Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thoughts on 50

50 is a weird birthday. It's got me thinking about other birthdays, since I have such a big collection of them now.

I remember clearly turning six. Mostly because I had a red and white checkered record player in my room, and among the kid-friendly records that I could play on it was a recording of Peter and the Wolf, and I believe it was the flip side of that one that included some sort of conversational sounding bit with a man asking, "Are you six? I'm six." Which looking back was absurd because that would have been a six year old with serious hormone problems. Anyway, I remember being very excited to put on my record, and when he asked if I was six I could finally answer, "Yes!" (It was anti-climactic as you might imagine, but you take your satisfactions where you can when you are six.)

14 was pretty good. My golden birthday! 14 on the 14th. There was an official Rubik's Cube solving race happening in town on my actual birthday, and I took 6th place and won a t-shirt. (It read "Cubists do it faster" which was not a particularly appropriate prize for a kids' contest, but I grew up in inappropriate times I guess.)

16 I had outlandishly deluded hopes of a car, but I got my own set of keys with a yellow clippy key chain, which was a pretty nice present that I didn't know how to appreciate properly at the time.

I remember worrying about turning 18, because it implied more self-reliance and maturity than I possessed. It also seemed suddenly old, but I had an unfailingly optimistic friend at the time who, when I brought up the idea said, "No! 18 is so young!" She was wise beyond her (so young) years.

21 felt like it was supposed to be some kind of milestone, but I don't drink, so once you take that out of the equation it becomes just another birthday.

I had a vague sense that I was supposed to be concerned about 25 somehow because women in pop culture seem to stress about that number for some reason. I couldn't figure out why. (I still don't know why.)

30 was sort of funny. First of all, when I was a teenager, and looked ahead with wonder at the idea of "the year 2000" I knew that was the year I'd be turning 31, and the only image I could conjure in my head of what 30 was supposed to look like involved some sort of fuzzy sweater and pearls. I was specifically thinking about how I liked to be involved in our New Year's Eve decorating, which included a lot of climbing up and down on chairs to tape things to the walls and ceiling, and I was worried the mature woman in pearls in her 30s somehow wouldn't be doing that. I'm not sure what I was worried about, since that's insane.

On my actual 30th birthday I had to play a concert downtown, and Ian was off doing Army things and had our only car. I had to walk myself the nearly mile and a half to the theater in my concert clothes, and I made the mistake of not checking what clothes I had until the last minute. My actual all black ensemble was fine, but my pantyhose were shot. All the elastic had died and they kept falling with every step I took. I started my walk trying to discreetly pull them up every few feet, but by the time I got to the Pabst I was just yanking on them immodestly and I had ceased to care. The minute I was done playing that concert I took them off backstage and chucked them in the garbage. (In my current wise state I would have chucked them at the beginning of the walk. Although not long after that I gave up on pantyhose altogether.)

But that birthday was salvaged by a truly lovely person in my viola section, who, when she found out it was my birthday, invited me along with her husband and a friend to find Mexican food after the concert. She was from Mexico, and we drove up and down little streets all over the south side of town, stopping at every dive-y little restaurant where she would hop out of the car, inspect the atmosphere quickly, and give a thumbs down for various reasons ("Too Tex-Mex!" was a common one) until she found something authentic. And damn, if it wasn't like the food I had in Cuernavaca when I lived there one summer during college. That was a great birthday dinner. I still like to go there.

I only remember paying attention to my age in my thirties in terms of having babies. I had all my babies in my 30s, starting from the first at 32, and the last at 37 (with another kid in between and two miscarriages thrown in for added drama). It's odd dealing with other moms when your kids are in the same class, but all of you are different ages. I felt on the older side of the mom crowd. I remember wondering at 38 if I had expected to still be changing diapers at that age.

40 seems big. Or it kind of did at the time. My 40s have been exhausting. A few of the worst years of my life have all been in this past decade. I would have liked to have had the chance to be in my 40s with less trauma, because the 40s are fine. A lot great things have happened in the past decade as well, and I've learned things about life and myself I don't think I could have any earlier. I wrote drafts for three novels in my late 30s, and the second one (which should be out next month if all goes to plan) is about a woman who is about to turn 40 and is feeling anxious about it. When I finally looked up from my busy life and decided to buckle down and do a final edit of that novel, I was staring ahead at 50. I found it kind of hilarious to be reading all this speculation about 40 feeling old, because at 50, 40 is looking rather cute.

Which brings me to today. 50 years is a lot of years. And it doesn't feel like the other birthdays.

I am well aware that if I'm lucky enough to hit 60 or 70, etc., that 50 will seem young, and I'll wonder why I didn't appreciate certain things better. So I'm trying to focus on what parts of me work, rather than obsess about anything in decline.

There is no way to look at 50 without being keenly aware that you are on the back half of whatever adventure life has been. And I don't think it's possible to look back on any life, however well lived, without wondering about other paths and knowing certain possibilities are done. That's a bit rough.

I'm trying very hard to sort out how I feel vs what society expects at this new age. On many levels I don't care what anyone else thinks. I've never been interested in fitting in particularly. Doesn't mean I'm not self-conscious about being on the outside much of the time, but not enough to change. The list of ways in which I am not mainstream is long, but not very interesting. (I don't drink coffee, I've never tried alcohol, I don't have pierced ears, I don't like tattoos, I've never done drugs, I've never worn high heels, I think following sports is waste of time, I was bored to death by The Lord of the Rings, I hate running, I don't wear makeup, I still don't own a cell phone, etc. I'm sure I've alienated everyone I know and like with this list, but I'm not in judgement of anybody. These are just my preferences. I really don't care what anyone else does as long as they're not causing harm to others. I'm sure the list of stuff I enjoy wouldn't work for most people and I'm good with that.)

But what things are merely quirks about an individual, and what things look age-inappropriate? I think I'll pretty much stay in t-shirts and jeans until I'm dead and never graduate up to the fuzzy sweater and pearls. Does that just look uncomfortably stupid at some point? Like people will feel bad for the old lady who never figured out how to dress right? Do I care? I probably don't care. I should just ask now to be cremated one day in my Dream of the Blue Turtles sweatshirt that I still wear from 1985.

At what point are people judge-y about hair color? I started going grey when my son was born, and was not ready to be toting around a baby on my hip and being grey yet, and started coloring. I figured I could be grey when I was a grandparent. But there is a transition period there, and I'm not sure at what point I look ridiculous. I have sort of a transition plan, but I find it interesting that the actual number of my age is factoring into those thoughts.

I don't think it makes sense to keep trying to look young if you are not, but people equate so much trying to look good with trying to look a certain age and size. Thin is not the same as pretty. Old is not the same as ugly. When I color my hair I don't think of it as trying to look younger, but trying to look like the person I think of myself as. But at some point those two things won't connect and it will look like denial rather than a real choice. Maybe rather than worry about it I will pick something new and have purple hair and go with that until I'm sitting in a nursing home listening to Duran Duran.

I did at least take a minute and update my profile picture on things. The picture I've been using is from my mid-40s and that seems too out of date. I took a quick selfie that seems good enough. (Probably should have waited until the lines under my eyes weren't so exaggerated by the impression left by my swim goggles in the morning, but eh. It's what I look like. I don't use filters or edit anything. I look how I look.)

I'm starting to accept that it's probably too late in my life to do certain things. The thing that surprises me as I consider that here this morning is I don't think it matters much. I'm reminded of talking to people on the verge of having kids who asked me if it was hard giving up the things you wanted to do in order to be with them. The part that's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it, is that once you have a kid, they are interesting enough that you choose them. It's not that you wouldn't still go enjoy those other activities if you could, but you don't want to the same way. Staring at a newborn baby looks dull from the outside, but is completely absorbing and entertaining when it's yours. I guess I could be sad that I've probably missed my chance to learn to skateboard, for instance, but I'm also fine with the activities in front of me at the moment. 

I know I'm supposed to feel older than "kids today," but in the past few years when talking to my children I've begun to feel absolutely ancient. They learn things in history that I lived through at this point. It's hard for me to remember sometimes that they were all born after 9/11 and that event is a vague concept at best for them, and probably feels the same as listening to stories about WWII. My stories all include reminders that when I was growing up there was no internet. That we didn't have a VCR until my senior year so you saw a movie in the theater or waited for it to come on TV with commercials many years later if ever. Harry Potter hadn't been written (but for them is some old classic series from the past the way Nancy Drew felt for me). Half the time in the middle of telling my kids something from way back in the day I feel like I'm veering toward simply saying I had to wear an onion on my belt, and it was a yellow onion because of the war. (Which reminds me, do you realize how old The Simpsons are? Do you? And I am older than that.)

I think the greatest factor in how old you feel has to do with health. When you move like an old person you feel old. When you move okay you can ignore your body and feel like yourself. I am hyper conscious nowadays that I could break. I don't heal quickly anymore.

Last week I had to fetch one of my kids from school early, and in my anxiety I tripped and fell up the concrete steps. I am okay-ish, but banged up. I smashed my forearm into a step and now I can't lean into it (which I apparently want to do way more often than I realized), and parts of my torso are pretty bruised. I'm crampy a lot. I have headaches a lot. My lower back is giving me problems which is new. If I incline my head too far it feels like it's going to split sometimes. Despite my surgery in December I'm still having issues with the same breast and it's annoying. I've reached a point of frustration with hospitals that I'd rather play Russian roulette with whatever is happening in there than get poked and squished and sliced into. (I should probably buy stock in ibuprofen.) My big present to myself was getting on the waiting list for the shingles vaccine.

And yet? I'm okay. As long as I can do the things that interest me I don't care. I don't fear getting old as much as I fear falling apart. If I can keep my hands and my eyes and my ears and get myself around, I'm good. As long as I'm not in pain that is impossible to be distracted from, I'm good. (Lately I've found that when I'm not feeling well I can crank out a lot of short stories, because they are more absorbing than a Netflix binge.) But I'm painfully aware that I am potentially one step off a curb from disaster.

Mortality is strange to contemplate. You can't not think about it when you turn 50. My kids were trying to figure out why there was so much coverage of Luke Perry's death recently. First I had to find an example of something they would know him from, and the only thing I could come up with was a bit part as a sketch artist at the beginning of The Fifth Element. ("That guy?" they kept asking. "Why does anyone remember that guy?") I tried to explain that he was a teen heartthrob so people my age associate him with our youth, and that it's a shock to have him be dead at 52. I know from my kids' perspective that 30 sounds old, so I'm sure 52 seems like a ripe old age to go and he lived a long enough life, but holy hell does it sound young to me. I may not have been an active Luke Perry fan, but I liked him as "Sideshow Luke Perry" and he seemed like a decent person from a distance, and his death mostly made me feel jumpy and worried about my friends. I don't want to start losing friends.

Last year I made the mistake of not reminding people in my house that it was my birthday. That was a terrible idea and made for the worst birthday ever. NOBODY remembered. That was incredibly demoralizing because I feel like I work so hard all the time for everyone else, and to not have one person I live with remember to wish me a happy birthday? Ugh. This year they've all been reminded. But I also know they can't quite do anything so I'm still going to make my own cake and order my own dinner.

However, the lesson I learned? Wasn't just to remind people about your birthday if you want something to happen, but to maybe not do so much for them. Does that sound like the right lesson? It probably isn't, but mentally at that point I gave up on a lot of things. And not in a spiteful way. More in a reassessing what I do and I shouldn't be a martyr kind of way. I took some pressure off myself in terms of what I'm responsible for. Regardless of what we try, if I'm not the one in charge of how the house looks, the house looks terrible. And I'd rather write and make instruments than keep picking up the house, so right now it's awful. When we hit a crisis point I will make everyone stand up and I will lead a charge against the dust bunnies, but at the moment all I can think is that when I'm dead nobody will have appreciated that the house was neat anyway, but they may still read one of my books. I'd rather write more books.

So how does it feel to be 50? I'm not sure yet. As I'm sitting here this morning I'm still just me. That's the thing that surprises me every big birthday. In my head and my thoughts and my ambitions, I'm still just me. And I'm fine with me. There is lots I need to do better and places I can improve, but I like myself better than maybe I ever have. Mostly because I'm able to forgive myself for things that in the past may have been harder to let go. Things are a lot less black and white the more trips you take around the sun. On the one hand that makes you less quick to judge, and on the other faster to dismiss the things you can't be bothered with.

Life is short, but we only live in the now anyway. My now is pretty nice. I may go treat myself to a good cupcake. (Or maybe Pi.)


  1. Happy Birthday! I freaked out before turning 50, but now I'm 56 and 50 seems young!

  2. Always love to read more tripping!