Today is my birthday. On August 9, 1968, I came into the world in the little town of Sparta, Wisconsin. (Or so I’ve been told, I don’t remember much about that day; I’m taking everyone’s word on the matter.)
I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, either, or spend any significant portion of my life there. In 1968 my father was finishing up his enlistment in the US Army, and he was stationed at nearby Camp (now Fort) McCoy. About the only thing I did in Wisconsin was to be born there.
If I were a member of an earlier generation, I might remark about how much has changed in my lifetime. My paternal grandfather was born in 1909. That was before mass-market automobile ownership, the interstate highway system, commercial air travel, computers, and manned space flight. Not to mention nuclear power. My paternal grandfather watched all of those things come into existence between his birth and the age of 53.
Not me. All of the above had long existed by the time I was born. A few of those things have been significantly enhanced since my birth, computers being the most obvious. Some, like commercial air travel and the interstate highway system, are about the same.
But a few have actually seemed to move backwards. NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969, the year after I was born. (The first manned space flight was in 1961, seven years before my birth.) NASA hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972. And since the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, Americans have become much less optimistic about the wonders of nuclear power.
In 1968, people were dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. People are still dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. But they didn’t have COVID in 1968. Or AIDS.
The major technological advances of my lifetime, of course, have been the Internet and digital technology. I reached early adulthood in an era of typewriters, landlines, and cassette-based answering machines. As a result, I certainly appreciate the Internet. But as paradigm-shifting developments go, Facebook and Twitter can’t compete with the first manned space flight or the invention of the computer itself…all of which came about during my paternal grandfather’s lifetime.
What about politics? The year I was born, 1968, America was bitterly divided over what are now called “the culture wars”. In many ways, we are still arguing over the 1960s.
The Soviet Union existed in 1968. As I turn 53, the USSR has been gone for almost thirty years. But Russia is now a different kind of adversary. China, for all practical purposes, has replaced a Maoist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism with statist crony capitalism. But China remains our adversary, too.
So much for the world. What about the age of 53 itself?
The decade of one’s fifties occupies a nebulous middle ground. In your fifties you are neither fish nor fowl. Young adults equate you with their parents. Elderly adults equate you with their children. I have actually been described as “old” and “young” in the same day, depending on who I’m interacting with.
This isn’t a roundabout way of saying 50 is the new 30. To be sure, once you reach the mid-century mark, you are no longer “young”, in the conventional sense of that word. As a rule, people in their fifties don’t compete in the Olympics, have children, and get married for the first time—things that twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings typically do. Many of my former classmates are now grandparents, in fact. Very few of them still have school-age children.
And yet, at the age of 53, there is still much to do, much that can be done. Fifty-three is a full generation younger than either of the final candidates for POTUS in 2020. (My parents were both born the same year as Donald Trump, in fact.)
I’ve almost certainly passed the halfway mark of my life. I don’t expect to be alive 53 years from now, in 2074.
And having reached the halfway mark, I feel a certain freedom as I face the years ahead.
There is no need to worry about impressing anyone when you hit 53. Once you’ve passed the age of 45 or so, you naturally tend to drop off society’s radar a bit. No one cares how “cool” you are anymore. In fact, for middle-age people, the bar for coolness is substantially lower than it is for 20- or 30-year-olds.
Even Jennifer Aniston (one year my junior, born in 1969) isn’t very hip nowadays, even if she’s exceptionally well-preserved. Never mind that she was the “it” girl of the 1990s. No one much under the age of 40 remembers the 1990s. And most people over the age of 40 no longer care about the 1990s.
Looking back on the last five decades, I have no major regrets. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do anything differently. Of course I would do many things differently. There are times when I fantasize about riding a time machine back to 1987, and thwacking the 19-year-old version of myself on the head.
But there is a difference between looking back and saying, “Wow, what an idiot I was then!” and having deep, soul-piercing regrets about the past. Nor do I spend much time beating myself up over the wide knowledge and experience gap between 53 and 19. If I would have known better, I would have done better. Probably.
There is a lot more I could say, about loss, and mortality, and the importance of finding a spiritual compass for one’s life. But I have several writing projects on my plate, and I want to get them out into the world… while there is still time.
As noted above, at the age of 53, one no longer has the sense that time and life are virtually unlimited, barring major catastrophes—as most of us do at 19. At 53 there is still some sand in the hourglass; but there is a lot less sand than there used to be.