generation XL-ies


It used to be that TURNING FORTY had to be expressed in all caps, and was mentioned either in an existential moan, or as the punchline to a joke. This was the residue, obviously, of an American society that didn’t live past 60, rarely got taller than five-foot-six, and drank asbestos cordials whenever they got the grippe.

In that society, back when our grandparents ruled the earth, forty basically meant the inexorable slide towards the buttery green beans at the steakhouse buffet, and they acted like it: the zoot suits, crazy nylons with the calf seams, and snappy dialogue was instantly replaced by horn-rimmed glasses, blue hair and the failing strength to say something racist from the Barcolounger.

If anything, we’ve overcorrected. The average 40-year-old in today’s urban environment might wear a suit to work, but on weekends, he and his lesser-employed friends don the same shit as early twentysomethings – even if they’re immediately distinguishable by the paunch and that particular thick-neckedness that afflicts every single one of us. The unmarried 40-year-olds are still in skate shoes or unflattering Pumas, cracking wise with chicks half their age over small vials of Jaegermeister. Unfortunately for these ladies, these dudes are actually old enough to be moderately funny.

I can tell you this, however: there is middle ground. In terms of medicine, dietary knowledge, exercise and attitude, 40 can actually be the new 27 without you looking like a total moron. There’s no magic bullet for everyone’s success, but if I were forced to give a bullet list, it’d look something like this:

• don’t be the one who gets fat

• really. don’t get fat. you gained weight around 35, and if you can lose it – in whatever way possible – you’re way ahead of the game

• know yourself. don’t stay up late, drive that extra 150 miles, or play that last game because you think you have to. you don’t have to. you’ve earned the right not to have to.

• don’t wear white sneakers with jeans

• take Vitamin D3, Omega-3/6/9 fish oil tablets, and Co-Q10

• don’t be a luddite. don’t instantly hate new technology just because everyone’s talking about it. if you don’t like Twitter or Facebook or the iPad or something, keep it to yourself, because your complaints are BORING

• remain emotionally elastic, able to absorb new things without instant rejection, take everyone’s viewpoint seriously for at least 30 seconds


Do I always follow all of these? Fuck no (except for the white sneakers thing). But it’s as good a place as any to start, when (in the words of Captain Aubrey) the “blue devils” begin to weigh on your self-perception. If you’re still in the game, you’re still in the game. I remember back in my twenties, when folks in their forties would say “I’m in better shape now and feel better than I ever have,” I’d think “Bullshit, you old fart.” Yet here I am, very clearly able to beat the shit out of myself at 24.

The forties are the age of judgment, when people start to wonder if you are actually going to make your mark, like you said you were all those years ago. It’s the time when you yourself are wondering if you’re still capable of phases, or if this is accidentally who you are. If you want to affect culture, it might seem like time is running out. It has been a long time since you were a teenager – to paraphrase Morrissey, do your songs say nothing to them about their lives?

Probably not, but some truths are universal, and one is that confidence is contagious. To all the wonderful people recently embarked on their forties, add your thoughts if you still want your yawp recorded for posterity, and a very happy birthday to not just my incredible Tessa, but the other of us May babies: Chip, Salem, and especially my brother Sean, who TURNS FORTY today. Whoo-hoo!


Sean, Barnaby and me, March ’07

0 thoughts on “generation XL-ies

  1. erica

    I would add – just because you CAN wear a garment, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Get out of the Juniors department.
    Yes, there is a gloat factor in being able to fit those size 3 shorts (especially if your 24 year-old self couldn’t) but (with very few exceptions) THOSE ARE NOT YOUR CLOTHES.
    If the styles in the Misses seem matronly – change stores, not departments!

  2. CM

    We have better medication now, so we should be in better health at 40 than our parents were, generally speaking.
    Happy b-day to Sean and the others!
    40 used to be the age that I considered a definite cutoff for youth. I used to say, “It’s not like I want to still be living in an apartment when I’m 40.” Well, I very likely will be, and I don’t mind it. Hmmm. What age am I supposed to use now for shorthand for adulthood? I’ll probably still use 40 even though I’m turning 40 next year.

  3. Anne

    You lost me at “don’t be the one who gets fat.”
    One’s genes, thyroid, antidepressants, childbearing, menopause, and a host of other factors can cause some of us to have a MUCH harder time losing or maintaining weight in middle age than others. I’m not saying it’s impossible; just very, very challenging and frustrating. We beat ourselves up about it many times each day. But thanks for reminding us that we are moral failures.
    Ian, before you began taking dex every day, did you find it a bit more challenging to keep your weight down? It’s a pill that several generations of housewives famously took to lose weight. (Read the Rhoda stories by Ellen Gilchrist, some of the best portrayals extant of the frisky, stylish young matrons of the 1950s and 60s. Rhoda ate dex like candy when she wanted to get thin.)
    As my son would say: Don’t judge.
    This I liked: “remain emotionally elastic…”
    Cool way to put it, and I totally agree. Also, it applies to more and more of my waistbands.

  4. bridget

    love this post. especially the idea of accidentally becoming someone. i was just musing on a notion similar to this as i walked from the train to work today. i’ve never wanted to be an ‘office lady’ – i can remember sitting on a bus when i was 16 going into pittsburgh for a summer job in an office and making myself a vow – that i wouldn’t be that person when i grew up. i didn’t really think through what that meant beyond i just didn’t want to be hustling to get the bus, commuting everyday to sit in an office somewhere for most of the day.
    and here i am!
    but what i was thinking this morning was – it’s not too late… and while i may have accidentally settled here i don’t have to let that define who i am. —- as long as i continue to work towards what it is i really do want to do/be.
    that’s a rule i’m going to offer – it’s never too late!

  5. MarkC

    This am guessing this becomes a classic, maybe not “Why I hate Dook!” but a classic in its own way.

  6. cullen

    True that, you can be 40 without necessarily being ‘farty’ and you can definitely be ‘farty’ w/out being all that flatulent.

  7. Lee

    i’d say that 30’s are the years of judgment. i’m 41 and when you talk about “the game”, i’m now thinking…”what game?”. i don’t care about games any more. i love my kid, love my freedom, love it that i don’t care any more about being this or that. if anything, i’m OVER judgment.
    maybe i’m really 51 and subtracted wrong? who cares…

  8. Piglet

    Damn. I already got fat.
    I got muscular, too, but you can’t tell unless I’m carrying heavy stuff, because the flab is on top. My exercise routine is great; my diet sucks. And I lost a lot of my hair.
    But other than that, I passed the rest of your criteria. I’m continually shocked when I look in the mirror and see the proof that I’m not a kid any more, because my basic attitude is like I’m still 25, only with a family and more money.

  9. xuxe

    oh and i just have to say – CUTENESS!! Barnaby reminds me of the boy from “in the night kitchen” in that picture.

  10. LFMD

    I agree with the fat thing. As I have become reacquainted with old friends from elementary and high school on Facebook, the one thing that seems to distinguish those who look older and those who don’t is weight. And hair loss. Some people look great, and then there are those like me.
    Unfortunately, I have gained lbs. since my youth and it is a daily struggle not to shove food in my mouth when I am bored or stressed or happy or sad, but you know what? I don’t care anymore because TODAY I FOUND MYSELF FACE TO FACE WITH MICHAEL PHELPS. Yes, while waiting for my bagel sandwich at the bagel place around the corner from my office, in walked my boyfriend MICHAEL. Our eyes met, I stared at him until he got uncomfortable and looked away, and I continued to stare at him until my sense of decency forced me to go on about my day.
    We had a moment! Me and my boyfriend. I still have the ability to crush on someone like I did when I was 20. Yea for me!

  11. Ian

    Of course the weight thing is a minefield and deserves another blog. But those were just suggestions, and not meant as gospel, nor judgment (despite the usual jerk-laden tone).

  12. Rebecca

    Happy 40th Sean! Happy birthday Tessa! Happy 40th to my husband; his birthday was Saturday!
    The list is excellent. It’s getting harder and harder to not get fat though, and that’s frustrating. I guess I should have been thankful for my metabolism for 40 years, and I wasn’t.
    The old friends part is hard too. Especially when you live on opposite coasts of most of your old friends, and can’t talk in the evenings because of the time difference.
    I will strive to work on my emotional elasticity… I love that!

  13. janet oh !

    happy birthday tessa………..sorry but my forearm won’t be coming to the party………it really needs to just liven up……………….like get a grip !!

  14. Ehren

    What’s the deal with white sneakers and jeans? I don’t really own a pair of white sneakers, but that seems to be a sort of regular thing to wear.

  15. Anne

    Ian, I’m sorry I jumped on the weight “rules.” Just a sore point… I was so skinny until my 20s, I was nicknamed “Twiggy” in high school. Late bloomer, that’s me. Then came Grandma’s Mae West-like genes (yow, that was a shocker); then meds; then hypothyroidism; then menopause and a withering metabolism; all combined with having kids and working a desk job the past 57 years. Voila: Fat editor.
    While I agree with Laurie (hi, Laurie!) that middle-aged overweight people look the most different from their high school selves, I also find truth in Joanna’s suggestion about women over 40 getting too thin for their faces. Whippet-thin folks can look unflatteringly gaunt after 45 or so. A little fat padding under my facial skin keeps the wrinkles at bay. I’m 58 but most people who meet me think I’m in my early 40s, thanks to a youthful face. NOT a reason to stay overweight! But it’s one of those little silver linings for us Very Old People on your blog (where I often feel I’m trespassing on the discussions among you and your peers).
    My own stay-youthful secret is not about weight, though, but about attitude. Don’t lose the ability to have fun, to look forward to something. I’ve been blessed that way, but it also took some effort to push myself and break some age stereotypes. (Yes, a 58 year old woman CAN survive the mosh pit at a Black Keys concert, as I did several weeks ago.)

  16. Neva

    I know I’m way behind but this was just an awesome post Ian. You got it just right.
    As someone who is planning to run a 1/2 marathon this weekend (first ever) I am here to say you can get better with age. I used to run only to the vending machine in my 20s!

  17. tar heel born

    “don’t be the one who gets fat”
    As advice, it’s not particularly useful but as an insult, it’s a real zinger. If your point was to prune away your fat friends, I imagine your mission is accomplished.

  18. Ian

    thb, I say it as someone who was overweight pretty much from age 23 to 40, and is still hitting maximum BMI, even though I’ve lost the horrible gut. Not getting fat – if you can help it – is probably the one thing you can do to stop a million health problems in their tracks. It’s not meant as a judgment, a put-down, or an insult, just a medical fact.

  19. tar heel born

    OK. I didn’t know your weight history and it does change everything. Sometimes it ain’t what you say but how you say it.
    You’re completely right about the health impact.
    One thing: because BMI doesn’t make any allowance for muscle mass, it’s a lousy measurement tool. Body fat content is the best way to determine your healthy weight. If you’re male, keeping your BFC under 25% will ward off that long list of health problems, reducing to 15% will give you maximum athletic performance.
    Here’s a quick & dirty BFC estimation tool:


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