Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Turning 50.

In a couple of weeks I'll turn 50 years old. It doesn't seem natural, somehow. Already I'm getting comments from friends like, "It's just a number." And, "Fifty is the new thirty five." I like that one.

Frankly, writing about turning fifty is tough...it's a subject that's been covered by far better writers than I. It's sort of like writing about death or marriage or babies or pets. It's kinda been covered.

Nonetheless, I'm stalwart if nothing else.

I thought about writing about all the stuff one might expect: the body starting to betray me, hair leaving in spots and appearing, quite unwelcome, in others, the short periods of wisdom I'd like to pretend I have now and then, the remarkable, late-stage turn of events with regards to my marriage last year, the life-affirming geographical change from Chicago to Los Angeles, and on and on and on. But I don't think so.

I think instead, like a feckless grad student unable to tackle the real intellectual problem in front of him, I'll fall back on a 'compare and contrast' approach.

When Frank Sinatra turned fifty he was playing Vegas. In fact, he recorded perhaps his finest album, certainly his finest live album, 'Sinatra at the Sands' as he turned fifty. He was also on the 'top ten movie stars' (in terms of income) list in Variety that year. He was, in short, at the top of his game, vocally and otherwise.

When Marlon Brando turned fifty his last two movies had been 'The Godfather' (for which he won the Oscar) and 'Last Tango in Paris' (for which he should have won the Oscar). His artistic comeback was complete and he was generally regarded to be our finest living actor. He was about to disappear to his island in Tahiti full-time and become a living enigma.

When Laurence Olivier turned fifty he was in rehearsal for 'The Entertainer' on the London stage. It was to shoot his career in an entirely different direction. Instead of becoming obsolete like his contemporaries, he became the vanguard of a new generation of the 'kitchen sink' realism school of theatre in Britain. And he was very shortly to take the helm of The National Theatre of Great Britain and begin an astonishing journey of artistic excellence still unequaled in that country.

I think I've wasted a lot of time, frankly. I spent the better part of two decades persuing a hedonistic frame of mind that, although occasionally a lot of fun, didn't exactly pay a lot of dividends. Oddly, I have very few regrets about that. A few, naturally, but not as many as one might expect.

'Wasted' might not be the right word. If one knows one is wasting time while in the midst of wasting said time, is it still wasting time? Not sure. It might just be a conscience choice.

Certainly I'm happier now than I was then. That means something, I suppose. But 'happy' is a relative term, I think. There are still massive moments of unhappiness. But the interesting thing is they are moments, not extended time periods. For example, I recently got royally pissed-off about something regarding the play I'm currently doing. But instead of leaping head-first into the mire and thrashing around in my anger, instead I spent a little time being pissed off and then let it go. Twenty years ago that would have been nigh impossible for me.

It sounds like a little thing, but in actuality it's gargantuan. The relatively new-found ability to simply move on. I discovered some time back that I don't experience anger like most other people...I tend to bypass irritation, annoyance and bothersome and go straight to all-out rage. Knowing this about myself is in and of itself a massive accomplishment in terms of mental health. At the risk of sounding sophomoric, I not only understand but embrace the concept of, "whatever" (spoken as Valley-girlish as possible).

I'm also in deep, deep denial about turning fifty. I don't think I'm alone in this. When I actually stop for a moment and consider it, I know my life is considerably past the half-way point, assuming I live to 77.5 years of age which is the current average for males in this country. I'm guessing insurance companies come up with that statistic.

At fifty, Ernest Hemingway was already making plans for his suicide. Severe arthritis and a host of other ailments were daily making his life more and more unbearable. What's more, he was making no secret of it. He'd written about it a number of times. We just didn't catch it. In 'Green Hills of Africa' he wrote that it was infinitely preferrable to die young as a lion on the brown plains of the serengeti, in a violent and life-affirming moment of glory rather than lay down at last, caged and defeated and old in an indifferent world of zoos and circuses. In the midst of his succinct prose he specifically outlined his own death. Fifty did not agree with Ernest Hemingway.

In his autobiography, John Huston, the hard-living film director, wrote if he could change anything about his life (he wrote his memoirs at the very end of his life) it would be this: "I would drink less hard liquor and savor sweet wines more often." I think that might be as good a metaphor as any as to how I feel. The 'hard liquor' of my life, the rage, anger, blame, shame, resentment and staggering irresponsibilty would be replaced with the 'sweet wines,' the pursuit of comfort, the gentle acceptance of the millions of things I can't change, the company of old friends, the learned ability to simply...be still.

Who knows, maybe fifty is the new thirty five. I don't know. There's so terribly much I don't know. But at thirty five I lived a life thinking there was always something more exciting going on down the road, around the next bend, blazing in someone else's reality. At fifty, I still think that may be the case. The difference is I no longer care.

See you tomorrow.

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