Nine years ago, when I was 52 and just emerging from the shock of "the death of youth" -- what Sara Davidson calls "the narrows" and my dreams insisted was a "dark wood" -- I started writing a book of short essays about this life passage, which nothing had prepared me for. The book was going to be called FACE IT: The Awful, Awesome Truth About Turning 50. After writing a few of the essays, I made the mistake of showing them to two of my younger sisters and a . . . I forget if she was a literary agent or an editor. My sisters never responded at all (I later learned that one, unable to face the subject, put them in a drawer), and the agent, editor, whatever she was, told me celebrities like Dave Barry were writing books about turning 50 and what made me think I could compete with them? Too easily discouraged, I also put them in a drawer.
Now that most of that "bulge in the python" called the baby boom has squeezed past 50, and the new frontier is 60 (a whole other can of worms), that book project's time has passed. But people keep on turning 50, and a friend I've known since childhood has finally given me the encouragement I needed to share these few essays more widely. I'll start typing them into the blog -- although they are more formal pieces -- and when they're all done I'll give them their own sidebar.
50. It's a heavy number, literally. Just the sound of it is so awesomely solid, so undeniably there. It says, Well, kiddo, you've finally -- suddenly! -- accumulated a pile of years too big to sweep under the rug.
There's no wishing fifty away, no getting around it. You've got to face it. And it's humiliating, but with an unexpected little undertone of pride -- the way it is to have a body that stubbornly fights to take the shape of authority rather than the shape of allure. "Fifty" isn't glamorous (though God knows there are glamorous fifty-year-olds). It's substantial, firm, foursquare. It sounds -- and often, feels -- like a stout oaken beam on which the weight of the world is resting.
In a culture and a marketplace that worships youth, having lived half a century is a dubious achievement. Where seasoning counts for little compared to succulence, and wisdom is treated as a consolation prize for impotence, it's not surprising if feelings of loss, fear, and shame predominate over those of power, peace, and fulfillment. But I doubt whether the approach of one's 50th birthday has ever been greeted without ambivalence, or celebrated without a tinge of melancholy. This is, after all, the age when -- on the average -- we used to die.
In 1900, life expectancy at birth was 49 years. In 1920, thanks to advances in public sanitation, it was 54. Today it's over 75! But this is a development so recent that it has not yet penetrated very deep into our subconscious. The body has much stronger ties to the Stone Age than to the space age; after 35, it's convinced it's living on borrowed time. Around 45, it start dutifully making certain preparations to withdraw from life: packing away short-range vision, turning down (and then off, in women) the flow of sex hormones. And the psyche responds, on cue, with panic and protest, mourning and resignation -- first recoiling from, then turning to face, death . . . an event that now may well be more than 30 years away.
Yet there is something deeply appropriate about this turning, and its timing (and something foolish and pathetic about those who refuse its call). The fact is, most human beings at 50 are closer to life's end than to its beginning, and will remain so unless and until the life-extension crusaders really pull off a genetic revolution. (They're not even close.) When honestly faced, rather than fled, this inescapable fact can sharpen and clarify experience, the way risk does for mountain climbers and skydivers. (Just think, you can live on the edge without even leaving home!) Then too, as full of life as a 50-year-old may be, he or he is going through a death: the death of youth -- and the rebirth of . . . what? Fifty-year-olds today are more fit and vital than ever before, and have broader, sunnier vistas to look forward to -- but, we are no longer young. So what are we, and what do we have to contribute to this world in the place of sheer animal beauty?
It's a big question, as millions of new settlers flood this temporal frontier -- the ever-expanding zone between "young" and "old" where only the hardiest pioneers, the Bucky Fullers and Louise Nevelsons, broke trail before. A twenty-five-year lease is now offered (barring acts of God), by both modern and alternative medicine, to any homesteader willing to take good care of the soil We step off the 50 Express and we're like newcomers from the lush, green East, stunned by the size and spareness of this landscape, trying to figure out what on earth to do with a hundred acres of high desert. Will we compel it to be fertile in the familiar sense -- having babies with donor eggs, starting second families and mad love affairs, applying whatever chemicals it takes to live like we did back home in Youth? Will we insist on emerald lawns, and make of middle age a sort of Los Angeles, sustained by stolen water? Or will we be attentive to the subtler beauties of this new terrain, and try to cultivate the life-forms that are native to it? (How about some of both? Aging is like childbirth: doing it the purely "natural" way is a romantic notion, but when the reality hits, you may find yourself screaming for drugs!)
My friends and I discuss these things among ourselves endlessly, but in furtive, lowered tones, as if we were dealing dope or plotting treason. There's a strong taboo against saying it right out -- Hey, we're middle-aged! -- a sense that it's just too dowdy and depressing to cop to, and if we are careful not to mention it, maybe no one else will notice. The official story on The New Fifty is relentlessly upbeat, as celebrity after celebrity is paraded before us, praised for how wondrously little she or he has managed to change. Most experts seem to think that what we want to hear is a lot of chirpy cheerleading about how life can go on just as before, youth can be prolonged indefinitely -- even as our own bodies and souls are telling us otherwise. Funny how so many of the golden-years gurus address us in the same sprightly, syrupy tone grown-ups use when they're lying to kindergarteners, who would much rather hear a good Grimms fairy tale any day. Sorry, but having made the trip, I'm not going to write home lies. This place is different, and the difference is insistent. It cannot be completely disguised or denied.
Arrival in "middle age," it turns out, is no mere accumulation of experience. It's an actual change of state, as dramatic as a caterpillar's turning into a chrysalis and then a butterfly. This may be most obvious in women -- as gradual as its approach is, menopause itself is brutally abrupt -- but it happens to men too, as anyone knows who's ever gone to a 25th or 30th reunion and barely recognized the remembered lissome lad buried in some stout, balding dad. At fifty, you just plain look different. We fight this with Botox and Rogaine, but can't win. Dyed hair looks dyed, unless you can afford a movie star's hairdressing budget, and a fifty-year-old who's had plastic surgery looks like . . . a fifty-year-old who's had plastic surgery. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you -- I'm seriously considering it myself -- but if you think anybody is fooled, you're kidding yourself.
Looking different, however, is only the outward sign of a much deeper change: you see differently. The butterfly does not live in the same world as the caterpillar. Sometime around fifty -- maybe a little later for men -- you discover that the scales have fallen from your eyes, and the scales were the sex hormones. The enterprise of reproduction, like that of selling (with which it has quite a bit in common), rests squarely on illusion. As the all-consuming urgency of reproduction subsides, the natural tendency -- resist it as you may -- is to become dis-illusioned. Like a Sleeping Beauty narcotized at puberty, you awaken from your long erotic dream into an unfamiliar world, whose colors, contours, and very laws of physics are nothing like what you're used to.
For those fortunate enough to be in good health, this may be the most disorienting and distressing part of the metamorphosis into middle age. (Needless to say, my friends who've had breast cancer, and are just glad to be alive, view this complaint as something of a luxury.) We are, quite literally, in withdrawal from decades of intoxication -- what the Buddha, who never heard of a hormone, called "the intoxication of youth." Any twelve-step veteran will tell you that boredom, depression, and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) are common pitfalls of the first year or so without one's drug. Like other recovering addicts, we may be forgiven if we slip and grab for the young babe or the hormone bottle. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I panicked at my first glimpse of a world untinted by the rose-colored glasses of eros. Where was the ravishing, beckoning beauty? What else had the power to move me, literally, through life? What was there left to want? Just last night (I'm 52 now) I dreamt I was fishing with a slotted spoon for the last few sweet raisins in the botto of a soup pot. I think they were raisins d'être.
It's at this crisis point that some sort of hormone replacement therapy becomes so overwhelmingly tempting (and not only for women: there's a testosterone patch, too). In the throes of kicking cold turkey, who wouldn't grasp at the promise that you can "feel like you did before"? But while this "methadone of menopause" can certainly ease the withdrawal symptoms, I doubt that it ever fully restores the "high" of youth. Perhaps it postpones the shift into a new worldview, or simply makes the transition smoother, less of a jolt. I decided against it, opting instead for a far less potent plant-estrogen supplement, not only out of apprehension about the side effects of HRT, but because I wanted to see where I was. Given a basic level of well-being, the "jolt" can be bracing. Once you get past the first terrified floundering, you discover that the change that's happening to you is not just a loss -- it's an awakening.
Suddenly your whole experience is lit from a new angle, lifting humble, hidden things into the light and plunging what seemed most important into shadow. Life is not at all what you thought. Many things you held to be self-evident truths (such as that people should, and can, declare independence from their families) now appear misguided, if not downright delusional. Conversely, many corny, crusty old bromides (such as "You can't change human nature") shuck off their calcified shells to reveal the tenderest common sense. You make the strange discovery that your very hopes and plans, which you thought were the beacons lighting your way, have blinded you. You find yourself unexpectedly inspired by the wisdom of adolescents and the heroism of octogenarians. A few pages ago, I wondered what we who are no longer babes (n any sense of the word) have to contribute. Weighty words like maturity and experience and perspective are much too settled to convey the intense turbulence of this revelation; one of the great ironies of fifty is that even as you're holding up the world, you're being shaken to your core. So how about astonishment?
This book is a record of my own astonishment -- which includes both wonder and outrage -- at discovering how different the world (not to mention the woman in the mirror) looks from fifty. You've noticed that I address it to "people of all ages," and you may wonder, if you're twenty, thirty, or eighty, what's in it for you. We live in a remarkably age-segregated society, where the denizens of each decade of life have become almost a separate tribe. The natural barriers to communication between caterpillar and butterfly -- creatures that have little in common besides the far-fetched fact that one is destined to turn into the other -- become even more formidable in a fast-changing world where each generation has its own culture, as well as its own biology.
I can't understand half of what my 14-year-old nephew Nick is saying, because his cultural references and his very way of talking come from Burger King commercials, the X-Games, and MTV. That's nothing, though, compared to the chasm between big bands and rock bands, WWII and 'Nam, self-sacrifice and intensive self-cultivation, that will forever divide whatever two stages of life my parents and I are in. You can tell I'm an elder of the notorious Boomer tribe, aficionados of the "long strange trip" who can manage to turn even aging (and ultimately, dying) into an altered state of consciousness. Those both older and younger may not see it that way. The generations ahead of mine seemed to accept growing older as just one more of life's inescapable burdens -- like making a living and war -- while the generations following may figure that by the far-off time they get there, science will have it licked.
Lately, though, there have been some landmark cultural exchanges between the time-tribes, from Gen X's embrace of Tony Bennett to a boomer's dialogue with the dying Morrie to Senator Bulworth's dorky rapping. Could it be that we're finding a monoculture of our peers -- on college campuses, in singles bars, office parks or Sun Belt retirement communities -- just a bit one-dimensional? It's as if each age group sees in a single color of the spectrum, and only by communicating across generational lines can we see life in its true colors and its full depth. No doubt the viewpoint of older people once dominated society too much, so that the young felt silenced and suffocated, while their elders stagnated, unchallenged. Today, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Even young people are suffering from living in a culture ruled by a commercial caricature of youth. Desire and excitement are relentless, trends and lovers come and go as fast as a teen-ager's moods, and values meant to sustain everyone, such as loyalty, community, continuity, and "the long view," are dismissed as boring (or unprofitable) and banished to the grey ghetto. Each stage of life really shines only in the setting of the others, like a jewel in a ring. We need each other -- young, middle-aged, and old.
There's a good chance that what's revealed when life's high tide goes out has been there all along, underneath. That's not to say that a fifty-year-old's dis-illusion is somehow truer than a twenty-year-old's rapt illusion. They are just different realities -- or as the Buddha might say, different illusions. (You eighty-year-olds may well be laughing at how many veils are left to fall from my eyes.) And yet they are interdependent. Can you say a skeleton is "truer" than the flesh on it? Actually, either is meaningless without the other. They are form and fire.
If you're twenty, we fifty-year-olds need to be warmed and entranced by your flame; in turn, we can show you what lasts, what the fire of youth has to forge for you to have more to show for it down the line than ashes. If you're eighty, you can be comforted by our rooted responsibility and bustling maintenance, even as you know for sure what we're so shocked to awaken and suspect: that what lasts, too, will pass; that we are the custodians of a dream.