I just turned 50, and I discovered that when you turn 50, your friends decide they must reassure you, as though you have become mired in that anxious moment after a doctor has ordered up some tests but before the results have come back.
“Fifty is the new 30,” they say, because they clearly worry that saying “50 is the new 40” will still bring on the feeling that you are under assault by the ravages of time. “Your kids will keep you young,” they tell me, because I have three children under the age of seven. Oh, and someone looked at a photograph of her grandmother at 50, and let me tell you, she looked two decades older than any 50-year-old does now!
These attempts at consolation are an implicit acknowledgment that merely having survived for a half-century confers an automatic gravity on the newly minted quinquagenarian. That is due in part to the unspoken belief that, at 50, you have sunk your roots in. You may change jobs and homes, you may suffer reversals, you may produce your best work, you may achieve a degree of contentment you never knew, you may know pain you never imagined—but you have, at last, become who you are, and that is that. “At 50,” George Orwell wrote, “everyone has the face he deserves.” The flat power of that observation is heightened by the knowledge that Orwell was only 47 when he jotted it down in his journal. They were the last words he ever wrote.
When I was young, being young was the one thing I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be older. Older like my three older sisters, older like the characters in black-and-white Hollywood movies where there seemed to be no children at all, older like the adults whose overheard conversations on politics and literature and culture glittered like the Hope Diamond inside the glass display at the Museum of Natural History—inches away and yet unreachable. As a result, youth culture was of no interest. I spent my teenage years in the 1970s listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I grew a beard at 17. I wore sports jackets. I refused drugs and alcohol, and though I believed I was morally superior due to my abstinence, I was actually just doing what I could to hold myself apart from my peers. I read, and listened, and watched, and wrote, and did not participate.
And then, suddenly, because I acted so much older, I was treated as if I were. I was given jobs and responsibilities more appropriate to people twice my age. And I felt like I was twice my age. But I wasn’t. I had fooled myself into thinking that having read everything would teach me how to avoid the mistakes in judgment that are youth’s stock in trade, and would help me avoid the pain those mistakes bring upon oneself and others. But they cannot be avoided. They are part of what it means to be human. “Dearly, indeed, do I purchase experience!” cries Evelina, the heroine of Fanny Burney’s great novel of the same name. Me too.
One of the blessings of those mistakes is that I met my wife when I was 40 and had my children when I was 43, and 45, and 49. I know what I have, and how fortunate I am, because I know what it was like to be so long without them. If, at 50, everyone has the face he deserves, I hope that, when you see mine, what you see is the face of a father.