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Next Stop: Fiftysomething A 50th Birthday Doesn’t Always Result In A Full-Blown Midlife Crisis

SUNDAY, JAN. 11, 1998

I don’t remember my 10th birthday.

Twenty found me sitting in an Army barracks, softly singing to myself in the early-morning Virginia gloom. I’d just returned from leave, no one was awake to greet me and I almost cried from the loneliness of it all.

Thirty was even harder. My marriage was in crisis, I was fearful I’d never earn my graduate degree and my dream of getting a job in journalism seemed hopeless.

Worst of all, I hated that I was no longer a kid. Despite what biology was telling me, I wasn’t yet ready to be an adult.

Then came 40. Cliche dictates that this birthday should have been the worst of all. It was supposed to signal my official arrival at middle age and start the grieving process that all men seem destined to go through.

But I turned the cliche on its head. My then-wife Freddie, held a huge party for me and invited everyone we knew. We rented a hotel banquet room, hired a live band and drank and danced until the hotel management turned off the power.

This brings us to a couple of months ago. Specifically, it brings us to Oct. 24.

For on that day, in the midst of that European theme park known as Venice, Italy, I turned 50.

Imagine the significance.

Fifty, as we all know, is supposed to be another one of life’s major turning points. It’s supposed to be a time when men take up white-water rafting and mountain climbing. When they seek out trophy wives, buy fast cars, begin second families and maybe even change careers, all in the vain pursuit - often fueled by a sweaty sense of desperation - of turning back the clock.

Once again, I’ve failed to live out the cliche.

Oh, I’ve white-water rafted.

And I’m working on my second marriage. But the car I drive is now 10 years old, I’m content to be the father of a 19-year-old college freshman, and other than becoming the second Cormac McCarthy, I couldn’t imagine having a better job.

As for marriage, Mary Pat, my second wife of nearly three years, is certainly a treasure whom I cherish as a soul mate. But only a fool would dare call her a trophy wife, especially to her face.

Here’s what I know at 50: My life has been a steady progression toward self-improvement. I’ve experienced countless moments of joy getting here, but my childhood was fraught with frustration and pain. Since then, I’ve endured rage and discontent, bad humor and single-minded ambition, and only recently - the process began in my 40s - have I started to truly feel a desire for forgiveness, acceptance and compassion. Both for myself and for others.

Every day I struggle with a maze of conflicting feelings. I’m resolved to that. Even so, every day I find myself more capable of handling the rage and grief that made so much of my first 40 years a silly dance of self-abuse and misplaced blame.

For me, being 50 is less about trying to recapture a lost youth than it is about working toward making what I now have even better. I don’t see it as a loss. I see it as an opportunity.

But … I know what you’re thinking. “He’s rationalizing.” And maybe you’re right.

So since I’m trying my best to be honest, I’ll admit that there are drawbacks to being 50.

Here, for example, are 10 things that I miss about my youth:

Being able to throw a football without my arm falling off.

Summer vacations.

Being able to sleep until noon.

The feel of smacking a triple down the left-field line.

Being able to see farther than 6 feet without glasses.

Biceps.

Being able to wash down a large cheese pizza with a six-pack of beer, topping it all off with cigarettes and a 1-pound package of M&Ms; - and not need an antacid.

Weighing 165 pounds.

Being able to run 50 yards in less than six seconds.

Believing that anything is possible.

On the other hand, here are 10 things that I don’t miss about my youth:

Final exams.

Curfews.

Drill instructors.

Bell-bottom jeans.

Changing diapers.

Dating.

Pimples.

Proms.

The overwhelming need to ponder questions such as, “Just how big IS the universe?”

The expectation that I have to do something meaningful with my life when to this day I have no idea how to define the term meaningful.

Let me add an 11th thing that I don’t miss.

Temper tantrums.

OK, we’re still being honest here, so let me cop to something: My temper is legendary.

Example: As a sportswriter in the early ‘80s, I had all the emotional control of a Chihuahua. Anything could set me gnawing on someone’s leg.

One Saturday afternoon, after I had labored a couple of hours over a particular story, one of my colleagues accidentally erased it from the computer. Two hours of work. Gone. Irretrievable.

I reacted calmly. Sort of. I remember nodding my head, doing a little dance step, swinging my foot and kicking a file cabinet as hard as I possibly could. Then, with ungodly pain shooting up my leg, I summoned as much dignity as I could and walked out of the office. No one said a word. Then.

Yet for years, a small paper label remained taped over the dent in that file cabinet. It read, “Websfoot was here.” To this day, my sportswriter friends still recall the incident with laughter.

And I still experience an ache in my toe joint.

So after returning from my recent six-week sojourn in Italy, it was only natural for one of my features department colleagues to predict that my first “hissy-fit,” as she called it, would take place at 9 a.m. my first day back.

I fooled everybody. I didn’t raise my voice until 3 the next afternoon.

Here’s the difference, though: While I’m still quick to anger, it doesn’t last nearly as long. Through years of practice and soul-searching, I’ve learned to see what’s below the rage. And that becomes the focus of my concentration.

As a result, I find myself laughing a lot more. I try to view those things that I find intolerable - the duplicity of politicians, the blindness of public officials, jerks who cut me off in traffic, the hypocrisy of religious leaders, the intransigence of bureaucrats, snotty sales clerks, deceit in any shape or form - as just another part of this comedy we call life.

More than anything else, I try to laugh at myself.

It isn’t always easy. But that’s just part of the challenge.

In a book called “Are You Old Enough to Read This Book: Reflections on Midlife” (Reader’s Digest, 192 pages, $21), I read a number of essays on the aging process. Many were thoughtful, and a few even prompted me to smile.

Here’s former broadcaster Linda Ellerbee writing about the inevitability of life’s passing:

“We can exercise ourself to the skin and bone,” she wrote. “We can eat nothing but broccoli. We can pay the plastic surgeon, dye our hair, date (and/or marry) much younger men and women, boogie the night away, quit old careers, start new businesses, make new friends and change old habits, but we cannot stop time. We cannot go back and be who we were. Those people are gone. We must, eventually, accept what is. Fact doesn’t stop being fact just because you don’t like it.”

Humorist Roy Blount Jr. discussed developing a whole new concept of old.

“I’m in my early 50s,” he wrote. “I’m new at getting old. … I’m getting into a fresh field. I’m a rookie old-timer, a fledgling gaffer, a tenderfoot duffer, a whipper-snapper as far as senescence goes, a raw AARP recruit.”

Playwright Larry L. King was more succinct.

“Memo to any fearful folks soon turning 50,” he wrote: “Relax.”

There are various ways to do this, of course. Most involve making the most of what you have.

Eat a nutritional breakfast, for instance. Exercise, and use your mind.

Concentrate on living skills. Work on having a better marriage. Learn how to decide whether even to stay married. And whatever your decision, learn how to communicate with your children.

Find joy in your work. But realize that life is more than a 60-hour work week.

Make new friends - and hold on to your old ones.

Turn former lovers into friends. … OK, so maybe there are some things you don’t need to do.

But here is a certainty: Never, ever stop making love.

As I write this, I’m nine years and 290 days from my 60th birthday. Even writing that seems inconceivable. In my mind, I’m still that Army recruit, immersed in my own personal birthday party.

Yet the clock is ticking. I can’t stop it.

I wouldn’t if I could.

Seriously. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BABY BOOMERS* AT A GLANCE 96 percent have high school diplomas. 73 percent say turning 50 doesn’t faze them. 70 percent are fully employed. 69 percent of men say they “have sex a lot, and it’s great.” 62 percent of women say they “have sex a lot, and it’s great.” 50 percent live in two-income households with family incomes of $65,000 or more. 50 percent have children under 18. 40 percent are college graduates. 40 percent say that religion “has become more important to them over time.” 38 percent cite the Vietnam War as having the biggest impact on their lives. 33 percent live in households that have family incomes of $80,000 or more. 14 percent have advanced college degrees. 13 percent hate turning 50. 4 percent list hard liquor as “their drug of choice.”

*Baby Boomers are defined as those Americans born between the years 1946-64. Statistics were compiled by New Choices magazine.

This sidebar appeared with the story: BABY BOOMERS* AT A GLANCE 96 percent have high school diplomas. 73 percent say turning 50 doesn’t faze them. 70 percent are fully employed. 69 percent of men say they “have sex a lot, and it’s great.” 62 percent of women say they “have sex a lot, and it’s great.” 50 percent live in two-income households with family incomes of $65,000 or more. 50 percent have children under 18. 40 percent are college graduates. 40 percent say that religion “has become more important to them over time.” 38 percent cite the Vietnam War as having the biggest impact on their lives. 33 percent live in households that have family incomes of $80,000 or more. 14 percent have advanced college degrees. 13 percent hate turning 50. 4 percent list hard liquor as “their drug of choice.”

*Baby Boomers are defined as those Americans born between the years 1946-64. Statistics were compiled by New Choices magazine.


 

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