Better Late than Never: The Math of Then and Now

I’m a very punctual guy, the type who likes to, and often does, get to a meeting or appointment, or be ready to leave my house, five minutes early. I’m a bit late with this column, though — like 33 years late.

Its crux is an article, written when I turned 40, that I recently found while cleaning up some papers. Originally titled “The Age of Understanding,” it was turned down by two sections of the New York Times and then by others before lying buried in my files. In some ways, though, it’s more touching to me now as a glance in a rear-view mirror rather than a look forward through a windshield.

This is the article:

“It’s only a day on the calendar,” I tell myself. “I still have all my hair (with occasional touches of gray), all my teeth (marred by a slight ache that awaits some courage to schedule a dental appointment), and a decent shape (except for a few extra inches which should melt away under my soon-to-be-started dieting and exercise program). So why do I care that according to the calendars in my kitchen, office desk, night table, and wallet (wherever I look I’m confronted by reminders of passing time), I turned 40 just weeks ago.

Forty isn’t the age that was supposed to have any special meaning for my generation, the children of the ‘60s, who were raised on revolution, Dylan, protests, the Beatles, civil rights, the Rolling Stones, Vietnam, and our family’s favorite, Peter, Paul and Mary. We were warned never to trust anybody over 30; 40 was far over the horizon. And I whizzed through my 30th birthday with nary a look back. So why now twinges of — well, I’m not exactly sure of what — but why those twinges now?

I don’t think it has anything to do with my family life. My wife and I recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary, and are, as we whisper to each other often and truly believe, still deeply in love and committed to our marriage and family.

We have three beautiful daughters (really!!!) who, in addition to the normal aggravations a 6-year old and two budding teenagers can and do cause, bring a joy into our lives that rounds off the square edges. Our parents are still alive and, thank God, in good health (taking into consideration the years’ normal wear and tear). They are also independent and live in close proximity to us. This enables them to develop with our daughters that special and unique grandparent-grandchild relationship — one of pure and unencumbered love, with no questions asked and no answers required.

Other family members — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as extended family — also live nearby, and we often get together for loud and lively holiday and family celebrations. We share each other’s joy and pride, and are there for each other in times of need and sorrow. So why, in the midst of this seemingly rosy life, do I care what the calendar says?

It may have something to do with growing up. Four years ago, we bought our first house in suburban New Jersey (moving from our Riverside Drive rent stabilized apartment, with 12-foot ceilings and panoramic views of the Palisades, the Hudson River, and the George Washington Bridge) and our first car (a station wagon, no less). Now, in addition to tuition bills, we have mortgage and car payments, property taxes and assessments, gardener bills, and roto-rooter servicemen with whom to contend. Serious matters, expensive matters, grown-up matters; activities only my parents used to be involved in.

Forty, as opposed to 30, is also an age at which I can clearly remember how my own parents looked, acted, spoke, and, to use a word they would never have dreamed of using, parented. From the time of the birth of my first daughter, I have always compared my actions and decisions as a parent to the way my parents brought up my siblings and me. Forty is an age when I can no longer fool myself.

The same is true of my professional life. I’m a lawyer; a competent and relatively successful corporate litigator for a large New York company, and I feel confident that I will most likely continue in this type of job until I retire. It’s not that it took me until 40 to know that I’d never play centerfield for the Yankees (I knew that at 15), or be an architect (21), Commissioner of Baseball (30), or an astronaut (never; I’m afraid of heights). Now, however, I also know that I’ll never write a seminal law review article or be a federal judge.

I also know that although my occasional freelance articles continue to be published in a number of well-known Jewish periodicals, as have numerous letters-to-the-editor in the New York Times, I’ll never be a journalist or a writer — at least not one who can make a living at it. I also realize that although I’m relatively intelligent, have a voracious appetite for any and all reading material, and a deep concern about intellectual matters both Jewish and secular, I’ll never be a real intellectual like my older brother, the university professor and scholar (and one-time star of T.V.’s College Bowl). I’ve always known what my strengths and abilities were, and what I was. Forty brings me to grips with what my weaknesses and shortcomings are, and what I’ll never be.

But all is not bleak; in fact, most is not bleak, because at 40 I know where I am — and I like it here. I love my wife and children deeply, and am comfortably warmed by the spirit of our entire family. I sincerely care for my friends (some of whom I go back with to childhood), enjoy their camaraderie, and receive encouragement from them. I’m only now beginning to appreciate the bonding that has taken place over the years, which began even before we ever heard about such a concept. While my feelings about practicing law are mixed, I’m grateful for the intellectual stimulation and professional satisfaction law gives me at times.

Forty is an age for taking stock, and I feel good about my inventory. It may not have the glitz of Bloomingdales, but it has the warmth, stability and home-grown values of J.C. Penney, and that’s where most people feel best about shopping.

The ancient rabbis had insights into almost everything, including age, and I take their wisdom seriously. In Ethics of the Fathers, in commenting on the various ages people reach throughout their lives, the Mishna teaches: ben arba’im lebinah — 40 is the age of understanding. I guess that, in a nutshell, is what I’m feeling — overall satisfaction, mixed with a touch of regret, based on a clear and sober understanding of who I am, where I’ve come from, and where I’m headed.

• • • • •

Being almost 73 certainly is quite different than turning 40. My hair’s all silver now, we had a fourth beautiful (really!!) daughter who recently married, we have three delightful grandkids in Toronto, and we recently bought our sixth car. Our parents, having lived long and meaningful lives, are no longer with us but are lovingly and warmly remembered and deeply missed, as are other relatives. While I never wrote that seminal law review article or became a judge, my professional life took a number of unexpected twists and turns, including a decade as a partner in a prestigious law firm, before culminating in an active retirement. And J.C. Penney is no longer where people shop.

My wife and I, lovingly closing in on our 50th anniversary, still own our same Teaneck home and contend with its accompanying maintenance and suburban expenses (though finally, whew, no more tuition). And, with our children, we still listen to Peter, Paul and Mary. I not only still have many, though sadly not all, of my childhood friends, but continue to make new ones of all ages.

Unsurprisingly, I never became a professional journalist or writer. But quite surprising to me, I ended up as a regular columnist for this paper with, as of my last “I’ve Been Thinking” article, more published columns than the number of years in my age. As Tevye sang about discussing “the learned books with the holy men seven hours every day,” this, in some ways, may be the sweetest thing of all.

So let me return to the same, still relevant, Mishna I used decades ago, which teaches that, as the decades continue to flow, ben shivim lesevah — 70 is the age of experience (which is the translation of sevah I like best). And that experience has taught me that the understanding I thought I had when turning 40 lacked some of the depth and nuance that age brings. I now know that while I generally understood who I was and where I came from, where I was and where I’m now headed is often impenetrable and contains changes and surprises hidden in the haze. With the grace of God, I hope this unknowable future will continue to bring me nachat, contentment, and a sense of a life worth living.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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