The breakfast table was covered with birthday cards decoratively labeled "50," which meant somebody in our home had crossed the half-century mark. But who? I asked myself, gingerly rubbing ointment into muscles still inflamed from strenuous physical effort (getting out of bed).
Who is this aging person? I asked again, as I absent-mindedly hummed the theme song from "The Donna Reed Show."
Attempting to solve the mystery, I finally narrowed it down to either our 16-year-old daughter or myself. And since most 50-year-olds don’t badger their parents to let them practice driving (at a place that used to have bushes growing alongside the road), I deduced that it must be...me.
(Actually, I think my Dad was 50 when he taught me how to drive. He was in his 40s when I got behind the wheel and two hours later he looked 50. But maybe it was because I always kept my hands at the 9 and 11 o’clock positions on the steering wheel, a technique I developed myself. That way it’s easier for the driver to jump out of the car at high speeds if he feels he can no longer take responsibility for the vehicle.)
Being 50 means I was born in the ‘40s, for gosh sakes! World War II was just over, and we had yet to get the bill for the Marshall Plan. (Congress: "This seems a little high. Couldn’t they have used cheaper drywall?") I was born before rock ‘n’ roll, before StoveTop Stuffing. Ward and June Cleaver weren’t even dating yet.
Why, if I’m 50, don’t I look graying and distinguished, like Marlin Perkins of TV’s "Wild Kingdom"? I use him as an example because I actually met him when I was 9 years old. I was in the bathroom at the St. Louis Zoo, where he was curator, and he just walked in, like a regular person. I remember that as we stood together two things came to my mind: He was very tall, and, sometime earlier in the day, he must have been very thirsty.
It’s bad enough knowing that at 50, almost a third of my life has passed. But what is more demoralizing is that I may never reach the primary goal of my youth. I have not been—and may never be—a guest on the "Johnny Carson Show."
I was recently reminded of my new status when, as I was being chased down an alley by a speeding United Parcel Service truck, I tripped and fell, disgorging the contents of my shirt pocket which, 20 years ago, would have consisted of an old movie ticket stub. But being a 50-year-old, I’m required by law to carry reading glasses, various pens, a newspaper clipping about calcium replacement, and a Things I Have To Do Today notebook. (I double-checked later and nowhere did it say, "Get hit by a UPS truck.") When I was young we never carried a notebook to keep track of what we had to do since, if I remember correctly, we didn’t have anything to do. We weren’t like the kids today who have lots to accomplish but don’t do anything because they have to check their e-mail.
If I’d been hit by that UPS truck before my latest birthday, my friends would have lamented how young I was, and how premature my death was, since I had "so much life left to live." But now that I’m 50, they won’t do that anymore. They’ll just say how very sad it is, and point out that "after all, he was 50."
Physically, things start to change when you reach this milestone. The statute of limitations for self-confidence has lapsed and it’s time to start feeling bad about your body. So you have to join a gym. You also have to start using the phrase "back in my day."
Ironically, a gym does horrible things for your self-esteem, considering you’re there to feel better about yourself. That takes about six months of hard work. In the meantime, I feel like Calista Flockhart at a sumo wrestlers’ convention. I’m surrounded by guys who only use the word "50" when referring to push-ups. They’re so big that if Jane Goodall stopped by she would try to communicate with them. These guys are so huge that on the weekend they work for the U.S. Forest Service. As trees. (Editor’s Note: ENOUGH already!)
I briefly had a personal trainer, but that didn’t work out since the only words he knew in English were "give me five more!" or "who said you can stop now, MISS?!"
But that’s okay. I’m usually in my "zone" lifting heavy iron, plugged into my tape player and listening to the latest hit from Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Only to be interrupted by a trainer who comes over and tells me that I had, rather loudly, just asked the whole room if they wanted to "buy-uy-uy, this diamond ring-ing-ing-ing?" Answer: "Please don’t sing, sir."
And speaking of embarrassment, I hate that turning 50 means you have to start getting complicated-sounding medical tests that end with the word "probe." Knowing that this could unnerve some patients, my own health provider has designed a simple screening questionnaire for us older men:
1. Do you feel better than Boris Yeltzin?
2. If you answered "yes," please leave.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that HMOs don’t want you to live a long, healthy life. But if you can’t, then please die quickly, and don’t bother them. It’s none of their business.
Actually, my last visit to the HMO went pretty smoothly until a nurse insisted—rather rudely, I felt—that I put my clothes back on. "Please, sir. You’re still in the waiting room."
Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.