Today happens to be my birthday, my 54th birthday in fact. I tend to largely ignore my birthdays and this one in particular is not noteworthy. There were a couple of birthday cards on the breakfast table, and my friends on Facebook have been offering felicitations, since now they know these little secrets.
If you are behind me in time stream, you may wonder what your life will be like at 54. Your view at 54 will doubtless look different than mine, but I can probably set some realistic expectations.
At 54, my life feels very settled and mostly comfortable. With the current economy, I am fortunate to have a job because many men my age who lose their job are fortunate if their local Wal-Mart will hire them. For much of my life, I felt like a salmon swimming desperately upstream. At 54, you may be over the hill, but you (hopefully) are done with the arduous climbing. At this altitude, you can see a long way. This vision is something akin to wisdom, which, if you are learning lessons from life, comes naturally with age. At my advanced age, you should know what to do and what not to do, and are painfully aware of the consequences if you act against your better judgment. You realize you got a pretty good thing going and are more concerned with preserving what you have than boldly trying new things.
No doubt about it. I am settling down. Retirement is no longer an abstraction; it is something I am already grappling with. I am making choices that in some ways are as complex as those I endured to get here, but largely these choices are more fun to deal with. Knowing that I won’t be salaried forever, I am paying a lot more attention to figuring out how I will navigate the fixed income world. Right now this includes paying down the balance on our mortgage and slowly shifting investments away from stocks into safer securities like bonds. Since I am in my prime earning years, I am also saving more than I ever have. I am maxing out my 401-K. At the end of the month, whatever income is left over goes toward paying down the mortgage balance. $79,266.91 to go. I can theoretically retire next year, but will pick up another job when I do retire at least until the mortgage is fully paid off. With luck it will be a part time job, something I truly enjoy doing and something I can do for a lot less money.
It’s not all terrific at age 54. I miss the body I had in my 20s. Age has taken its toll. I have dealt with an enlarged aorta, an irregular heartbeat, a vasovagal syncope that broke my nose and put me in the hospital, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, then low blood pressure, tarsal tunnel syndrome and painful, persistent sciatica that increasingly feels incurable. Aside from these issues, I am in good health, a little overweight but not too much, with thinning hair slowly mixing with grey. My libido has sagged, which is entirely natural but which, oddly, is rarely discussed among men my age. I still feel reasonably sharp although with so many memories keeping it all sorted is increasingly a challenge. My brain purges a lot of detritus, like hundreds of emails that I scanned over the course of the day.
The years keep tumbling by, so much so in that they all sort of run together now. It’s getting to the point where I can no longer keep my decades straight. I have to think hard when someone asks where I was or what I was doing in a certain year. Listing my employment history would be a real challenge. Who supervised me thirty years ago? When did I start and leave that job? How much did I earn back then? Why should it matter?
Time moves much more quickly but oddly I feel much less anxious about it. Aging was much more traumatic going from 29 to 30 that from 49 to 50. Turning 54 is a piece of cake. Yes, I know I have more years behind me than ahead of me. Death bothers me a lot less than it used to. At age 29, death was big and scary principally because (in retrospect) aging was big and scary. Now death is more of a known commodity. I know sort of what to expect by seeing my mother go through it, and while dying is no fun with its mystery gone so is much of its terror. I am accepting aging so much better than I used to. If you are lucky, you make it to old age. None of us gets out of life alive. We are born to die. The pragmatist in me says just enjoy each day as it comes and don’t spend too much time fretting how it will end. End it must. I hope not to escape death, but to live as healthy and as meaningful a life as nature will let me, and to accept it gracefully when it won’t.
While I am far down life’s runway, there is much more runway ahead and it is some of the best runway: straight, level with no potholes or grooves in the pavement. Life may be comfortable at 54, but life still throws the occasional curve ball, some of which let you know there is so much life worth living ahead of you. Last year, my father remarried at age 83. By doing so he singlehandedly redefined my expectations of old age. Just this week I received another surprise. I may be 54, but I am not too old to have a new niece or nephew. My youngest brother’s wife is pregnant, with a baby expected in six months or so. With a little assist from medical technology (they are in their mid forties), my brother will also join the fatherhood club. I am sure like with everything else he does that he will excel in the role.
Maybe it’s good that those first 54 years are all blending together. Now I can anticipate what adventures may lay ahead when I turn 55.