Off Piste: The great escape

Dwindling joie de vivre, receding hairlines and the sneaking suspicion that our PVIs are MIA: Paul Cornish makes an in-depth analysis of the midlife crisis and urges a robust action plan - on two wheels, in leathers, going vrooooooom

March 26, 2009

The midlife crisis is no laughing matter. Seriously: it's official. On the National Health Service Choices website, an article entitled "A midlife crisis is no joke" indicates that as many as 20 per cent of people (mostly men) will go through a midlife crisis between the ages of 35 and 50 and that the crisis can last for as long as ten years.

For the benefit of Times Higher Education readers, other articles in the NHS series include "Know your prostate", "Snoring's hidden threat", "Keep the passion alive" and "Beat the bulge" (nothing more scandalous than advice on weight loss).

According to the health page of Mail Online, by 2004 British men were spending as much as £2 billion annually on plastic surgery, new wardrobes and counselling "in an effort to combat the midlife crisis". Thankfully, things have changed since 2004, principally because there is no longer such a thing as £2 billion.

Why are men most affected by the midlife crisis? Could it be perhaps that men are at last being understood as the more sensitive, poetic and emotional sex, and more likely to protest loudly and painfully at their tragic inability to shape life according to the rather clever and exciting plan they devised long ago? Or is it that women are just too organised and too busy for all this self-indulgent cobblers?

Unfortunately, it seems that the subject is poorly researched: the scientific data are sparse and the literature is often limited to journalistic descriptions, rather than learned expositions of the sort usually found in Off-Piste.

The NHS advice is that those in the grip of the midlife crisis should see their general practitioner. Even the best advice should, of course, be subject to regular review. For example, if when entering the consulting room the GP is found to be a man of about 45, wearing a mountain fleece and a pair of those trousers with baggy pockets on the thighs, staring longingly out of his window to the far horizons and with the well-thumbed newsletter of the British Shark-Wrestling Society lying open on his desk, the patient might consider making a quick but quiet retreat.

For all but the alter-modernist schools of sociology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, traditional midlife critical theory concentrates on three primary and two supplementary questions. The primary questions are as follows: What have I done with my life? Has it actually been worthwhile? What am I going to do next?

The supplementary questions usually arise when the answers to the primary questions prove to be suboptimal. What do people (usually assumed to be a signifier for colleagues and family) think of me? Am I respected and loved? By this method, it ought to be possible to emerge from a bout of midlife critical analysis bolstered by the conviction that although you never quite became a partner in your firm of solicitors (which, in spite of everything, you can acknowledge to be a worthy profession), your mother is still terrifically proud of you.

Luckily, those who work in higher education in the UK - and indeed those in the UK higher education sector who don't work - find that they have an employer that has unusually taken upon itself to answer all of these questions on their behalf.

Once the difficult financial bit has been worked out, the research assessment exercise will have generated a Professional Value Indicator (PVI) for every UK academic, and even for those foreign academics who happened at the critical moment to be passing through the UK for a conference or a holiday. As nothing less than a systems-level approach to the problem, the RAE clearly breaks new and important ground in midlife critical analysis.

But the true genius of the PVI system is that individual performance assessments are secret and will have been shredded, burnt and composted immediately upon completion. Thus, while a university academic might fear that in his or her case the answers to the three primary questions could have been: "not much"; "hard to say"; and "who cares: your problem", no one will ever know the truth, and so the supplementary questions need never be asked. As a 1970s popular music ensemble once wrote: "Crisis? What crisis?"

For the rest of us, the brutal questioning and self-analysis cannot be so easily avoided and thought must be given to our response to the challenge of the midlife moment. In broad terms there are three options. The first is to become extremely anxious and discontent - with everything and everybody.

This can often come about when a family member answers the second supplementary question (see above - "Am I respected and loved?") with the words "No: you're behaving in the most selfish and puerile manner and driving us all to distraction." In this case, the solution probably is to seek an appointment with a GP - the best time to make an appointment is usually Thursday at 5.30am. The second option is to do something adventurous: swim the Channel; sail the Atlantic; cycle from John O'Groats to Land's End; walk to the Everest base camp. This can be fun, but also painful and sometimes dangerous.

The third option is the seamier side of the midlife crisis; have a torrid affair with someone young enough to be your son or daughter (no permutations were overlooked in the writing of this article). This can be fun too, and even rather literary insofar as it defers not only to John Betjeman's poem Late-Flowering Lust but also to his rather more direct and wistful observation late in life. When asked whether he had any regrets, the wheelchair-bound poet responded: "Yes, I wish I'd had more sex."

But it can also be a prosaic and undignified display: the Desperate Don usually isn't as compellingly attractive as he likes to believe he is.

Fortunately, there is a fourth option; a way to deal with the midlife crisis that should leave bones and dignity intact. This is widely acknowledged in the literature as the Twin-Cylindered Platonic approach to the midlife crisis, whereby adventurous capability and romantic availability are presented more in form than in substance.

And by far the best way to achieve this Platonic ideal is by riding a motorcycle - a big one. The motorcycle is acknowledged by most people to be the most sublime way to travel. As Thomas Pirsig wrote in the opening pages of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when on a motorcycle: "You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it any more, and the sense of presence is overwhelming."

But for our purposes, it's the therapeutic rather than the aesthetic qualities of motor-cycling that matter more. A fully qualified motorcyclist can do some awe-inspiring things; things that more than compensate for being a little overweight and balding. For example, when pulling away from traffic lights the rider might leave his right foot down, and perhaps even drag it lightly on the tarmac. For obvious reasons, this is very impressive.

Far better still, the qualified motorcyclist learns the biker's nod; the curt salute to another rider (as long as his bike is big enough, and almost certainly not if it's a scooter) that acknowledges another member of the two-wheeled brotherhood of the road. In the best case, the other rider could even be an academic who has also discovered the one true way to deal with the midlife crisis.

Perhaps all UK academics should consider greeting each other with the biker's nod. Even if they don't ride a motorcycle, they share a certain satisfaction that the RAE and the PVI have fixed it for them, and the more eccentric could, if they wished, wear a motorcycling helmet on campus.

If a few simple rules are followed (see below), a motorcycle can suggest not only a buccaneering spirit of adventure but also impressive (and largely unassisted - at least chemically) virility. And what is more, these virtual qualities can all be symbolised in the best possible taste. The Ten Rules for the Elderly Easy Rider are as follows:

RULE 1: Ride a motorcycle that has a big engine (1200cc is fine) and that is so heavy you probably couldn't pick it up if you dropped it to the ground. This is immediately suggestive that you must know what you're doing and have been motorcycling for many years, since no one but an inexperienced idiot would ride a motorcycle that they couldn't pick up.

RULE 2: Never, under any circumstances, drop your motorcycle to the ground.

RULE 3: Choose a motorcycle with a twin-cylindered engine, whether flat (such as BMW), vertical (such as Triumph) or V-twin (such as Harley-Davidson and Moto Guzzi). A twin can potter along happily at a slow and sensible speed in a town, while the throbbing engine note clearly hints at the latent power available to the risk-taking, yet at the same time discerning and considerate rider.

RULE 4: Choose a motorcycle with an upright riding position, rather than one in which you are crouched forward over the fuel tank. Not only is the upright position better for those riders with sciatica, but it is also the type of motorcycle used by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman (in their case BMW) as they rode around the world and the length of Africa. I met Charley Boorman once: an engaging man who did a wheelie as he rode out of the Foreign Office car park off King Charles Street. That was cool, but not public.

RULE 5: Never attempt a wheelie, neither anywhere in public nor in the Foreign Office car park.

RULE 6: Never visit your children at school while riding your motorcycle. You might be desperate to do this; convinced that your children will be the envy of their friends for having such an individualistic and youthful father, with a devil-may-care outlook on life and its dangers. Your children will think differently, and will never forgive you when, as you lower your motorcycle on to its side stand, you remember too late that you forgot to put the side stand down.

RULE 7: Find a motorcycle with an indicator showing when the side stand is down.

RULE 8: Wear a full-face helmet, probably plain grey, and with a clear visor fitted with an anti-fog insert. A full-face helmet makes the illusion of youth more sustainable. Grey is widely considered to be the colour most appropriate for the older rider. A clear visor is essential, as the eyesight is not what it was and in any case you might like wearing Reactolite glasses. The anti-fogging device will be reassuringly familiar; it works just like the double glazing at home.

RULE 9: Think twice before buying brightly coloured leathers. Man-made textiles (with built-in body armour) might be more appropriate for the mature rider. In either case, find a shop where you can be fitted discreetly and sensitively, and where your life-threatening attempts to squeeze into very tight trousers are handled with tact.

RULE 10: Ride with confidence, as if you own the road. This is good safety advice and after all, with 30 or so years of road and other taxes under your expanding belt, you're probably entitled to feel that way.

"Crisis" comes from the Greek, meaning a moment of decision or judgment - a turning point, sometimes used to refer to the progress of a disease. With a little effort (and with a great deal of willingness on the part of family and friends to suspend their mocking and even rather hurtful disbelief), the midlife crisis can be managed not as a disease but as a moment of liberation and fulfilment; a vivid and courageous indication that even if only in the mind, the glass of life is still emphatically half full. Carpe diem; as Suzi Godson, The Times' sex counsellor recently revealed, it won't be long before the glass is incontrovertibly half empty, with your teeth soaking in it.

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