Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Meaning of Fifty: A Personal Reflection

Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more. Knowing how many things will now not happen, I wish them Godspeed and pass them on to someone down the line. I honor my regrets, the part of me that never happened or happened wrong and proceed on course though the course is not known. Only the end is known and some days it's a comfort. We live on love, whether it's there or not and rejoice in it even in its absence. If I had known, I'd have come here better equipped - but that's another one of those things you can't change - as we can't alter that part of us that lives on memory, knowing all the while that time is not real and that what we are we never were in the light of that timeless place where we really belong, have belonged always. . . .

Albert Huffstickler (“Don't Ask The Angels How They Fly”)

I turned fifty this year, about six months ago, when no one was looking. For most people, fifty is the Big One, a momentous occasion to celebrate with a large party, or perhaps a life-changing trip to some exotic land. I chose instead a quiet day of normalcy – a long walk, baseball on television, and some time with my kids. I do not typically draw a lot of attention to myself and thus share news of my birthday with a select few, carefully eschewing work related recognitions and public displays of singing, but I was particularly adamant about not doing anything special for my fiftieth. I had celebrated my 30th and 40th birthdays with greater fanfare, marking those milestones in traditionally appropriate ways, although I did not really believe them significant, certainly not to the extent attributed by Hallmark and polite society. When I turned 30, the sense of impending adulthood beckoning, I joked of turning old, but I never doubted that I remained in the prime of my youth, my physical and athletic abilities intact, the possibilities of life seemingly limitless. Time was on my side – time to travel the world, write the great American novel, and pursue my dreams.

I was more contemplative ten years later, when I turned 40. With mouths to feed and bills to pay, career pressures mounting, I could no longer dream of frivolous adventures, my hours filled with the obligations of work and family. By age 40 it seemed, true adulthood had finally arrived. There was no turning back, the crutch of youth and inexperience no longer an excuse for mistakes or passivity. Yet in mind and spirit, I remained forever young, my jump shot still arcing through the net during my weekly basketball games, and my importance to the world seemingly acknowledged by the prestige and recognition associated with an advancing career. My hope of unfilled dreams still shined with optimism.

It was not until I turned 50 earlier this year, marking my half-century existence on this planet, that I sensed for the first time that certain of my dreams may forever be deferred, that time is a gift, its limits felt with the passing of each year. Though it seems as if I need constant reminding that I am no longer a young man, fresh from law school, determined to accomplish high-minded things, I remain confident and sure of myself about certain matters, full of doubts and insecurities about others. But I now recognize and feel, gradually, incrementally, the burdens of aging – the chronic back pain, the cranky joints, the perpetually tight muscles. And while I hope to live to 114, while taking long walks and watching the sunset with my great-grandchildren as I sit on the deck of my lakeside house and complete the final touches on my memoirs, I know now that life is not forever. Mortality awaits me and, for the first time in my life, I am truly aware of its dimensions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it forces one to recognize the truly important things in life – family, relationships, closeness with God, and the true meaning of success. As Albert Huffstickler wrote, “Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more.”

I have on my refrigerator a well-known poem, usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, though perhaps originating in a work by Bessie Stanley, on success. It is one of those poems that, while perhaps a bit cliché, is profoundly true, and thus a source of inspiration:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch . . . to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
I have been blessed with good health, two beautiful children, a wonderful woman in my life, and a terrific family. Such blessings, I have come to learn, are determined as much by luck as any actions on our part, something that I believe most of us fail to recognize during our lifetimes. Many of those who fail in life start with a bad deck handed them – a fatherless childhood, the lack of role models, unsafe neighborhoods; some people are struck by illness, the death of a loved one, the pain of addiction, or the humiliation of unemployment and rejection. We all fail at something – indeed, most of us fail to live out our dreams or even to try, choosing instead the comfort and security of routine and all things familiar. How we respond to failure, our willingness to try a second and third time, to strive for perfection knowing we may never achieve anything close, this is how success in life is achieved, and how character is formed.

When my first marriage ended in failure, my children assumed even greater importance to me, their happiness and health tied immeasurably to that of mine. I have often wondered whether, given the chance to re-do portions of my life with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made different choices. But with age comes, I hope, some small tidbits of wisdom, including the acknowledgement that life permits no reruns and that the ability to forgive others for their mistakes, and yourself for your own, is spiritually and emotionally liberating. We must come to terms with our choices in life, the luck we are dealt, and the skills we have and are able to develop. Then do the best we can. My time remaining on this planet is likely less than the time already expended, but my destiny and the legacy I leave for my children and anyone else who may benefit, is in my hands. My only limits are time, fear, and imagination.

When I was nine-years old, I would lie on the grass in my backyard and stare at the sky, admiring the cloud formations, the richness of the unending image of blue, and the tranquility of the evening’s first twilight stars. I do not remember everything it was I used to contemplate as I lay with my head pressed against the ground, my mind deep in thought, escaping in sight and mind the pressures of life. Even at this young age, I can recall the burdens of life’s self-imposed expectations – to do well in school, to succeed in sports, to be liked and accepted by my peers. Maybe it was the solitude of space I was attracted to as I lay staring at the uppermost boundaries of heaven. Was there really a heaven, a dwelling place for God and his angels, I would contemplate as the first evening star sparkled its way through the darkening sky. Is there life on other planets? Has God assigned a purpose to my life here on earth? The universe held me in awe, inspiring my imagination until the call for supper abruptly intervened.

I do not remember the last time I lay on the grass staring up at the sky. It is unfortunate, really, for the sky has such a profound wisdom to it, an innate ability to put things in perspective, to keep us humble and remind us of greater truths for which we lack understanding. Life is too short, it whispers, do not overlook its simple pleasures or become embroiled in life’s daily struggles; experience the oceans, walk in the woods, skip stones on a stream, hike in the mountains, love your children, and appreciate your friends. Listen, empathize, show compassion, be generous of spirit, laugh, and love.


  1. Mark,

    I disagree!

    Sorry – reflex.

    But more on this later.

    Rich R.

  2. Mark - you are such a thoughtful writer. This essay on turning 50 is compelling. I have no idea what your nemesis Rich R is talking about ~ or maybe he's kidding.

  3. Kathleen,

    Thank you for the nice comment. On this one, I believe my nemesis Rich was kidding -- he usually pounds me over the head with a two-by-four, as his "reflex" is usually to disagree with me.

  4. Mark,

    I’m two years behind you, although my aching back begs to differ. Family history suggests that I’m well passed the halfway mark and that, in part, explains why four years ago I took up jogging. Wanting to last long enough to protect my kids until they could protect their own was the other reason for doing something I don’t really enjoy. But running allows for maximum effort with the least amount of time wasted: get it done and over with fast, that’s my motto.

    But now I go to a chiropractor, trying to undo the damage I’ve done trying to stay in shape and the cumulative damage of 48 years of not stretching when I do stuff and slouching when I do nothing.

    So there I sit with the other groaners, staring at that hideous plastic spine that dangles from a hook: hip bones attached to vertebrae bones attached to a serving plate where a head should rest, looking like a man-eating monster’s version of a human popsicle stick, sucked clean of all the good stuff. There was a time in my life – the immortal phase – when I would have thought of the bones as funny, not as preview.

    Ironically though, I’m in better shape now than I’ve been for most of my adult life. Cholesterol’s high, but I’m betting that’s a scam and have refused my doctor’s request to go on Lipitor or whatever they’re pushing now. Blood pressure’s good, ‘cept when there’s a new post at Ehlers on Everything, but banging the keyboard takes care of that.

    Mentally I’m still good, although I’ve always set the bar low there, so it will be hard to tell until I start calling my wife Bambi, at which point she’ll be telling people I decided to hike the Appalachian and didn’t take a cell phone.

    As for deep thinking, well I’ve never been much for introspection. Listen to a month’s worth of country western songs and you’ll pretty much know my philosophy of life. Right now Trace Atkins captures my religious outlook:

    It was a home run when the game was tied
    A pick up truck when I could drive
    One pink line when Katie said I’m late
    It was a passing grade, a pretty girl
    All the money in the world
    What mattered then kept changing every day

    But when I bow my head tonight
    There’ll be no me myself and I
    Just watch my wife and kids please Lord
    That’s all I ask for anymore


  5. I have been thinking more about the future lately. Although I am fortunate enough to be able to play cops ‘n robbers for a living, it’s a career with a definite expiration date. What to do then? I imagine it’s the same dilemma faced by baseball players who have to stop playing a boy’s game that has welcomely stunted their maturity. How do you face the prospect of a real job when you’ve been doing something... well, fun, for twenty-odd years? I like Paul Maclean’s childhood idea, but I don’t think there will be much of a market for 55 year-old professional fly fishermen.

    So I had begun toying with the idea of writing. I have toyed with it since the 11th grade, when a creative writing class provided the only evidence that I wasn’t a complete dullard. Every year was torturous suspense as to whether or not I would advance to the next grade. High school was mostly tests, which meant I was mostly screwed. College was mostly writing, so depending on the balance of the two each semester, I was either on academic probation or the Dean’s List. Luckily, there were more term papers than multiple-choice tests over the course of my college years.

    Earlier this year I returned to the idea again, trying to convince myself to discipline myself to write more. I was in the middle of this protracted self-negotiation when an old friend emailed to tell me he had started a blog and welcomed my thoughts. Luckily for me, this friend has some atrocious ideas on politics and I find I have as much fun countering them as I do putting together the pieces of a good criminal case. So maybe, if my friend is dedicated, but a slow learner, I will have the incentive to pursue this writing thing for some time.

    In the meantime, I try to keep my life simple: a few prayers of thanks a day and church on Sunday; paint the house when there are no soccer or baseball games; and try to find ways to show my wife I love her other than saying it, because according to her it never sounds sincere. Actually, I have to agree with her, it doesn’t sound sincere, but I do mean it; it’s just that an affinity for sarcasm has made me sincere-impaired.

    I suspect, though, that sincerity would be viewed as a sign of weakness by my three kids, who, nevertheless, each possess an equal part of my soul; troubling though that may be: I think one would sell his share on Ebay. My legacy, if there is to be one, is in their hands and to that end, in between asking my children, “What’s the matter with you?” and dreaming up fun new ways to punish them, I hope to leave them with some simple rules to live by: be honest but not cruel; be compassionate but don’t enable; give to charity without taking it; work hard, earn your keep and never begrudge another’s success. I hope they learn the distinction between taking life seriously, and not taking themselves seriously and I pray that they come to understand that 95 percent of what they think is important, isn’t, and much of the other five is worth dying for.

    My own star gazing at nine years old was less philosophical and more mathematical. I had assumed that there was life on other planets because I had watched Captain Kirk kick alien ass countless times and since he was roughly thirty years old and I assumed all the cool stuff would start happening in the year 2000, I wanted to make sure I’d still be young enough to get in on the action. I remember being disheartened after calculating that I would be almost forty at the turn of the century; almost dead in other words. But now fifty doesn’t seem that old and the cool stuff is made obsolete by cooler stuff on an almost daily basis. And William Shatner, in his seventies, is still going strong, so happily I miscalculated.


  6. I worry sometimes, though, about the world my children will inherit when I’m long gone. Probably every generation thinks the next generation is at the cliff’s edge. How could people in the middle of the madness that was the Second World War not have thought they were seeing the end of humanity? But they were wrong. And no one then could have conceived of the iPhone – so cool. So I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I might not have all the necessary facts to adequately predict the future. But that’s where faith comes in: I’ll just trust in the Lord to watch my wife and kids. It may not be all I ask for anymore, but it’s close.

    Rich R.

    (And yes, Kathleen, I was kidding! Geez - you and my wife!)

  7. Rich,

    Despite our political disagreements, you are an excellent writer, as the above comments amply demonstrate. You should absolutely continue to pursue writing -- particularly fiction! (Just stay away from the political stuff) :) Seriously, you are a very good writer and should consider starting your own blog -- it is very easy, particularly if you use Google's (as I did) or a similar, free site. Then we can comment on each other's writings. However you choose to pursue it, keep at it.

  8. Mark,

    Thanks for those kind compliments and I feel the same way towards your efforts. I may not always agree with what you write, but I’m impressed with how you write it. As proof I’ll tell you this: several times a day I go to your blog hoping for a new post or a follow-up and am disappointed when I come up empty. In fact, I’ve been worried lately, as your past essays have come, on average, once a week and it’s closing in on two weeks now without one.

    Beyond your writing style, I’m also impressed with the breadth of topics so far: fiction, baseball, politics, baseball, pop culture, baseball, biographies, baseball, religion, war, baseball, social commentary, movies, baseball, race and, um, baseball.

    Since you started this, I have been checking out blogs on your list and others and am amazed at the sloppiness and the illiteracy that is out there. Are we the only ones with spell check? I’m at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to spelling and punctuation, but that doesn’t stop me from opening a dictionary or Googling a grammar question, and most importantly, having my wife proof read for me.

    Last night I downloaded a series of letters that were published in Christianity Today ( between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. I know Hitchens is a good writer and that he used to be a liberal, but left the dark side after 9-11. Unfortunately, he’s also an atheist. So the letters are a battle of ideas between Hitchens and theologian Douglas Wilson. In light of our battles, it should make for interesting reading.

    As far as starting my own blog: not until I retire. I’ve wreaked havoc using personal websites against bad guys, so I’m not fronting myself out there until I’m a civilian again.

    So now that we’ve man-hugged in print, get your ass in gear and publish!

    By the way: “Nemesis.” I love it!

    Rich R.

  9. Thanks Rich. I will definitely check out the Hitchens/Wilson debate -- could help inspire a new topic. I would love to write more frequently, but I have this annoying thing called a day job that keeps getting in the way. But I appreciate, and occasionally need, a kick in the pants, so thanks again.