Sunday, October 14, 2012


Old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to a man.     
        - Leon Trotsky
The wit in Trotsky’s quote is, of course, in the irony. Old age should be among the least unexpected of things that can happen to a person. We all know (or, dare I say, hope) that we will someday get old and yet, we’re never quite ready when it begins to happen to us.  Age has a way of sneaking up on us, slowly and stealthily. We go about the business of living our lives. The days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years until, one day, we wake up to find that we’re fifty years old, and we wonder “When did that happen?”
This week, that happens to me. I’m turning fifty and, though I’m not overly traumatized by the fact, I do find myself wondering “When did that happen?” Wasn’t it just the other week that I graduated from college? How long have I been married now? Twenty-three years? Impossible! Where did my little five-year-old daughter get to and who’s this young university student in her room? Did we get a new babysitter?
When I turned forty (just last year, wasn’t it?) my wife threw a big party,  inviting all my friends and family. There were lots of gifts and lots of cards. I remember one of the cards reminded me, in case I was feeling blue about turning forty, that it could be worse; in ten years I'd be turning fifty. Well, here we are. How did ten years slip by so fast?
I like to think of myself as an overgrown kid (I know that my mother would agree with me on that point, but for different reasons than my own), yet my body tells me differently. A friend of mine, who’s very close to my age, once noted that, as soon as we hit forty, our bodies seem to start giving out on us. Suddenly we can’t see quite as well. We tire more quickly and need to rest more often and for longer periods, and things start to ache for no apparent reason. Now that I’m fifty, I’m starting to notice that more and more of the people I know, people who are my age or maybe just a little older, are suffering heart attacks and being diagnosed with cancer. Time and circumstances keep reminding me of my own mortality.
I look in the mirror, examine my protruding belly and say to myself, “Man, I have got to start taking better care of myself; seriously!” When we’re younger, we can get away with abusing our bodies. We can eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, drink, stay up all hours and the our only punishment for these sins is the occasional headache or cough. Our bodies shake it off. At fifty, our bodies aren’t quite so forgiving anymore. Calories burn more slowly. Muscles tire more quickly. Facial lines come to stay. Everything about us contrives to remind us of the undeniable truth that we’re getting older.
I’ve always had this idea that I’d like to live to be a hundred. If I can manage that, then I’m only half-way through my life. That's an encouraging thought.  Hopefully, I've still lots of time left, and a lot more to do.  Pierre Trudeau was about my age when he became Prime Minister of Canada.  Coincidentally, his birthday was the day after mine. 
And yet, I realize that I can't live the next fifty years of my life in the same way that I lived the first fifty.  I realize that I need to treat my body with more care. I need to eat healthier food, and less of it, and I need to exercise more regularly.
This also seems like a good time to reflect on my life; where I’ve been, where I am and where I hope to go from here. So far, it seems that I’ve spent most of my adult life working to improve my own standard of living, and that of my family.  This seems to have translated mostly into accumulating “stuff”; a house, cars, clothes and entertaining distractions such as computer games and DVDs. 
My wife and I recently helped her sister to move. Compared with us, my wife’s sister has relatively few belongings, yet she had to get rid of an awful lot of things that she just doesn’t need or have room for anymore. I look around myself and realize the monumental task that I’d be faced with if I had to move my family and all of our belongings for whatever reason. Maybe it’s time to stop accumulating and learn to enjoy the things that I have more, or even begin to discard some of the extra detritus in my life. 
I also find that my attitude toward my career has changed over the years. When I was younger, I wanted to change the world. Now, I’m content just to put in my time and go home at the end of each day. This is not to say that I’ve become apathetic, but my career no longer defines me as it once did. When I lost my job a couple of years back, it occurred to me for the first time that I might not always do what I've been doing for a living.  In fact, I’m at that age now when I need to start thinking about a not-so-distant future when I'll no longer be going to work each day. And yet, I’ll still need some kind of income to live on. Now is the time to plan for that. In fact, the financial gurus say that those who wait until they get to my age to start (I didn’t) have already left it too long.
Turning fifty is not something that I dread. Life has been reasonably good to me so far, and I look forward to transitioning from school, career and building a life to grandchildren, retirement and enjoying the life that I’ve built. In a sense, this is the perfect age. My daughter’s generation sees me as something of a codger, yet my mother’s crowd still sees me as a kid. I can play either role as I choose. What’s not to like about that?