Sunday, June 28,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 4

49 and the genes are calling

Growing Up

Will my genes die with me, or will they get passed on? I think I can hear them conspiring...

WELL into my procreative years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing ... ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser... But I am happy to be that way and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake.-- Steven Pinker

UP UNTIL the end of the last century, most people died in their 40s.

If we use the selfish genes argument, this was so because by their late 40s, women would have produced all their babies and come to the end of their reproductive years, and the men would have fathered children and helped bring them up to become independent adults.

They had passed on their genes, and had served their purpose, and so had become redundant -- they could now die from one or more of a number of genetically programmed illnesses, like cancer. Human beings, like cars and TV sets, had built-in obsolescence. But thanks to advances in science and technology in this century, the genetic imperative has been subverted, and more people are living to their 70s and 80s.

Last week, I turned 49. If not for science and technology, I probably would not have been around. There was cause for cheer, and under normal circumstances, I would have invited friends over for a few bottles of wine.

But the times being what they are -- grim and gloomy -- I didn't think it was such a good idea.

It has become a challenge every morning to absorb the bad news in the papers, and still be revved up for the day ahead.

Like an old car with poor batteries in the morning, one takes a longer time to start the engine, and has to step on the pedal a great deal longer to do so.

A cloud of gloom envelops one each day, even if the haze doesn't, and it is hard to feel cheery.

Of course, it may have nothing at all to do with what's happening in the region, and everything to do with changes inside the body, in the hormonal balance, as I enter what is called middle-age.

I don't feel old -- I put on my Cream albums the past week as if to arrest time -- but I must admit that it is hard to accept that I will be 50 next year. That's old.

A dear friend bought me lunch and gave me a Swatch watch a week before my birthday.

On my birthday, my tenant bought me lunch and gave me a Gucci watch. Why watches, I wonder? Is it because time isn't on my side any more, and every minute counts?

I mentioned my tenant. You see, I have recently rented out my spare room to a friend, not only because I could use some extra cash, but also because I thought I could use some company. At 49, it isn't as easy to go home to an empty flat, however serene it is.

There was a time long ago when I shared a rented flat with a friend, and because he often came home way past midnight, I had lots of time to myself, to read especially, and yet had welcome company when he returned.

He would sometimes bring home a whole gang of people, and there would be raucous fun.

The present arrangement is not unlike that one. I still often have the flat to myself. When I do see my tenant, she is on her way out, with just enough time to stand before me and ask me how she looks.

It is good enough for me to come home to a lingering trace of perfume in the living room, and to see a cup of half-drunk water on the kitchen sink. Evidence of a presence other than mine.

That unwashed cup is an exception in my tenant's otherwise ordered life, or at least that part of her life she spends in my flat, when I am at work.

Everything is in its place: the magazines on the coffee table are stacked properly; the accordion folders where I stash my mail and bills now fitted into a wooden wine case; and the toiletries in the bathroom organised neatly in little cloth-lined baskets.

If she isn't on her way out when I get home, she is on her cellular phone, juggling appointments with her girlfriends and several boyfriends.

"And then she will ask me to talk to her as she pretties herself in front of the mirror.

She lights the wick in a "catalytic burner" filled with an "essential oil", and when the flame dies, and her room is redolent with the fragrance of flowers, she is all made up and ready to go.

"The room is too small, that's why the fragrance is so strong," she says as she closes the shoji door.

"How do I look? Do I look pretty?"

"Yes, you do, you look so good."

As she leaves, I repair to my room for a nap -- only babies and oldies nap -- or to my computer terminal in the living room to finish my work.

I feel very much like an Anita Brookner character, a middle-aged solitary observing, not without envy, the exuberance of someone much younger who is living life to the full.

By the way, the prodigious Brookner has just come out with her 18th book in her 17 years of writing fiction, and according to a review in The Financial Times, she has, in this latest book, distilled her theme of solitariness to its most desolate essence. I have, of course, ordered the book. WHILE my editor-in-chief has suggested that I hire a personal trainer, and my editor that I take up golf, my other well-intentioned colleagues have advised me to find a wife and make a couple of babies. It's not too late, they say earnestly, when I protest that I'm too past-it.

I can afford only a low-maintenance wife, in terms of both emotional and financial investments. It isn't a fair deal for the woman.

Kids. I remember a piece in The New York Times Sunday magazine in which the writer lamented the fact that when he was born, his father was already in his 50s.

As he grew up, he watched the home-made movies of his younger father playing vigorously with his elder siblings when they were kids, and was saddened by the fact that his father no longer had that same energy when it came to him. In fact, they seldom played when he was a child.

But his father did make up for his lack of energy with the wisdom and philosophical insights that came with age.

He was grateful for them, but although he didn't say as much, I suppose the writer would rather have a much younger father, full of zest and vitality -- and wisdom and insights could go jump in the lake.

He wanted to play ball with Dad when he was a kid, not talk about being and becoming.

Let's suppose I get married next year and have a child. By the time she (yes, I'd prefer a daughter) goes to university, I would be in my dotage, if I were still alive. Again, not too fair for her and her mother. Who's gonna drive your car? as the Ric Ocasek song goes.

Looks like my genes will die with me. Still, although I don't fancy myself an alpha-male, and I may just be imagining it, I have this distinct feeling that my genes are conspiring urgently to make a father out of me yet.

So don't be too surprised when this time next year I write about the joys of late fatherhood.

I shall then have to abandon my middle-aged bachelor friend Conrad Raj, with whom I've promised to share an old folks' home -- but he has always stood me up anyway.


Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia