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Acting your age

Just this week I was having lunch with my friend Brian and I asked him how old he was.

"Well," he said, "they say life begins at 40. I've got a couple of years." Meaning that he was 38. And also meaning — if the adage is to believed — that he had much to look forward to. Like getting on with his real life.

But he has led an interesting life already. Which makes you wonder: Doesn't that count? Then there's Jack Benny, who every year announced that he was 39. The poor man was always one year shy of it all.

So, what about all those black balloons on your 30th birthday and all that talk of being over the hill and never trusting anyone over 30? If you're not even alive yet — who cares?

Remember how eager you were to be older when you were younger? You couldn't just be 5, you were "5 and a half," or "5 and three quarters." My 6-year-old grandson is already looking forward to all the things he will be able to do when he's a teenager. Little does he know that many years from now he will want to be 6 again.

Then there's 18 and with it the universally accepted rite of passage — the driver's license and its promise of independence. So strong is the power of that promise that elderly drivers cling to their licenses as the last vestige of personal freedom.

Twenty-one is another benchmark in achieving adulthood and taking on its responsibilities. And so it goes and the next thing you know you're 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 ... .

One of my colleagues just turned 40 this week. We all celebrated the beginning of life for him. And we expressed our appreciation for his being the reason we had cake that afternoon. When Paul Revere was 40, he rode through the town yelling, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" When Brutus was 40, he killed Julius Caesar. John Glenn went in orbit around the Earth and Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run when they were 40. Not a bad way to get things started.

There is another version of this age thing that says: You begin your life's work when you are 42. By this reckoning, while my friend Brian can begin living in a couple of years, he won't need to get serious about what he's doing for another two years.

Actually, in fairness to this world view, it makes sense. By the time you turn 42 you have more or less sorted things out and are moving in a more conscious direction. A certain maturity has been achieved, and you have — hopefully — picked up some bits of wisdom on the way. You have become the person who came here to do what only you can do.

When the painter Paul Gauguin turned 42 he left France and went to Polynesia, where he would develop his post-Impressionist style. When she was 42, Maria Montessori opened her first school in New York. Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president ever at 42. Rosa Parks was 42 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.

But most of us are so busy living — or getting ready to start living — that we don't really pay attention to fortune-cookie notions about age. Some of us do weird things like beginning life the moment we roll out of the womb. And sometimes that becomes our life's work. Tenzin Gyatso became the current Dali Lama when he was 2. And he's still at it, and doing quite well considering it was during the "terrible twos" that he was recognized.

Out of curiosity, I decided to see what people were doing when they were my age. It was easy to do. I just picked up my copy of "What's in an Age?" by Andrew Postman and looked it up. Let's see, 62. That's how old Douglas MacArthur was when he said, "I shall return." Agatha Christie was 62 when she wrote "The Mousetrap" which became the world's longest-running play. And speaking of plays, Henrik Ibsen wrote "Hedda Gabler" when he was 62.

Alec Guinness was 62 when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars." According the "Life begins at 40" philosophy, at 62, this guy's been "living" for 22 years and been engaged in his "life's work" for 20 years. He's gotten his driver's license, voted, bought a drink at a bar and endured the black-balloon parties. He's had his ups and downs, learned much, and made his contributions to the world. That's why you can trust him when he says, "May the force be with you." It's the voice of experience, of a life well-lived.

And now he can retire, since AARP says that's when life really begins.