Middle Age
Me and my MGB

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Dec. 5 & 12, 1998)

There is little in life that makes a fool of us so quickly as nostalgia, which I would define as "remembering touched with sentiment." ...because you're older

I don't oppose sentiment, certainly. It's just that nostalgia almost always carries us into the extreme of sentiment -- sentimentality -- and once we arrive there, we have lost all sense of dignity. Middle age, of course, is rife with nostalgia. Being between two poles -- youth and old age -- we (yes me) are called to the past and the future at once. The future, old age, is not too attractive, so many of us ruminate on our pasts, re-enact them in some way. That is to say, we have our second childhoods. But there is a meaning in this madness.

Carl Jung was wise enough to notice that middle age, not childhood, is the most psychologically potent age. A "mid-life crisis" is just about inevitable and it is during this time of life that many of us look closely at the sum of our lives and then break completely with our former values and way of being in the world. We truly have a second childhood, a second journey into independence.

Aorta of a middle-aged man (prostate unavailable)In this, we practice what was originally meant by "remembering." We recall the events of our lives and re-member them in a story with a new meaning. I must say this process occurs rather unconsciously, often as a re-enactment, or so it seems to me. And that's the horror -- being ridiculous to everyone but yourself. And that brings me to the nostalgic subject, or guiding metaphor of my exploration of the meaning of my own middle age crazies: my MGB.

Of course, an entire generation has never heard of this car. It is a British sports car produced between 1962 and 1981. It is the car on which the ubiquitous Miata was based, both being relatively inexpensive roadsters in their time. My first car was a brand-new British racing green MG. It was actually a model even smaller than the B, the Midget. My uncle Steve, who had an enormous collection of antique and racing cars (including Bugattis, Ferraris and Maseratis), gave us the car when I was 15. The car sat in the garage for most of a year, except when my father gave me driving lessons. These lessons are infamous in family history for their conclusions with doors slamming and screaming.

Once I was free to drive the car alone, though, it was the absolute love of my life. I think I was embarrassed by this, for I regarded myself as an intellectual even in high school, above the love of cars. But I loved it dearly. If you have never fallen in love with a roadster, you can't understand this and I certainly can't explain it fully. There's the engine tone, the feel of the gears shifting, the way the car fits you, the wind, the way the car responds to you, taking corners, and tAnything but this!!!!he way it looks, of course. Coolness.

After I went off to college, the MG became my brother's. He fell just as much in love with it as I did, sprucing it up with a wooden steering wheel and gearshift knob. When he went to college, my father sold the car, without telling us, and to this day the discussion of this betrayal causes tempers to flare mightily. My youngest brother never had possession of the car and so felt compelled to buy a Triumph sometime later. (The brother who installed the wooden steering wheel now drives what we all wanted most: Harleys. And I hate him for it.)

Time passed after the MG's sale. My father, being prosperous and generous but sensible, provided me cars -- usually Chevrolets -- for years afterward. I was of course grateful but frankly never very inspired. I'd go to a dealer, who would ask me what kind of car I wanted and I'd say, "a red one." Or my father would invite me over and hand me the keys to a "white one." It never mattered much to me what kind it was because I knew it was going to be sensible but not much fun. I know this sounds like the lament of an outrageously spoiled child, but that's the way it was.

Then, about five years ago, something happened. I stopped making repairs on the latest car my father had given me. It occurred to me, out of the blue, that I really wanted an MG again. I sold the perfectly good car I had for practically nothing and bought an abandoned '78 MGB from a friend. Now, it should have been obvious to me that this car was going to be another love object. My friend hadn't driven it in several years, but couldn't bring himself to part with it. He only let it go when his partner called me begging me to come liberate it from their garage.

Of course, I fell in love again. The paint was bad, the upholstery was rotten. The roof flew off on I-20. Something always was going wrong. But I was in love. I slowly restored the car, although in all honesty it was not a very good one. Any MG produced after 1974 was ruined by emissions and safety laws in this country. The chrome bumpers were replaced with big ugly rubber ones and the engine was compromised by the required emissions equipment (although that had been removed from this car). But I didn't care, I fell completely in love with the car, even though my mechanic, Neill Estes, would tell me regularly that it was not long for this world.

Friends largely thought I was insane. Why would a 200-pound, 6-foot-1-inch man want a tiny car that looked like hell and broke down all the time? I knew I was re-enacting, nostalgically, my past, but I had no idea why until I began looking at the meaning of my own middle age experience.

Part 2

  An antidote, a 72 MGBI often tell clients that although much in life can be taken at face value, there's very little that doesn't have another deeper if initially unseen meaning. When you go into the world with open eyes and, even better, an open heart, the environment becomes alive with messages about our own psychological life.

This can range from profound synchronicities -- "coincidences" too coincidental to be coincidences -- or more subtle oracular phenomena. I recall once riding along the freeway with my partner. He was talking about a new job he hoped to get. At that very moment, a falling star, the classic symbol of the fulfilled wish, streaked across the sky. (He got the job.)

I have no idea why such things happen. But I've learned to take their truth as a given. I also know if you don't approach life with open eyes and heart and you don't honor what you're called to do, the world will become insistent that you pay attention. I think this is fundamentally what happens in middle age. As we outgrow the past, our lives fill up with evidence of the need to change -- to the point that we often become ridiculous.

The world, seen through the windshield of an MGBNostalgic objects connect us to the past in a literal way -- that's their face value -- but they also signify at a deeper level the return to the fluidity and freedom of adolescence, when we are free to create our futures. In my case, as I said last week, this took the form a few years ago of buying an old MGB, the style of car in which I learned to drive. Although everyone I know seemed to think the purchase was absurd -- especially since I ditched a perfectly sensible Chevy -- I felt completely powerless to do otherwise.

My romance with the '78 B was tormented, to say the least, and I don't mean to imply that I had a single clue about why I was so enthralled with the car. If the weather was freezing, it wouldn't start, and it was frequently in the shop.

I had utterly no fear driving the tiny car amid the road's burgeoning population of impolitely driven SUVs. And I confess I like to drive fast. I received more tickets in the four years I drove that car than I did in the two decades previous. The longer I had the car, the more attached to it I became -- quite the contrary to what my sensible friends thought would happen. Everyone presumed I'd grow tired of driving a car that leaked in the rain, didn't keep warm in winter, seated only two (with no seatbelts) and didn't even have a decent radio. No, I didn't grow tired of it, in fact, I had it freshly painted.

"How can you drive something so uncomfortable?" a particularly wide-hipped friend shouted over the engine's roar at me one day as I unwound the gears on Piedmont.

"What the hell does comfort have to do with anything?" I shouted back.

"Everything," he said, "this car isn't even safe."

"Screw comfort and safety. I'd rather have fun," I shouted back.

"You can't have fun all the time," he replied.

"The hell I can't," I said, actually feeling myself get angry.

Well, there was the whole meaning of the car -- and the place my life had brought me -- in that one statement. In buying an MG, I had returned to the most pleasurable object of my youth, a symbol of freedom, and, above all, an emblem of liberation from the sensible values of my father and the lifetime of guilt I felt for being so different.

This story does not have an altogether happy ending, though. In July of 1997, I was driving on I-75, near the Windy Hill exit and I collided with a tractor-trailer traveling abut 70 mph. My little car, top down, was sent spinning out of control. I crossed four or five lanes of traffic, hit another car and ricocheted back across the lanes into a guard rail. I fully expected to die but was basically uninjured. The car was all but totaled.

The very best colorOf course, everyone lectured me about the odds, about how I should now buy a safe, reliable car. I was shaken badly. I couldn't bring myself to drive for months, in fact, and didn't buy another car for a year -- I hid in my house a lot. I was very conflicted. On the one hand, I knew for sure that I was lucky to be spared death in such a small car. I even looked at a Jeep Cherokee. On the other hand, I felt deeply that the car had saved my life. When I said this to people, they looked at me like I was nuts, but I know this to be true. Other cars, with higher centers of gravity, would have turned over.

Finally, last month, I "woke" up. I was conducting a session with a very controlled client, a person who permits himself practically no pleasure, and I heard myself making the comment, "pleasure can save your life."

Walking him outside, I saw my wrecked MG parked in front of the house and that's when I "woke up." It wasn't just the car that saved my life. Something I loved and valued because it gave me pleasure saved my life. That is the principle by which I try to live now. You know what I did. Within two weeks I bought another MG -- a beautifully restored one from a man from whom I had to practically wrestle the keys. "I'm getting old," he said.

"Exactly," I said.

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