50 Braves the Gray

Today the good people of AARP put me in my chronological place by sending a joyful birthday bundle that offered a free sporty tote and an invitation to be old.  Oh sure, there are more subtle reminders that you’re reaching the half century mark, such as the stern recommendation for your first colorectal exam, but there’s something about joining AARP that feels like resigning to your twilight years, like sweatpants after a failed diet.  How did it happen?  How have 50 years already slipped through my hair follicles?  When people joke that aging “beats the alternative”, it’s usually because the “alternative” is a distant notion beyond the consideration of youthful immortality.  Aside from the sad outliers that depress us during fundraisers life has a suggested expiration date.  There is a predictable marching order with generations lined up before you, great grandparents, grandparents, parents and the latest generation bringing up the rear.  Suddenly I find myself near the front row with more generations lined up behind me, leaving an unobstructed view of the “alternative”.

When I was in the 5th grade we did a project about “the future” where we were tasked with looking ahead to the turn of the century; the year 2000.  A year mysteriously sandwiched between “Space: 1999” one of my favorite TV shows of the time and “2001 Space Odyssey” one of my favorite movies.  I had high hopes for the scientific marvels promised by film makers and listed them out with relish.  But in the midst of geeking out on how my future self would be jet-setting like the Jetsons, I was struck by just how old my future self would be… 32.  That was like super old; after high school, after college, after adulthood.  That’s when most people just give up.  Slide into middle age.  Become domesticated.  Fade into obscurity.  Wear sweatpants.  It was hard to even imagine.

When I was 32, about to enter an Apocalypse / Fallout themed New Year’s party for the turn of the century, my 5th grade assignment came to mind.  It was crazy to think about how much time had flown by.  And while I was starting to feel a little past my prime I knew many aspects of my life were just beginning; my career was marching along and expanding in new directions.  I was on the verge of getting married and starting a family.  The idea of turning 40 was still just a distant threat like the tearful revelation in “When Harry Met Sally”;

SALLY: And I’m gonna be 40!

HARRY: When?

SALLY: Someday!

HARRY: In eight years.

SALLY: But it’s there. It’s just sitting there, like this big dead-end.

When the fateful day arrived, and I turned 40 I was pretty content with my life.  I had my career.  I had my family and friends.  I had my domestic routine in the heart of the suburbs.  I could settle in, switch to auto pilot and happily ride out whatever remaining milestones life had instore.  Then, a couple years later, everything changed:  My career stalled; Educational software flat lined; My marriage ended; My routine was shattered; The introvert, content with a steady family life needed help from others, needed to impress loan agents for homes, employers for jobs and single woman for dates.  I wondered if I’d get it all back on track before I hit my 50th birthday.

As the final countdown approaches I’m faced with the constant reminder of my pending age by simple association; the media loves a 50th anniversary, so I get glimpses of other things that happened 50 years ago and how much the world has changed since I’ve been around (for which I take total credit).

In 1968 much of the county was still in chaos, trapped in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, one year out from the contrasting Summer of Love, with social unrest continuing to bubble up across the country.  U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos made headlines worldwide with their Black Power salutes during the Olympic Games.  Off-Broadway, the provocative play “The Boys in the Band” debuted with a raw look at gay society.  Calls for social change grew louder as two of its strongest advocates, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were both silenced during the year.

In other sectors lives were saved with the invention of the crash test dummies, the installation of airbags and the founding of the 9-1-1 emergency program.  The first US heart transplant was pioneered at Stanford.  We grew up as Flintstone Kids with the namesake vitamins tasting vaguely like Sweet Tarts’ bitter sibling.

Along with 2001 Space Odyssey we were entertained by the premiers of Funny Girl, Planet of the Apes, and Rosemary’s Baby.  The new MPAA movie rating system was introduced on a voluntary basis in case studios saw fit to warn the public about things like Rosemary’s demonic baby daddy.  At home, we watched the first episodes of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and marveled at how much we could be pacified by creepy hand puppets.  If you were lucky enough to be incarcerated at Folsom State Prison that year you enjoyed Johnny Cash’s live concert, which was recently commemorated with a long trail through Folsom so escaped convicts have a clearly marked route.

You know those celebrities that we seemed to grow up with?  Well, it turns out that’s because we literally did grow up with them; Molly Ringwald and the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, were both born 50 years ago.  Also, celebs I would encounter later in life as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Grace (Debra Messing) are all getting their AARP cards this year, along with celebrity cooks Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri.  Apparently even celebrities get old. Who knew?!

I’m aware that time marches on, but it’s the gradual progression that masks the more startling changes, like the frogs in the slowly boiled pot.  That’s how it feels; I just woke up one day to find that I had aged.  The person in the mirror no longer reflects the age I feel.  I’m not alone in that assessment either.  Surveys found that most adults over age 50 feel at least 10 years younger than their biological age.  On average, survey respondents said old age begins at 68. But few people over 65 agreed; they said old age begins at 75.  One of my new pals from AARP summed it up with “Old age is always a bit older than you are.”  Age is simply a state of mind not a survey of wrinkles. If left to our own perception how old would we feel inside?  If it weren’t for those cursed mirrors candid photos of our bald spot could we live comfortably within our youthful delusions?

As I enter the fabulous 50’s, clearly, I don’t “have it all figured out”, but that’s ok. I’ve happily resolved my social situation and foresee great things ahead.  As for my career I’m still wrestling with my choices and seeking the means to take another path, but even that holds a degree positive potential in the years to come.  I am not resigned to ride out my years like my younger self had once feared.  There’s more life yet to be lived.  I will embrace this new age and I will embrace the future me just as I embraced my AARP card… crumpled tightly in a clenched fist of acceptance.