Obama turning the big 5-0. Now for a little advice ...

Mary Schmich

August 3, 2011


Barack Obama turns 50 on Thursday, a fact he'd probably be thinking about even if he weren't marking it with a birthday fundraiser in Chicago on Wednesday.

The president has taken to commenting publicly on his graying hair and the bags under his eyes, and while that may ring of political strategy (I'm older, wiser and working hard, my fellow Americans), it's unlikely to be all politics. No matter who you are, when you look in the mirror at 50, the person who stares back can give you pause.

At 50, you are indisputably middle-aged. You can call 50 the new 35, but that's like pressing the mute button on the TV: Just because you can't hear it doesn't mean it's not happening.

At 50, odds are that you have more days behind you than lie ahead. Your parents' generation is vanishing. Your friends or siblings prove to be mortal too. Time is real. These are facts.

And somewhere around 50, you start to see a clear shape to the life you've built.

At 20, in the early days of the grand construction project, all you have is a few bricks and a plot of land. By 30, you've laid the foundation. By 40, you're still adding rooms, but the exterior walls are up.

Then comes 50. What? How? So soon?

By 50, the roof is on, and even if you still plan additions, the pace of construction has slowed, and there's no denying what you've made. Fifty is when you step back and see it whole.

You may still have time for adjustments — you could, for example, improve your metaphors — but it's too late for an entirely new layout.

This is the life you've built. This is the life you have to build on. It's as true for presidents as it is for the rest of us, so assuming Obama has a few minutes at 50 to contemplate his life, I asked Facebook friends who have already hit that age what they'd like to share with him about life after it.

A few of the responses:

In life, there are no finish lines, only milestones. Take a moment to observe them, and then move on.

Watch your mailbox for the inevitable AARP membership mailing!

You shouldn't compromise your values. After all, time is not on your side.

Just get your colonoscopy over with.

Hope for audacity.

My colleague Bonnie Miller Rubin, who interviewed well-known women for her book "Fifty on Fifty," recalled what actress Diane Keaton said about her epiphany at 50: "Nobody gets everything."

(Go ahead. Insert debt ceiling jokes here.)

Fifty is the age of reckoning, at least of the first reckoning. It's the age most of us first glimpse the truth, terror and beauty of limits, which is why when friends turn 50, I send them a poem by Wislawa Szymborska called "Our Ancestors' Short Lives," which begins:

Few of them made it to thirty.

Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees.

The poem is about how lucky we are to have lives as long as we do.

Wisdom couldn't wait for gray hair.

Obama's lucky to have made it to gray hair, and in case he hasn't already figured this out, my friend Charlie offers some advice: "Someday he'll wish he was 50 and president again. So don't waste it worrying about being 50 and president."

One of the gifts of 50 is coming to understand that however old you get, the age that came before will one day seem very young.