Turning 50: Improving on the Orson Welles Approach
Once you reach a certain age, birthdays become the kind of thing you prefer not to discuss. For me, turning 50 is such an occasion.
What does turning 50 feel like?
I’m reminded of a great line from one of my favorite movies, On Golden Pond. Billy asks Norman Thayer, Jr., played by the great Henry Fonda, what it’s like to turn 80.
“Twice as bad as it was to turn 40,” he deadpans.
Turning 50 isn’t twice as bad as turning 25 was because 25 wasn’t really a problem. I recall nothing bad about my 25th birthday.
When you reach your 20s, everything remains steadily happy. You turn 21 and get to drink (if that’s your thing) and you stay generally “young” until you reach 29. Then you worry about hitting 30.
I did not stress out at all about the 30th birthday.
I worried a little about hitting 40. Then I remembered a great quote from Harry Belafonte, who once told concert-goers that 40 is where life begins.
“Everything up until that moment…is a tryout,” he said.
I spent more than a year feeling angst about the 50th birthday. The reason strikes me as silly.
You see, when you turn 40, it’s not that difficult to imagine that you might live to be 80 or beyond. Your life isn’t half over. (Oh, yes, any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so we don’t know when we’ll pass. But it just seems possible to go past 80.)
Science and medicine help some people live past 100, but there still aren’t that many centenarians.
So 50 feels as if your life is probably beyond half-over.
Orson Welles enjoyed a great mishap with a major birthday.
Hours before his death, Orson Welles appeared on The Merv Griffin Show. He was unusually candid about his life and loves. Griffin asked him about a recent “big” birthday.
Welles was clear that he didn’t celebrate turning 70. He noted that when someone brought out a cake with his right number of candles, it “looks like the Chicago Fire.”
“I’ll tell you what was my good luck,” he said. “I thought I was 70 last year! So I went through all the misery of being 70 a year ago. So this one is free.”
Oddly enough, Welles returned to his home after the taping of that show and worked into the night on a project. He suffered a fatal heart attack in the early morning hours.
I haven’t yet found a way to lose track of my year of birth, so getting the date of my 50th birthday wrong wasn’t likely to happen.
But I realized something most people seem never to notice: a birthday marks the end of a year, not the beginning. I turn 50 on the day that I have finished my 50th year of life. This time last year, I turned 49. That meant I began my 50th year.
So, while I didn’t forget my birth year, like Orson Welles, I’ve been feeling the “misery” of being 50 for most of the past year. I’ve felt anxiety, sadness, remorse, regret and all of the other things you’re “supposed” to feel at such a time.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, now that the dark day has arrived, I can begin my 51st year without all of that angst.
Here’s hoping, anyway.