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Letters-to-the-Editor & Commentary

Pondering 50

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July 15, 2023


PONDERING 50: Ask for the whole can, kick/stretch/kick, and be a calm lake

Since it’s my birthday week, and a big one, I thought I’d take a moment to assess what this milestone of turning 50 means for a woman in our culture vis-à-vis what it means for me.


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Fifty pink plastic flamingos in the front yard. I notice this happening on other lawns sometimes in my town and I’m just so grateful this frivolous flamingo-bombing didn’t happen to me (not enough yard and/or friends?). I found this fun fake flamingo history that includes the 50th anniversary (last year) of the John Waters’ movie that is far from anything about Pink Flamingos, but nothing of the birthday connection. It does say these kitschy lawn ornaments were born in Massachusetts in the 1950s and helped cookie cutter homeowners in Truman Show sort of complexes differentiate their own humdrum house from the others.

Then there’s SNL’s stretchy red-suited Sally O’Malley in this Sopranos-inspired skit where she brings back her famous (now reduced to a meme) “I’m 50” routine to audition at a strip club with a kick, stretch, kick.

Sally O`Malley - Saturday Night Live

Molly Shannon debuted this character in 1999 with the Rockettes and this quote:

“No one every says ‘never’ to Sally O’Malley. My daddy always said to me, somebody said it couldn’t be done but he with a chuckle replied, well maybe it couldn’t but he would be one who wouldn’t say no ‘til he tried. I’m 50!

In an interview leading up to her own 50th in 2014, Molly Shannon reveals she based Sally on her father, who had a limp and a leg brace after surviving the car accident that killed Molly’s mother and sister when she was only 4. When she looks at this skit now, kicking through the limp inspired by her father, she admits her mannerisms seem too old in it, more like 70!

When you reach this magic (supposedly scary) number, no one who’s already there, including yourself, seems that old anymore.

My daughter wrote in my birthday card, “Now you’re middle-aged! Congrats!” but as I’ve written here before about this so-called crisis—the term “midlife” assumes we know the end date. How optimistic to round up like this and anticipate 100!

There was a moment playing hooky from work in Manhattan on Monday, on my actual birthday, when I nearly lost my life. I was crossing the street below Madison Square Park where there was a triangle ahead that appeared to be another of those new closed street situations with picnic tables and planters. What I didn’t notice between me and that, since I was busy eyeballing the oasis, was the one-lane of traffic still functional and flowing. I nearly walked right into a fast car like a suburban someone who forgot the city etiquette of her 20s and 30s. My friend said something to the effect of, “well, at least she made it to 50 and that was that—splat.” If I died right there just seconds into 50, I guess retroactively that would mean my midlife came at the ripe age of 25?

I was at a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah recently and mentioned my forthcoming passage when a trio of acquaintance women lined up their arms according to old-older-oldest to show me my future in the form of their increasingly crepey skin. Basically they were warning me to enjoy my relative youth while it lasts, since once god (or whoever is charge here) realizes they have no more use for me and my cracked eggs soon I’ll be tossed over the midlife cliff into sexless despair; accelerated, desiccated aging; and imminent death.

There are few models for us of what normal aging looks like—at least not in the popular culture—maybe only from our own moms/grandmas/local cronies if we’re lucky. Aging isn’t something for all ages as the great Oldster Magazine posits it is, but rather sneaks up on us in the form of crow’s feet and shocks us into some kind of product-panic. Injectables, surgeries, creams as prized as liquid gold are the only hope. Or, there are a few famous faces that dare—only a few who DARE!—to expose themselves for their true selves, and we act like that’s such a big damn deal to see someone not disguising their gray hair, not filling their facial lines with fat, not tautening themselves into an ageless freak. It’s the ageless that are truly freaks, but we’ve also got the rare naturally aging women who have become so unusual they too are freaks. Which kind of freak do you want to be?

Aging “gracefully”—not to be confused with “naturally”—is an idea The Unpublishable unpacks in this essay “Madonna’s Face is Not Subversive” subtitled, “If she really wanted to be subversive, she’d age.” Writes Jessica DeFino:

“Aging gracefully” is a beauty culture psyop. It’s a euphemism for anti-aging. If “aging gracefully” weren’t a euphemism for anti-aging, it would just be referred to as “aging.” What makes “aging gracefully” a particularly nefarious euphemism for anti-aging is that it implies anti-aging should appear to be effortless. “Aging gracefully” is not effortless, though—it demands an incredible amount of effort and then demands even more effort to disappear the evidence of said effort.

And later:

People are upset by Madonna’s new face, I think, because it exposes this labor. Both her effort and her desperation for youth are on full display, which not only violates the rules of “aging gracefully,” but violates the (false) code of ethics embedded in beauty culture. For example: When plastic surgery is subtle, we call it “good work.” When plastic surgery is obvious, we call it “bad work.” The message is, a “good woman” with “good work” conceals the labor they perform to make the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood seem natural. Madonna is being judged as a “bad woman” with “bad work” for exposing the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood as unnatural. Of course, a more subversive and effective way to expose these constructs would be to reject the tools of construction (like cosmetic surgery) entirely. As it is, Madonna is propping up the very systems she claims to be standing up against (ageism, misogyny) by refusing to let her aging female body age visibly.

So there’s the physical aging you have to navigate without a map (to fight or freeze?), guided by the wisdom we’re supposedly supposed to accrue like further rings on our tree. On the hunt for wise words from elders who have already reached 50, I found this admittedly dated article from 2011 in The Guardian which introduces the giddy term “Quintastics” for those of a certain age, but also this dark de Botton:

“By the time we are 50, we are definitely in the suburbs of mortality,” says Alain de Botton. “After 21, birthdays are really wakes and occasions for mourning—unfairly ascribed a degree of jollity which they absolutely don’t require. Yes, older people now look a bit better for a while longer, but essentially, it’s pretty much a vale of tears.”

The Guardian proceeds to interview a bunch of other people (then born in 1960), who wax a little more Quintastic about the big birthday: “It’s an achievement.” “It certainly wasn’t as traumatic as turning 40.” “I’ve been looking forward to turning 50—now I can feel a bit like an elder.” “I think 50 is the new 30.”

A litany of solid 50th birthday truisms comes from this NYTimes editorial circa the early pandemic:

Your body becomes an accidental autobiography.

You won’t accomplish everything.

You’re more settled. You know yourself better, but that knowledge is disappointing.

Still, your self-esteem doesn’t flatline as easily.

You can’t hide from time.

Your sex appeal doesn’t evaporate, but it evolves.

You’re better at spotting trends, because you’ve witnessed so many of them.

No one cares how old you feel.

Some of the shock of aging dulls.

Old problems are replaced by new ones.

And from my own growing network of female writers, Caro Henry generously shares:

I turned 50 a decade ago and felt I had lived half or less of my life. How about the other 25-50%? My bucket list was still full of things I wanted to do.

I wrote another list and shifted my priorities. I take stock every year. At the start of a new year, I pull out my list, put a checkmark beside the things I’ve done, cross through the dreams and improbable things, and rewrite my list. I include the items with checkmarks on each new list, as they remind me of what I have accomplished. I also include improved dreams because you never know. ???? (Forever the optimist.)

One of my priorities was to retire early. I saved to make that possible. Another was to post my writing and start submitting again to literary journals and magazines. (I hadn’t publicized/published my writing in years.) Now, I have checkmarks for those items. Another priority is finishing a novel that has been on my list for too long.

I still am disappointed when I don’t realize a goal I set for the year, but I appreciate my life and all of its blessings. A positive attitude helps, even though a part of me hears this ticking clock that reminds me of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland saying: “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

White Rabbit, The Nursery Alice, 1890; John Tenniel, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons



Me? I have always been that anxious white rabbit, frantically checking the clock and ticking off checklists. Or, as it occurred to me the other day when I saw one glittering before me, my spirit animal is a hummingbird, quintessential nervous busybody. I have been dumping so much time, energy and money into this self-imposed off-gassing mission for the last few years, I can hardly wait to reach a point (by year’s end, please!) of miraculous net-zero nirvana where I can start seeing bank accounts rise again, enjoy occasional meals in restaurants, take my daughters further than a two-hour drive to the same stationary RV, buy a new pair of running shoes. When I can finally stop hustling. To retire early would be dreamy, though I don’t see that in the cards since I’ve taken too many odd detours in my boho life to accumulate enough to survive on let alone help two kids through college. I do see myself writing more as I age and parental duties diminish, assuming the brain remains sane. Neurons are firing for this weekly posting and I’m grateful for the opportunity/possibilities.

I got a membership card in the mail this week, unsolicited from the AARP, which I threw away since I don’t do paid memberships these days even if only $16 per year.

Next weekend is the “95is50” party with my college class of ‘95 compatriots all celebrating this milestone birthday. While I know I don’t look the same, I know they will all tell me I look the same. And I will tell them they look the same. So can we agree to all pretend we look the same? Turns out, with or without alcohol or romantic bistro lighting, there’s a certain haze we see everyone through and we should accept that as the real reality rather than what we think we see in the fluorescent bathroom magnifying mirror. That mirror view is the one that is not actually real.

I don’t profess to have any elder wisdom nor will I share any. I rather still usually feel like there’s a little lost girl in me, finding her way. I want to both protect her and let her thrive. I am lucky to still feel so young, have my health, love/be loved. There’s plenty to work on outside of “work.” What comes to mind first is boundaries. As an introvert at heart, I have erected plenty around myself in terms of people (and probably could use less of those boundaries) but it’s the private pervasive things that can be problematic, like tech and the way it seeps. I intend not to fall asleep or wake up with a laptop or a phone anymore. In fact, I want to buffer my bedroom altogether from any internet. When I wake up before the kids do and there’s just the birds singing and my coffee, I can read a book with intention to start my day rather than drown in whatever my phone serves up willy-nilly. And at night, last words will intertwine with dreams through paper pages.

That word “intention”—how I want to better manage my time and my attention. Be efficient when I do have to dip into the devices, get in and out as quickly as possible, with purpose. Outside of these screens: be present. Enjoy life, however long there is left of it. And to prolong that: continue to kick, stretch, kick.

I will try to teach my girls, and my inner girl, to keep asking for the whole can. This stems from being on airplanes when the flight attendants only want to pour you a very small percentage of the soda into a small cup full of ice. Not only did I learn somewhere along the way that I can say “no ice,” but also that I can ask for, and easily receive, the whole can. I told my girls when they were younger on a flight and they got so excited by the prospect. Ask for the whole can. I want to get better at expressing what I want/need. Not in a passive-aggressive way where I pout if I don’t get what I didn’t even ask for. Just make it happen.

The gift to myself for my birthday was this cool black folding kayak (actually two since I’m optimistic enough that I’ll have a buddy), but with the fine print that I’ve decided will be my new mantra. This entry level model (smallest, lightest, quickest to assemble) is only appropriate for a “calm lake.” I’m not wary of waves, but the calm lake idea appeals to me now more than ever. Serenity, peace, just breathe. I am not too late. Be the calm lake.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop, Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is shar­ing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent read­ership. You can subscribe for free  to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box. 

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