SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
How getting an earring shook me out of a funk by letting me play pirate and discover the treasure buried deep inside
By Peter Gerstenzang
It’s not easy going through a midlife crisis, especially if you’re not rich enough to do much about it. Sure, you can always try taking a beautiful woman out for dinner. But paying for it with a roll of quarters usually ends up doing more harm than good. Or you can go on a spiritual retreat and talk about deep things. But sometimes they make you walk over hot coals. Now, I think pretty much anything is better when it’s toasted, but I draw the line at feet. So that’s a dicey way to deal with a dilemma.
I say this because I had my own mini-breakdown recently. The sadness just kept mounting up: my age, my tepid love life, how little I felt I’d accomplished. I felt so old and blue that I actually made some cocoa and listened to "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)" by Jim Croce. Clearly, I needed to perk up, feel good and find my mojo again.
It wasn’t easy. I thought about getting a Mohawk, but quickly decided it wouldn’t go with my sensible shoes and cotton Dockers. Skinny jeans sounded good. But the fun of wearing them would probably fade when they had to be surgically removed. Then, an epiphany. Dude, get your ear pierced! It was inexpensive, painless and might charge my inner battery. After all, Keith Richards wears an earring and still looks hip. And he’s so old, when you pat him on the back, mummy dust comes off.
So I went to the mall, to see if I could recapture my youthful high spirits, my hunger for life. Or, at least, lunch.
(MORE: Rock of All Ages: Playing Bass)
It wasn’t complicated. Except, maybe, picking the right post, which makes that hole in your ear. There are so many choices. If you aren’t careful and choose something big, you can end up looking like a Hell’s Angel or, worse, Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island. Ultimately, I found a cool, unobtrusive stud, hoping a discerning woman would soon describe me the same way.
The piercing didn’t hurt. The lady who did it gave me instructions for keeping it clean. But something else started happening after I paid up at the mall and began the six-hour process of finding my car. Something good.
Walking by a mirror-fronted taco shop, I glimpsed my face. Two hours earlier, I looked low, sad, broken. I knew that expression. I had it when I turned 50 (and after watching the director's cut of The Master). But now I saw a better expression. I looked ... defiant.
It was partly the pirate vibe bestowed by the earring, which gave me the courage to say to a passing woman, ‘‘Hello, me lovely!” But driving off I felt something more explosive, more internal. OK, some of that can be attributed to the taco. But there was a spiritual experience too, the first since my midlife letdown.
It took a while to figure out. Then again, it usually takes me days to understand Big Bird’s stories. I got it, though: When you make a change on the outside, the inside changes, too. After leaving the mall, I went to the library and got a book on Zen. I now felt this need to explore my inner self. It was mystical.
Continuing home, this philosophical, ear-pierced pirate took charge. "You have to stand up to middle-age malaise," I told myself. "Draw your symbolic sword and say, 'Back down, matey!' Scare that sadness off." Yes, yelling "Aaaargh!" is optional.
I suddenly remembered that I’d had my ear pierced once, when I was 19. For fun. But back then, I hadn’t yet lost parents, jobs or my innocence. I hadn’t lived. This time, the piercing needle went through my ear and straight to my soul. I felt so feisty, I wanted to stop at another store and shout, "Give me all yer doubloons and be quick about it!" I didn’t, however. No matter the motive, jails are full of guys who’ve tried this.
Soon, I was home. I looked at a mirror. Instead of surrender in my eyes, there was sparkle. I knew I wasn’t done with this midlife crisis deal, but I had discovered it didn’t have to kill me, either.
Certainly, ear-piercing isn’t the answer to life. But right now, it was perfect. I looked cool. I was a slightly new man, who knew the next step I needed to take: Get the peroxide and clean my ear.
I'm all for new experiences. But a staph infection? That's one new experience I can live without.
Read more on Next Avenue:
<strong>1.</strong> A growing sense of regret over unattained goals.
<strong>2.</strong> New feelings of self-consciousness around more successful colleagues.
<strong>3.</strong> A new emphasis on remaining youthful when the effort previously seemed unimportant.
<strong>4.</strong> A desire to spend more time alone or with certain peers who could be characterized as "youthful" or "comfortable in their own skin."
<strong>5.</strong> A new-found tendency to abuse alcohol.
<strong>6.</strong> Placing import on acquiring unusual or expensive items when such purchases could previously have been described as frivolous or impulsive.
<strong>7.</strong> A sharp increase in self-criticism with a correlating decline in self-compassion.
<strong>8.</strong> Obsessing over one's physical appearance when similar attention was previously unpaid.
<strong>9.</strong> Placing unusual amounts of pressure and stress on one's children to excel in a variety of fields.
<strong>10.</strong> Entering relationships with younger partners.