When George Washington turned 50 in February 1782, he had just led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolution the previous October. Thomas Jefferson turned 50 in April 1793 and was Secretary of State, having already written the Declaration of Independence and served as congressman, governor of Virginia, and minister to France.
On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton never made it that far, having died at 47 (or 49, depending on which source you believe). Hank Williams, for all the legendary songs that he wrote and sang and the near-mythological status he has achieved, died at 29. Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and many other great stories, died at 44.
Others far less famous didn’t make it to 50, including my own grandfather, my mother’s father Eugene Sikes. He died from brain cancer on April 5, 1950, at age 43. Other friends were taken much too soon, never even seeing 18.
So, no complaints here on turning 53 this week. Whatever else 50 is, it’s certainly not an “awkward age.” If you still don’t feel comfortable in your own skin by now, you’re probably never going to. Thirty was difficult for me because I still didn’t know then what my career was going to be like; I was in my 5th year of the doctoral program at the University of Florida and would finish in a couple of years. But then what? I was hoping to get a teaching job in the academy, but then as now those are as hard to get as a Tickle-Me Elmo doll once was (Yes, I’m showing my age and no, I don’t care. As you’ll see below.) The uncertainty of the professional future still hangs over the 30-year-old. Forty was harder for other reasons. I was well into my professional career at the Georgia Historical Society by then, but somehow 40 just felt old.
Fifty is different. By now you’re in your stride. You know where you’re going professionally, and the other uncertainties and insecurities of more youthful years are gone or fading away. Or should be anyway.
There are things you know at 50 that you either didn’t know earlier in your life, or you didn’t care about. They matter now.
I know that with each passing year there are people that I love and care about who will not be alive the next year. I don’t know who they are, but it’s a fact of life. We are never prepared, even when we think we are. Each of us finds comfort in different things and different ways to carry on, but the loss will come.
I know too that one year from now I’ll know someone that I don’t know now, a new friend or acquaintance who will bring unexpected happiness into my life. I look forward to meeting you, whoever you are.
I read 25 to 30 books a year, and I know that at the rate I read every year, if I stopped buying books right now (that’ll never happen), I’d have to live to be well over 150 to read all the books I already own. That’s pretty depressing on one level, but it brings us to the next point.
At 50, you choose more carefully. I’m not going to live long enough to read every great book or see every great movie, so I’m only going to read things I really want to read and watch what I really want to watch. You begin to jealously guard your time (more on this below).
Less and less I feel the need to know about something—a TV show, a viral video—just because everyone else is talking about it. I simply don’t care. Not that I don’t want to be engaged with life, because I do. But continuously chasing after the most popular thing so as not to feel left out is an endless—and ultimately—empty chase. It’s all velocity and no coherence and at some point, you decide it’s not going to define who you are. “Lead your way, sing your song, ” as Bronze Radio Return put it.
That, and I don’t care if some 20-something doesn’t think I’m hip just because I don’t know about something he or she thinks I should. Most 20-somethings I know don’t have mortgages or life insurance policies, and I’ll take those over “hip” any day.
But there is such a thing as aging gracefully, and I’m going to try my best to do that. I’m not going to be that guy who gets older that no one can stand to be around. You know who I’m talking about; we all do. The guy who complains constantly about every ache and pain. The guy who talks about politics as if you naturally agree with him, about how he really hates the people next door, about the price of gas, about all the medicine he must take, the doctors’ appointments, the idiots who run the city, and how much he hates cell phones, Facebook, the internet, and how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The guy who insists that back in his day (we’re talking the 1970s here, during Nixon, Watergate, inflation, the oil crisis, etc., you know, the “good old days”) people worked harder, respected their elders, and kids didn’t waste their time tapping away on little screens on little devices. As if somehow wasting your time sitting in front of a TV with a bad picture watching “Mannix” or playing Pac-Man was a better use of time.
No matter how good it might make you feel to complain all the time, the bottom line is, no one else wants to listen to it and no one—no one—wants to be around you when you do that. (Go into any doctor’s office waiting room on any given afternoon and spend 20 minutes there; you’ll see several examples of what you don’t want to be as you age.)
Remember, you never want to be the person who brightens up a room just by leaving it.
Then there are the things I swear I’m not going to do as I age. Someone please hold me to this:
I’m not going to start eating dinner at 5 p.m. or wear Velcro shoes, black Reeboks, or a Members-Only jacket, even if they ever actually come back in style. And do yourself a favor: as you age, when you go to the eye doctor and have your peepers dilated, take a pair of aviators or Ray-Bans with you so that on your way home you don’t have to wear those all-black, wrap-around big glasses they give you that make you look like Uncle Murray who escaped from Boca Del Vista.
I’m not going to be afraid of technology. It was my generation that first played Atari video games in the late 1970s, and we should never, ever be afraid to grasp new technology as it evolves and changes our lives. Don’t rail against the machine—or long for what never was or never will be, the “good old days.” No adult living in the 1970s thought those were the good old days, nor the 1940s, or the 1870s. Allow your mind to stretch around new ways of thinking and new ideas. Digging in your heels and playing the crank who hates the world will only make you miserable and put you in an early grave.
Simply put, I’m not going to let age define me or what I do or don’t do. Dick Van Dyke turns 92 on December 16. Keith Richards is almost 74, a living, breathing testament to bad living if there ever was one. Mick Jagger is already 74. None of these three has let age determine what they will do or not do. The Rolling Stones toured in 1994 when Mick, Keith, and drummer Charlie Watts were all in their early 50s. It was a pathbreaking thing at that time for a group that had been around 30 years to still be doing it in their 50s. They felt good and sounded great, though Charlie said in a “60 Minutes” interview then that he thought they’d look silly doing it at 70.
Well, they don’t. They toured again on the Stones’ 40th anniversary in 2002 when they were close to 60, and they’ve toured off and on for the last five years in their 70s. They don’t look ridiculous and they sound great. They are in great shape physically, and they ran and sang and played for over two hours. Why shouldn’t they do at 70 what they did so well at 20, if they still can and still want to? Why does life have to be something that only people in their 20s and 30s get to do?
Yes, admittedly, we’ve all seen aging rockers who are just fat, bald, and old, doing a great impression of “The Wheezing Night Sweats.” Half the battle is keeping yourself in shape.
To that end, in order to help me to be able to sing “Satisfaction” while running full-tilt across a soundstage when I’m nearly 75, I exercise 5 or 6 times a week without fail and haven’t missed doing that since the last month of the George W. Bush administration. It’s partly an insurance policy against old age and partly because I love doing it. I’ve been blessed with good genes and a strong immune system and I’m doing all I can to help.
What you realize more than anything else by age 50 is you’re running out of time. Time accelerates with age, we all know that, but it accelerates at an ever-alarming rate as you reach 50. January turns to September and into another year. You remember twenty years ago like it was yesterday—and you were 30 then. You realize now that the next twenty years are going to go by much, much faster, and you’ll be 70 at the end of them. Suddenly you really begin to question what you do with your time, and what you’re willing to give it to. I don’t mind watching really good TV, but I’m much less likely now to begin a show on Netflix that already has 7 seasons of thirteen 1-hour episodes. You can do the math. I don’t want to invest that much of my life into what may turn out to be a monumental time-waster, particularly as I haven’t read most of Dickens or Mark Twain yet. I cared deeply about Walter White and Don Draper, but Jax Teller, not so much. Sorry Charlie.
There are other things you learn by age 50. At some point you will question every life decision you ever made and decide they are all wrong. The feeling will pass. Or not. But it’ll happen to you too, and when it does, don’t get too worked up about it. This is a natural part of the process.
Some people, for reasons you’ll never be able to figure out, will despise you. Utterly detest you. And say nasty things about you behind your back. When it happens, don’t let it get to you. This too, is a natural part of life and human nature. Accept it and move on.
It’s okay if you don’t like jazz, wine, or sushi. It’s okay if you go to bed early on New Year’s Eve. It’s okay to get off social media entirely at some point, if only for a little while. Or forever. It’s okay if you decide to disconnect from all your electronic devices and stop letting them run your life.
To help you deal with all of the above, read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Read it many times. Learning to take people and things as they are without beating your head against a wall and dying on every hill is great insurance against aging without bitterness. As Thomas Jefferson said, learn to take things by the smooth handle. This is without a doubt one of the hardest lessons of all.
Finally, at 50, you really should try to cultivate–if you haven’t already–the great Irish gift of finding joy in small things. In that spirit, I’m thankful for all of the following small things:
Bartenders who already know that a real martini is nothing but gin and vermouth
Sports events that end before my bedtime
The mute button
The first crisp autumn day after the withering heat of summer
The smell of a wood-burning fire
The black cat who crawls up in my lap while I’m reading, who is always waiting by the door and looks genuinely glad to see me. Cats are the best blood-pressure medicine ever.
Whoever invented pizza
When the calendar turns to November, for all that it brings
Sitting down with a good book and a writer who knows how to write
The flashing blue lights that drive past me on the highway in search of other prey
The feeling of magic that still comes over me at dusk on Christmas Eve
When the doctor says, “your bloodwork is normal”
Finally, remember what Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” That’s the ultimate goal.
So, here’s to the next half-century. Lead your way. Sing your song.
Now excuse me while I go tell these damn kids to get off my lawn.