News & Opinion » Columns

Old mom and the sea

The XX Files


When I hit my early 40's, I lost my nerve. Suddenly, breaking into Rochester's blocked-off tunnels seemed dangerous, skitching seemed a sure way to crack open my skull, and interviewing unsavory characters for articles no longer appealed. Even sailing, which I've done on and off since I was a teenager but have never mastered, has suddenly become treacherous to me.

Until last week, I'd been racking my brain to figure out what was wrong with me. Is it hormones? Having kids? Then noted Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explained on NPR that a lot of people lose their adventurousness and prefer routine as they get older.

When Sapolsky hit his early 40's, his otherwise competent young graduate assistant got on his nerves. Why? Because the grad student listened to different music every day: Sonic Youth one day, klezmer the next. It bothered Sapolsky that his student, as he put it, wasn't in any ruts. In contrast, the neuroscientist had been listening to the same Bob Marley tape for years.

Sapolsky investigated people's willingness to try new things as they age. He learned that people stick to music that became popular roughly 20 years after they were born. No matter how good you think some new music is, chances are, if you're over 35, you won't ever love it like you love the music from high school.

The window of opportunity for sushi is smaller. If you haven't tried it before you're 26, chances are slim that you'll try it before you're 40 and nonexistent that you'll try it after that. My favorite results, though, come from his tongue-piercing study: 95 percent of people who get their tongues pierced do it between the ages of 16 and 23. After that, forget it.

Not everyone's willingness to try new things diminishes as they age, Sapolsky says. Often the ones who lose their adventurous spirit have been doing one thing for a long time and have become accomplished at it. In their cases, sticking to a routine and not taking risks has worked out well. Why rock the boat?

Speaking of which, my beleaguered history of trying to learn to sail is a perfect illustration of Sapolsky's findings. In my case, however, rather than an unwillingness to try new things, I have a diminished interest in trying the same thing at different stages. Because I never really mastered sailing, every time I start up again it's as if it's new, but the stakes increase as I get older.

My first sailing experiences were on the Charles River at Community Boating, where novices are paired with more experienced strangers. A friend and I took the T into town and walked to the river. We were 14.

I embraced both the challenge of meeting new --- sometimes weird --- people and the crazy shifting winds of the Charles. It was all cool until a creep took us out in the middle of the river, grabbed our clothes, and said some very scary things.

Years later, in my early 20's, I had another chance to sail. My boyfriend --- now husband --- and I drove to Florida for a week of lessons. True to my demographic, I embraced the challenges of sailing an unfamiliar vessel in the white-capped sea. I was also thrilled by the drug addicts nodding off in the flophouse where we stayed and thought it was funny that our bathroom sink fell off the wall.

After that came grad school and moving every year and parents dying and infants arriving. Now we're settled and have had a moment to think. Unfortunately, that means my husband's been thinking, too. He wants to sail around the world. With me.

By now, I fit into the Sapolskian norm. I'm in my little landlubber rut and I like it. Sailing is wet and noisy and you never know when some giant metal thing is going to swing across and crack your head open. Why can't my husband be like all the other husbands and buy a souped-up muscle car, some gold neck chains, and a pinky ring? Why can't he pick a nice, safe pastime like online gambling or Internet porn?

I was a wreck for the first lesson we took this summer at the Rochester Yacht Club. Six thousand ships have sunk in Lake Ontario; 3,000 of them were never found. Wouldn't my obit be more glamorous if I drowned in the Caribbean or at least in one of the better-known Great Lakes?

Rain sheeted down on us throughout our second lesson. The damp sails shuddered and I remembered Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus." I had a vision. It was me as the skipper's precious daughter, found by a fisherman lashed to the shipwreck's mast, "The salt sea was frozen on her breast/ The salt tears in her eyes."

Out of the gloom a square-rigged vessel, a skeleton ship, appeared. Pirates of the Ontario! We were far from land. So that was it: I'd be burned alive, not drowned. As it slid ominously by, we realized it was only a replica of Columbus's Nina.

Then it happened. I was at the helm, water pouring into my eyes. I turned and lost my balance. Stiff in my soaked clothes, I pitched forward and fell ass-over-teakettle down the steps into the cabin.

Okay, so I didn't die. That's the bad news. Because now I'll have to keep sailing. But the good news is people in their 40's and older are right. Stick to the routine. Avoid new experiences. It's a strange thing, but suddenly the world is full of slippery surfaces, ominous historic ships, and devil-may-care spouses.