by Rob Taylor
Forget Holiday Pumpkin Spice. Not long ago, Starbucks brewed cups of tea they called “Joy” and passed out samples. I had to at least give it a shot. “Didn’t take,” I informed the barista after two contemplative sips, “You must’ve slipped me a cup of Jaded.”

Fellow samplers of a certain age chuckled in agreement. That’s when it hit me – the sarcasm, the pride in using sophisticated multi-syllable words, the eagerness to sample anything free; standing there, Joy in hand, at age 40, I realized that like it or not, ready or not, middle age was suddenly upon me. Or maybe it was youth’s kiss goodbye – more of a peck really, nothing long, slow and rapturous. Whatever it was, it sounded a lot like a slurp of Joy. I discerned this rather immediately upon observing the collective raised eyebrow of non-sampling Starbucks regulars who stood in line and interrupted their regularly scheduled texting to make deer-in-headlights eye contact. I stared back, straw in mouth, unfazed, resolute. I drink Jaded now. Nothing rattles me.

I wasn’t like this a decade or so ago. Nope. I was the guy with dilated Y2K pupils, stockpiling nonperishables, going Chicken Little over crashing computers, oil spills in the North Atlantic, midnight nukes, wondering who did the math when the fateful hour had passed.

So what’s changed? My nerves, I think. They’re either shot or settled. Not sure which. Doesn’t matter. Unlike the Roaring 20s and the Depressing 30s, I’m a new man: an emerging Gibraltar, no longer on a roller coaster carved by circumstance. Still, every so often, I have my moments – mostly related to keeping the doctor happy … like when it’s 7 p.m. and I’m three glasses of water short of getting my eight in for the day and know I will be spending the balance of the evening in the bathroom. Or when it suddenly dawns on me that I haven’t forced any leafy greens down my esophagus in weeks. Horror-stricken, I surrender to raw spinach, open my mouth and conclude that Popeye’s taste buds were shot.

Though a bitter pill to swallow, I have also attained a Nirvana-like state of self-acceptance about my mid-life failed dreams: Enya won’t be cutting an “Enya Face” CD, despite my suggestion; No company will ever purchase the rights to my patented That Was Stupid Button (a must-have for meetings); And, sadly, there will be no facial Rogaine for men like me who couldn’t grow beards if their life depended on it. I get it now. My ship may never come in. It’s okay. I don’t need the spotlight. I’ve found something better. I found my middle-aged cup of “Joy” thanks to those magical creatures who call me daddy.

“I’m thankful for blankeys, Spongebob – oh! – AND black ants!” they said as we went around the Thanksgiving table last Holiday season. Paraphrasing highly esteemed kindergarten teachers, red ants are evil, they informed me, and blank ants are larger, darker in color and our friends. And it’s always good to know who your friends are.

Later, during a “Home Alone” commercial break on the eve of Black Friday, with a taxed look on his face, my 6-year-old remarked, “This buy-one-get-one-free stuff sure is getting old.”
Then came Christmas.

Last Christmas, my kids and I squeezed all we could from our time together: gingerbread houses and hot chocolate, a horse and carriage ride, holiday lights, the Christmas Eve bell choir, board games, the whole nine. There was one tense moment – when shouts of “Mine!” and “No! Mine!” erupted. It seems that the kids had unevenly divided the nativity set wise men and were feuding over baby Jesus.
Parenting classes did nothing to prepare me for this. Confiscating Jesus – taking Christ right out of the Christmas scene – just didn’t feel right. So there I stood, ogling the little devils, trying to figure out what parenting strategy to employ, trying to form words.

“Fighting over baby Jesus? At Christmas? This is sooo wrong …,” I said. Thankfully, before I could figure out what came next, baby Jesus was bartered for the camel and the ox – a crooked trade according to my son.
Such things I cherish fully now, more so than I did when I was younger and knew everything – when I had a killer mullet. Suddenly, it’s all about photographs and memories, but mostly the memories.

Later that night, my daughter provided two more: drawing hearts on a piece of scrap paper, handing it to me and saying, “For you, Daddy, because I love you,” then adding before bed, “I think about you when I dream.”
I drank from her words, feeling my 40-year-old heart grow at least three sizes. Starbucks got nothin’ on my little cuppa’ joy.