"...enjoy every sandwich." - Warren Zevon
It's my friend, Steve's 50th birthday today. Being 51, I have some prior experience with turning fifty and I can't say I was graceful about it. I spent the day whimpering under a blanket with many pints of pistachio ice cream.
I crawled out briefly for dinner, but couldn't sustain so much exposure to light or sound I tried to reflect on my good fortune at being able to enjoy five decades in great health with hardly any problems that weren't of my own design, but I couldn't quite haul myself up and over the edge of the abyss.
I could not quite get past the feeling that I had enjoyed plenty of time to accomplish something (five decades, in fact) but that I had just gotten sidetracked. If I'd started studying Italian thirty years ago, I'd be fluent and running an olive empire in Liguria by now.
I could have been a ballroom dancer or a hot air balloonist or an octopods expert. I could have established my own quack religion, become a wealthy tele-evangelist, developed a wicked barbiturate habit along with an inappropriate fondness for my young backup singers, crashed my empire and suffered public scorn and humiliation. I could have bought low and sold high.
I longed to stop wondering if I'd ever become a successful person and just already BE a successful person. Instead, I turned out like myself. I should have seen that coming.
Even though a fiftieth birthday is just a flash in a lifetime of days, just another scenic lookout on a long journey, I seemed to have less capacity for hope at fifty than I did at forty. Forty seemed like I was just maturing into something fabulous - like a peach when it ripens to its full fragrant, shapely peachiness. Fifty was more like a peach that has fallen to the bottom of the crate - soft and a spotted brown in places with no shelf-life left to it. Deflated and mushy.
I'm glad to report that it was worthwhile to stay on the Blue Bus just to see what happens on the day AFTER turning 50. I got some perspective - maybe for no other reason than self-preservation (those brown spots aren't going anywhere) or I started to appreciate that while I may be one of small percentage of people for whom 50 is actually midlife, the actuarial tables are not in my favor. I have less time to squander on dissatisfaction or unhappiness, and fewer people who have the patience to hear about it.
This is what I said to myself after I got to the other side of flipping the decade:
There never was anything wrong with you or your life. Life is just very unruly and refuses to lie down quietly or behave predictably. It's just one dragon after another.
If you were only psychic, you could have predicted all the consequences of any action you have ever taken. Your life, then, could have unfolded according to the chosen script. This happens to no one - not even people who believe themselves to be psychic.
Alas, your inability to read the future has resulted in fifty years of imperfect choices, which have resulted in some monster regrets. This is counter-intuitive, because...
Everything we love and treasure right now is the result of a series of proximate causes that winds backward through our lives - some of it was great and some of it wasn't, but we landed where we are whether we think the causes were positive or negative. Disastrous love affairs produce beloved children; failures morph into unexpected opportunities; old dreams die and new dreams find a place to root.
We get another do-over at fifty if we're willing to live lightly, I think. It's a crossroads where you can decide if you're too disappointed or just too apathetic to reinvent yourself, or if you have enough of a sense of humor left to say, "This is absurd, but, what the hell..."
I wrote all this down and thought, "Well, I wonder what Steve thinks about this on his 50th birthday."So, I sent it to him, and this is what he wrote back:
"At 37, Tom Lehrer noted that "when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years." So by the time we hit fifty, shouldn't it be all the more likely that we would feel that overwhelming urge to look backwards? Like Lot's wife turning to glance over her shoulder at Sodom and Gomorrah, what fifty-year-old can resist the impulse to look back and survey the flaming ruins of his or her own past?
Check that - it seems to me to be compulsive rather than impulsive. It's almost as though there's no choice. During the final weeks of the run-up to my birthday, an evil voice in my head kept viciously spitting out the term "half-century." It really is an undeniable checkpoint. And as Ingrid points out, the math is soberingly clear.
By fifty, there doesn't seem to be much time left in which to pull the ideal life (never mind how vague that notion may be) out of the magic hat. So if there's not much ahead to look at, where can we look but back?
My "long and winding road" story sounds much like Ingrid's. I'd had no real problem with previous decade "flips." They actually provided me with ample reasons to look toward the future.
Maybe I simply didn't want to reflect on my perceived lack of accomplishments, but at thirty, I didn't mourn the passing of my foolish twenties. For me, the thirties held the promise of a resilient physical and intellectual vigor seasoned with experience.
When my thirties didn't quite pan out, the forties were still promising. They were obviously (to echo the fruit metaphor) about ripening into a creative maturity. I was never the eternal optimist, but there always seemed to be plenty of time left. I was going to be the classic late bloomer.
But by forty-nine, the ticking of the clock had gotten louder and louder. I'd had no solid career to speak of, much less a current job. My twenty-fifth high school reunion (I didn't go) had long since come and gone. Graduate school, which had seemed interminable, was now a fading memory.
And two weeks before my birthday, I was in a department store fitting room trying on some pants and caught a shocking glimpse of the back of my head in the double mirrors. It was like witnessing the rapid deforestation of the Brazilian jungles. If you have thinning hair, avoid rooms with double mirrors - fitting rooms, traditional barber shops and the like. As my friend James said the other night, "There's no reason to look back there."
But you know, something happened when my birthday finally arrived. I woke up and somehow the day just felt good. At noon I had lunch with my wife and kids at our favorite hamburger joint. My 13-year-old outplayed me at pool, which I actually found quite gratifying. My daughter was all hugs and kisses.
They gave me an iPhone, a wonderful surprise which I'll still be learning to use on my 60th birthday, I'm sure. I even had one of those perfect crosstown driving trips, where every light is green and all the drivers are courteous. That night I had Mexican food and margaritas with my wife and a few close friends, and it was a truly great time.
It was just a day filled with good, simple things. I wasn't looking forward or backward, and everything was all right. The Buddhist in me was proud that I somehow spent most of the day being aware and in the moment.
Not only was the past, past - but hey, to hell with the future as well. Like Jesus said: "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Had He been more of an optimist, He might have said "good" instead of "evil." That's how I'd like to think of it, anyway.
I'd also like to second Ingrid's observation about unexpected rich results of a "series of proximate causes." In one of my favorite poems, Bad People, Robert Bly points out that "Bad handwriting sometimes leads to new ideas." The good things in our lives can come about both because of and in spite of our failures and mistakes.
We aspire, and we screw up. Over and over. But on any given day - even a fiftieth birthday - the place where you happen to find yourself might just be a good one."
Smart guy, that Steve.
It's a good day for a birthday. It's a good day to enjoy a sandwich.
© 2011 Ingrid Gabriel