My cousin in Fort Collins, Co., could not help texting last night to call me out on picking the Panthers over Denver after the Broncos put the finishing touches on a defensive masterpiece in Super Bowl 50. And I told her I was, in this case, very happy indeed to be wrong — and not simply because I won the office pool on the final score.
It was gratifying for me to see Peyton Manning, a few weeks shy of 40, out there living the dream one more time. He could’ve retired in 2011, before all those neck surgeries forced him to sit out a season and change teams. It’s not like he needed the money. He’s one of the all-time greats at quarterback, period, and would’ve remained so had he decided to hang it up prior to this.
But he didn’t. Today, he’s nowhere near the same athlete he was even just a few years ago. That’s fine. Middle age, as Mycroft put it in a Sherlock episode, comes for us all. But Manning adjusted his game to compensate, especially during the playoffs. He stayed with the short-to-intermediate throws, leaned on the run game and, most importantly, used his computer-like football brain to outsmart defenses.
Youth, of course, has its charms, but as someone who’s firmly ensconced on the other side of 40 now, I have a deeper and greater appreciation of longevity and experience, as well as the perseverance of those my age — and older — to keep going or even try something completely different.
The passion of my youth was journalism. I was an Associated Press reporter for much of my career, and the drive to get the story, to be first and be best was all-consuming at times. I was chomping at the bit for more, even when, now that I look back on it, I was ill-equipped to meet the requirements of my ambitions. And then I grew into my ambitions and, truth be told, did a pretty fine job of it.
As with many youthful passions, the fire in the belly can start to flicker out. Marriage and a child became more important than staying late to chase down one more source — and rightfully so, I believe. I began to get offers from other news organizations, and while they carried the promise of advancement and higher pay, they also guaranteed longer hours and more intensity.
I had to decide, in essence, to either allow journalism to take over my life, or to see what life I could forge outside it. I chose the latter.
To this point, this sounds like an old man’s tale. I gave up the youthful passion for the safer, perhaps more predictable route. I found a job in marketing communications with a fantastic private company, and enjoyed double the pay for two-thirds the hours. I spent more time with my wife and our little girl, and our ties grew stronger for it.
But then…I realized that for the first time in my life, I had some spare bandwidth. I had some leftover creativity juice.
So I got it in my head to write a novel. On the face of it, this was the height of hubris — or perhaps my own little midlife crisis. Yes, I’d been a professional writer for 15-plus years at the time. But never a novelist. I had no training. I never so much as took a class. My lessons consisted solely of the novels I had read before, and a few Google searches on things like plot and character.
And yet The Daedalus Incident was the (eventual) result. I got my agent when I was 38. My first book deal was reached, in principle, on my 40th birthday, and I was just shy of 41 when my book was named Library Journal‘s “debut SF/F of the month.” Who the heck debuts anything, other than a hairpiece, after turning 40?
Since then, I’ve written three more novels, a novella and several short works, and that fourth novel launches a new series in September in hardcover. I’ll be 44 by then — a stretch to say that I’m still in my early 40s — but I feel like I’m just warming up.
I’ve rekindled some of that youthful passion because of my fiction. When fans come up to me at cons to have me sign books, or to tell me they like my writing, I am recharged and revived several times over. And yes, my family has benefited, because I now have the wisdom, allegedly and hopefully, to better balance my passion for writing with my passion for them, and let those passions become greater together than apart. I can bring some of that vigor to other areas of my life. It’s a virtuous cycle.
There’s a tendency to admire youth in our culture. There are awards in so many fields for youthful achievers, and so many lists of the precociously accomplished — the “30 under 30” and the like. And yet actresses in their 30s are told they’re too old to play the lead’s girlfriend — even when the lead is in his 50s. Cam Newton is an absolute joy to watch for his athleticism and enthusiasm, whereas much as been made of Manning’s lack of arm strength and mobility.
Yet as the Super Bowl proved, we discount the wiles and experience of age at our peril. In writing, I need only remember the lovely group dinner I had a few years ago with Connie Willis and Gene Wolfe in attendance to know that there is an immensity of wisdom and accomplishment to aspire to, and if I reach just a little of what those two have gained, I should count myself lucky.
You are never too old to strive. Nor too young. You are not too out-of-shape, or too uninformed. You are not disqualified from attempting anything, really, should you want it badly enough. You may need to adjust your game, as Manning did, or be patient as you wait for your opportunity. You may need help, and should be unafraid to ask for it. You may not win, but can nonetheless revel in the attempt.
I just watched a 39-year-old man with a creaky neck, no feeling in his hands and brittle legs reach the pinnacle of his game — a pinnacle previously reached when he was afflicted by none of these things. So if he can do that, you can do that thing that you want to do. And so can I.