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"Age doesn't matter, unless you're a cheese."

-- John Paul Getty

There is much to be said for -- and against -- turning 40. For those who prefer to look upon the bright side, 40 is the age at which life really begins, when wisdom finally arrives (as it did to the prophets Moses and Mohammed, for instance), and we at last begin to realize that a stout sense of humor is our best defense against the whims of fate. As British comedian and erstwhile Monty Python member John Cleese put it, "Once you get into your 40s, I think you start to let go of any last lingering notion that life makes any sense, or that society can ever be organized really satisfactorily. Let go of that, and almost everything seems to be funny." Even politicians, rap music and Cher.

On the other hand, there is a downside to turning 40. Physically, it is the age at which everything suddenly starts to wear out, fall out or spread out. You discover that your warranty has run out, parts are irreplaceable, and labor is very, very expensive. Your body will most likely be shorter and heavier than when you were 20. Your eyesight and hearing will have begun to fade; tiny smile lines and crow's feet will crease your face, and, worst of all, you may develop a chronic case of Dunlap's disease (as in, "Uh-oh. My stomach dunlapped over my belt").

Those who choose to follow the regimens of over-40 fitness and glamour gurus such as Jane Fonda and Linda ("Forty isn't fatal") Evans are only postponing the inevitable. "It's the decomposition that gets me," complained Brigitte Bardot shortly after her 40th birthday. "You spend your whole life looking after your body. And then you rot away."

Traditionally, the age of 40 has also marked the onset of the dreaded midlife crisis, a time when respectable and supposedly rational adults go off the rails and, as Calvin Trillin noted, "resign from the bank to go live in a van with a teen-age mushroom gatherer." (The notion is not totally fanciful; the list of 40-year-old men who left their wives for younger women includes Napoleon, James Thurber, Frank Lloyd Wright, Erskine Caldwell and Andre Previn.)

But for those of us living in late 20th century America, where the average life expectancy is nearly 80, there really is no reason to whine or be depressed. Certainly our 40th birthdays are far more joyous occasions than our great-grandfathers' were. As late as the beginning of this century, the average life span in the United States was still only 48 years for men and 51 for women. In such circumstances, the notion of turning 40 obviously carried far more ominous implications than it does for us.

Conditions were even worse in the dim and distant past. During the Middle Ages, for instance, only the favored few in European society ever reached the age of 40. Peasants who made it to 30 were considered lucky, wrinkled and very old. In "The Inferno," the Italian poet Dante declared 35 to be the prime of life; after that, it was all downhill to hell and gone.

Even though we know better nowadays, this sort of crepe-hanger attitude still persists in the uniquely agonizing ritual known as a 40th birthday party. Most of these ghastly affairs feature a variation on the over-the-hill motif, with gifts ranging from the outrageous to the tasteless and beyond to the truly bizarre. In Southern California, bouquets of black roses are the latest fashion, though their meaning is occasionally misunderstood. After her husband received one such floral arrangement, one distraught woman phoned the florist in a panic, terrified that the Mafia had sent the flowers as a death threat.

The modern record for getting the most expensive 40th birthday presents is held by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Celebrating the big day less than a year after her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Jackie received from her new husband a dozen red roses, followed by an array of jewelry reportedly worth at least $1 million: a 40-carat diamond ring from Van Cleef in Paris, ruby earrings and a Zolotas bracelet in the shape of a goat (Ari's zodiac sign).

Although Elizabeth Taylor's 40th birthday gift from Richard Burton paled by comparison -- it was only a 300-year-old, heart-shaped yellow diamond pendant originally owned by the Shah Jahan (the Indian emperor who built the Taj Mahal), and valued at between $50,000 and $100,000.

On his 40th birthday, Rolling Stone lead guitarist Keith Richards got married to longtime girlfriend Patti Hansen. The wedding took place on a hotel terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Mr. Richards took his vows dressed in a black tuxedo and new blue suede shoes; Mick Jagger, the only other Stone present, acted as best man. After the ceremony, Keith serenaded his new bride with the Hoagy Carmichael standard, "The Nearness of You."

Pop artist Andy Warhol spent a less glamorous 40th birthday in bed, recovering from gunshot wounds inflicted by a radical feminist who had embarked upon a crusade to eliminate all male human beings from the face of the earth. For some inexplicable reason, she elected to begin with Warhol.

Elvis Presley, too, spent his 40th birthday in bed, though he had been felled by nothing more serious than the flu and a bad case of grumpiness. Outside the gates of Graceland, meanwhile, more than 2,000 fans placed their gifts for the King into huge barrels, while the post office in Memphis was swamped with birthday cards, cakes, telegrams and more packages. One enterprising pair of Mississippi teen-agers boxed themselves up in a carton marked "Russian Wolfhounds" and had themselves delivered to Elvis' mansion, but the security guards decided Elvis already had enough dogs and refused to let the box inside.

My own favorite 40th birthday party story involved Hollywood actor/director Rob Reiner, who invited his guests to bring film clips or tapes of their most embarrassing work to his party. Although the competition was stiff -- Bruno Kirby Jr. brought a tape of the notorious 1973 bomb, "The Harrad Experiment," one of the most ludicrous movies ever made -- Mr. Reiner himself won the award for worst performance in a supporting role for his appearance as a long-haired hippie in an episode of "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," in which Mr. Reiner sang a duet of "Blowin' in the Wind" with star Jim Nabors.

Of course, there are those like Donald Trump, Paul McCartney and Oliver Wendell Holmes who celebrated their 40th birthdays quietly at home, with a minimum of fanfare.

For professional athletes, turning 40 typically has been a particularly traumatic experience. Major league baseball, however, has a long history of players who have turned in excellent individual seasons after their 40th birthdays. (This should be some measure of consolation to the Orioles, who, despite their "youth movement," are likely to have three 40-plus players on the roster this year: Dwight Evans, Mike Flanagan, both of whom recently turned 40, and 42-year-old Rick Dempsey.)

And if you're still feeling bad about turning 40 without earning your first million dollars or Writing the Great American Novel, consider the following brief list of personalities who achieved fame or fortune only after their 40th birthdays: Henry Ford, Lucille Ball, Albert Schweitzer, Coco Chanel, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bonnie Raitt, Miguel Cervantes, Louis Pasteur, Raymond Chandler, Ignatius Loyola, Alfred Kinsey, Rodney Dangerfield, P. James and Leadbelly. On the other hand, Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Bugsy Meyer and Donald Trump all accomplished their greatest triumphs before they were 40, and look where it got them. So there.

William K. Klingaman is a Columbia-based writer and historian. His latest book, "Turning Forty," a compilation of wit and wisdom for those who are, expect to be, or have ever been 40 years old, will be published this summer by NAL/Dutton.

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