The Thinker

Over the Hill

Age they say is just a number. It may be just a number, but when the number is BIG and very ROUND (it ends in a zero) it becomes, if not a time for contemplation, at least hard to ignore. In two days, I reach a very big and very round number: I will be half a century old.

Naturally, I have been scrutinizing myself in the mirror a lot lately. I always wondered what I would look like when I hit 50. I did not expect (and I say this with all modesty) to look so good. Doubtless, part of my rationalization is denial. I hear we older Americans are good at denial. However, I do think there are some elements of truth. For a 50-year-old dude, I look pretty good. It is not accident. It required a lot of work: eating right, exercising regularly, and applying sunscreen religiously. Most likely though I owe most of my reasonably youthful looks to my mother’s side of the family. My father turned grey in his thirties, so in some respects he always looked older than his years. Not me. Yes, I have grey in my hair, but it is not very much and it is blended in so well that most days I do not even notice it.

I half expect though that I will wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and find that my face has fallen and grey streaks coming out of my hair like wild onions. I am in the middle of a large sibling pack, so looking at my older siblings gives me an idea of what may be imminent. It is not necessarily pretty but, like death, there is not much I can do about it. In fact, if I look at myself in the mirror it is obvious that my youthful look is more in my head than on my face. A small droop is developing under my chin. There are the lines near my eyes. Age spots are popping up here and there. My bright hazel eyes look a little less bright. My hairline is not receding, but it may be thinning a bit. Moreover, there are those other unwelcome signs of aging: the hard work that is required not to have a paunch, hair growing out of the ears, bifocals and annoying medical conditions that probably would not occur if I were half my age. Running, at least for the moment, is out of the question; my feet and my joints cannot handle it anymore. Thank goodness for elliptical machines. When I press those weights at the health club, I feel quite virile. Then I watch some young man half my age pressing twice as much weight. In addition, there is the truest sign of middle age: you have to constantly watch what you eat. If you get a free lunch, or even if you do not, it will end up around your middle.

Fifty is an age when you should have discovered some limitations. While it is also an age when you may be over the hill, you can still find the vista from being on top quite breathtaking. If your experience is like mine (and mine is likely atypical), it is a time when you have arrived after so much darn struggle. Career-wise, I cannot complain. Maybe I had dreams of being a bestselling writer at age 25, but there is nothing wrong with being a mid-level manager with a six-figure income running a dynamic, content driven website for a living. It is not just any web site though, but a web site depended on by the public and by governments, sometimes to make decisions that save lives and property. I am blessed to manage a talented and supportive team of people any of whom, if truth were told, are more talented than I am. My job is empowering as well as demanding. I may not always like where business takes me, but it does take me places. Last week I was in Denver. I know I will be back there again this year, and I also know I will be in Savannah in June. On what other adventures will I be sent on someone else’s dime before the year is out?

Admittedly, there are still challenges. Our daughter is about to graduate high school and she is so not ready to confront the real world. My wife and I have to work on that, as well as our own relationship, which after 21 years could perhaps use a dose of Viagra. Yet both these challenges seem doable. After all my wife and I have 21 years of marriage to build on. In addition, my daughter, while she is woefully unprepared for adulthood, is smart and personable and will no doubt succeed in time. I was just hoping that she would be a bit better adjusted at this point, so I could sail smoothly through my fifties.

That is likely not to be. Life of course is about living, and living implies that things will not stay the same. While I hope for a decade of optimal health, I likely will not have it. I will have to deal with it, along with my wife’s medical issues. Yet perhaps, with some good fortune my fifties will be reinvigorating. (According to my Chinese friend Hua, this is the Year of the Golden Pig, which only comes every 60 years, and which means good fortune.) Perhaps I will retain some semblance of my youth, my daughter will move into adulthood without major trauma, my marriage will deepen, and I will retire with plenty of financial security, able to squander the rest of my life as I see fit.

If for some reason, you forget that you will be turning 50, AARP will remind you. Actually, their mailer arrived more than six months ago. Apparently, age is no longer a barrier to AARP membership. Taking my father’s advice, I have declined to join. Nevertheless, there is also the fact that I just do not feel old. I know I should, and the 25 year old me would definitely see the 50 year old me as old, but I either live in denial or I am very fortunate.

A few things are clear. Even if I were inclined to go after a younger babe, they do not want me. They might if I were in my early forties, but in your fifties they only go after you if you will keep them in fine clothes and fine dining. In short, when you are fifty-something, they do not want you because of who you are, but because of what you are. This is good because my wife remains one of a small number of women who like me just as I am, and for whom my age simply does not matter. I do sometimes wonder when we are twenty years older, with droopy faces, wearing dentures and with a medicine cabinet full of Polident, whether we will still feel some spark of romance. I guess time will tell. Perhaps if I am still blogging in twenty years, you will find out.

For me, age 50 finds me in something of a state of denial. I do not deny the fact that I am virtually 50, but I do feel increasingly like denying my own mortality. It was less than two years ago that I watched my mother die of a progressive disease. Having observed the dying process close up, it no longer holds quite the horror it once did. One lesson though which I have incorporated as part of watching her dying and going through my own grieving process is to understand important it is to live robustly while you can.

It is hard though when you are over the hill not to contemplate your own date with death. Perhaps I am naïve or optimistic, but for all my life I have assumed I would live into my eighties and be in reasonably good health. It is no longer wishful thinking, given the mortality statistics. When I view my date with death dispassionately, I feel like a Las Vegas odds maker. I feel there is a 75% chance that I will make it to age 80, and maybe a 25% chance I will make it to age 90.

Coincidentally, I had a life insurance physical yesterday. A nurse from Portamedic came to my house. She had me pee into some test tubes, drew several vials of blood, weighed me, measured my height and even had me lie on the couch while she took an EKG. This is my third life insurance physical, and they get more intrusive every time. If I do another one, I expect a proctological exam. My financial adviser says I need to maintain life insurance through age 60, so I subjected myself to the process again. Sitting around the kitchen table while the nurse kept asking me intrusive personal questions, I could feel her sizing up my odds of making it to 60.

No matter. Life is about living and I intend to live it. Turning 40 was traumatic; I hid in the basement most of the day. Turning 50 feels fine. I intend to spend the day working, as I have plenty of tasks on my To Do list, and then maybe celebrate by going out to dinner with my wife.

Still, while I do not play golf, I do feel the need to go buy a golf shirt, a straw hat, a pair of sunglasses and some oversized canvas loafers. If it were summer, I would want to sit under the shade with a mint julep in one hand and converse with my aging neighbors at a block party. We will tell stories of friends and family lost, and our children blossoming into adults. We will chat about the latest movies or who should win the World Series. We will mention casually that trip to Europe we took, or our new vinyl siding. We will hear the steaks sizzling on the grill. After the mint julep, out will come the bottle of Chardonnay to be passed around and drunk from Dixie cups. The grill will pop when the occasional drip of fat hits the lava rocks. The dog will bound up the steps to the deck. Light conversation and laughter abounds. The next phase of our lives, the best one, begins.

That is how I feel as I turn 50.


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