Saturday, January 21, 2006
Author and host of public radio's A Prairie Home Companion
When you hit 50, you have to stop complaining about getting old, the strangeness of it, the fascination, the horror, etc., etc. That was okay in your 30s and 40s, but now that you're old, it's time to shut up on the subject. You shouldn't complain about aging for the simple reason that nobody gives a hoot. If you were to pay people to care, they might care a little bit for an hour or two, but you didn't and they don't. So learn to be cheerful about it. When people ask you how you are, tell them, "Absolutely great. Never better."
By 50, everyone can stand to lose 20 pounds, so do it. The simplest way is to adopt a new philosophy of eating, which is revolutionary in America but which is essential for an older person: Eat to satisfy hunger; if you're not hungry, don't eat. Stop eating when your hunger is satisfied. Except on Sunday or whichever day is your feast day. As you get older, your metabolism changes, and now you can sustain yourself quite well on one meal per day and two snacks. So that's what you do.
Fifty is the time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Especially for the aging bohemian. A young person is allowed to dress up as Desperado, Punk Princess, Noir Poet or Frontiersman, but by the age of 50 you've wised up. You've seen how ratty those old ponytails can look. What was revolutionary at 21 can be rather stringy and pitiful at 50. What works for Willie Nelson doesn't necessarily work for you.
Put the past behind you. This is even easier to do at my age (63), but you can get a start at 50. Make a pile of your regrets and put a match to them and let them blow away—the lost loves, the estranged friends, the botched education, the unwritten novel, the neglected guitar, the ruinous investments, the dear friend who committed suicide, the opportunities that sailed away without you. Put that knapsack full of rocks on the ground and walk away and find something in the here-and-now that absorbs you and take up with that—a garden, a grandchild, a choir, yoga, knitting, amassing a collection of porcelain pigs, political agitation, learning the drop-thumb style of banjo.
Start telling the truth. Do it in small doses at first and then gradually build up to one out of three, a decent batting average. When you're young, you're scared; you're trying to wend your way through the trees and not get shot at; you're trying to stay on the warm side of the various big cheeses in your life; you're wanting to be the good guy who everybody loves, not the jerk with the big mouth. But when you hit 50, you're entering a new passage of life in which you can say what you really think.
You can also dare to express simple preference. Do you want to go over to the Swansons' for dinner? No, I don't. Why not? I thought you liked them. They complain constantly about aging, and I'm tired of looking at his hair. Oh. Okay. What would you rather do? Lie on a bed with you and talk and drink a little wine and listen to Frank Sinatra with the lights out. Oh. Okay.
Fifty is an excellent age for reform of all sorts. You have enough experience and good judgment to know something about yourself, and you can see the end of your life from here, and so, gauging your desires and your strength, you adjust and straighten and balance and alter what needs altering and press on. It's a time of marvels on every hand, great richness, emotional clarity, and great sweetness. Sixty is even better, but don't hurry.