroes when they were my age. I think everyone does this, to some extent, so I'm not special in that regard.
If there is one good quality about me, it is that I enjoy learning new things. One of my New Years resolutions was to learn, for fun, the C# programming language, and to that end I've re-immersed myself in a phenomenal course on Udemy called "Learn To Code by Making Games," which is taught by Ben Tristem. I've very familiar with coding of course; C is my "native language" from my computer science years. I've always been fascinated by video game development and thought that alone might motivate me to finish. (I'd started the course previously, but had to step away one-third of the way into it due to my publishing workload. I've started over this go-round because I really, really want to understand the subject, both in terms of language and the techniques necessary to complete a project.
Programming is nice in that it lights up a totally different part of my brain than my job, and I can roll into my real-life writing assignments without feeling mentally drained. (Just the opposite, in fact.) I mention all this in the context of my age because there's no hope of this turning into a career or side-job or whatever. The process of learning, here, is its own reward. I think often of a haunting scene at the end of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, in which Peter Keating, who in his youth longed to be an artist but ended up a parasitic, second-rate architect, returns to painting in middle age. He shows his work to Howard Roark, who studies the canvases, puts them away, and says, simply, "It's too late, Peter."
The process of aging, I've felt so far, is like the trimming of branches from some great tree. When you are born, anything is possible. I believe that. As you age, branches fall away based on your decisions and your circumstances. You chose not to study in high school, and all the good colleges (and the attendant opportunities) are cut away. You reach 35, and if you've never run for elected office, you'll never be president. That branch, gone. If you're 40 and going back for your MBA, you might get a promotion at your job, or a new one, but you'll never be the CEO of Microsoft. That branch fell away two decades earlier.
In other words, I will never be an astronaut.
This isn't an assertion that we lack free will, but just the opposite—it is one's free will fully expressed. If I devoted myself today to becoming a concert pianist, and spent the second half of my life doing nothing but practicing the piano, by 70 I might be one hell of a player, but I'll never play Carnegie Hall because of the other factors that go into such things: a lifetime of self-promotion, playing for symphonies across the country and around the world, networking with other musicians, etc. There's more to greatness than technical proficiency, and those branches were long severed from the tree.
Nor is this an assertion that life is futile and that (for example) if you're not published by 40, you never will be, and should give up the dream and just die already. Again, it depends on your actions and circumstances. If you've been writing for 20 years and just never quite got around to finding an editor, or never managed to snag an agent, you've still been writing for 20 years. It's not too late for you. The branch is there, and healthy. But if you first pick up a pen at 50, don't expect to become Stephen King in 5 years. It's possible, but it's one hell of a hard climb and beyond the abilities of most mortal men and women.
It is on some level a relief to cultivate my new little hobby of software development without that voice in the back of my mind saying, "You could make this your life's work! You could be famous! You could be the next John Carmack." When I was much younger, all of that might have been true. But there's simply not enough time left for that to happen, now, and I accept that. Thankfully, I didn't need Howard Roark to tell me that, but in a way, he did.