As I write this, I am turning 50. The plan is to spend my semi-century in bed — or, if I’m feeling cosmopolitan, on the couch. Lying prone is not how I normally spend birthdays, but it is how I will be spending this one. It is not a pandemic-based decision; it is an If-I-Must resignation.
I get that I should be thankful. A lot of people don’t make it to 50, especially Black men. I’m fortunate to have made it through the pandemic this far without being tagged with a life-threatening virus or worse. I have my health, my teeth, and my mind. I recognize that these are all things to be grateful for as the odometer of my body clicks to the half-century mark.
They are also things I am obligated to say before I can say graceless and entitled things.
Normally I make a big deal out of my birthday on social media. It is a communal affair, where I post a list of about 20 activities that people can do from wherever they are. I invite people to leave work early, buy records at a local store, thank a famous writer for their work, and, of course, eat all of the food. It’s not a celebration of me so much as an exhortation to others about how they should approach their lives: with joy and care for others, reveling in beautiful things, and paying respect to those who have helped us along the way. It’s a very “treat yourself” philosophy.
Because I spent the better part of my life dreaming and plotting and hitting just enough home runs to justify my wanderlust and procrastination, the rest of my life has a patina of fatalism it did not possess before 50.
But this year I’m turning 50, and all I want to do is load up a PlayStation game I was saving as a reward for finishing a book draft, unplugging from the world for the day.
There is no discernable difference between 49 and 50. Anything I could do in the last week of 49 I can still do in the first week of 50. I don’t suddenly need assistance with the internet or stairs. 50 has no physical marker in any way; no birthday does. You’re not really an adult at 18; society is simply tired of not making money off of you and wishes to inject you into capitalism as quickly as possible. Your body is no more prepared for beer at 21 than it was at 20. Age is largely mental; you’re only as old as you think you are, as the saying goes.
And yet, that’s a one-way cliché. Being able to do certain things at 50 has less to do with what I am capable of than what others think I am capable of. What 50 really ushers in is unsolicited advice. Everyone becomes your mother after 50, warning you about things you’re already aware of. No one over the age of 50 is surprised when a co-worker pulls a random drive-by consultation about cancer odds.
Granted, there’s physiology to consider at 50 that you do not think about when you are 30 or 40. Statistically speaking, Black 50 is equivalent to White 54. Of course, life expectancy is only half the story. It doesn’t figure in the chances of being killed over nothing, while doing nothing, for saying nothing. It doesn’t compute all of the stress of processing that reality or generational trauma. If the unequal time afforded to live one’s life isn’t enough to convince you of the reality of systemic racism, nothing will.
50 is both a time to prepare for, and a time to prepare. You officially have more time behind you than in front of you. By 50, you pretty much know if you’re going to be one of those people who ends up on CBS Sunday Morning, walking a camera crew through your home on your 100th birthday while extolling the virtues of a daily regimen of bacon sandwiches and wine. When I eat a bacon sandwich it puts me to sleep, so my 50 is telling me in no uncertain terms that CBS won’t be calling.
I did not prepare well for 50. In some ways, I feel like I’m just getting started with my life. I launched my own business only three years ago. I recently gained a sizable enough audience interested in the things I create to justify the time I put into that work. I am finally writing the books I have always meant to write. It took me more than 40 years to get to where I meant to be by 30, and where I could have gotten if I had the work ethic and drive that I see in so many others I see every day. So at 50, what I feel is not young, but behind. If I had another 40 years to see it all through, I might feel different. But 50 means there isn’t another 40 years out there. I have to do what I can with what I have left, and if the horn and steel I hear some nights are correct, that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t sunshine.
I grew up hard-headed, always wanting to do what I wanted to do, but never being honest about the resources I had in hand to accomplish those things. So I spent a lot of time hitting my head against walls gaining the hard-won answers to questions like “If I want to switch my major from architecture to film, what’s the problem?” and “Why can’t I quit this job if all it does is stress me out?” and “Why can’t I quit this job and write books?” The things I could not avoid doing I did with a bare minimum of effort. I failed my way through high school. I dropped out of college. In my entire life, I’ve only worked two jobs for longer than three months. It took years of soul-searching to get to some semblance of the determination other people seemed to find in half the time because they could bite bullets and knuckle down to do what needed to be done. I was just never wired that way. And because I spent the better part of my life dreaming and plotting and hitting just enough home runs to justify my wanderlust and procrastination, the rest of my life has a patina of fatalism it did not possess before 50.
Someone seeking to spare my feelings would argue that all of that time was groundwork, the laying of a foundation for the person I have become and whom I like very much. I am successful in many ways, and I celebrate those things regularly. But the truth of the matter is that I blew a lot of my life off waiting for things to happen. Sure, I had fun and ate all the things and met wonderful people and did many wild things. I traveled the country performing poetry, of all things. I wrote and published books, and met famous people on equitable ground. But if I am honest, I could have been doing these things much earlier, and I know it. No one can tell when you are ready to start living your true life. That is something that only comes from reflection, work, and a smattering of regret to keep the ship straight.
Here is some math I have lived with for a while now that may be instructive: My father died of cancer at 64. His father died of cancer at 68. My mother’s father died of cancer at 69. The likelihood that I will die of cancer is so high that it can practically be counted on. Contrary to the morbidity of that statement, there is a genuine peace that comes with that knowledge. There is no peace, however, in observing the ages of my ancestors in relation to my new 50. My father only had 14 more years than I do now. It is a difficult equation to shake out of your bones once you see it.
Admittedly, my 50 is not a bad half-field. I don’t have so much gray that 50 is a given. People still seem genuinely surprised when I tell them my age; that Black Don’t Crack gene is nestled somewhere deep. I’m just not out here trying to make a case that my 50 is a vibrant and virile new 40. I’m a straight-up, hardcore, watch-what-you-eat 50. I’ll take that L. I pay enough social tax being a big Black guy with a big mouth that I get to choose how I feel about this one.
Despite my feelings about becoming half a century old, hiding from that reality is not a fulfilling response. I may not like it, but it is a life change to be respected. I may not be at a place where I can appreciate it yet, but I imagine I’ll feel differently by my next birthday. I’m not so superstitious that I believe not appreciating this new tree ring means I’m asking for some karmic thunderbolt to make me appreciate it. I am a Black man turning 50 in a time when the whole world feels made of Black kryptonite. With Covid stalking the land like a scythe-wielding reaper, no one is promised 50 now, or 40 or 30.
So if you’re reading this and 50 hasn’t come for you yet, you have time to turn around any weird feelings you might have about it. If there is any wisdom that comes from my experience, it is to not wait for your life to come to you. Forget the clocks that surround you; set your own alarms. 50 is my alarm. I had a similar alarm at 30 and I wallowed for a few days in it, then hit the snooze button, waiting for my purpose to find me. Don’t do that. There is plenty of life out there to be had by everyone. Don’t waste any of it wondering what comes next. Always consider what more you could do and then do it. Otherwise, you risk your 50 feeling like the new 60.