I had my 50th birthday last month. It's not every day you turn 50. In fact, most people only do it once—unless you're like Satchel Paige, whose true age was such a moving target that he probably hit 50 three or four times.
Satchel was the oldest "rookie" in Major League Baseball history, debuting for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the age of 42, after Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier. The label didn't really fit, since Paige had already enjoyed a long, successful career in the Negro Leagues, during which he was well known for his creative pitching style and down-home wit. He particularly enjoyed beating players half his age—I can relate.
My favorite Satchel quote is apropos to the Big Five-Oh: "Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." I use that pun for all sorts of things, and I thought I made it up, until I saw it attributed to Mark Twain, among others. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. I could've seen it credited to Paige in the Cleveland sports pages as a kid. He could've gotten it from Twain.
Or, maybe we're just three of a thousand people who made it up, almost all of whom were somewhere south of famous and never got any credit.
Regardless, in the months leading up to my 50th, age mattered way too much—not to mention fame and credit—and holy crap, did I mind. I tend to cling to old things and resist certain types of change, and I've always been enamored of demarcations and anniversaries. So, predictably, I made way too much of turning 50.
When I turned 30, which seemed incredibly important at the time (ha!), I shaved off my facial hair and made grilled cheese sandwiches for my friends at a pool party in the foothills. When I turned 35—what my parents considered the onset of "middle age" (HA!)—I was in prison, so the best I could do was buy Ben and Jerry's ice cream from the commissary and gurgle down the whole carton before it melted. I arrived at the Burning Man art festival/organized mass freakout on my 40th birthday, but was so exhausted from 48 hours of packing and driving that I spent the night slumped over in the front seat of my Honda instead of partying on the playa. Nice efforts, but not nearly big enough for 50.
Alas, my nearly-50 state of mind deteriorated dramatically as one grand plan after another evaporated into logistical ether. Cleansed of the obfuscating circus of pomp and circumstance, my doors of perception revealed a stark, infinitely depressive vision of 50-years-under-the-bridge.
Not a professional ballplayer or a guitar hero. Never wrote that Tolkien-esque epic fantasy novel. Not the second coming of Ché Guevara. Just a tragicomically frustrated "conservation advocate" by day—think Don Quixote trying to douse a burning windmill by pissing up a rope—and a second-rate columnist for a plucky, medium-sized alt-weekly by night. Sigh.
It didn't help my existential crisis that every life insurance company from here to Hong Kong was tracking my imminent demise. The AARP pitch was the final straw. They might as well fly a plane over your house with a banner reading, "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE SOONER THAN YOU THINK. PLEASE ACCEPT OUR OFFER TO MAKE FINANCIAL PREPARATIONS FOR THIS UNAVOIDABLE, TRAGIC, YET PATHETICALLY BANAL EVENT."
Right about when my tormented partner was ready to abandon me and I was spending most days bunkered in a dour daze, I was saved by my own cynicism. I remembered that "time"—at least the way modern humans measure it—is an utterly false and pernicious construct that serves only to facilitate the commodification of our lives. Clocks and calendars notwithstanding, a date of birth is really no different from any other day.
In the end, I snapped out of it and made do with what I had. I threw a small but spirited party and gave an appropriately embarrassing slideshow with Wonder Years Polaroid shots of me in thick plastic frames and candy-striped pajamas in front of the Christmas fire. The best B-day gift I got cost nothing and cannot be described in a family newspaper. And the next day, the windmill was still burning. Fun, poignant, but not big.
No matter. Satchel Paige prefaced his famous quote with this lesser-known rhetorical question: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" I'm not sure, Satchel—maybe 35?—but I think I've come to terms with this corollary: Even if age does matter, best not to pay it much mind anyway.