Nine years ago I embarked on a midlife crisis. I had so much fun, I’ve been talking about it ever since.
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There is no easy way, in my experience, to inform your mother that you’re planning to get a tattoo, even when you are many years past the age of legal consent. My preferred course of action would have been to never mention the subject at all, but knowing the revelation was inevitable, I took the proverbial bull by the horns and announced my decision one evening as she watched television in my grandmother’s room.
The anticipated reaction was loud and swift: “You’re getting a tattoo? Oh my God, no!”
For perhaps the first time, I was glad that Grandma was quite deaf. I patiently explained how I’d wanted one for decades and given the matter careful consideration; that I’d be placing it where it would normally be concealed; that tattoos had gone mainstream in recent years and didn’t carry the stigma they once had. Why, even my friend’s mother-in-law had gotten her first one in her seventies.
Said my mother: “Honey, you have to understand, I’m from a different generation, and in my day, only certain kinds of people got tattoos.”
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Not that long ago a coworker asked me how I knew I was approaching a midlife crisis. I was hard put to answer – there were no earth tremors, no sudden job loss, no waking up one morning and realizing my life was essentially half over… It was more a matter of hearing a distant thunder, a foretaste of a malaise I couldn’t really explain. I simply sensed that such an event was on the horizon…and after some thought, I decided I had two choices as to how to handle it: get depressed, or have fun.
I chose the latter.
A midlife crisis is the perfect excuse to do the crazy things you’ve wanted to do for years but never had the nerve to do. I’d put off getting a tatto for decades because of fear of how much it would hurt, an inability to decide what I’d be willing to permanently wear on my body, and (perhaps most of all) a secret inner vision of tattoo parlors as dens of iniquity where burly bikers with beards and dark glasses hung out. It was hard to picture my white-bread, conservative, Southern Baptist-raised self entering one.
But enter one I did, after researching hygiene and safety issues on the Internet and asking total strangers with tattoos about pain thresholds, then seeing a magazine profile that rated my town’s Trinity Tattoo as “among the best” by its patrons. A friend had planned to accompany me on my first visit to check the place out, but something came up at the last minute, leaving me parked alone on a hot summer afternoon in front of a parlor featuring three giant red and black skulls on its front window, wondering what in the sam hill I had decided to get myself into.
Stepping inside and trying to look as if I did this sort of thing every day, I discovered not a lair of Hell’s Angels, but a place where Ward Cleaver would have felt at home…and a few weeks later I was back, in the waiting area with the abovementioned friend in tow (getting her own design at her husband’s request), leafing through tattoo magazines while a man nearly twice my size moaned, groaned, swore, and finally limped through what I learned from his wife was his third inking. This could have served as a major deterrent, and the artist was not too happy with such a performance when he had two tattoo virgins next in line, but I’d come too far to back out now. So when my name was called, I trembled a bit, breathed a little fast, and…
Oh, the first prick wasn’t too bad – “Heck, I can handle this,” I thought – and then, uh, yeah, it got a little more intense. But I remained firm. I was going to show that 200-plus-pound veteran before me a thing or two! Nevertheless, I was grateful for the cool antiseptic liquid applied at regular intervals and the artist’s need to “satisfy my nicotine addiction” when we were halfway through. I was also somewhat touched by his regular inquiries as to how his “little trooper” was doing. But most surprising was his inquiry as to my birthstone.
“Green,” I replied, wondering why on earth he asked. “Peridot.”
“Then I’ll put that color in this little diamond in the center,” he said.
When I finally saw the finished product, I was both impressed and moved. Sure, my shoulder felt like I had a rather bad sunburn and I had to sleep on one side for several nights, not to mention that obnoxious healing ITCH that had me dousing myself with aloe at the office when no one was looking, but I had a piece of art on my body that I knew I could live with.
Friends were impressed. Relatives thought I was nuts. My mother, on first sight, gasped, “It looks like a bull’s eye!” (What I had envisioned as a small design not much larger than a half-dollar had turned into something nearly three times as large, due to the need for more space to accommodate the lettering.) I think she’s at last resigned to the idea, although it took a few years. But she was puzzled by my choice of design.
“Why a compass rose?” she asked. “It doesn’t really mean anything.”
Yes, why a compass rose?
The first part of the answer is simple. As a lover of the sea and all things nautical, I was pretty sure from the beginning that I wanted a nautical design, but anchors were too masculine, lighthouses too tall, and ships too long. A ship’s wheel? Nice, but I wasn’t a sailor. A fish? Nope, I wasn’t a fisherman. At some point the words “compass rose” entered my mind and I knew…immediately…that was it.
So back to the Internet I went. I searched, and searched…but nothing suited me. They were all so plain. If I was going for a permanent decoration, it had to be something special. And then I stumbled upon it: a 1607 design from a map by the English topographer John Norden. A simple rose with dominant shades of blue and green…my favorite colors, the colors of the sea…and Latin abbreviations of the compass points in beautiful Old English script.
The second part of my answer is more difficult to articulate. The best I can do is refer to that heading of true north, the silent pointer that guides one on a steady course in the right direction. I think that’s what spoke to me most in the end.
“Maybe you’ll get a poem out of it,” said my poet friend Terry when I told her of my plan. I mentally scoffed at this idea until I did, indeed, get a poem out of it. Then, again thanks to Terry, a published essay. And finally this blog post. I’d say I got my money’s worth out of the whole experience.
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How about you? Have you ever had a midlife crisis? If so, how did it affect you? Do you have a tattoo? What was your experience like? I want to hear from you!
And I hope you’ll join me here next week for Part II: “Gee, I Never Thought I Was Scared of Heights…” Because the story isn’t over yet! See you then!
- Are You Having a Midlife Crisis? (everydayhealth.com)