Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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The Hard Turn At Mile Marker 49

Man, turning 50 has not been an easy proposition. I’ve been turning 50 since the day after my 49th birthday and quite frankly I haven’t been doing such a great job of it. The highway between mile markers 49 and 50 seems to be strewn with all manner of psychological speed bumps and potholes, pretty much all of which I’ve placed there myself.

Why is this? Why so much angst about 50? I didn’t really have any issues with 18, 21, 30, or 40, at least not any that I was so keenly aware of. In fact, I don’t recall ever thinking about the process of TURNING any of those milestone ages, not a minute spent thinking about the run-up to any of those birthdays. I suppose 40 might have presented an opportunity for at least a little introspection, or at least a little taking stock, but “turning40” angst was preempted in the course of a single ride on a chair lift in Utah the week prior to my 40th birthday. My chair-mate, noting his own near existential angst at the prospect of turning 40 several years prior shared the wisdom a priest friend had offered. 40 is when your still healthy, strong, and vibrant body meets the experience and wisdom of your now mature mind. That worked for me! 40 made sense after that.

In a dazzling display of prescience and foreshadowing, my lovely bride Beth responded to my epiphany with “wait ’til he turns 50! That’s gonna be a problem!” Shortly thereafter she contracted the mother of all cases of pneumonia and tried to die on me. Any little bit of an issue with turning 40 got pretty much short circuited in the elation that accompanied her recovery.

And yet, here I am. Turning 50.

What’s the big deal you ask? It’s just a number. You’re a January baby. It’s nothing more than another calendar to throw out.  One more tax return. What’s the problem here? Aren’t you the guy always looking forward, wanting what you have? The “no regrets” guy? Cut the crap! Find your balls. Snap out of it.

To which I respond: sure! There you are going all left-brain/left nut on me. Trying to impose logic and rational thought on what is clearly a right-brain, visceral “feel” kinda thing. It’s all about the right nut, the squishy can’t get your hands around it illogical nonsensical unease that resists both explanation and resolution.

My own left-brain gets it. Hari, one of my Crossfit buddies, nailed the rational aspect of turning 50. According to Hari our first 50 years are all about preparing. We spend our lives preparing either ourselves or someone else for something that is yet to come. We grow and get ready for kindergarten, so that we can prepare for grade school. Grade school begets junior high where we get ready for high school. High school prepares us for college which leads to job and adulthood. We then transition to the task of preparing others, our children, and spend the next however many years engrossed and engulfed in that pursuit. 50 is when we are done with the preparing. 50 is when we we exit Route Preparation and begin our journey on Route Me. At 50 we can learn for the sake of learning, not because we need to knock off a pre-req. We exercise and eat for the here and now, for how we are hoping to feel right at the moment. The first 50 years are about preparing; the next 50 are about living.

Why then, if I get that, am I having so much trouble TURNING 50?

As I’m sure you’ve gathered if you’re spending any time here on Random Thoughts, I am a physician by day. I finally think I figured it out one day in the office when one of my patients mentioned that she was having some issues with turning 60. We took a little detour, talked a little while about our “turning” issues rather than her eyes. 60 meant “old” to her, and old was more than a little frightening. She didn’t see “old” in the mirror, and didn’t want to think about any part of “old”. Her tactic? Classic–She simply decided that she was younger and told everyone she’s  55! How about me, she asked. You’ve made it. Successful practice and a wonderful professional reputation, healthy family, a marriage to be envied. Your biggest problem should be deciding how to celebrate! How will you mark this milestone, this success?

And there you have it. There, in that lovely compliment from a patient I barely know, was the issue. How indeed would I mark this milestone? The cartoonist would have put an enormous light bulb over my head, for here was at once the solution and the problem. I couldn’t say how I was going to celebrate turning 50 because I can’t celebrate in the way that it turns out I always thought I would, and that fact lies at the base of all of my angst, all of my discomfort, all of my difficulty in turning 50.

Physicians play a game early in their lives called “delayed gratification”, a game in which they willingly put up with the hardships of training and postpone most of the trappings of success. Tiny apartments and old clunker cars are OK because there is a world of plenty just over the horizon, a reward for both the sacrifice and the success that students of medicine encounter on their journey. Their preparation, as Hari would say. Once out in the real world, out of medical school and finished with residencies and fellowships, both the willingness and the ability to play “delayed gratification” slip away to be replaced by a sense of pride in having played,  not terribly fond memories incentive to never play again.

There’s the rub–I am once again playing “delayed gratification” and I simply can’t even consider doing some of the things I thought I could think about to mark this milestone. You know, classic 50 year old dumb guy birthday stuff like, I dunno, buying a Porsche. I don’t think I’d actually do that, but I DID always think that at 50 I would have been able to decide NOT to buy a Porsche, even though I could have if I really wanted to. Even the more meaningful stuff I’ve talked about to mark turning 50, stuff like climbing Kilimanjaro with my sons or accepting that invitation from Geoff Tabin to teach native surgeons how to do cataract surgery in Nepal, I’m not going to do those things because I CAN’T, because I am once again playing the game of “delayed gratification”. I might never have done any of those things, or any of a number of other things I might have thought of, but I always thought I’d be able to decide, that I COULD if I wanted to.

I can’t, and I find that I resent that. It makes my sad, and both of these feelings make my left-brain more than a little unsettled, for there is no rational response. No solution. No pithy sentence to conclude this particular Random Thought on an up note. At the end of the day there will be nothing other than sucking it up, moving on, and getting over it, getting over myself. There will be nothing other than trying to play the game of “delayed gratification” just as well at 50 as I did as a much younger man, for in the end I really have no other rational choice. I will have to hope, to try to be much better at BEING 50 than I have been at TURNING 50.

Because I’ve really sucked at turning 50.

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13 Responses to “The Hard Turn At Mile Marker 49”

  1. December 22nd, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Paul Szoldra says:

    Nice post bingo! I just turned 26 two days ago, so it’s hard for me to relate, but I hope that you come through this tough time and just buy the Porsche!

  2. December 22nd, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    anne hurst says:

    enjoy the now and look forward to the future. you’ll be fine

  3. December 27th, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Rob says:

    Turning 50 with your insights is a gift most will never know. Thanks for being such a great friend! -Rob

  4. December 27th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    Ditto, Rob. Thanks for being my friend. –D.

  5. December 27th, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Amie Taylor says:

    Bingo-I’ll be turning 35 soon, and for a variety of reasons, I’m having a REALLY hard time with it. It’s funny that the TURNING is the worst part 🙂 Thanks for the post – I’m sure I’ll read it a thousand more times while I wait to TURN!

  6. January 1st, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    polly taricska says:

    Just wanted you to know how much I’ve enjoyed reading your “Random Thoughts”…they’ve given me a lot to ponder and reflect on…hope you keep them coming!

  7. January 2nd, 2010 at 11:31 am

    darrellwhite says:

    Thanks Polly. Feel free to share your thoughts on any of them.

  8. January 8th, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Apolloswabbie says:

    With due consideration for the lack of love given to gratuitous advice givers world wide, a thought comes to mind. Sir John Templeton said, more or less, the secret is to find gratitude. I am not wise enough to know exactly what he means, and the possibility is that he was whacked when he said that or stoned. But, it seems, if true, you’d have to work on it like doing a WOD. It’s not human nature.

    Freud, on the other hand, would just say your fear of dying is awakened in a new way, or perhaps your denial that it will happen is softening. However, he was a coke head. Paul

  9. January 9th, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    Too funny, Paul! If, by finding gratitude, you and Templeton mean that one must practice being grateful for more of what one has each day, and practice less envy and regret, then I have probably already adopted that stance as you know. As noted in “Hard Turn” it was the unrealized need to “mark” the artificial milestone, and the eventual realization that I am, at the moment, not capable of doing it in the manner that seems appropriate, it is the fact that I have allowed a little of both regret and envy to creep in that has upset my applecart.

    Advice on turning 50 from a stoner and a cokehead…priceless!


  10. January 12th, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Buck Buckner says:

    Hey Bingo.

    I will be turning 63 in a few weeks. All I can say is that each age milestone is just another day. My mom taught me to be excited about being a rookie in a new age group. She was a competitive wind surfer in Texas and had only one lady who was a major foe. Mom was 2 1/2 years older and each time she moved up a group she had a big celebration and won her age group, through the age of 78. She died of esophageal cancer and told me one of her regrets was not making 80 so she could win again as her nemesis had turned 75 and beaten her that year. As I compete in this year’s Mile High Concept II sprints in Denver, I will only wish I were 50 again.


  11. January 13th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    darrellwhite says:

    Buck, what a great way to think about turning 50! I’m a rookie in the next age group. I had an experience similar to your Mom’s when I was an age-group swimmer. I would clean up as the older age after getting my ass handed to me as the younger. I still remember that they always gave out trophies in the years I was younger, and only ribbons when I was top dog–still have a hair across my ass about that.

    Thanks for thinking of me. Good luck in the C II sprints.


  12. September 16th, 2010 at 2:41 am

    JerryLW says:

    Just super!

  13. September 28th, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Idalia Lograsso says:

    Well conceived, fresh take on this matter.

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