A fairly well-known member of the Baby Boomer generation, George Clooney, was recently quoted in The Daily Beast regarding his thoughts on aging.
“Turning 50, he said, ‘wasn’t a big year,’ although it marked an acceptance of becoming ‘a character actor. If you don’t, the audience you’re desperate to hold on to will go ‘This is silly.’ If you fall in love with the idea of how you were in 1998 you will be greatly disappointed by how you are [now].’”
He’s right. I must resign myself to being a character actor. I turn 50 next month.
Unfortunately, becoming a character actor would be a major step forward in terms of actually achieving something. As a non-Clooney “regular guy,” with none of the cachet of being a celebrated, internationally famous celebrity/activist, turning 50 is actually a big year. A man cannot turn 50 and not evaluate what the hell he has come to at this point in his half-century of life.
This is the article I’ve never wanted to write.
I don’t want to think about turning 50. I don’t want to turn 50. I don’t want to see the old man in the mirror. I try not to as much as possible. Ah, youth. I am enchanted and enthralled when I look at my beautiful young daughter. I, like many, am captivated by her youthful beauty and vitality. She’s small enough that I often carry her around and steal the hugs and kisses she freely gives. Sometimes, I sneak a peek in the mirror while we’re together. When I’m holding her, I forget about my decaying carcass. When the mirror frames the two of us, the distinction is horrifying.
I wonder why she doesn’t recoil with the same horror I experience. I suspect the rest of our youth-obsessed world recoils at my aged countenance — partially explaining the resistance I so often perceive. To be fair, there is an abiding, palpable love between my daughter and I, which masks many a flaw. There is a thick veneer of wool between her eyes and my face.
But the world is not made up of adoring daughters. What’s more, she will get less adoring as time marches on. One day, much sooner than I can stand, she will hear the Beatles, Elton John, the Eagles and other songs I play for her secretly on my guitar, when it’s just us two. She’ll hear the real versions. She’ll say, “Dad, who are these people playing your songs way better than you do?” The fraud will then be fully exposed.
And then, when she learns about royalties, and how I get none of them, her opinion will sink even lower.
Hey mister, can we have our ball back?
Nobody wants an old man — or an old woman, for that matter. Whether man or woman, “old” is not a positive qualifier. At 50, you have to fight to assert your relevance every day. Maybe that’s a good thing. We must strive to live every day because our time is limited. Aging forces you to confront issues you otherwise would not want to confront: health, ethics, morals, learning, growth, legacies, etc. When you turn a milestone age like @#&^ing 50, you would have to be the most blissfully shallow and unexamined person ever to not take stock of where you’re at in life.
On the precipice of 50 I may be many half-assed, unrealized things, but unself-reflective I’m not. I’ve given it a lot of thought. Too much thought. Turning 50 is going to make me a better person, right? Anyone?
Before all this happened
Clooney cautions to not put your 1998 self on a pedestal. Well, I hate my 1998 self as much or more than I dislike my 2014 version. If only because if I were better self-actualized then, I’d be better off now. Be honest. Conjure up who you were in 1998. Do you wish you were that person now? Unless you were a headlining movie- or rock star back then, I seriously doubt it. You better be dressing differently now, at the very least.
You may think I’m too harsh. Fine. But you’re not the one turning 50, are you? Who do you think you are, George Clooney?
By the time one turns 50, you’re supposed to have a lot of shit figured out, right? Can somebody please tell me it’s OK to not know anything at the age of #$*&ing 50? That’s not a rhetorical question. I could use the reassurance if you can spare any. Isn’t the expectation that by 50 you’ve long ago hit your stride? I strongly suspect it is, when I look at how other lives are portrayed in the media and that other show called “real life.”
What if you’re not just the man or woman who doesn’t like what he/she sees in the mirror? What if you sometimes look at your spouse and think, “I can’t believe I have a wife (or husband).” … Or kids, or a mortgage or a chance to do something extraordinary if I can just figure out how to get out of my own way again today? That kind of self-talk can happen at any age, to a point. It’s not supposed to still be happening when you’re 50. Right?
Fifty is the new … I’ll kill you
Don’t say “50 is the new 40.” I will split your body in two. I’ll kill one half of you now and then save the rest for later for when I need a pick-me-up. Because it’s not. 50-year-olds can do math. We know that 50 is approximately a full decade older than 40.
Also, turning 40 sucked too. Absolutely, it did. Many happiness indexes and polls show a sharp decline in perceived happiness when you’re in your 40s. Fifty is not going to be better. By my calculations, it will be about 20 percent worse than turning 40. Because at 50, you’re a character actor in your own life story. Even Clooney knows it.
So does science: A recent article published in Britain’s the Daily Mail reveals that people in their 40s and 50s suffer the most. Cheers, mate! Yet it’s not just the Brits that are especially stressed out, if you’re wondering. According to Time’s 2013 Happiness Poll, all Americans are less happy overall than we were just two years ago. Based on studies published in the Economist, Americans can expect to endure less stress as they age (yay!). That doesn’t start until mid-50s or later, (ugh) so I’m about 2/3 of the way through the statistically pronounced happiness slump. (Age 46 is the worst, statistically speaking). I shouldn’t worry about 50 so much as I should just hope to hold on until 55.
Then everything’ll be alright. Right? Um, uh, no. According to a 2013 study conducted by Princeton University and published in the New York Daily News, “For most, life hits a slump during the mid-50s.” Their study suggests we don’t get happy again until our late 60s. SonofaClooney!
Again, I don’t know anything. I’m almost 50 and I know nothing. For those of you that read this far, you probably fall into one of two camps:
- STFU, you whiny dipshit.
- George Clooney should give you a hug.
Both camps would be right. I’ve received and self-administered both doses of medicine many times over my half century of activity-resembling-a-life. I’m a classic Baby Boomer / Generation X tweener: born in 1964, so am astride each generation’s ass-end of the spectrum. I idolize Vince Lombardi, yet I’m quite certain he and I would quickly come to fisticuffs if ever in the same room to air out our life philosophies.
For the regular folks, or non-Clooneys (NCs), life at 50 is less about slaying dragons and more about remaining relevant. Here’s a Clooney-ism I can get behind, “The easiest way to become irrelevant is to stop. You have to reinvent yourself.” That is probably never been truer, with the way the U.S. economy trundles on. I may complain. I may trepidate. But I’m not going to stop … trying to get better, that is. Not complain. Well, I’ll do that too.
In fact, AARP believes that more Baby Boomers are choosing to take their years of experience and turn it into entrepreneurial efforts. They are reinventing themselves. Sounds good, right? The notion has appeal, but the article does sidestep the dirty, dark secret of many: this trend is born less of choice and more of necessity as Boomers get shoved aside.
Indeed, some may be hanging out their own shingle purely out of their own volition. These people are George Clooney. Many millions of others are doing so out of desperate need: to remain relevant; to remain fed, clothed and housed. Age bias aside, the economy is shrinking for oh, about 99% of us.
If you ain’t young and pretty, you better be really damn good at what you do. Anyone want to argue with that? If you are really damn good at what you do AND young AND pretty, well, you’re George Clooney, circa 1998.
I don’t know about you but I wasn’t George Clooney then, and I’m even less Clooney-esque now. And I’m almost 50.
For your age
The other day, my wife charitably offered up an opinion about my appearance. She said, “I think you look good … for your age.” That pretty much says it all. At 50, or thereabouts, there is no more “you look good [period].” There will always be the qualifier. Because, honestly, you don’t just “look good.” You can only look good for your age. Even if unstated, middle-aged adults know the deal. If someone tells you “you look good,” we both know they mean “… for your age.”
Let me say this about my wife. She is a positive thinker on most days and she’s got a pretty hefty investment in my carcass. It’s in her best interests to not feel like she made a terrible life choice and married an experimental mistake. It feels good for both of us for her to say, and possibly believe, that I “look good for my age.”
Another thing to know about my wife is that I can talk about her here because she’s not going to read this. She’s a serious, overly busy professional performing her own juggling act. She doesn’t have time to read my articles — she clicks “Like” on my Facebook page and moves on. Like you should have. What are you doing, wasting your time reading this when you should be doing something important with your life? Tick, tick, tick. Aaaaaaand scene. That was a little glimpse of my new one-man show “Aging and Self-Loathing are the Same,” appearing at no theater near you.
The ascending man
Who doesn’t want to believe they’re getting better as they get on? People who have given up, that’s who. It’s a distasteful thought, so we shunt it away. How do you believe you are ascending at 50?
Clooney warns of becoming irrelevant. I suppose all non-Clooneys (NCs) do at some point. Has anyone in the history of the world exactly nailed the moment of realizing when they became irrelevant at the exact moment they became irrelevant? I suspect not. I strenuously believe our powerful self-delusions of mediocrity (or grandeur) lag behind the way the rest of the world perceives us. We’re all the aging athlete that still thinks he “has a few good years left.” Even though no general manager is willing to hire him/her.
We convince ourselves that we’re still relevant. That’s good. It’s necessary if you want to achieve more. We’re alive so we must strive. But what if we’re not and we haven’t realized it yet? At 50. What if you’ve already peeled back the curtain enough times to see all the indicators? You cannot un-see that at 50.
The way we define happiness changes as we age. Is that because our previous understandings of happiness were wrong, or just because we cannot presently achieve that flavor of happiness, so we veer in a different direction? Our external conditions have changed at 50. We’ll drive ourselves insane if we hold on to the same measures of happiness we held at 40, 30, 22, 15….
So, did you redefine happiness because you wanted to or because you had to?
Back to health
I do try. I exercise. Over the past few years in particular, I’ve made dietary and lifestyle choices to improve my health and appearance. No, men are no less vain and insecure than women. Fortunately, I’ve been moderately successful in maintaining my carcass. The reasons why, though are not so graceful.
The reason why I decided to make more healthy choices in my 40s is simply hatred — hatred of what I was becoming. I hated the aches and pains. Hated the lack of stamina. Hated the lack of focus. Hated the weight gain. Hated the lack of relevance and vitality these human foibles implied. Hated, hated, hated it.
I know I’m not alone in this. A good friend of mine will turn @$#%ing 50 a couple weeks after I will. We met for the first time back in the fourth grade. Early on in our relationship, we had a formative moment, initiated by me.
We were in P.E. class, pushing around low-to-the-ground wooden roller carts for God-knows-why. It was some combination of 1970s exercise and this’ll-keep-‘em-busy activity. I spotted (name redacted because he’s a grown-ass lawyer) and blurted, “Hey! You’ve got rolls!” Meaning, I noticed I was not the only somewhat chubby kid in the class — there was another one like me. We both had flabby little guts hanging over our gym shorts.
In my innocence it was a pure hey-we’re-the-same-I-thought-I-was-the-only-one moment of fourth grade friendship bonding. To him, it was a life-altering revelation. He had no clue up to that point that he was not body-beautiful. His parents had perhaps overshot a tad in building up his self-esteem — until that day in P.E. class.
I shattered that illusion right there. He was devastated, mortified and made aware of something (true though it was) he never wanted to know. You’re welcome, (redacted)! Welcome to self-consciousness town, population: you, me and secretly almost everyone else. Clooneys of the world excepted, of course.
I didn’t know at the time what I had done. He has reminded me of it many times since. I ruined his childhood, I’m told. And his self-esteem from that point on. I’m also responsible whenever he loses his car keys and he still hates me for explaining to him that not all albums are chock full of hit songs, even though you spent your allowance money on them. That’s what friends are for.
So yeah, we’re all vain and insecure. At almost-50, we’re no less so. As it turns out, that battle of the bulge hasn’t gone away for either of us at middle age. If I need to shut him up, all I have to do is blurt, “You got rolls!” It stops him right in his tracks. He’ll laugh, because he gives as much as he takes when it comes to guy humor, but we both know he dies a little inside every time. Me too.
One day closer to Pink Floyd
On the whole, I am very fortunate to have the degree of health I have. I know this. However, it was clear I needed to make changes because aging forced me to realize I was losing ground. I live lactose-free, gluten-free, alcohol-free, spicy food-free, smoking-free, prescription drug-free and cranial hair-free.
No, I’m no damn fun at all. Again, be honest. Does my “-free” lifestyle sound like fun to you? But these choices (except for the @$%*ing cranial hair) are about making the happiest and healthiest me I can be. In my war against aging, I’m Debbie Downer. Here’s where a little less self-reflection might actually be a good thing. But that’s not gonna happen. There’s a case to be made that I wasn’t any damn fun before I got old, but I’m not offering any real estate in this article to those voices. So nyeah.
My health is good. And according to the one person whose opinion matters the most (except for the voices in my head), I’m looking pretty good for my age. Just to be safe, though, I won’t be standing next to George Clooney anytime ever. At 50, your best choice is to quit while you’re behind.
Comparison is the death of joy. Famously said by Mark Twain, it is undeniably true. The problem with turning 50 is that you have much to compare yourself to. It’s also a very tidy number. It rolls off the tongue. It is exactly one half of 100. It implies a halfway point of some kind. Until you start really thinking about it. Most of us don’t reach 100, so any notion of “being halfway there, baby” at 50 is quickly exposed as “you’re late!”
Let’s wrap this up on a positive note. C.S. Lewis wrote, “You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream another dream.” I believe that. It’s ammo for not getting too worked up about turning 50. On the flip side, Lewis never had to compare himself to George #*&^ing Clooney.
Go on. Turn 50, all you NCs. I dare you. And if you already turned 50 and survived it, tell me how. Was it denial? I bet it was denial. I can do denial.
An earlier version of this article appear on WiseTribe.
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