On the Merits and Drawbacks of Turning 50

I’m going to be 50 in a scant few days. I was born in 1960, at the tail end of the baby boom and smack in the middle of the “Time Before Seat Belts.” It’s a wonder I made it this far. As kids, we would lie up in the big back window ledge of our family’s Ford Fairlane, and when my dad hit the brakes because a deer crossed the road, we’d be catapulted down into the back seat in a heap of arms and legs. That’s why you always wanted the slot closest to the back window, so you could use your little brother as a cushion. (Thanks, Chris.) Plus, it was cozy and warm back there when the sun cooked that giant piece of glass, and every now and then you’d find a french fry.

You couldn’t really do this in my dad’s truck because there was no window ledge and the gun rack got in the way, so we’d bounce along in the open bed with the rabbit beagles and let the wind whip through our hair, back when we had some. Things were a little riskier growing up in the 1960s in the country. “Babyproofing” the house meant remembering to put the rifles back in the gun case after you got back from a hunt. Once when I was a kid, I got sprayed by shot while hunting rabbits, and another time I almost drowned trying to impress a girl by swimming across a deep and swiftly moving mountain river. She ended up saving me, so I don’t think I was that impressive. (Thanks, Cindy.)

But this isn’t a column about all the ways I almost died as a boy. It’s a celebration of the miracle of making it this far. That doesn’t mean turning 50 isn’t unsettling, but it sure “beats the alternative,” as my ex-father-in-law famously said when I asked him if it was upsetting to reach 70.

When I told my former editor over lunch that I was thinking of doing my column this week on turning 50, he looked me in the eye and said very clearly, “No.” But then I reminded him that he wasn’t my editor now, and that I had some killer jokes about getting shot and almost drowning. As an experienced professional, he knew that writing a turning-50 column is the most tired, worn, threadbare tool in the aging columnist’s arsenal. But I don’t worry about that kind of thing, because I’m turning 50. And I know full well that by writing this I risk finally completing my ongoing transformation into the “male Erma Bombeck,” or a “younger version of Andy Rooney,” as some of my commenters have suggested over the years. If you know who these two people are, you already know what it feels like to be 50. (For the record, I love Erma Bombeck.)

And that’s the real beauty of turning 50. You don’t care as much what other people think anymore. You just want to do your job and get home so you can take your Ensure and maybe get a little sleep without the damn neighbor’s dog barking and those kids yelling all day long up and down the damn street. Is that too much to ask?

They say that 30 is the year you become invisible to teenagers, so what does that make 50? For me, it’s the year I can’t see the teenagers who found me invisible starting 20 years ago. If I forget to take my reading glasses to a restaurant, I have to do one of two things: go home, or ask a friend to read me the menu.

But it’s been a great run. In my 50 years, I’ve survived a lot. My life has been 99 percent good. I have two amazing kids, and I’m healthy enough to drink bourbon every day. But there have been some rough patches: divorce, cancer, a cratering workplace, and once having to watch the opera Nixon in China. OK, maybe it hasn’t been 99 percent good. But I’ve lived in some amazing times. I’ve seen my beloved Cincinnati Reds win a World Series live, and I’ve met a couple of presidents. I’ve traveled all across the country, and visited America’s hat, Canada. But none of those life experiences prepared me for the shock of what happened last week: George W. Bush’s job-approval rating was higher than Barack Obama’s, according to Gallup. These are truly some heady times we’re living in.

You get less worked up about stuff the longer you live. At least about stuff that’s not relevant to your own daily life, or about how many times you have to get up every night to go to the bathroom. Take WikiLeaks, for instance. At first I thought that was a new brand of adult diaper, but later I learned it was a website started by some pasty guy named Julian Assange to leak classified documents with the aim of—well, I’m not sure, really. But I don’t think he likes America very much. To me, he’s like a poor man’s James Bond villain whose secret lair is in his mom’s basement. But what I’ve learned from living for five decades is that the news cycle will move on from him soon enough, and we’ll have some other nefarious enemy to wring our hands about.

I am still struggling to determine exactly what it means to be half a century old, so I don’t have much more wisdom to share with others approaching this milestone. But I do have one small piece of advice: if you’re lucky enough to live as long as me, don’t go home and whine to your mom about how old it makes you feel to be turning 50. I tried that at Thanksgiving, and I’m lucky she wasn’t holding her cast-iron frying pan at the time. Let’s just say she wasn’t all that sympathetic. I’m still not sure why.

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