Standing in the Middle of Life (with My Pants Behind Me)

is a line that, for many years, I heard as “I’m standing in the middle of life with my pants behind me.” It made more sense that way. Whether a thirty-three-year-old woman can credibly claim to be “standing in the middle of life” is a reasonable question, but in fairness to Chrissie Hynde, she grew very convincingly into the song. (Part of being middle-aged, for me, is the startling realization that CH is now in her sixties.) But even at the outset, I was able to grasp that when Ms. Hynde described leaving her pants behind she had just joined the ranks of the procreationally disposed, and that parental nakedness was a ritual of snarlingly meditative middle age.

By and by, other songwriters offered further suggestions about the meaning of middle age. Moving to the east coast, for instance, was nicely foreshadowed by an annoying Irishman who wrote one of the finest songs ever recorded about New York City:

Hit an iceberg in my life / but I’m still afloat
Lose your balance / lose your wife
In the queue for the lifeboat...
Just got a place in New York.

Having got a place in New York under more or less the above-mentioned circumstances, I went whole hog and knocked up the first woman who insisted. The results are, on the one hand, a heart-warming affirmation of life, renewal, magic, innocence, and so on. On the other hand, it is a chastening discovery of what lies beyond the pants one leaves behind.

The social side of having reproduced, which I had dreaded, has turned out to be quite bearable. Some of it is indeed as bad as I had expected: there have been the inevitable "Now you see how instantly, wonderfully and irrevocably your life has changed, don’t you? Well, don’t you?" congratulations from assorted parents, indifferently pleased at the sight of a parent-basher biting the dust. Anything short of a sheepish admission of reformed foolishness marks you as a Nazi. The smug admonishment is often accompanied by effusive praise, as if I – or they, who joined "the club" earlier and apparently with less ambivalence – had performed something other than a fairly commonplace biological function. But with a few exceptions, even my relatives have been reasonable and restrained. They merely urge me to acknowledge that the baby is cute, which I am happy to do. They also declare earnestly that it looks like me. (The wife and the pediatrician did the same.) I stand reassured, although it looks like a baby to me.

I also stand extended in both directions, albeit ambiguously. In the new monkey-baby, I cannot help seeing the fossils of old family trees. There are residues here of a dead father, dead grandparents, faces known and unknown: schoolteachers and bookworms from Dhaka and Pabna, an orphan girl from Benaras tormented by reluctant caretakers, a young foreman (once similarly tormented) in the Kidderpore docks, shadowy priests from UP and pioneers from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and even further back, almost unimaginable shapes that crossed the Hindu Kush in rags or the Arabian Sea in rafts. There are Slovak and German peasants, and possibly a Native American tree in Algonquian country that French fur-trappers had climbed. There is (my mother was told by a gossipy in-law) a similar rumor of an amorous Portuguese pirate in the Ganges delta. I have now done my bit, given them all a slightly longer lease on a sort of life, kicked the football down the field, pushed the fossils and chromosomes a few years further into the future. And in the process, I have bought insurance for my own fossil: the creeping sense of mortality that marks the beginning of middle age, the panicky fear of one’s own approaching death that sets in as each year passes a little faster than the one before, has been assuaged somewhat. Such self-extension by diaper-changing is the satisfaction of an embarrassingly animal urge, but the acceptance of one’s bestial-democratic instincts is quite appropriate for those who have dutifully read their Subaltern Studies.  

But mostly I stand humbled. Not by the ‘miracle of life’ or any of that rubbish, but by the inadequacy of middle-aged manhood. When my daughter is asleep in my arms and I look at her face, I realize that nothing that I can do will protect her adequately, or at all, from what lies ahead: the cruelty of strangers, the callousness of boyfriends, frat parties, failed marriages, ungrateful children, old age, irremediable mistakes, loneliness, death. When I look at the two-weeks-old baby, I cannot help imagining her at seventy. (Not for nothing the Bengali tendency to call little girls buri.) So I printed out Kahlil Gibran’s On Children and taped it to the fridge. This too is embarrassing; On Children nearly took on the status of a greeting-card when Gibran, along with Spock, became one half of the gay couple that raised the Baby Boomers. But whereas the Boomers embraced the poem as a manifesto of the liberation of the child, I love it for liberating the parent. To be resigned to being unable to protect and preserve what you love: that may very well be the trick to standing in the middle of life, with or without your pants.

November 16, 2011