Like many people in their 50s, I think about being in my 50s a lot. When you’re in your 40s, you have a bit of a cushion. Oh, you think, I still have 10 years before anything scary could happen, like weird pig bristles sticking out of your ear, which I now have. When you’re in your 30s, there’s still a lot of time to change course, get things right, go to grad school, get in shape or finally settle down. You have lots and lots of theoretical time.
In your 50s, your perspective changes dramatically. You run scared. You are grateful for being able to do things that, all of a sudden, a lot of your peers can’t do. Play tennis, ride a bike, comb your hair or breathe. Stuff like that.
In my family, on my dad’s side, a lot of men went down at 54.
I’m turning 54 on Monday.
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Now, granted, some of these Studio 54 relatives had hobbies like smoking unfiltered Camels, eating scrapple, inert sitting or living through the Great Depression and World War II. These are all bad habits for 54-year-olds, and I suspect many of these guys weren’t making tennis plans or going for long bike rides.
I have had quite a number of exhilarating midlife stresses in the past 10 years. A divorce, a job change, leaving a city I had lived in for 29 years and taking care of an elderly parent come immediately to mind. I remember a few years ago, about three days before my dad died, I went to a health screening. A nurse put on a blood pressure cuff, looked solemnly at the number and said, “Hmm. 180 over 110. You don’t need to go to the doctor today, but I would go to the doctor tomorrow morning.”
OK, then. Will do.
So they put me on one of the many medications I currently take. I lost 25 pounds or so, and 54 started looming on the horizon. Now, granted, my father had passed on this 54 phobia to me, and he was not a person given to neurotic behavior. He just kind of sat on the sofa, drinking martinis, watching “The Golden Girls,” smoking Pall Malls and waited for Mr. 54 to come knocking at the door. When, in the Year of 54, no one showed up on the doorstep in a telltale black robe and holding a sickle, he got up off the sofa, quit smoking and started walking on a treadmill. He lived to be 80. And his sister lived to be 83.
Now, I am not saying I am truly living in fear, exactly. I would say I am living in a bedroom community of fear with light rail service to the central core.
I have a good friend from high school named Dan Buettner, who is, I believe, also 54. He wrote a book about living to be 100. Let’s say he makes it; that’s 46 more years, and I can assure you that many of them will not involve playing tennis. But a lot of it will involve eating strained food and swearing at your TV remote.
My dad was married to the humorist Peg Bracken, who wrote “The I Hate To Cook Book” back in 1960. She lived to be 89, and she once correctly observed that people can live precisely in any year they want. You like 1962? Just put on 1962 music, wear 1962 clothes, drive a 1962 car and decorate your house in a 1962 motif, and there you are. Tell me you’re not in 1962. Just don’t expect Huntley and Brinkley to bring you the latest news.
So, 54, here I am. But I am locking the door. And that music you hear is from 1962. It was a very good year.
For me, it was 52 years out from 54. And the strained food was delicious.