Friday, May 18, 2007


(News-Herald, May 17) Twenty was barely noticeable, thirty was kind of exciting, and forty came at kind of an odd time in my life. But in a couple of days I turn fifty, and that’s a whole different experience.

I have the advantage of being on the tail end of the Baby Boomers. The Boomers, who originally declared, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” have, as we’ve aged, regularly re-defined “old.” According to one recent article, sixty is the new forty; I have now been middle-aged for roughly twenty years.

There are some unavoidable symptoms of this age. Parts of me just aren’t as nimble or responsive as they once were. I have a library of glasses for various functions, and sometimes I still can’t see. Some of my hair has deserted, and some has migrated.

I came late to exercise, and now, with effort and sweat, I can almost manage to be in the same lousy shape as when I never moved my lazy twenty-something posterior off the couch.

But there’s more than just physical slackage to face at fifty. I’m forced to really confront the list of things that are never going to happen.

I’m not talking about the things that were always highly unlikely, like my canoe trip down the Mississippi, my torrid fling with Sheryl Crow, or my international tour as a highly-acclaimed tailgate trombonist. Other things aren’t going to happen as the result of the choices that pile up in five decades.

I chose work where there is no professional advancement—ten years from now I’ll still have the same level of responsibility and power that I had when I started twenty-five years ago. When I was young, I didn’t think I’d care, but it turns out that I do, a little.

I didn’t think I’d ever want to teach on, say, the college level. But a few years ago the notion grabbed hold of me, and I discovered that that door has closed for me. My financial situation is certainly not bad, but I have a gift—in general I would have done better with an investment strategy of burying money in a mason jar in the back yard.

There was a time when I thought it would be nice to be, eventually, sitting on the porch next to the same woman that I’d been looking at for fifty or sixty years. That’s not going to happen. I sometimes wish I’d gotten real musical training. Also not going to happen.

Mind you, I am not boo-hooing over any of this. You get older and you leave stuff behind, pick other stuff up along the way. I have two nearly grown children who are really fine people. I get to do work that I love, and I get to spend my free time on things I really value. I did finally learn how to play banjo and paddle a kayak. I have known thousands of people, and hardly a one that I didn’t like. I have made some good choices and some bad, and while the good ones haven’t always paid off, there are some bad ones that never cost me as much as they could have.

If you’ve been around many years, your life is really great, and your life is really awful. You get to pick which way you want to see it. At fifty, regardless of what you’ve gained and lost, you get to learn a few things about yourself.

When you’re twenty, you have a set of things you like to believe about yourself. By fifty, you learn which are true, and which are not. Some are pleasant surprises—you always believed you were a crumudgeon, but it turns out you like people. Some are hard to face—you always wanted to see yourself as responsible, but it turns out that people really can’t depend on you.

When you’re younger, you can write your own story from scratch. But by fifty, instead of writing fiction, you’re looking at history. It’s a matter of record, instead of what you can make up. At twenty, strength of character is about trying to be the person you ought to be. At fifty, strength of character is about facing the person it turns out you actually are.

By fifty, you’re had a chance to test your theories about how the world works. Sometimes it’s difficult to face the results of those tests—if you got it wrong, there’s no chance to do it over, and hard to find someone who wants to hear what you’ve figured out.

I have to admit—this is not what I thought my life would look like at fifty. But it’s not always a bad thing to face the unexpected, and we can always learn a few new tricks.


Mrs.C said...

Dear Mr. Greene:

SO glad I stumbled onto your blog. This is one of your illustrious former students, Beth Campbell (fka Beth Sumosky). I've moved quite a ways from "Venangoland" however, I often crave bits of home, particularly news, etc. One of the articles I most enjoyed in the News-Herald were your articles, so again, I'm thrilled to have found your blog! (as you cannot get your article on-line) As I read this article I noticed some of your "what if's" and I have to tell you of one thing I am truly glad. . . that you didn't leave all us poor souls at FHS for a collegiate position. You would have been dearly missed. You were, and still are, one of my favorite teachers and you truly made a difference in my life. My life is better for having known you. - your greatful student, Beth (Sumosky) Campbell P.S. - don't critique the grammer too harshly. And check out my blog -

Peter A. Greene said...

Wow-- thanks very much, Beth. It's nice to see you're doing so well these days, complete with a beautiful family.

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