As of this writing, I'm not yet fifty. For that matter, I'm not yet forty-nine. But minor matters of chronology aren't at issue here, and fifty will be here soon enough anyway.

The half-a-century mark obviously means different things to different people, but it always seems to be some kind of threshold, something that must be traversed in order to get to whatever is on the other side. According to the standard stereotype, women are supposed to take fifty badly, what with the threat of menopause and the presumed deterioration of one's appearance, as though some cosmic force notes the time and date, throws a hidden switch, and suddenly they go from looking like Mariah Carey to looking like Marvin Kalb. This is, of course, palpably untrue. (Two words: Sophia Loren.) More to the point, women I've talked to — contrary to popular belief, I have actually talked to women at some point in my life — are just as likely to be relieved when all that tedious menstrual business is over and done with, and I don't know anyone who's had a hysterectomy and says she regrets it.

Men, of course, don't get old and crone-like; we become, um, "distinguished-looking". Well, maybe. I figure seven times out of ten I can be distinguished from an abandoned Taliban tent, but that would hardly seem to qualify. And the stereotype that plays here is that at fifty, we suddenly become irresistible to women of twenty-five who find men of their age shallow and callow and blah. This also is a crock, and not just because women have found me highly resistible at any age; one of the essential male drives, it is said, is to preserve adolescence past all understanding, and not everyone who has turned 50 has quite given up on this quest. (Two words: Corvette Z06.) Women (as distinguished from girls) are likely to find sixteen-year-olds of any age dislikable. And personally, I found my adolescence so generally excruciating, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, that I didn't want it to last as long as it did.

What am I to make of my almost-fifty-year-old self? On some (make that "most") levels, I am disappointed with what I've become. Still, it's not like I can find someone else to take the blame; for every instance of bad luck befallen me, there are two or three examples of bad judgment. And while none of my setbacks have proven (yet) to be permanent, their collective weight is not something I enjoy hauling around. Some things, of course, I can't change: no amount of anything will bring me up to average appearance, and temperamentally, I have always been introspective well beyond the point of usefulness. The sort-of-romantic part of my existence ended years ago and is beyond retrieval. By at least some measures, I should be ready to take a long walk off the nearest short pier.

But I'm not. Yet. There are some saving graces to creeping up on the big Five-O. For one thing, age (never mind what Ali MacGraw said about that other stuff) means never having to say you're sorry. There is a lot to be said for not having to appear au courant, not feeling constrained by the dictates of fashion and fad. Am I an unhip geezer? Well, fine, I am an unhip geezer. Pour me a Phillips screwdriver (vodka and milk of magnesia), and make it snappy, you young whippersnapper. Whatever my definitions of self, they are not imposed upon me by a culture that reveres youth only so long as money can be made off it.

And there's more. Approaching fifty, one's own mortality ceases to be a theoretical construct and becomes something that must be confronted head-on. People, we are told, don't want to talk about dying. I don't believe that for a moment. It's Topic A, the one issue that affects everyone, and everyone has something to say about it. We approach it differently, to be sure: when you're twenty-five, you close your eyes and make it go away; when you're fifty, you open your checkbook and pay the insurance premium, knowing it won't. Am I afraid of what happens (to say nothing of what happens after) that final moment? Well, sure. But I'm a lot better equipped to deal with it now than I was when I was younger, if only because I've had a close call or two in the interim.

So while it's a big number, at least compared to anything I've had to fill in on a form up to now, fifty is still just a number. And most people on the cusp, I suspect, will ultimately take it in stride. I don't technically have a Woman Of My Dreams — the technical reason being that some obscure brain process halts any such dreams before they can develop so much as a plot outline — but you can be absolutely certain that she will just breeze through that fateful year. After the shock wears off, of course.

The Vent

9 November 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill