40 – It’s Not A Speed Limit

February 11, 2011

The day has come – that one day in the life of anyone who makes it this far when the individual has spent exactly forty years of existence breathing the air of planet earth – and I am greeting it with a carefully considered, psychologically-balanced peace of mind. This is not the time to panic. There is no rewind option and certainly no fast forward (as if anyone who turns forty actually wants the latter anyway!).

I have been preparing for this day ever since I turned 39. In fact, I had forty on my mind more than 39 and as such I kept having to remind myself that I was still in my thirties for at least a short time longer. But as the day drew nearer and events around me naturally seemed to be making this landmark age a distinctive moment in my life, I reckoned my best take on it was to make turning 40 a time to let some things fold up and plan what new things should be unfolded. It was to be very much a stock-taking moment, a reflective moment, and a moment for some perspective on the present and future. There was to be no Billy Crystal moment of consternation about black hairs on my back (they’ve been sprouting for years and getting routinely plucked) or loss of hair (it’s been happening slowly since my twenties but mercifully slow and I am better off than many men a decade younger than me). Instead I wanted to be thankful for what I have managed to do, thankful for my present-day blessings, and optimistic about the future, all the while ready to accept the necessary changes which are either already upon me or possible changes required over the next few years.

First, looking back, it is somewhat predictable that a person reaching this milestone will try to neatly package the stages of his life into boxes of years, and I think it is only natural as it helps one keep his life so far in some kind of ordered perspective. From birth to high school graduation, I spent my years learning about the world, how I fit in, and how I wanted to get along in it. My twenties – or rather from 18 to 28 – were the years I made my first forays into the adult world, chased dreams, tried to satisfy the life I desired to lead, and learned that what I had planned and pursued during this time was not necessarily the course I would end up taking. It was a period of building up what seemed right at the time and later tearing down what was not going to be necessary for the rest of my life. In photography, I traveled across Canada and tried to get my photographs published in as many places as I could.

My thirties – or more accurately from the age of 28 to 38 – were the years I found myself building up the next phase of my life. I left Canada, began the relationship with the woman who would become my wife and mother of my children, and started down the career path of English teacher in a private English school. I began traveling around the world and took up mountain climbing. I also began to see my writing published alongside my photographs, and on a few occasions, independently of my photographs. I began a lot of things and tried a lot of things. I held exhibitions, won prizes in contests, self-published books, joined national photography associations, and wrote articles in Japanese. Though my success was always much less than what I strove to achieve, I think given the effort I ultimately was able to put into my pursuits, I managed in the end to achieve enough for at least a modest pride in my accomplishments. There was of course the nagging notion that I had never applied myself or my finances enough in the area of photography, having spent money and brain power on other hobbies that were eventually dropped as interest waned. I comfort myself by saying that those hobbies gave me pleasure at the time and because they were based on collecting things that might increase in value over the years, there might be some return from them in the future. However, I still can’t help but look back over both the period I was in Canada and the period I was in Japan and see that I could have done more that would have benefited my situation better now. I could have tried harder to get published; I could have spent more on photo equipment; I could have traveled more and photographed more instead of buying trading cards. I could have attempted to educate myself further or read more books. But in the end, what I did was what got me to this point, and there is a lot to be pleased about, a lot of highlights and special memories to look back upon.

So, from 38 to the present, my life has been slowly changing, as it actually always has every year, and now quite markedly a very special delivery that came exactly two weeks ago appropriately brings me to this next stage in my life as I begin this new decade of corporeal existence. My daughter was born, my second child, and with her arrival my life will begin its next stage. My son was born when I was 37, but it didn’t have as huge an impact on how I pursued my dreams because when he was just an infant and a baby it was not so difficult for my wife to take him to grandma’s while papa went to the mountains for three or four days. There was also enough money around for papa to do that, though less frequently than before. But over the last two years, my son has grown and needs more care and special attention. He is awake all day and active. He can’t just be left to sleep and looked after when he needs a feeding or a diaper change. He interacts with his parents, he wants to play, and he needs mom and dad to show him things and teach him, as well as be there to show interest in the things he wants to share with us. It is more difficult now to keep him occupied at grandma’s house and so papa doesn’t go to the mountains as often. There is also less money now as my working hours have increased and I have less time and energy for writing and preparing photos upstairs in the office at night. With a second child around now, I understand that I will be called upon even more frequently to mind one or the other, and I completely accept it without grudge. As being a father becomes the most important thing, I know that family comes first and that means working to bring home money, and the pursuit of dreams and serious hobbies must take a back seat, at least for the next few years, perhaps longer. I don’t lay this bag of hopes and ambitions down with reluctance. I lay it down knowing I will get back to it someday and that what matters most right now is being a good dad for my kids. My father had to work hard and was often home late when I was little but he made time for family enough that I feel very close to him and love him dearly.

My photographic exploits are then winding down temporarily. My photo project on the Japan Alps was concluded prematurely with a self-published book. There are actually still a dozen more hikes I feel are essential for the completion of the project but they will have to wait until there is more time and more money (if anyone wants to pay me to go I will do it). It was rather appropriate that the final hike last May was to the most famous area of the Japan Alps and I captured views of what I think are the most spectacular mountains in Japan with a thick layer of spring snow all around. These were must-have views to be included in the project. I also finally made it to the rim of the active volcano, Asamayama, after having dreamed of reaching it for years. And in my climbing of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, I reached the round figure of 30 (though thinking about it now 40 would have been better and it’s too bad that I can’t plan another 10 hikes for this year). Internationally, with the aide of my parents, I was able to make one more photo trip abroad, and it was very symbolic that my destination was the deserts and drylands of the American west. I had been longing to travel to those places since my junior high school days but never did. Now I have finally been there, although it was for a very brief time, and with that trip my international adventures in photography come to a temporary close.

It is very realistic to think that my photography has gone through its first phase and that now I will begin the second phase much as the first one began. I started out with little money and photographed mostly very locally. I expanded my range across Canada and then across the world. Now I will likely have to do the same again. I will begin by shooting local areas, making occasional trips farther away but still within Japan, and then finally someday I will hopefully be able to look forward to traveling abroad once again. In the mean time, I have now 22 years of photography stock to look through and see what I can do with those photographs. In addition, it is interesting to think that by the time I can begin photographing again in earnest, I may finally begin using a digital camera for most of my serious work, unlike now where I still rely on film cameras.

Sometimes I think that it is not such a good thing that I waited to have children until this late age. Many of my old classmates now have kids in junior high or senior high. Their lives are soon coming to the point where the kids are old enough to support themselves and the parents can look forward to some relief from the financial obligation that comes with raising children. Also, it saddens me a little to think that I will be 55 when my son graduates and 58 when my daughter graduates. Many parents will be 10 to 15 years younger. And then there’s the pressure of having to climb to some kind of financial security by then. In Canada I put money aside in a retirement fund but I cannot contribute to that as long as I work in Japan. What will I do in 20 or 25 years to support myself and my family? My parents did well for themselves, though most of their success came from developments after they passed their mid-forties. They built up their fortune from that time on. I still have time. But I shouldn’t waste it.

That brings me to where I sit now (with one leg in danger of losing circulation from sitting on this floor chair for an hour). I am happy with all I have done so far. I could have done more, but I chose not to and that I have to accept. I also know that trying hard sometimes leads to some success and not trying hard leads to leisurely spent time with nothing to show for it in the end but which is nonetheless important sometimes for a happy life. I mean, it’s not easy working full-time on a dream when you have a full-time job and relationships that you consider worth tending. So, the dream is still there as a direction to follow but I don’t need to reach it to feel my life has been fulfilled. Because just having that dream as an ultimate destination has brought me to much wonder and joy and that has made my life this far very rewarding.

From here on I begin a new phase. Father of two, family will be my main priority. I have wondered about my job, how long I can keep it up, whether or not I need to look to start something new and more financially rewarding. But for now I actually enjoy it mostly and I can still feel satisfaction in my work. It’s fun for the most part. Once my wife can start working in a few years, we can look forward to affording a few of those bonuses. I still have my photography and writing that can bring in a little extra from time to time. I want to take my health more seriously but for a while there will be little time for exercise and little money for the more expensive ‘healthy’ foods. Perhaps eating well, not too much, and getting enough sleep are the most important, though getting enough sleep will be out for a couple of years. As I pass through my forties, I will consider what career changes are worthy if change may be required. I can keep an eye out for what jobs might be available for someone with my limited credentials. My biggest project will be loving my kids, teaching them things and showing them the world, either by stepping out the door or by sharing books with them. My parents were not wealthy when I was a child and we only went camping or to the beach. I think that’s enough for small children. Trips to Egypt or France will be forgotten before they finish elementary school. Only a few impressions will remain. I recall little of visiting Denmark when I was nine. World travel can wait. For now we will start with the local parks and rivers, move to camping in the mountains, and then trips around the country.

Someday, some unknown number of years in the future, I will have my time to go out with my cameras and sit down at the computer and light table on the weekends and return to the business of being a part-time professional photographer and full-time dreamer. Until then I will do what I can when I can and spend the rest of my time making the most of enjoying life.

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4 responses to “40 – It’s Not A Speed Limit

  1. Elementary school is a good time to go traveling – before school gets “serious” (at age 11). I did quite a lot of traveling when I was young, and those adventures comprise most of my most vivid childhood memories…. from about age 5 onwards.

  2. Jules, thanks for your input. I think it would be great to do a lot of world traveling when the kids are young. But memory is different for everyone. I can remember a lot of moments from about age 2 1/2 and on, little vignettes of growing up. But my trip to Denmark at age 9 is also nothing more than glimpses preserved by impressions and ideas more than actual vivid memories. Many children I teach say that they have traveled abroad but they can recall very little. When I was a kid, the things I remember from family camping trips are rocks by a stream or playing at a lake shore. I don’t remember the mountain views or even most of the names of places. Well, I’d love to travel with my kids when they are a little older but it’s likely that we won’t be able to afford it. Thanks for reading!

  3. Well, Peter, judging by your Northern Alps book, you have an estimable body of work to look back on already. And, as for looking forward, I think it was Galen Rowell who once said that, with photography you go on making progress as you get older. And, as far as Rowell himself was concerned, I think he proved it with his own body of work. So there’s something to look forward to.

  4. PH, one of the rewarding things about reaching this far is that I have a lot of good photographs to look over and plan my next conquests, even though I can’t go out so much to produce new material. Now’s the time to catch up on all those projects that have been written down on note paper for months or even years. Then I will resume photographing with more fervor once the kids are a little older and I have the time for it again. I have lots to look forward to. And catching up on submissions and office work will be nice for a change. Thanks for reading!

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