It Bites: Fumbling Through the Middle Passage


RECENTLY I FOUND myself in the odd position of trying to explain to my nine-year-old daughter what a midlife crisis is. I’m perfectly accepting of the fact that fairly soon I’ll have to have the sex, birth control, drugs, etc., talk. But this one caught me off-guard.

It was a Sunday evening and we were crammed into a standing-room-only audience in our tiny town’s general store, where a house concert was taking place. The store is on a circuitous back road lined with tall pines. There’s a post office next door, a library and a church up the road, and not a lot else. At various times and under various ownerships, this little store has been one of the sweetest, most magical places I’ve ever been. It’s hard to explain. It’s the mix of people who come in there, the spontaneous conversations that arise, the thrown-together nature of it here in an area where there aren’t that many places to convene.

The house concert was being given by a great big, very witty English singer-songwriter named Francis Dunnery, who happens to be a friend of the store’s owner. He has had a long and generally successful career that started with a band in England called It Bites and went on to include lots of work as a sideman and his own solo records. A lot of people came to know him through his song “Good Life,” which, I learned from YouTube, was used in the show Scrubs. (I’m pretty sure Scrubs is the show with that guy Zach something-or-other with the big white teeth, but I’m not going to take the time to look that up.)

These days Dunnery mostly travels around and does house concerts in tiny venues. Between the content of the songs and his in-between patter, the evening becomes a sort of story about where Dunnery is in his life, how he came to do these small events and why he took himself off (or probably in some ways was bumped off) the track of higher-profile success. Quickly into the evening he started talking about “the Middle Passage.” As he explained it, it’s a time when you lose sight of where you are in life; you don’t know who you are anymore. Your old self dies, the big Englishman explained, and you have to re-create yourself. You’re beaten down, you’re put through trials, you almost think you can’t go on. In his case, he was no longer “Francis Dunnery the guitar player for It Bites.” He lost his signature long golden hair. His mother died. He got divorced and became depressed. “We also call this a midlife crisis,” he told the crowd.

My daughter, only one of two kids in the audience, looked over at me from her chair. It was all sounding rather ominous. She came and sat on my lap. “What’s a midlife crisis?” she asked in my ear. I stumbled around. “It’s just this thing that happens….It doesn’t even happen to everyone. You get kind of confused when you’re older….” The big Englishman was also using the word “fecking” a lot. It must have seemed a bit harsh to her. “That’s not the F-word,” I said to her brightly. “I know it sounds like it but it’s not.”

I looked around at the crowd. There was the guy who works on the road crew, who fixes lawnmowers on the side. There was the sweet woman in her seventies who lives at the top of the hill, a smattering of young hipsters, some ex-urbanites squarely in the crosshairs of the midlife years. Most people were laughing, enjoying themselves. Some people had a look of subtle anguish.

Dunnery is very influenced by astrology. He started using some astrological terms to explain various life events. He did not use them in a cloying way but in a way that helped to tell his story. I thought back to the one time I had had my chart done. It was not long after I turned forty. I took a recommendation from someone to see an astrologer in Manhattan who was expensive but apparently could tell you all kinds of things you wanted to know about yourself.

I came away mostly unimpressed, except for one uncanny thing he said. He told me that I was, just as Dunnery had described in his own story, entering the Middle Passage, a time when you’re confused and blocked and things are sort of “backed up,” as he put it, things aren’t quite flowing right. “I’d be very surprised if you haven’t had major septic issues recently,” he said to me. In fact, we had recently had to have the entire septic field outside of our house replaced. It was a major job, one that got touched off when the toilets started, well, backing up. Why one’s plumbing would mirror one’s psychic state I don’t know, but I have to say, the astrologer got that one right: My pipes were feeling backed up at the time.

What’s hard to explain to a nine-year-old is that this shit really sneaks up on you. One day you’re writing a school paper on Lord of the Flies and popping your first zit, and the next thing you know a few decades have flown past, your lower back has gone out again, and you’re not at all sure things worked out quite the way you’d hoped. You haven’t accomplished what you set out to, you aren’t the person you’d dreamed of. And even if you were?  If everything were exactly as you’d wanted?  The sentimental, unevolved  part of me will always think there’s just something inherently sad about the passage of time.

When you’re younger you can’t imagine how fast it’ll go.  And even the most mature, self-possessed twentysomethings have no fecking clue what they’re getting themselves into as they start to really not be kids anymore. Although I do admit I had an inkling sometimes of what lay ahead. When I was in college and read the first lines of Dante’s Inferno—“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/In dark woods, the right road lost”—it spooked me. I had a feeling something was up.

But Dunnery did not seem like a sad or fearful guy that night at the store.  And the feeling in the room was light, good, and kind of innocent, as though the big Englishman were showing us that what was around the bend was going to be okay—we could handle whatever it was.

My daughter turned around late in the set and said to me, “I still don’t understand what a midlife crisis is.” I tried again. “It’s a little hard to explain. You don’t have to understand right now,” I said. “And it’s not necessarily bad. It doesn’t have to be bad at all.” I was pretty sure this was true.

Dunnery disappeared after he ended his set. I had thought, given the intimacy of the venue, he might hang around and chat with the audience. They clearly loved him.  But my guess is he didn’t want people coming up and asking him things as though he were a fecking guru, but, rather, that he wanted us to be left with a feeling of gratitude for simply being exactly where we were, and are.


About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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2 Responses to It Bites: Fumbling Through the Middle Passage

  1. claudia ward says:

    I just finished your piece on the parent living in anothers home (Ramona)
    We just lost a mother to alzheimer disease after 15+ years. She was 93, and totally
    dependent the last 6 years. We , (my sister) and I, fortunate enough to be retired, and physically able to keep her home, even though the last 6 years quite demanding.
    We had a Ramona named Donna, and did we love her. I should have written a documetary of those last 6 years—they were so wonderful. My Mother always had an upbeat personality, so even when she tried to be “different”, humor was our life line. I could go on with the stories for a long time, but My Mother was God Sent.
    I have shared our story with as many people as I could–how I wish I had been a writer.

    Thanks for your sharing.

    Claudia Ward
    Bluefield, West Va.

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