How many times in your life, when some great event is about to take place, can you orchestrate that event to your own taste? Think back to when you were drafted or when your wife had her first baby. Who was steering the ship that day, eh? Not you; not I. But I faced a rare day not long ago, with one of life's critical landfalls looming ahead, when I felt the old ship to be superbly in hand. This was early last spring, in the month leading to my 40th birthday, that symbolic portal to middle age. My wife and I were celebrating with a ski trip to Alta, Utah where, on this particular day, we were unpacking for three glorious weeks of charging down the deepest, darkest ski mountains in America.
The two of us, if I may say so, were both in superb physical condition at the time of our arrival in Alta, she by dint of the R.C.A.F. exercises, I by running a mile and lifting weights on alternate mornings and playing tennis two nights a week. So we had no trouble adjusting to the extreme altitude. As we climbed onto the chair lift for our first run I, for one, felt no qualm about taking on such a heavy dose of high-mountain skiing. At the top we found 15 inches of new powder on the headwall, with the snow still sifting down. Joyfully, we whirled off into the gray morning, swooping, shouting, turning, blind as two bats in the storm's flat light but filled with the rapture of the high country. I went out again that afternoon, along with a trail-breaking gang of four instructors whose average age was about 25. And, well, perhaps one should not mention this, but it was rather pleasant to see how, after the first few turns, they stopped looking back for me and began instead to tend very much to their own skiing.
After the last run I came to our room and slid into a scalding tub with a glass of Cognac. At dinner my wife and I shared a steak, fresh bread, salad and Bordeaux. And I remember thinking how sad it was that other people seemed to have so much trouble coming to grips with their middle years. You know the old saws: Franklin P. Adams saying that "Middle age occurs when you are too young to take up golf and too old to rush up to the net"; Joe Louis, after a splendid knockout over Lee Savold, observing wistfully, "My age, what happen all depend on how you feel when you get up that day"; and that famous poisoned dart about how "Some people grow old gracefully, others learn to rumba."
Such words had always seemed to me like tired excuses for tolerating slippage in the machinery. At a prizefight I had seen one recent victim of the rumba syndrome: Norman Mailer, age 44. He kept wandering around ringside in a many-strapped trench coat, two fascinated blondes close in his wake and a manila envelope bulging with typescript clutched to his collarbone, much in the style of Linus clutching his blanket.
Another example appeared just after dinner that first night in the ski country. I phoned an old friend, a gray-haired ski-shop owner, to join us for a nightcap. He roared up to the hotel in a Goldfinger-type sports car, bedecked with dozens of dashboard dials and eyelids on the headlights. He himself was wearing winkle-picker boots, Italian pants and a 3-month-old haircut. I asked him, in an offhand way, how he felt about being middle-aged, at which point he lobbed back one of those bits of capsulized joviality that ski people keep around to toss to outlanders. "Ho, ho," he said. "When I was young, my face was smooth and my pants were baggy. Now I am old, my pants are smooth and my face is baggy." That was pretty good, but then he saw I was serious and he became first morose, then panic-stricken. "Growing old graciously is a stupid idea," he said eventually. And soon he fled.
Impatient with these hints of mortality, I asked my wife if she was having any qualms about her own proximity to 40. She pondered before replying, "I think the main thing for a girl is that she knows she can't possibly have an affair with a ski instructor unless she's rich." This did not seem to be advancing the ball very far either, so I retired.
It is hard to describe the next morning. As best I could tell on awakening, I had turned into a pillar of salt. My mouth was dry and cracked, and my joints seemed to have crystallized. I lay still for perhaps an hour, but then it was apparent I was going to feel no better on this particular day. Everywhere I had fallen—which was just about everywhere—hurt in a dull way. I decided to try standing up, theorizing that at least there were no bruises on the bottoms of my feet. Disturbed by my lamentations, my wife lifted her head to reveal a flourishing crop of overnight fever blisters and a pair of oddly swollen eyebrows. Seeing them in a bedside mirror, she bleated and disappeared beneath the sheet for the rest of the morning.
Despite my acute physical discomfort, it did not occur to me to do anything so sensible as go back to bed. After all, I had always felt a little stiff the second day of any sport. Why, back in college there had been some groanful mornings at the beginning of the basketball and baseball seasons. But then and since, after a couple of good, sweaty hours—or at worst a couple of days—the old frame was oiled up and moving better than ever. Besides, I had been reared long ago in a kind of cold-hip-bath-and-bowl-of-gruel tradition, one which tolerated no modicum of self-indulgence or in-turned pity. My principal tutor in this ethic was my mother, Catherine Drinker Bowen, a long-shanked, straight-eyed Philadelphia lady of much literary talent and competitive drive, to whom the thought of giving in to physical frailty, particularly the frailty of middle age, was repulsive. In fact, the concept made her nervous. She used to remind us at least once a month that Mozart had expired at 35, Shelley at 29. These facts provided clear evidence that life's cruelest joke was to strike down creative people at the height of their powers.
"I can hear the roar of the cataract," she would announce at sudden, odd moments, savoring the doom-cry of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the elder. To which my Quaker stepfather—about whom, more later—would reply, "Dearie, thy hearing must be very keen indeed."
Indeed it must have been. At that time she arose every day at 7:30, wrote for five hours, then tapered off by walking two miles (winter) or by swimming in the surf, riding horses or playing tennis (summer). Each day was like a round in a prizefight, the purpose being to win all rounds by a knockout, or at least by a big margin. This was especially evident to anyone who took her on at tennis (my sister, a 1966 Seattle Tennis Club champion, surrendered to Mother for good in the summer of 1939) or at a family card game called Pounce, in which the main rule was that if you were going to cry, you couldn't play. It has always been my hope that the Great Scorer turned his face from these games for her sake as well as for mine. My entire Pounce career was spent sniffling on the bench.