It bothers me, and it doesn’t bother me.
It bothers me because 50 does seems a point of no return in terms of getting older, of leaving behind what was possible, of death. I generally agree that the main definition of “older” seems to be pegged at about ten years older than you are right now: that is, to 20-year-olds, 30 seems old, and so forth. My parents and in-laws are both in their mid-70s, and I hear both of them mentioning “old” people who are in their 80s. But there is no denying the oldness and general adultness that is 50. When I first started teaching at the college level as a graduate student, I was 22— far too young. Because of EMU’s tenure system, I was promoted to full professor by 40, also pretty young. But no one is going to confuse me any longer for being too young for pretty much anything I do from here on out, except for the highly unlikely event that I’m nominated as a new justice on the Supreme Court.
I have to leave behind the reality that there are things I can never be or never do. Not that I ever was in great physical condition (I mean I’m healthy, but I’ve never been athletic), but my chances at this stage of becoming particularly good at anything like golf or running are slim. I doubt I’ll ever pick up an instrument. I’ll keep writing and I might even manage to turn back to fiction and other creative work, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to pay all the bills as a writer, part of the naive dream/plan I had 30 or so years ago. There are many places I will never go, there are many things I will never do.
And yeah, death. People dying in their 50s or 60s is too young (Garry Shandling just dropped dead of a heart attack in his mid 60s), but it is also not outside the statistical realm of when it is people end. I heard some place that everyone should take a moment every day and just acknowledge to themselves that yes, I’m going to die. I don’t know what that means really— that is, I assume that the experience of being dead is an impossible to comprehend nothingness like the experience of what the world was like before being born— but I do know that’s going to happen. And in acknowledging that, I think the point is to recognize the value and urgency of every day and to simultaneously recognize the insignificance of it all. I really like the Beatles song off of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of George’s I believe, “Within You Without You,” especially the chorus:
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you
On the up-side: I’m in a pretty good spot in my life right now, certainly better than I was for a lot of my 20s. I’m still very happily married to Annette and I’m incredibly proud of my son. I’m not the healthiest 50 year old within a 10 mile radius, I’m not the unhealthiest 50 year old, so I’ll take it. I’m quite happy with my work, and, without blowing myself up too much about it all, I feel like my career as an academic has been reasonably successful, too. I often return to something my colleague and friend Derek Mueller said off-hand one day (I’m not even sure how much he remembers this), which is that academic fame is an oxymoron, and I’m not (and will not likely become) a “big name” in my field. But I’m happy with where I’m at. We talk about moving all the time, but I’m still pretty happy with our house and neighborhood and how we’re living. We have enough money to pretty much do what we want (not that we want to do anything terribly extravagant), which is of course a huge difference between now and when I was 20-something or 30-something.
So yeah, it doesn’t bother me. Now it’s just a question of worrying about really getting old when I turn 60.