Coming to Terms with the Big Five OH

“I’m actually younger than most people my age.”

By Mervyn Kaufman

Through the din of a company holiday party, I did hear myself say that, clearly a close to classic Freudian slip, and once I’d said it, I knew I couldn’t deny it or make much of a dent by adding, “What I really meant to say was. . .”

A colleague standing near me had seemed distracted by the crush of people crowding the food tables, but he obviously heard and remembered my words. Weeks later, when we met for one of our normally uneventful lunches, he jolted me with this reminder: “So — how old are you? Really?” he asked, squinting his eyes to underscore serious interest.

“How old would you say?” I asked provocatively, convinced his response might give me at least a five-year advantage.

“Maybe. . .forty-six,” he responded, without blinking an eye. I was stunned and hoped I didn’t show it. I just nodded absently, and the subject never resurfaced. Meanwhile, I was seething — I mean my God, I had just turned forty-two!

Time passed as, inevitably, it will, and I finally found myself approaching what most men consider one of life’s significant landmarks, the big five-oh. Probably realizing how fraught this event might be, my wife wisely said nothing, dealing with it as just another occasion for seeking out the right greeting card to accompany whatever grooming aid she felt I lacked. . . along with a home-wrapped craft project my grade-school daughter had brought home.

Nothing was even whispered about my hitting a significant age marker or dropping beyond the traditional mid-life point. As no one outside our family circle seemed aware that this event was imminent, I hoped, of course, that the ripple of flab expanding my midsection was not an apparent giveaway.

Yes, I did crunches — still do, or at least think about doing them — but when most men reach life’s epochal midpoint, loose flesh around the waist is predictable and telltale evidence that the inevitable age clock is ticking. . .ticking.

The thud of public recognition finally did become apparent to me a day or two after that so-called landmark birthday: a glossy welcome message, in glorious color, that hit my mailbox from AARP. A magazine. Its purpose was to convince me that, now that I’d survived a significant milestone, I owed it to myself to learn a lot about the perils of advancing age: the need to keep my mind alert, my muscles toned and stretched, and also stock up on a clutch of mail-order health aids, chronic-illness cures, and vitamins.

How did those AARP folks find me? I wondered. Also, how did they know my age?

A family birthday party took place a few days later, ending with a cake bearing a single candle. How thoughtful — and what a relief! I felt I ‘d dodged a hurdle, thus could enjoy this comforting blanket of calm. It wasn’t to last, alas.

In the days and weeks ahead, I found myself being menaced by mailings — catalogs and fliers — from sources I’d never heard of: fitness gurus, sex therapists, local gyms, global mail-order vitamin peddlers, walker and wheelchair marketers plus a variety of hawkers — of headstones, gravesites, life insurance, death and disaster insurance, and the makers of energy and rejuvenation pills whose names were mostly consonants and whose sources were probably foreign (judging by the tortured syntax).

I got queasy just turning pages — and trying not to be appalled by the panoply of gadgetry, all of it seemingly hell-bent on turning my home — mainly my bed, bathtub, and toilet — into a geriatric torture chamber. I remember, first, crumpling the mailing pieces, then deciding to cut up each one, before trashing it, so no one in my household would know I had actually received or read it.

Those fliers were quickly disposed of — no problem, but the catalogs did present some challenges. They were fat and mailed out periodically. I never checked the address labels, to try and discern what list I was on that had been rented or sold (perhaps by AARP itself and, yes, how did they find out?). I confess, I did peruse the mailers — not because I needed to buy anything but because so much of what was being offered was a product I’d never seen or even imagined.

Each catalog proffered a truly mind-blowing grab bag of goods. Some of them were
health-related, but many were presumably designed to make life easier, particularly for anyone using crutches, a cane, a wheeled cart or a wheelchair. A few of the specialty items — the drool bibs and the aprons with big pockets — were photographed with smiling models, each probably decades younger than the catalogs’ targeted readers.

Whether they were shown pushing a shopping cart or climbing out of a wheelchair, all of them were grinning broadly, as though they had just reached the happiest and most beatific times of their lives!

I marveled at page after page of merchandise I couldn’t imagine anyone, of any age, needing or wanting, but judging by the heft of these publications, it was undeniably clear that a lot of small-time manufacturers and entrepreneurs were making a mint preying on people whose advancing years were guaranteed to make them shake in their shoes as they flipped through the pages.

Yes, of course, people nowadays grow taller, live longer and are generally healthier than
their forebearers, but there are always exceptions. I remember the shock I felt when, just a few years out of college, I learned of the passing of an acquaintance who seemed never to have had a sick day.

Then a classmate who had endured excruciating neck pain for years, thus had been living on painkillers and barbiturates, died suddenly of a drug overdose. But these were exceptions; most old friends seemed to be surviving or at least overcoming any telltale signs of illness or impairment.

But how were they mentally handling that inevitable passing of time? Mostly, I think, by
not talking about it — unless nudged, of course. And then there was author Paul Greenberg, whose recent book, The Omega Principle, had brilliantly challenged the validity of taking an Omega-3 supplement daily as a long-term hedge against heart disease and a welter of other ailments most of us would prefer to avoid at any age.

At his well-attended book signing, on publication day, he alluded breezily to having survived five decades, but in his book’s introduction, he was more intimately candid, revealing the kind of anxiety that is likely to rob one of sleep on many a night.

“It had all begun as a whisper, speaking to me most clearly late at night,” he wrote, “a quiet murmur of dread over the nature of middle age and what lay beyond it. It felt as if an entirely new phase had begun, something which I had come to think of as ‘the rind of life’ — a phase of insomnia and pointless internet browsing leading to dark speculation on the paucity of time remaining and the declining vitality that would accompany this last handful of decades.”

Oh, boy — heavy stuff. I mean here was a man whose career had blossomed brilliantly in recent years, yet he found himself staring down life’s inevitable terminus.

What about the rest of us who may be grappling with mortality — or trying desperately to ignore the issue — by focusing intensely on the present and not looking down life’s dark road? Most of us try to narrow our concerns, though sometimes anxieties do bubble up, becoming unmistakably apparent.

What sticks in my mind, clearly, is a 50th-birthday event, arranged for her spouse by one of my wife’s oldest friends. It was a midwinter brunch attended by friends, family members and colleagues, all in a jocular mood. (Why not? They were each a few years younger than the honoree and eager to make that fact known.)

When a fork was tapped on a water glass, to silence the chatter, I remember watching our host rise to his feet and acknowledge that, yes, he had definitely hit the half-century mark and also to assure us that fifty was the new seventy. What? Then he sat down and obviously wondered why his words had created such a stir. I remember saying to myself that, when I reached age fifty, I hoped I still had my marbles and also that no one would have a single snide word to mumble in my behalf.

An entirely different tack was evident in remarks from a New Jersey-based dentist disinclined to be identified in print. “Fifty was nothing,” he insisted when we spoke. “For some reason, I’d really hit bottom the day I turned forty.”

My own admitted low point, where advancing age is concerned, occurred, oddly enough, the day I turned thirty-two. That bout of depression was not long-lasting, but when it hit, I remember feeling certain it was all over for me. Nonsense, of course, but when struck by an episode of such dark despair — no matter how useless and nonsensical — it’s really hard to hit back.

It was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a Florida congressman turned on-air political pundit, who put it all in perspective for me, some years back. During an interview in which he opined that, unlike men, women are aware, from an early age, that death awaits them someday. Bit men are different, he told a reporter, “Guys don’t realize they’re gonna die until they turn fifty.”

I guess that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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