According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, midlife is “the time of life between youth and old age: now usually the years from about 40 to about 65.” It’s that critical decade when men and women begin to look back longingly and look ahead with dismay. The insouciance of youth all but disappears and a creeping awareness of mortality enters the psyche. The Delhi swagger, Bombay strut, or Chennai sashay of the 20s and early 30s coalesces into a hesitant Sunnyvale sway. A physiological and psychological adjustment must happen.
Physiologically, the middle-aged body has already begun to display incipient signs of apathy. For men, according to author Gail Sheehy, this could be due to a drop in male hormone levels, which closely mimics menopause in women. Men and menopause? Maybe it’s not just a coincidence that the word menopause starts with the letters “m-e-n!” So what exactly is male menopause? Dictionary.com weakly describes it as “a malaise that allegedly affects men in middle age and is said to be responsible for periods of emotional upset and uncharacteristic behavior.”
In her defining book, Passages, Sheehy remarks that, “Obviously it would be a bum rap to point the finger at every middle-aged man and say, ‘Aha!’ male menopause! More often than not the poor guy will be struggling through a garden-variety mid-life crisis.” So here is a distinction between menopause and mid-life crisis: Menopause implies a physiological basis for changed patterns of behavior, whereas a mid-life crisis refers to an emotional fall-out of perceptions—of self, life, or death.
It is rather inconvenient that this process of critical self-examination is fraught with unmet expectations.
Mary Buxton, a therapist based in Campbell, Calif., candidly calls it an inability to “age our expectations along with our bodies.” Contentment is yet to become part of the mid-life vocabulary. The question, “Isn’t there more to life?” is symptomatic of the crisis. As a middle-aged Indian woman, I have watched—and dare I admit, freely participated in—various excessive patterns of behavior that sometimes defy reason. More recently, I’ve received news of divorce, career shifts, sudden spiritual realization, or obsession with a newfound hobby with an uncomfortable degree of perturbation. For in this rearrangement of interests exists the possibility that the crisis-pot has started to boil over.
Dissatisfaction is part of the self-questioning process, which leads to exploration of new interests that are often physically challenging and require dedication of purpose: golf, tennis, and skiing among others. For purposes of this argument, let’s examine golf. Unlike testosterone-driven activities like racing or skiing, golf has a certain cachet for the grey haired. On the ski slopes, the brash and brazen rule supreme, whereas on the golf course, it is the measured moment that makes its mark. Rarely does the middle-aged individual feel like an impostor in the middle of a golf course (unless the score is well into the three digits). Even the golf stance suggests decrepitude—bent knees, hunched shoulders, and a far-away gaze.
Numerous books with suggestive titles have elevated golf to a transformative level: The Yoga of Golf, Zen Golf—Mastering the Mental Game, and Master Mind Golf. There is no denying that golf has multiple reaches that most sports don’t have: intellectual, emotional, physical, and social. The purported success of “closing deals on the golf course,” has attracted corporate climbers to the fairway, and the golf handshake has traditionally been as binding as a legal document. It is a social sport that involves interacting with other individuals who bandy words such as “handicap,” “threesomes,” “par performance,” “birdie,” “bogey,” “dimple,” and “stroke” with no trace of humor.
“It’s like a completely different language,” remarked a friend’s pre-teen daughter as she watched her father watch the Golf Channel. The focus and mental acuity that is demanded by this simple game of swinging a club at a tiny ball so that it falls into a miniscule hole provides a deeper purpose to life, it seems. Meltdown averted!
Part of golf’s popularity lies in attracting the rich and famous. From Amitabh Bachchan to R. Madhavan, from Morgan Freeman to Justin Timberlake, celebs like to make a statement on the greens. In February, the likes of George Lopez, Michael Bolton, Ray Romano, Andy Garcia, and Bill Murray descended on Pebble Beach for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Throngs stood by to catch a glimpse of these stars wielding drivers, irons, and woods with the same dedication that golf aficionados watch Vijay Singh or Tiger Woods. Golf country clubs seduce the rich into lifetime memberships and add the words “refinement,” “sophistication,” as well as “wealthy” and “senior” to the golf lexicon.
The first golf club in India, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, was built in Calcutta in 1829. Interestingly enough, the club is also the oldest golf club in the world outside of Great Britain. Nevertheless, golf in India has never been a sport for the masses, and the general perception has been that golf is a hedonistic, wealthy, upwardly-mobile pastime. Consider that a Google search for “famous Indian golfers” yields six names, whereas a search for “famous American golfers” results in an alphabetized sorting of 135 names! In the California Bay Area where I live, however, it is no surprise to find a seasoned Sharma or Kumar practicing at the driving range.
For the middle-aged seeker of life’s true meaning, the threshold for entrance into learning the game of golf is kept beguilingly low. Most eager novices are inducted into the hall of golf obsession quickly after the first brilliant chip or putt that lands the ball squarely where it belongs, through a combination of luck, chance, and cosmic realignment. Chris Mills, who works for Pro Golf Form, analyzed the results of a study on age and golf performance. The sample consisted of the top 100 players on the U.S. PGA and the top 100 players on the European Tour in 2005. A sorting was performed based on the ages of the players, and the rating assigned to each group considered mean stroke average, difficulty of the course, and strength of the field.
The results “show an interesting pattern for players moving into middle age. Golfers that are still playing on Tour in their late 30s and 40s appear to out-perform their more youthful rivals.”
Analysis of the ratings indicates that professional golfers do better when their competitiveness is tempered with middle-aged composure. So, for the amateur middle-aged individual who enters the golf course for the first time in his early 40s, the learning curve is a little sharper than for the 20-something who is keen on learning to hit some balls for the purposes of acquiring urbanity.
At a recent party of desi 40-somethings, the conversation drifted from the allure of Priyanka Chopra, to the fitfulness of middle-aged slumber and the pressures of work, to golf handicaps: i.e. the categories of sex, sleep, stress, and sport. Unwittingly this social banter depicted a relationship that is subtly but tightly linked.
Buxton explains the connection: “[Many] people from India are culturally oriented towards hard-work, whether in school or at work, and it becomes difficult to balance work and not be stressed, which can affect desire, performance, as well as attitudes.” She goes on to add that stress can lead to insomnia as well as lack of desire. The other way of looking at it is to consider that lack of sleep can lead to lack of desire, too, and probably enhance stress. A sport like golf, then, might also play the role of mitigating some of these insufficiencies, possibly providing a new lease on life and hence reducing stress, reducing insomnia, and increasing desire.
Jaya Padmanabhan ran a media company, inMedya Productions, until 2007. She is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.
This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of the magazine.