Gentleman Scholar

Turning 40

A gift guide for the new quadragenarian in your life.

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How does it feel to be 40?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

In the background of that question is the less-polite, How do you feel about your impending nonexistence? Or should that be “in the foreground”? Or should we abandon that sense of perspective altogether and instead select our painting metaphors from the vocabulary of late Rothko?

How does it feel to be 40? I’ll try for something fresher than that long-toothed workhorse: “It’s better than the alternative.”

Yes, I’ve heard that life begins at 40, but I gained nothing from reading Walter B. Pitkin’s Life Begins at Forty, the best-selling nonfiction book of 1933—except a new appreciation of how dire 1933 really was. Apparently, the Great Depression was so greatly depressing that the public found comfort in the social Darwinism, generational cheerleading, Pollyannaish praise of technology, and plain blather of a self-help author who also happened to be a eugenicist. “Every day brings forth some new thing that adds to the joy of life after forty,” Pitkin wrote. “Life’s afternoon is brighter, warmer, fuller of song; and long before the shadows stretch, every fruit grows ripe.” Oh, come on. I am far too old to be coddled and yet not so senescent that I can’t tell when I’m being pandered to.

Why do people ask how it feels to be 40? The anthropologist Stanley H. Brandes delivers a 153-page answer to that question in Forty: The Age and the Symbol, which is well worth your ever-dwindling time. Brandes explains how 40 developed into “the single age most representative of midlife” partly by tracing its history as one of “the most symbolically vigorous numerals in our vocabulary.” He speaks of Jesus in the wilderness, of Noah in the flood, of Moses wandering—and also he directs us to the OED: “Consider definition (b): ‘Used indefinitely to express a large number.’ ” Being 40 is kind of like having a zillion regrets, or telling your kid to knock it off the umpteenth time.

Note also Brandes’ description of what drew him to the project: “Several years prior to my fortieth birthday, at some indeterminate moment, I began to feel uneasy about my age.” This is what we in the trenches call late-30s disease. How does it feel to be 40? On the bright side, you no longer have to half-consciously fear turning 40 and, brimming with hope that the worst of the dread is behind you, move on to new dreadful things.

But first there ought to be a party of some kind, whether it is enjoying a sedate dinner for two, or undertaking a journey to the bottom of the night in a dance club at what is the last conceivable moment in life to do so respectably. And also there should be presents. What ought the quadragenarian want? (And, perhaps more relevantly to most readers: What should his friends and family give to him?)

According to the traditional scheme, we celebrate 40th anniversaries by giving rubies, which, according to The Curious Lore of Precious Stones (1913), have talismanic virtues appropriate to the birthday’s symbolic significance. The ancients felt “they removed evil thoughts, controlled amorous desires, dissipated pestilential vapors, and reconciled disputes.” Further, Sanskrit medical texts held that wearing a ruby was “a valuable remedy for flatulency.” It is rare for a gentleman to wear a gemstone, but it would be OK to wear a simple lapel pin on your favorite jacket.

If that’s too flashy for you, then consider honoring the inextinguishable flame of the ruby by hinting that you want a case of port, or by imploring your friends to take you out for a surfeit of bright red drinks, such as Negronis or Boulevardiers. Also, you could, following the bunga bunga philosophy of life, arrange a date with a young woman named Ruby, or willing to be called such for the night, but I don’t recommend it, especially if you’re already experiencing the memory of your wasted youth as a kind of compound moral hangover.

The greatest 40th-birthday gift of all time is a first edition of Ulysses—specifically, the copy that Sylvia Beach gave to James Joyce (b. Feb. 2, 1882) on its publication date, Feb. 2, 1922. Joyce’s was the kind of 40th birthday to which every 20-year-old should aspire. He savored the tangible evidence of his tenacious daring. He knew the pride of monumental achievement. But also he knew the agony of the book’s 5,000 typos. And his eyesight was not getting any keener.

But a first edition of Ulysses costs more than a Ferrari, and doesn’t take corners nearly as well, so I ought to recommend something more modest. How about a first edition of The Information signed by Martin Amis? When we meet protagonist Richard Tull he is a 39-year-old crying in his sleep, as usual: “He slid out of bed in the mornings just to get a little rest.” Very shortly, his distress grows to size XL: “Richard turned forty. Turned is right. Like a half-cooked steak, like a wired cop, like an old leaf, like milk, Richard turned. And nothing changed. He was still a wreck.”

Are you worried that The Information hits too close to home? Maybe you should try The Anatomy Lesson, the third of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels, which gets everything in while existing at a comfortable remove from everyday reality. I hope: At 40, the writer Nathan Zuckerman has two dead parents, three ex-wives, and a searing pain in his shoulders medicated with Stolichnaya, marijuana, Percodan, and pussy. And his hair is not getting any thicker. Have you been feel sorry for yourself? Listen well to Diana Rutherford, the youngest of Zuckerman’s four girlfriends, as she gives him a pep talk: “You’re full of shit, Nathan. There’s only one thing for you to do and that’s to get on with it.”

How does it feel to be 40? The most famous poem on the theme is Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty,” with its quiet, too quiet, opening image of spaces shut away for the rest of time:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.