40 things I learned by 40

1. It is pure narcissism, an insult to God Himself, to indulge in any self-pity over aging.
In Sierra Leone, the life expectancy for a male is only 39 years.

I’ve covered many tragedies, accidents that have claimed lives of teens or stories of diseases taking grade-schoolers.

I once stood by a bunk bed in a family’s house interviewing the parents of a boy lost to cancer. They couldn’t bring themselves to make his bed.

Yeah, I’ll take 40 — with no complaints, thank you.

2. Being single at 40 is life’s great consolation prize.

Living in a loving marriage with kids is undoubtedly a richer life than mine. I will stipulate that. But if it doesn’t happen, whether through misfortune or flaw of personality or by design, the 40-year-old bachelor has great freedom to largely do what he wants, when he wants.

From the ability to endure loneliness there springs great freedom.

3. John Lennon was right. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

You can get so caught up in making all the right moves for the future that you get there and realize the journey was not savored enough, or worse, even recognized. This isn’t suggesting that people dispense with caution in intimate relationships and empty their savings accounts, embracing a willy-nilly “live in the moment” philosophy.

Simply put: Respect the present. Regardless of what it is.

4. If you wake up hung over in Peoria, Ill., it is defensible.

5. Life was better before cell phones.

6. Envy is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The writer Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author of “Shadow of the Wind” and “The Angel’s Game,” puts it thusly: “Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it soothes their worries, and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues.”

7. Compound interest and dollar-cost averaging are your best friends when investing. An understanding of this in your 20s is worth its weight in gold, literally.

You can build substantial wealth by investing $50 a month or even less — as long as you do it religiously, wisely and over decades.

8. Carroll is a more tolerant place than most outsiders think. For example, there are few places in the nation that have embraced the disabled community as Carroll, with the presence of New Hope Village, has.

9. That said, Carroll does have a problem with sexism. There are few women in positions of real power in Carroll.

Much of this stems from the obvious and inescapable fact that Carroll is in Iowa, a state that joins Mississippi as the only two to have never elected a woman to Congress, the U.S. Senate or as governor.

10. The fact that most Americans only know one language is a major missed opportunity. I’ve never met a bilingual person who wasn’t intelligent.

11. Eating alone in front of the TV is either an enormously relaxing or depressing experience.

12. Find good mentors and pay them back by being one yourself.

I owe a great deal to people like former Lt. Gov. Art Neu and the great Iowa writers and journalists Chuck Offenburger and Michael Gartner and my old editor in Washington, D.C., Charlie Mitchell, as well as Pam McKinney, an Iowa native and press secretary for three U.S. senators who provided me with a career-launching internship in 1989.

I will never finish paying them back by paying it forward to the young people who write for our family’s newspapers.

13. It is unseemly to blame your parents for anything once you’ve hit 25. Roseanne Cash said something like this once.

14. Conventional wisdom is you make a mistake by marrying too young and having kids too early. I bought into this for years. I was wrong. You can always get a divorce, but you can’t go back in time.

15. Try and live outside of Iowa and then come back. You appreciate the state more.

16. Too many parents today function as defense attorneys or apologists for their kids. Let them experience failure for themselves and suffer the consequences.

17. Single men shouldn’t own cats or ever use the word “cute” to describe anything.

18. Assume that when you tell someone something, they will tell their spouse.

19. The strippers are just pretending they like you.

20. St. Louis gets short-changed as a great American city. It wonderfully blends Eastern and Midwestern and Southern elements.

21. Good neighbors are worth at least 20 percent the value of your home.

22. Social risks are worth taking. Invite more people.

23. There’s no national stomach for criminalizing abortion.

Are you prepared to see women imprisoned or even put to death for having abortions — which would be the real-life conclusion should a pro-life argument prevail?

Some argue that only the doctors who perform abortions should be penalized. This is like saying a woman who hires a hit man to kill her husband shares no culpability in the crime. To suggest women get a pass in a world in which abortion is illegal is preposterous paternalism.

24. Any time spent reading books is time used wisely.

25. Don’t fight over dinner checks.

This is what I call “The Matt Kool Rule.” Matt is a good friend, an Iowa native who now lives in Austin, Texas.

A few years ago, when we were golfing in Florida, he reached for a dinner check. I pulled the typical, “No let me get some of that.” To which Matt, who used to fly helicopters in the military, replied, “Look, when someone offers to get the check, just say ‘thank you.’ It’s unseemly and tacky to get into this ‘let me’ business. Reach for it yourself faster next time, man.”

Did I mention his last name is Kool?

26. The only way you can screw up a wedding toast, a best-man speech as it were, is to tell a bad joke.

If you find yourself tongue-tied or crying in front of the wedding attendees, people are with you, but attempt to be funny with an embarrassing anecdote about the bride or the groom, particularly with any sexual references, and you are risking social Siberia.

27. The economy is rebounding.

28. As Barry Goldwater said, “Anyone who tries to make politics out of God ought to go to hell.” (My late grandfather, James W. Wilson, the publisher of The Carroll Daily Times Herald, served as the conservative Goldwater’s campaign chairman in Iowa as the Arizona senator sought the presidency in 1964.) Goldwater was on to something.

Those who are the most public in their professions of Christianity often struggle the most with living up to it privately. We need more people in politics who use their private, deep-abiding faith to inform their public actions.

29. I’m lucky I don’t understand the commodities markets well enough to invest in them.

30. You can’t pick your family or with whom you fall in love. That just happens. But you can choose your friends.

31. The writer who best understands male-female relationships, who penetrates through the lies and distortions with compelling stories such as “The Razor’s Edge,” is Somerset Maugham — who is gay.

I’m not the only one who sees this.

U.S. Sen. John McCain listed Maugham as one of his favorite writers.

32. Every man should store a collection of Frank Sinatra CDs, some booze and a few packs of cigarettes in a glass case with a sign on it that says, “Break in the event of trouble with broads.”

33. Tell people what you want — within reason.

Don’t pine for the affection of the girl on the bus or covet a promotion in the office. Tell people what you want in a straightforward manner. “You seem like a nice person. Would you like to have lunch?” “I really want that job.”

Don’t expect people to come to you as if they should know what you want and resent them when they don’t. The clairvoyant Sookie on HBO’s “True Blood” is fictional.

34. Don’t attempt to make sense of the South.

35. Have reasonable expectations of in-laws.

As long as your brothers or sisters or sons or daughters find sustenance in a marriage, it really doesn’t matter what their spouses think of you, or how they interact with you. When your daughter gets married, you are getting a son-in-law, not a son, or a friend. If you end up with either of the latter, it is a bonus. You aren’t entitled to feel cheated if it doesn’t happen.

36. Don’t trust the nuclear-power industry.

This isn’t an idle observation. I covered the industry for two years in Washington, D.C. Would you hang out with a friend who came to your house and didn’t flush the toilet?

This is the nuclear-power industry and its waste issue. They need to work on the flushing.

And I’d prefer they toilet-train themselves in someone else’s backyard.

37. Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t say in person. Better yet, make it really simple: Don’t send angry emails.

38. The greatest American in history was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And he was shot dead at 39.

39. Never get into an argument with a midget in a movie theater.

It happened to me in 1991. Right before “Robin Hood.” I’d rather not talk about it.

40. If there were a time machine (as Scientific American magazine several years ago suggested may be possible), I wouldn’t get on it and go back. Although I did make a mistake in 1990 when I opted to stay in my fraternity and study for a test one weekend while several friends went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Funny, I can’t remember the grade I pulled on that test.

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