01 Because you've finally become closer to your parents
For 20 years I’ve waited for this: my dad prepares veal marsala on my stove, shows concern when I cough, walks my dog if I’m rushing to work.
“Tell me what I can do to help,” he often asks.
My mother died in 1978. In the years that followed, Dad and I became distant in miles and emotion. He married a woman with a prescription-drug dependence; I married an alcoholic. Finally, I found happiness with my third and final husband. But through it all, I missed my mother, and I missed my dad.
At the age of 83 my father separated from his second wife, and my brother and I urged him to move near us. I found him an apartment, and I was proud of myself. Proud that I could take care of him.
We adjusted to each other easily. He is a gregarious guy with a small dog; they make friends daily. A superb cook, he could be the next Mrs. Fields, but I prefer him as Dad, baking biscotti in my kitchen, or sour cream coffeecake, or beef bourguignon. Our Christmas gift to him was French-cooking lessons; we await the duck à l’orange.
Sunday dinners, baseball games...it’s all so normal now. So “family.” It’s not perfect, but it’s good. After 20 years, we’re just a normal family.
—Ann Cochran is a writer in Cabin John, Maryland.
Because gray looks good
08 Because sex gets better with age
Too much of a good thing, Mae West told us, can be wonderful, even at this age. Our hormones aren’t as abundant as they used to be, but with a little help from our friends—Viagra, Estrace cream, Astroglide—we can still be as bad as we wanna be. When the spirit is willing but the body isn’t, we improvise. We’re self-confident enough to say what we want, content enough to swap calisthenics for intimacy. More tenderness and less testosterone can be very sexy indeed.
A female friend of mine says her husband used to want sex so often, she felt “dispensable.” These days it feels more like a choice. It’s different for men, too. “I’m more concerned with making the other person happy,” says a male friend. His wife is happy, too: “Who knew we’d be having so much fun?”
—Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist who writes frequently about sex (www.elizabethbenedict.com)
09 Because you’re more compassionate
You’ve always been the rightest person in the room—so why did your boss just fire you? You were certain your parents made terrible mistakes raising you—now your own kids say you made the same errors (and they’re forwarding their therapy bills to you). You’ve led a charmed life—but suddenly you know what it’s like to live with depression…or cancer…or losing a spouse…or a sudden turn in fortune that’s left you wondering how to pay the bills.
By the time we pass the half-century mark, we’ve all withstood our share of slights, indignities, or outright suffering. Watched our self-image go up in flames. Played a starring role in our own TV version of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
And maybe it’s lucky. Lucky because we’ve seen enough, felt enough, been self-aware enough to learn from our experiences. What we’ve learned is that all of us are inherently flawed and very, very vulnerable; that this, in part, is what it means to be human; and that—most important—we really are all in this together. It’s the reason we treat our fellow humans with a heavy dose of compassion and respect. Okay, so it’s taken a handful of decades and some life upheavals to figure this all out. That still puts us in the catbird seat, compared with people who have never learned it at all.
—Nancy Wartik is a writer based in New York City.
10 Because men can use “midlife crisis” as an excuse for any embarrassing, highly questionable activity*
* Including body piercings, bad toupees, love-handle surgery, leather pants (or any wardrobe addition that makes you look like David Hasselhoff), and the purchase of a sports car more expensive than your first house.
11 Because you have the guts to change careers
I look up from a phonics lesson to hear screaming in my classroom. Emmanuel, a sad-eyed first grader who joined our class three days earlier, is hurling books, punching any kids who come near. At least ten children are sobbing and hurt. I call the main office: “I need help in 221—now!” Emmanuel hits more children in the seconds I’m on the phone. Another teacher runs into the room and ushers him out. I am the lone adult with 24 traumatized children. Now I do the only thing I can think of to calm everyone down: we sing the class favorite, “If I Had a Hammer.”
I had brought in some CDs a few weeks earlier, hoping that deciphering song lyrics would improve my students’ ability to listen. After a 20-year career as a magazine editor, I’m teaching at-risk first graders in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. A large percentage of students at this South Bronx school are borderline autistic, have ADD, or suffer from an array of developmental disorders. Some, like Emmanuel, are shuffled from one foster home to another. Many others have parents who are absent, jailed, unemployed, addicted to drugs, or abusive.
Emmanuel returns after a few days’ suspension and mumbles “Sorry” after a brief discussion of the earlier events. Juan, a helpful child who loves Spider-Man and sharks, has a suggestion: “Why don’t we make Emmanuel the Student of the Day so we can get to know him better?”
I marvel at Juan’s maturity. Maybe his live-in-the-moment attitude, however naive, is the best way to cope. I realize how much I can learn from these kids about forgiveness, and the value of starting anew.
—Eileen Garred teaches in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.
12 Because you get better at crossword puzzles
It’s simple. We know words our kids don’t. Studies show that 50-plus folks have larger vocabularies than people in their 20s or 30s do, partly because of the younger generation’s more video-obsessed lives, but also because we know more obsolete terms (mimeograph, phonograph...). What matters is we can kick serious bahookey—an eight-letter word for buttocks—at crossword puzzles. Here’s a test. Ask your under-30 family members to define these words: larder, eight-track, analog, Instamatic. When they can’t answer, just smile and return to your puzzle.
13 Because you know money can buy some happiness
Our dog’s name is Lucky. The twins named him. They were seven years old and weren’t listening when I said naming anything Lucky is tempting fate. I was perfectly willing to go to the shelter for a cute terrier mix named Peanut, but the hypoallergenic hype on Labradoodles—they don’t shed!—and the puppy pictures online won the day. The breeder got $900, and we got Lucky.
There were other costs. To fit him into our life, we bought a minivan, slightly used. Of course Lucky needed schooling—a bargain at $10 a week—and I’m sure it helped give him the discipline to chew up just one household object per day for his first two years. From an early age Lucky showed us how to get along with less.
Then there are the four vacuum cleaners, each stronger than the last. I can’t fault Lucky for taking after his Labrador mother, but, yes, he does shed, prodigiously. At some point I toted up Lucky-related costs and started calling him our $30,000 dog.
One of my jobs at this magazine is encouraging AARP members to be careful with their money. Really, folks, put away whatever you can. Spend only on necessities. But what is a necessity? Last fall Lucky bolted across the street toward a friend and was hit by a speeding SUV. In 12 days we spent $20,000 to save him.
Yes, there went a semester at college, or a new car, or years off the mortgage. There went the emergency fund. But I have no regrets. We could find the money. In good conscience we couldn’t not spend it. Love made that a necessity, just as love prompted family to send unsolicited checks.
And now that Lucky is back to rolling in rabbit poop and eating, let’s just say, very widely, he’s become my daily reminder of what we really can and can’t do without.
14 Because if Keith Richards can make it into his 60s, there's hope for all of us
1965 Knocked out by electric shock onstage after whacking microphone with guitar
1969 Wrecks his 19-foot Nazi staff car, gets it repaired, then wrecks it down embankment
1973 (Or maybe it was ’74…) Falls asleep and crashes into speaker, breaking nose
1974 Falls asleep mid-sentence during live television interview
1980 Declares in interview, “I’ve been drunk for 27 years”
1981 Doesn’t recognize title of new Stones album: “What’s this Tattoo You?”
1998 While reaching for book in home library, gets pummeled by avalanche of texts. Suffers three broken ribs and punctured lung
2006 Falls out of coconut tree in Fiji
2007 Claims he snorted Dad’s ashes (later denies snorting Dad’s ashes)
2008 Gives key to his longevity: “I’m doomed to live”
Because you’re free to do what you want!
When we asked readers what they like best about being 50-plus, one answer popped up more than others: freedom.
18 Because our music rocks!
AARP The Magazine’s music critic, Richard Gehr, picks five songs music lovers will still be listening to in 100 years.
The Beach Boys “God Only Knows”
Angel-voiced Carl Wilson seeks romantic guidance from above in this gorgeous track from brother Brian’s 1966 pop masterpiece, Pet Sounds. This one will still be on iPods (or implants) in 2108.
Aretha Franklin “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”
The Queen of Soul unforgettably blends stirring gospel and soaring R&B in her first hit single, written by Ronnie Shannon. She’d soon have bigger hits, but this one gives you chills.
Booker T. & the MG’s “Time Is Tight”
Among the world’s most memorable riffs—“Sunshine of Your Love,” “Smoke on the Water”—this could be the catchiest, courtesy of the instrumental group that launched a thousand Stax R&B hits.
Merle Haggard “Mama Tried”
Motherhood, freight trains, prison, and church. Merle Haggard’s autobiographical hit sums up the domestic consolations and outlaw impulses of great American country music. It’s an underrated classic.
The Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever”
A cool psychedelic breeze blows through John Lennon’s nostalgic memories of his Liverpool childhood. The Beatles rarely sounded more revolutionary than on this dreamy slice of genius.
We know you disagree with our list…So tell us your picks for the best songs ever.
19 Because you’ve been embarrassed so much, you’re all out of chagrin
When I was in second grade I wet my pants.
It was at a rehearsal of the school play, just before I spoke my lines—well, line. But an important line. For, in our version of Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf (yours truly) was transformed from predator (“Grrr”) to protector (“Leave her alone! Grrr”).
I didn’t grasp that symbolism. I just knew the other parts had gone to sixth graders and that I was one of the few Negro children in the school. Motivated by pride, I spent hours practicing my snarling. But the script called for the Big Bad Wolf to appear in nearly every scene, and as rehearsals grew longer, eventually, almost inevitably, I experienced… a release of dramatic tension.
In the boys’ room, waiting for my mother to fetch fresh pants, I grred at my own stupidity. Big Bad Wolf? Big, bad disgrace. I cringed recalling how, before exiting, dripping, stage left, I’d actually delivered my line. But the next day the director said that showed “stage presence” and told me not to worry; this was not the most embarrassing thing I’d ever do.
Too right. There was that solo I began as a boy soprano and ended sounding like a bullfrog. There was that jump shot at the buzzer that swished through the wrong net. And after I left home in rural Pennsylvania for college, there were all those city customs I never got right.
I practiced public obtuseness, ignoring astonished looks when my savoir fell behind my faire. But privately I was haunted by echoes of my inanities (“A friend of Bill who?” “Aren’t you going to cook that?”)
As the years passed, I learned to check my facts, and also my fly—better to be caught at that than with my zipper down. But recently, listening to an old friend introduce me with an exaggerated account of one of my Greatest Misses, it struck me, now that I’m fiftysomething, that the most embarrassing thing I’d ever do was probably something I’d already done.
So I checked my fly and I stepped onstage in a state of grace beyond disgrace, beyond chagrin.
—David Bradley, author of The Chaneysville Incident, teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.
20 Because you experienced the Beatles
I was 13 years old when my best friend, Margo, won tickets to see the Beatles in San Francisco in ’65. We’d seen girls scream for the Fab Four on television and vowed we would never act so silly. But when the Beatles arrived onstage, we were swept away by the hysteria. We screamed, we jumped, we cried, we shook—we even tried climbing the chainlink fence that surrounded the stage. We were gasping for breath the entire show, slightly lightheaded, tears streaming down our faces. I’ve been to other concerts, but none were ever like this.
—Libby Guthrie is an AARP member in Redwood Valley, California.
21 Because we know how to fight—literally
In March 2008, Saoul Mamby, age 60, became the oldest boxer to compete in a pro bout, going ten rounds with 32-year-old fighter Anthony Osborne. Okay, Mamby didn’t win. So what. The guy is doing what he loves: punching other guys in the face until they drool. Since turning pro in 1969, the Bronx-born fighter has held the World Boxing Council (WBC) junior-welterweight title, amassed 56 wins (plus 11 grandchildren), and fought on the same card as Muhammad Ali. Now he’s training in hopes of another bout. “To be successful at boxing—at anything—it has to become a part of you,” says Mamby. “You get out of it what you put in—and I put in 100 percent.”
22 Because love grows deeper over time
In the early days it was all about him. His favorite foods, favorite color, favorite flavor of ice cream, and whether he liked my hair up or down. I loved to make him laugh, and worked hard not to cry in front of him. I cleaned my house before he came over, always wore mascara, always had champagne in the fridge.
Marriage changes that, of course. Artifice goes, as it should. Love deepens, maybe even relaxes a little. And anyway, who has time to set a scene or arrange the canapés when somebody has to be picked up at soccer practice, or the boss has a fit, or the creek rises (literally) into the cellar an hour before the in-laws are to arrive for Easter brunch? When the dog is throwing up, or your mother breaks her hip, who among us can be bothered to murmur, “Darling, I’ve always loved that color of blue on you.”
We’ve seen each other at our worst, and that’s not an exaggeration. Physically ill, emotionally grief-stunned, job-panicked, or angry enough to throw crockery at the wall (and then do it again). Red-faced, blotchy, hoarse from yelling. Our parents grow old, and ill, or nutty; our children make mistakes that drop us to our knees. Through it all, how on earth can he love me, given what a flawed, messy, moody person I am? The artifice is long gone; he sees me. As my oldest friend said when we were girls, “If Prince Charming loves me, he’s probably not really Prince Charming.”
Well, as it turns out, maybe he is. Okay, so we won’t make love on the kitchen table again (there’s not enough ibuprofen and, besides, that’s why God invented pillow-top mattresses). But lately, when he puts his arm around me in the movie line, or takes my hand as we cross the street, my heart jumps as it did in the beginning. I’m happy to see him in the morning and blessed to sleep beside him at night; there are even days, in a certain light, that he makes me feel all swoony. He does see me, which is why he’s still here. And I see him, far more clearly than I did—burnished, like my grandmother’s sterling silver, and as grounded as the white oak in our front yard. I couldn’t have known that’s how it would be, back when I was putting on a show.
—Larkin Warren lives in Connecticut. She is working on her first novel.
23 Because B.B. King proves the pursuit of perfection never end
I play “The Thrill Is Gone” every night. But I never do exactly what I did last night or the night before. I tell my band to play it as they feel it each night. I like that. It keeps it fresh.
I have a motto: Always do your best. When I was in grade school there was a poem a teacher used to tell us. It went something like “Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” I do the best I can each night. Even though a lot of nights my best is nothing as good as I’d like it to be.
Every day I learn something. I have a computer that’s my professor. If I don’t learn something every day, it’s a day lost.
—As told to Richard Gehr. B.B. King’s new album is One Kind Favor.
Because we’re uniquely qualified to raise children
At age 50, with lots of energy and two children out of the toddler stage, I longed to have a third baby. “Am I too old?” I asked our adoption attorney. His reply comforted me: “Children pick their parents,” meaning for some preconceived baby, in some spiritual realm, my age and experience would be a plus. A year later, Taylor Elle Graham was born, joining siblings Jessica and Perry. While I wouldn’t presume to make the case that older parents are better than younger ones, we do have some unique qualifications:
24 Like Avis, we try harder
What we may lack in vigor we make up for in desire. Older parenting isn’t for the halfhearted; we do it because we really, really want to. Most of us have been through miscarriages, infertility, in vitro, surrogacy, adoption, or just a lot of trying. To us, becoming parents was a miracle. Exhaustion we take for granted; having children we do not.
25 We’d rather climb a jungle gym than a corporate ladder
Yesterday Jessica went on a class field trip. She had begged me to chaperone. I’d had a business trip planned, but I volunteered anyway—and got picked. Daughter: ecstatic. Mom: business travel postponed. What matters more than the joy on a child’s face when Mom or Dad shows up? I’ve made time to be class mom, soccer-team mom, Brownie leader. No more working 24/7—been there, done that.
26 We know time is not on our side
If there’s one thing that’s universally true of older parents, it’s our knowledge that time is precious. Most of us won’t have as many years with our children as younger parents do. So we don’t wish that time away. We relish changing smelly diapers, schlepping kids to play dates, and tending to runny noses and bloody knees. Lately Jessica has started talking about boys—specifically, about kissing boys. Weren’t we just singing Barney songs together? The phrase “They grow up so fast” has special poignancy; we want to be with them every step of the way.
27 You don’t fear an empty nest
By the time our kids leave, we’ll be too tired to notice they’re gone!
—Nancy Perry Graham is the magazine’s deputy editor.
28 Because… Paul Newman
Back in 1961, I was dumb enough to think The Hustler was a Jackie Gleason movie. But then came this upstart pool shark with cobalt-blue eyes (yes, The Hustler was in black and white, but somehow the blue still showed). He got into The Great One’s face and bragged, “I’m the best you ever seen,” and there was no arguing the point.
By the time he turned 50 in 1975, Paul Newman could have coasted. But the actor rewrote his career with one breakaway role after another: there he is barreling across the ice in Slap Shot (1977). Then he solemnly offers a summation to the jury in The Verdict (1982). Later there’s his Oscar-winning return to the role of The Hustler’s Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money (1986).
A new generation knows Newman more as a racecar driver, or as the voice of an old sedan in the animated Cars, or as the face on McDonald’s salad dressing packets, than for his turn as Butch Cassidy. But for those who grew up with Paul Newman, he’s more than a brand, a voice, or a set of blazing peepers. He’s proof you can keep chasing that checkered flag even after you’ve entered the winner’s circle.
—Bill Newcott is entertainment editor for AARP The Magazine and host of Movies for Grownups® on AARP Radio.
29 Because your spiritual side grows stronger
The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know everything. And that makes me spirituality sensitive to others. I’m less dogmatic, more open to other people’s experience of the divine. As we age, we experience things that aren’t easily explained—tragedies, failing health—and we become more reflective. There is so much more to learn about the mystery that is the divine, and I’ve got this thimbleful of knowledge, and I want more. Earlier, a thimbleful was all I could handle. Not anymore. Our spiritual life has a chance to be richer now, with so many more life experiences to reflect upon.
—As told to Lynne Meredith Schreiber. Brent Bill is a Quaker minister in Mooresville, Indiana, and the author of Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment (Paraclete Press, 2008).
Because we are powerful
30 41 percent of American adults are over 50, the highest percentage in U.S. history.
31 80 percent of Congress is over 50.
32 Half of the Americans who voted in the 2006 elections were 50+.
33 People over 55 own 77 percent of all financial assets in the United States.
34 50+ adults account for 45 percent of U.S. consumer spending, or $2.1 trillion per year.
35 By 2011 the American 50+ population will surpass the 100 million mark.
36 Because we’re living longer than ever before
Let’s get the distressing stats out of the way first: Citizens in 41 countries have longer average life spans than we Americans do. In some parts of the United States—portions of the Deep South, the Midwest—life expectancy has actually declined (the big reasons are smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure). The upbeat stats? If you are 50 today, on average you’ll live to be 80.5. If you’re 65, you’ll live to 83.4. In fact, if you go back to our one-celled ancestors, we’re doing way better than humans at any point in history.
37 "When you get older, hopefully you've developed the smarts to know that if you wake up in the morning and you're vertical and your kids are healthy, that's 90 percent of being happy. That's it!"
38 Because you’re secure enough to take as much advice as you dish out
If it’s true we are judged by the company we keep, the evidence in my favor is compelling: a bevy of strong, self-sufficient, passionate young women, 30—and more—years younger than I am. Being this far past 50 frees me to wallow in their youthful exuberance without competition or regret. I am both their patient sage and their eager student.
Each appeared at different points in my life and from various spots on the globe, and though we are sometimes separated by months, years, even continents, our links are so elastic that we never lose touch. They are dream catchers, all: the brilliant, book-loving hell-raiser, who at 16 was as skilled with her fists as she was with a pen when we met 18 years ago; the enchanting poet/actress; the fierce lawyer; the self-assured entrepreneur.
Early on, each of them evoked an intense whisper in me—“I know her”—and I recognized they were parts of that girl I used to be. We are “like” attracting “like”—as intensely loyal as we are truthful. So, when I confess to feeling fat, the actress dares me to shut up and flaunt it. In the middle of my tiresome ranting, the businesswoman shames me—lovingly—into clearing my space of ancient hurts and weary narratives. If I am weak, the lawyer argues me back to warrior-woman status. When I get stuck, the hell-raiser—now the college student/wife/mother—leads me out.
I admire all the things they are that I will never be, but because I’m older, my instructions to them rarely change: Trust your gut. Get angry. If it scares you, do it. Don’t go with the flow unless you started it. Eat dessert first.
My young friends revel in my steady assurances, even as they rescue me from the tedium of old certainties and instruct me in the protocol of cool. Watching them—and listening—is pure joy and wonder.
—Bernestine Singley is a writer and lawyer based in Dallas.
39 Because you’ve seen the world change in inconceivable ways
At 57 years of age, I am nervous about the future—the economy, the environment, to say nothing of those deepening crow’s-feet. But the long view sustains me. My grandfather was born in the 1880s to former slaves. I hung on to the stories he told—about a life before cars, plastics, the Wright brothers, the Panama Canal, even before Jim Crow laws.
My father was born in 1915. Despite five strokes, he is still vibrant and funny. He was a technical editor back in the days of computer mainframes, back when FORTRAN and COBOL were the lingua franca of techno-nerds. He regales my son with tales of automobiles that had to be cranked. He recalls lynchings when he was growing up. The integration of the Army. The battle of Anzio. The etymology of the word smog.
My father still types letters on an old sticky-keyed Smith Corona. As I craft my own words on a brand-new MacBook Air, I am grateful for the strength that intergenerational engagement brings. I am a black female law professor, something my grandfather could never have imagined. And I am about to e-mail these words through an invisible cushion of whooshing cyberspace, something my father worked to create but still can’t entirely grasp.
Across the table my son is writing a school paper about the oil crisis and looks up with a glint of panic. “How,” he asks me, “will humanity continue?”
I am not so fearful. Like my son, I worry about the crossroads at which we stand. But I am old enough to appreciate how quickly the course of events can change—for the worse, to be sure, but also for the better, if only the will is there. If my father can remember the very first U.S. smog alert, then my son might live to see the haze subside and the heavens reemerge. The human spirit is amazingly, unexpectedly resilient. Anything can happen.
—Patricia Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University and a columnist for The Nation.
40 Because you actually enjoy going to high-school reunions
For the first few decades, high-school reunions are like updated versions of an old cartoon show: the hairstyles and voices are a little different, but, really, Archie and Jughead haven’t changed that much. Reunions after age 50 are more like Return to Mayberry, where Opie’s gone bald and Aunt Bee is dead. This is not a bad thing, because while everyone else looks like a jack-o’-lantern left on the porch too long, you haven’t changed a bit. You know this is true, because everybody tells you so. (You tell everybody the same thing, but that’s just because you’re so nice.) And yet these later reunions are somehow more pleasant than those in years past. The smoldering one-upmanship has pretty much quenched itself; you’ve filed away a lot of the old jealousies and insecurities that dogged your younger years. At last you’re free to enjoy those fleeting connections with your youth. And if you aren’t, that old classmate who’s now a psychiatrist will gladly give you his card.
Because older brains have new strengths
41 You’re a better judge of character
The Proof: In tests at North Carolina State University, older folks outperformed younger participants in determining whether people were honest and intelligent.
42 Your brain is more efficient
The Proof: Duke University researchers discovered that older individuals use the brain’s right and left hemispheres at the same time (typically the brain uses the left for some tasks, and the right for others). “In effect, the mature brain creates a synergy that helps it think outside the box,” says Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Mature Mind (Basic Books, 2005).
43 You’re less neurotic than you used to be
The Proof: Australian scientists found that neuroticism was less prevalent in subjects ages 50 to 79. Brain scans also revealed a more controlled response to fear. The experts’ theory: A growing awareness of mortality and a desire for meaning mellows the mind.
44 Because you don’t tolerate bad service
For years I went to a hairstylist whose end result never quite worked. A nice person, and so proud of owning her own salon—it was fun to spend time with her every couple of months. The friendship was swell—we went through joy, grief, and menopause together—but the hairdo? Not so much. Yet I couldn’t leave her; I didn’t want her to feel bad. Then I saw the mother-of-the-groom pictures from my son’s wedding. Bad hair. Very bad hair. Anyone with a heart would’ve handed me a baseball cap.
And so, with shaking hands and a sinking stomach, I took my leave. She cried, I cried, and I soon found someone else, who is better than good; sometimes she’s great. Yay me. But, wow, how many hundreds of dollars did I spend over the years for bad hair? What is it that holds us to doctors, mechanics, or electricians who don’t or won’t do what we need? Why do we cling to friendships that take more than they give, or relationships that drag on our hearts like boat anchors? Is it my mother’s fault, for tamping down my big teenage mouth with “Be polite; don’t make a scene”? Is it my father’s, for instructing me to appreciate other people’s efforts? “She’s doing the best she can,” he said about the piano teacher whose breath melted paint. So I dutifully played my scales, never told a waitress that I’d wanted milk, not orange juice, and grew up to gnash my teeth in my sleep.
Finally, the freedom of a fully flowered adulthood dropped the hammer on this Go Along to Get Along baloney. Bad hairstylist? Gone. The plumber who didn’t fix the mess under the kitchen sink and charged me anyway? Gone. The old friend who in a three-week period canceled a lunch date four times, then scolded me for arriving ten minutes late? Well, not gone, exactly, but definitely on my pay-no-mind list. The car dealer who tried to muscle me 20 minutes into our first conversation? Summarily exchanged for the nice, slow-moving guy at the dealership down the road. From him, we’ll buy two.
No matter how many birthdays we get, the salient lesson remains the same: Life is short. There’s never enough time for the people and activities we love, so why allot time (or sleepless nights, or money) to those we don’t? Being nice doesn’t equal suffering fools; being compassionate does not translate as “take a hosing, write the check, and feel like a sucker.” I don’t want to waste my time anymore; I don’t want to waste yours. Can we make a deal that will make us both happy? Otherwise (and I say this with deep respect for how good you are, how hard you work, and how long we’ve known each other), you’re fired.
45 Because you realize that trauma can lead to enlightenment
When I used to tell friends, half jokingly, that a potentially fatal disease had actually saved my life, they rarely understood what I meant. I wasn’t claiming I was glad to have it. I wasn’t pretending to be overjoyed by the prospect of an early departure. I was simply confessing an odd bit of truth. Without the threat of mortal loss, I would never have had the fuel to find my way through terrible dread to something stronger than my fear.
Hardship can render us bitter, selfish, defensive, and miserable. It can also be used as the artery of interconnection, a bridge to other people in pain, as blood in the muscles that push us forward. Crisis takes us to the brink of our limits and forces us to keep moving. When people in extremis call it a blessing, this is the paradox they are describing. It’s why men sometimes blossom in wartime and why women are changed by childbirth—they come alive as never before on that knife-blade danger and pain. There’s vitality in facing life’s extremes, including our own extinction.
—Adapted from Mark Matousek’s new book, When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living (Bloomsbury USA)
46 Because you grew up in an age before video games
When we were kids, we played outside. Our bodies were hard-breathing little rainbows of energy and earth—red cheeks from running, brown hands from mud, green-grass streaks on our pants. We dreamed of grandiose forts that never got built, had sword fights with sticks while riding our bikes (okay, that was more of a boy thing). But we lived, baby. We lived! Unlike so many kids today, whose every micromanaged, remote-control moment is seemingly spent indoors. Oh, how the play times have changed:
47 Because we can be as fit now as we were at 20 (Just ask Martina)
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova is 52, and she has a message: age is no excuse for being flabby. Too often, she says, 50-plus folks are inactive for so long, they think: Why bother? But Martina isn’t buying it. “Age is not part of the equation,” she says. “Exercise at your own level. Take a walk. Anything. Once I saw a woman with one leg running on crutches. Another time I saw a man with no legs in a wheelchair playing hockey. So, what is your excuse? A headache? You’re too tired? Look in the mirror.”
Yeah, yeah—like the eternally buff Martina has any idea what it’s like to fight fat. Turns out she does. When she first came to the United States in 1973, she began a love affair with pancakes and eggs, and her rock-hard tennis bod became…pudgy. In 1981, despite Martina’s having dropped down to a svelte 145 pounds, a friend told her she wasn’t in great shape and was wasting her talent.
Thus was born a lifelong commitment to fitness. But you don’t have to be as fanatical as Martina. “Start with a ten-minute walk,” she says. “Then do more. Go gradually, not too intense. You’ll feel better each day. It doesn’t have to be painful.”
48 “Happiness no longer seems like an unobtainable goal—it can reside in a superb cup of coffee.”
—Maggie Friede, Quincy, Massachusetts
49 “Before I turned 50, I was always pushing to do more. Now I’m able to step back mentally and just look around. Was all this beauty here all along?”
—Jan Luff, Milford, Delaware
50 Because you know who your friends are
It’s no mystery at this point. Your old friends are the ones who don’t desert you, who share a beer or a tear when life is dark, who make you laugh. (Your new friends do the same; they just haven’t been on the job as long.) Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., who studies happiness, says we tend to tighten our circle of friends as we age—to focus on those who make us happy now. Yet the squabbling Simon and Garfunkel model of friendship—my “partner in arguments,” Simon once called his musical other half—should not be tossed aside like Oscar flinging dirty socks at an exasperated Felix. We need the people who fight with us but will also fight for us. Friendship is like shares in a growing company: the investment isn’t easy, but the dividends enrich our lives.