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turning fifty

m. werneburg, 2021.03.04

They say that fifty is the new forty. But looking back, comparing the two ages seems absurd.

When I turned forty, I wrote about where my head was at. Now I'm more concerned about my decrepit body. When I turned forty, I talked about possibility. Now I mostly think about responsibility.

On the responsibility front, it's complex. I'm now an executive, and have been for years. I've been on two non-profit boards. I've sat on industry committees and helped write regulatory guidance. I've been invited to sit on and chair discussion panels. I have fifty staff.

At home, I'm managing ever-greater expenses with an income that barely exceeds what I was earning in the late 90's when adjusted for income. I look ahead and can't see how we can possibly get from here to a secure retirement. I spend any potentially disposable income on life insurance and vitamins and middle-aged things like that–I'm considering a camera lens for the first time in years.

And yet: I manage. I was on those industry committees because there were things that need doing. I was on one non-profit board because there's a world that needs changing. I'm in executive positions because there are people that need leading. And I'm a parent for life, and very grateful for it. Who would I be if I hadn't loaded myself down with responsibilities? The same drifter I was for far too long. With no roots, no community, and nothing to offer? Yes, forty-year-old me, I'm looking at you.

You can't live care-free forever. Your decrepit body will see to that. When I was a teen, my right knee would start to twinge when there was snow coming. Now it grinds and flares with pain if I bend to hug my daughter. I have constant pain across my lower back, and my only news there is that at least it's better than during the period at 41-42 when I could only walk slowly and could not run at all. My eyes ache all the time and I wear "prescription reading glasses" which I didn't know was a thing. I'm so grey and wrinkled I look more like my father than I do myself. And I'm building a collection of pants that no longer fit.

And yet: when I bought that life insurance, I was rated in the healthiest bracket of people my age. Yes, plagued with aches and pains (I live with a daily migraine management regime) but in overall fitness and health I was somehow two levels above the norm. For all of my forties I rode my bicycle twenty kilometers a day for nine or ten months of the year, only stopping when the pandemic came.

And in more actively managing the migraines, I'm far, far ahead of where I was at forty. I have to be; I literally don't have time to be sick.

It comes back to being a parent. It is—how do I put this—a bit of a influence on your schedule. I had time for creative writing, before my son was born. Before my daughter was born, I'd have time for photography at least. That's only now finally returning after a long, long absence.

I can't now remember what the point of life was, before having kids. Was there one? Now there is. I get to introduce two people to life! It's amazing. And as crippling as it is, draining you of ability to do anything else, it seems worth the trade-off.

I'm grateful for this opportunity to wade into middle-age. Of aging, it's always easy to say, "It sure beats the alternative", but we live in dangerous times and I live in an area of calm. And with children in the mix, the stakes are higher. One of my closest friends in high school drowned at 34, already a father but struggling with that and many other aspects of life. Another friend and mentor crashed a plane a few years ago. He was a parent, and I've now outlived him, too. I'm less than a half a decade away from the age at which my grandmother died. Just yesterday a coworker around my age told me that her husband's been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I'm thankful.

Which leaves me thinking about wrapping up. Do I have a neat encapsulation? No. But maybe that's it; there's nothing to the age you're at, it's just a number as we keeping ticking over. Yes, we fall apart, and yes it comes faster than we could imagine. As Trotsky allegedly said, "Old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to man." So be it.

Speaking of Trotsky, I used to aspire to the man's oratory, leadership, and insight. I'll have to settle for similar hair.

Speaking of hair, I don't mind at all that I'm now settling into the appearance of a middle-age weirdo. Looking like a weirdo when you're younger doesn't work but for middle age it can kind of work. Harmless weirdo, mind you.

 
 

rand()m quote

Death comes quickly to those with a cause.

—Sir Frances Jamieson (fictional, short story 'Catalyst' by Michael Werneburg)