Someone's always telling you what you ought to do. Read the papers often enough and you'll end up at once enlightened and confused. Chocolate will be part of the sugar scare one day, and will save you from strokes and heart attacks the next; red wine will give you cancer in January but save you from it in March. The older I get, the less notice I take, presuming that my policy of 'everything in moderation' might help avert catastrophe if not mortality. And the older I get, the more I resent those lists of what I ought to have done by a certain age.
These 'must do' lists are the middle aged version of the rising scale of exciting things you're allowed to do as you move through your teens. They play on the modern angst of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - on things we ought to do before the age of bewilderment. The most recent prescription for a fulfilled middle age was published at the end of March, resulting from a survey of people who had just turned 50. And it makes me feel exhausted, even though I'm quite a way away from that milestone age just yet.
I mean: I've done some of the things on the list. I've fallen in love, got married, bought a house. I've definitely read even more than the total 100 books suggested, though I'm not quite sure which hundred books they have in mind. You could read all the Mister Men, for instance, in one night of middle-aged insomnia. I've learned a language - or two. I've said no to my mother, and survived. I've travelled alone, and remember where the petrol cap is without seeing it as any kind of life landmark. I've stayed out all night partying and been sober enough to remember it, and I've seen at least a few favourite bands live. As for perfecting a signature dish: I do a mean fruit salad. A stunning mug of coffee. Astounding breakfast cereal and simply unforgettable gluten free brown toast.
My very favourite thing about the Pre 50 list is reading it as a linear narrative. You have to buy a house, have kids, get married, fall in love and THEN eat fish and chips on the pier. There's the narrative arc of a fantastic rom com right there. That done, you have to donate blood, read 100 books, see your favourite band live, learn a language, attend a music festival and own a dog, all the while saying no to your mother just to keep Sigmund Freud in translation as Mr Happy. I've read novels with less of a plot. Once you've stayed out all night partying and seen the Northern Lights, having found your petrol cap, you visit Stonehenge, having travelled there alone, sleep underneath the stars, taking in a meteor shower and, with expert knowledge of the British weather, dance in the rain. This will inspire you to quit your job and visit all seven continents, taking in a volcano, the Trevi Fourntain, trips on a Venice gondola, a helicopter and a hot air balloon. Your journey will include sex on a beach, skinny dipping and swimming with dolphins - terribly efficient multitasking. You'll make a snow angel on Snowdonia and ride an elephant into protest. Somewhere along the line you'll own your own business, perfect that signature dish and jump into a pool fully clothed, possibly to cool down after running that marathon. As you roar up, tattooed, to your 50th birthday on your Vespa, you'll attend an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show, having written both a novel and a journal following a technology-free month. To finish with: try drugs, have a threesome, then go to an airport and pick a random flight.
Most of us probably want to grasp the final strands of feeling young, but many will fail at growing old like this. When I look back from the height of that great age, I don't think I'm going to regret my lack of tattoos, hot air balloons, or narcotic close encounters. I think I'd feel more regret if I'd simply done what everyone was made to do. Growing old - or growing up? - shouldn't have the same prescriptive list for everyone. Surely growing old is all about following your own path, working your way through your own list of experiences and turning that into a story of your own?
Or maybe I'm just boring. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I have always been growing old. Maybe I was simply born, born to be mild.