There are actuarial tables and plenty of lists to help you figure out whether you've hit middle age. Gray hair, inability to read your phone. Failure to recognize every song on the radio. But as NHPR's Sean Hurley reflects from his home in the White Mountains, maybe middle age is simply noticing a shift in perspective.
I wake early from the crows screeching through the different open windows of our house. Chalkboard screams demanding rebates, wanting to talk to the mayor. It's not even six and I'm like a human anchor, heavy and down below the blankets still. My wife and son sleep on despite the racket, but I go outside and sit in a wet chair and drink coffee on the porch. If I can't sleep, at least I can find out what's going on. The sky is hard and cloudless and cloud-colored, still showing stars you don't have to notice if you don't want.
The crows go shipping tree to tree, battling left to right and back, a little less than shadows, even when I see them clearly. Suddenly three crows flap together in a midair pile like something that can't turn into a jacket. But the dispute is all crow and beyond the power of an anchor in a wet chair to discern. The fight ends and the quiet crows separate as the sky turns blue, with clouds coming in like empty thought bubbles. Another murder mystery unsolved. Crow upon cloud upon sky upon stars over anchor.
After work, late afternoon in a pouring rain, the crows forgotten, I drive to the Smarts Brook Trail head and park. Only one other car in the lot so I'll have the whole woods to myself almost. Whatever little speed that marks the difference between walking and running is the speed I jog. I used to be fast and now I'm slow. I'm 48 and that's how many minutes it takes me to run the three mile loop around the river. I seem to lose a minute every year.
Out of the car, into the rain, I jump in the first water I see to get my shoes wet. The trail is one long puddle, as nearly flowing as the brook it follows. Two miles in I cross the bridge, wet as a swimmer, and descend the log road and suddenly a red dog is beside me. Something ahead has his attention and he hardly sees me as he shoots off, feet skipping like stones on the rivery path. I turn and look behind. A fast figure races along and like his dog, hardly sees me as he passes.
But I recognize him and call out through the rain to the Olympic skier, Kris Freeman. He has just run up and down Sandwich Mountain, he says, 6 miles each way.
"The volume is up, but I'm always tired," he says. "My volume is down and I am too," I joke. As he has been for years, Freeman says he's training for the next Olympics.
"Me too," I say, an expert at the kind of dry as a bone, lay-down-and-die joke that used to make me blush when my father told them. But Freeman nods as though this is somehow possible. For a moment, two Olympians splash together side by side, until the red dog again speeds away, and Freeman follows. I try to keep up but they're both so fast that I stop cold. My shoes fill with water as I watch them go, heading off, even now, for the Olympics.
In the morning in a wet chair with an unsolved mystery of crows overhead. In the afternoon, in a puddle, watching a dreamer chase his dog and his dream. A good enough metaphor for the middle age I've struck upon. Investigator of unsolvable bird mysteries. Checker of dreams in the watery woods. Crow upon cloud upon sky upon stars over anchor.