In a normal world, I wouldn't care a whit about turning 40.

But society frets so much about a person turning 40 that I have to fret about it. Friends, family, strangers on street ask me how it feels. Books get written about it.When I was a kid I was afraid of loud noises. I refused to attend the Peach Days parade because it began with a cannon blast. I have no problem with noises now, but if three dozen people came up to me and said, "Get ready, loud noise on the way!" "Here comes a bang!" well, I'd probably run home and hide under the mattress.

And that's what I'm beginning to feel like doing over this 40 business.

Monday night, for instance, KSL did a story about Prince Charles turning 40. Afterward I weathered comments such as, "Turning 40 is a tragedy for some," and, "I guess life begins at 40 if you're the future King of England." I chalked it up to coincidence. Twenty minutes didn't go by, however, before I was watching that antacid "turning 40" commercial.

You know which one. The guy comes in with sad puppy-dog eyes and says something about pizza. His wife says, "You know what they say about anchovies at your age." He says "Anchovies don't get to be my age."

He looks insecure, forlorn, confused and bald.

He looks a little like me.

"Forty appears to be the shadow-line in American lives," Gore Vidal writes. "It must be crossed in style, or else!"

Who died and made Gore Vidal the national philosopher.

In the end, though, I probably have the hassle coming. Things I've said and thought over the years are simply coming back to haunt me now.

As a young college student I watched one of my mentors turn 40. He was a little shifty, flirtatious with young women, warm and bright and people-oriented, but not too ambitious, and his wit was fast degenerating into a kind of melancholy gallows humor.

I swore I'd never be like that.

I'm exactly like that.

And birthday cards. I've sent a few, now I'll get a few. The one that reads "Some day you'll look back on your 40th birthday and laugh" on the outside, then the inside reads "As for me, I'm laughing now."

The one that says "40 looks great" on the outside. The inner kicker is: "When you look back at it from age 80."

Those cards are probably in the mail to me right now.

And, as a book critic, I've taken a few potshots over the years at writers I thought were too young to be writers, and others I thought too old. A writer friend even got me back there.

"When you were 20," she said, "I saw you as a writer with pretty darn good potential. Now that you're 40, I see you as a writer with wonderful potential."

Next stop, 50. I'll be here. As Ansel Adams said at age 75, "I figure if you're going to get old, you might as well get as old as you can."