I turned 50 last week. My younger friends smiled sympathetically and offered hugs, as if I'd just received a cancer diagnosis. Older ones grinned conspiratorially, as if I'd suddenly succumbed to their evil charms and crossed over to the dark side.
When a kind friend of the same age leaned in and asked me on my birthday how I was doing --as in, are you on the verge of collapse? -- I paused, thought for a second, and replied honestly: "pretty well." Life is humming along, I'm not burdened with trouble or regret, and most days are reasonably peaceful and rewarding. I could have manufactured some hysteria over hitting "the number," but when I woke up the sky hadn't fallen and my body hadn't fallen apart.
So why the angst over this birthday? For women, it's about appearance, of course, and the irrevocable loss of youthful beauty that hitting 50 signifies. Our culture slobbers over the young, ignoring the non-emaciated woman with droopy lids and actual crow's feet. Many of us elect surgery over invisibility, so that we too can be 50 and Fabulous like the magazines promise. Then, with enough money and time -- and little curiosity or intellect -- Sexy at 60, Sizzling at 70, and Electrifying at 80. She with the most beautiful corpse wins! Thanks a lot, Helen Mirren.
It's no wonder so many of us greet this birthday with avoidance and dread. "It's the first time I felt like lying about my age," my older sister told me when she called to commiserate.
So far, I care less than I thought I would. Maybe this comes from my shortage of vanity, a deficiency that sounds like a humblebrag but is more the mark of laziness and bewilderment. As a teenager, I loathed my appearance, as many young women do, yet couldn't bring myself to primp and preen with any enthusiasm. Riding up the escalator with my mother at Bloomingdales some 35 years ago, I recall her gently encouraging me to just try a little mascara. In my 20s and 30s, I did, and spruced up my wardrobe a bit as well. But decorating myself has never come naturally. When the style authorities declared years ago that women must remove at least one accessory before leaving the house, I wondered -- my shirt or my pants? This is coming from someone whose young son pouted when I picked him up from school one day, convinced I was heading into New York because I was all dressed up in Levi's and a black t-shirt.
Still, last week when a buff instructor in spin class called up Holly Petraeus as a cautionary tale -- gain a few pounds, ignore the gray, and your man might stray -- I had to admit the sad truth behind her warning. Looks aren't everything, but they're not nothing. Delude yourself into thinking that your 13-year high-waisted jeans are "fine," that shunning makeup is the mark of authenticity, and that a little belly fat is actually kind of sexy, in that Christina Hendricks way, and in no time you become matronly. The very word sends chills. I'll have to try harder now to overcome my inertia -- to actually apply the revitalizing eye cream and pluck those brows, because being attractive and put together is not incompatible with being serious. It's a matter of degree.
What bothers me more about this birthday is the stake in the ground related to how much time I have left. Unless you're a 90-pound Japanese fisherman, at 50 you've likely crossed life's median. And if you're as terrified of death as I am, that eventuality is harder and harder to repress as the birthday candles accumulate. As a child, I could induce mild to moderate panic attacks when I thought about being dead forever -- about losing my Mom and Dad and brother and sisters for eternity. The mirrors facing each other at my grandmother's house triggered the same reaction: the reflections went on and on, smaller and smaller, into infinity, my father told me. But how could that be? I suppressed these fears by telling myself I'm young, I'm young, it's a long way away. That's harder to do now.
But it's not all bad. One of the rewarding parts about entering an older decade is finally understanding what all the smart grown-ups told you when you were a lost teenager. All the stuff about being yourself, following your heart, finding the pleasure in simplicity -- it all makes sense now. That bit about not caring what people think, so hopeless in youth, starts to seem possible. Uber-essayist Roger Rosenblatt, in his 2000 collection Rules for Aging, said it best:
Yes, I know, you are certain that your friends are becoming your enemies; that your grocer, garbageman, clergyman, sister-in-law, and your dog are all of the opinion that you have put on weight, that you have lost your touch, that you have lost your mind; furthermore, you are convinced that everyone spends two-thirds of every day commenting on your disintegration, denigrating your work, plotting your assassination. I promise you: Nobody is thinking of you. They are thinking about themselves -- just like you.
What I feel most on this ambivalent occasion is unprepared. That same jolt strikes on the eve of most other major life events -- marrying, getting a "real" job, having a child, burying a parent: I'm not ready! I thought I'd be more together, more sure of myself, more prepared for all this. But life happens to you, and you either face up to the changed circumstances and get on with it or... what? When I asked a friend who lost her husband in the World Trade Center how she was able to get up in the morning, she said, "What else was I going to do? You'd do the same." You just keep going, and not because of faith in some God-only-gives-you-what-you-can-handle pabulum. You keep going, ready or not, because there's no alternative.
The weekend before my birthday, my family went away with two others to celebrate the occasion. All 16 of us, kids included, ate too much, laughed a lot, and talked until it got late. Four days later, a dear friend surprised me with a dinner party, where friends from different life spheres came together and did more of the same. These were happy and rich experiences that I will tuck away in my memory banks and nurture periodically through retelling. A friend told me "50 is the new 30." (Right, and death is the new life.) But when I was 30, I hadn't earned the friendships or built the family that sustain me today. Give me 50 any day. With a little mascara and some new jeans, I'll be fine.
L-R: Archie Gottesman, Linda Flanagan, Susan Greenberg