ON TURNING 50

It’s an age that’s decidedly less socially acceptable than forty. But for writer Sheila Taylor, reaching the half-century mark Is an unfolding mystery that-for now, at least-has a happy ending.

I remember a Saturday afternoon back in February. I had just walked six miles in an hour and thirty-five minutes-close to record time for me-keeping pace with a friend seventeen years younger, when we returned to find two dozen roses at my house, one dozen each from two male friends. It wasn’t Valentine’s Day or even my birthday. It wasn’t any special day. “See?” I said to my young friend, “Fifty isn’t so bad.” ● Then, a couple of weeks later, I told Mike (a child of forty-five) that I was going to write this story. He did this kind of eye-rolling thing he does and said, “All you need to say is that age doesn’t mean anything. It’s no big deal.” ● Sure. In my head, I know that age is no big deal. And in my head I also agreed with him that I neither look nor feel any different than I did a few months ago, back when I was forty-nine. Except he said all this during an intermission of Gone With The Wind, which is celebrating its fiftieth birthday, and if age doesn’t mean anything, if age, especially fifty, is no big deal, how come fans are queuing up all over the U.S. to pay homage to this national treasure, now all done up (unlike me) in fancy new packaging? ● I didn’t mind turning forty a bit. Remember, Gloria and Jane had already done so quite publicly to the world’s collective cheering. Magazines featured “The Most Beautiful Women Over Forty” articles, Gloria made famous the line “This is what forty looks like,” and my God, remember bikinied, middle-aged Jane poised on that diving board in On Golden Pond? It wasn’t only okay to be forty; it was pretty hip there for awhile. But somehow fifty is lonelier. I keep looking around for all those fashionable people who pushed away the forty milestone for me, and they’re not there. I can see why, too. Fifty is what businesses advertise to project an air of reliable permanency. To people, though, fifty does the opposite: it emphasizes a lack of permanency, if you know what I mean. Fifty is a grandparent. Fifty is when the American Association of Retired Persons starts sending you stuff in the mail, and not in plain brown envelopes, either. It’s a caveat for health and fitness writers. Fifty and over; see your doctor first. Fifty is when beauty writers advise less makeup, thereby deflecting attention rather than attracting it the way they told us to do the first five decades. I’m telling you. Fifty is a big deal; they make it one.

Here’s how big a deal it is. Another newspaper colleague, a prize-winning writer a little older than I and one of the most respected journalists in the state, told me he would never let anyone in the business know how old he is because such an admission would leave him too vulnerable. I understood.

In my ten years as a lifestyle columnist, I’ve written about some very personal matters-revelations and explorations that have left me too nervous and embarrassed to read one day what I wrote the day before. Well, this, writing about being fifty, is the hardest yet, and I don’t know why. Why should a writer, of all people, be so frightened of a word? Still, for some writers, experiences- a family death, a celebration, a divorce, at times a single emotion-become real only when written about. If the writer does well, readers share this disclosure; together we explore it, we feel it, we deal with it. And go on. As long as I postpone writing about being fifty, I’m not quite there yet. “When are you going to write about the big event?” asked a reader who shares my birthdate. “You can use me if you don’t want to use yourself.” Well, I don’t need to look at fifty in somebody else’s mirror; I need to see it in my own.

There, in that mirror, even up close, I look exactly as I looked twenty years ago. Some days. Other days, I look like no one I know, some middle-aged. . .matron, and there is no accounting for the difference in that reflected image. No mood, no carefully selected outfit, no particular lighting, no tactful or tactless remark seems to predetermine what I see in that mirror. The only consistency is in the hands. They are never mine. I remember once at the office, years ago, glancing down at the keyboard and not recognizing my own hands. They looked vaguely familiar, but they were not the hands of Brenda Starr, girl reporter. They belonged to Brenda’s mother or grandmother. They were my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s. And they’ve been so ever since.

Here are three ways I see myself:

Same height. Twenty pounds lighter. A real, honest-to-God Chanel suit. Red. Maybe black. Sling-back, high-heeled pumps. Appropriate Chanel-type accessories. I’m striding up Fifth Avenue toward the Met. I look a lot like Lee Remick.

Long, gauzy skirt. Gauzy shirt tied at my tidy waist. Bare, tanned legs, strappy, flat sandals. Running a bookstore in Santa Fe. Think Barbara Hershey. (The way she looked in Hannah and Her Sisters, soft and sexy; not all face-lifted and plastic, as she was in Beaches.)

I’m in jeans and a white, cable-knit Irish pullover sweater. I’m out walking along the rocky coast of the Pacific Northwest where I live and where I write thoughtful pieces for prestigious magazines. Let’s see. How about Anne Bancroft? Yes. Anne Bancroft. That’s what I’m after here.

I’ll never be those women, of course. Being fifty is knowing that. I will instead be, as always, a little too short, too chunky. And I will be wearing jeans (although I wear them baggier than I used to) and a T-shirt (at least I don’t wear the kind that say stupid things). Very likely I’ll be walking the trails near my ordinary house in ordinary Fort Worth. My hair, too blonde or too grown-out and never exactly right, will be frizzed up from sweat.

“Be sure to say it’s okay to be fifty only if you don’t look fifty,” said my friend Karen, who did not look fifty at fifty. But then, she barely looked forty at fifty.

When I think of myself in the past, whenever I put a picture to a memory, it is of myself as a young mother. Late twenties. Fulfilled as a woman. (Because I’m a mother, you see. You couldn’t be fulfilled unless you were, back then.) Still pretty, keeping in shape without trying. Stock boys and gas station attendants flirting. Me flirting back. Still able to yank any garment off the rack with no thought whatsoever for what’s becoming and what isn’t. But I remember something else about that person: the endless, almost painful restlessness, the anxiety of not knowing where I was heading. Today I don’t always sail with a specific destination in mind, but at least I know now I’m capable of the trip. So now, at the supermarket or neighborhood park, when I catch myself staring at young mothers, it isn’t totally from envy.

“This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience, and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance.”

-Margaret

Atwood, Cat’s Eye



YOU KNOW, I NEVER really, really thought I’d end up with no resources other than my own. This may be the hardest acceptance of all: I am totally responsible for myself financially, and I guess in other ways, too, and always will be-although I guess I still might marry a millionaire. On the other hand, I never really, really thought I’d have a job and be good at it and make a pretty good living at it, either. It’s a trade-off, I guess, one with which I’m comfortable most of the time.

I do remember an uncomfortable time, though, when I left teaching and started out in journalism. I, who had been the baby of the family and youngest in my class, and later the youngest teacher on the faculty, suddenly found myself with not only a female editor but one ten years my junior. So much for the father-figure boss I had always taken for granted. This woman, Ellen Kampinsky, now an assistant managing editor at The Dallas Morning News, turned out to be such a good editor-and boss-that I haven’t minded the parade of fourteen-year-olds that followed, although occasionally, when I’m working on some especially sensitive piece, I look around for. . .let’s see. . .a more mature viewpoint?

One compelling reason I hesitated before writing this piece was that I’m afraid some thirty-year-old editor, prejudiced by my age, might not hire me someday. “You wouldn’t want to work for that kind of editor, anyway,” a colleague said. Ah. I might not have a choice. A few years ago, as I researched an age discrimination piece, my editor said, “At least, you won’t ever have to worry about that. Writers get better as they get older.” Generally speaking. 1 believe that’s true. Still, when I look around the newsroom, I can’t help noticing that I’m already one of the older writers, and I’m still fifteen years from retirement.

Another track. More optimistic. My children are formed, and I’m pleased with the results. They may yet get into some kind of trouble, some kind of jam, yet their basic personalities, their traits and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, are pretty well set, and I find no reason to be scared beyond harboring the normal parental worries on their behalf. When I catch myself worrying immoderately, I remember a friend shaking his head at my anxiety and sighing: “Give up, just give up.” He was right; I’m consciously making that effort. The hard part, the tricky part, I’ve found, is not the giving up but the shutting up. That, no doubt, is another essay.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun writes in the New York Times Book Review that as we age, “those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security. . .are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.” Death should not be allowed to find us seated comfortably, she writes, and as I read that passage some months ago, I realized that I’ve been throwing up challenges for myself over the years, instinctively avoiding that passivity or perhaps suspecting-hoping?-that the fountain of youth is a mobile target, and that if I keep jumping over these hurdles, I’ll eventually land right in the middle of the damn thing.

At thirty-six, after teaching school, having children, and playing a lot of tennis, I went back to school to prepare for a career in journalism. At forty-six, I moved for the first time away from my hometown, half a country away from the comforting roots that not only nourished me but held me snug to the soil. Then, two years later, I picked up again and moved back to another new job. I still set professional goals, and while I don’t work harder than ever, I work more thoughtfully. I still live on the edge financially, too, buying too much, eating out too often, and traveling. I’ve got to see it all, I tell myself, but surely, there’s a residue of that restlessness involved, too, and maybe even some fear of boredom. And I secretly believe that I’m still too young for a facelift, a mink, grandchildren, or a twenty-seven-year-old son.

So here I am. Fifty. And with my youngest in college several states away, I am, for the first time in my life, alone. What a way to spend one’s fifty-first year, I had once thought, but you know, I don’t mind. I look around at my empty house; I miss my children, but I like where I am, literally and figuratively, even though I know there aren’t many years left when I’ll keep pace over six miles with a healthy friend seventeen years younger. I might as well tell you this, too: there aren’t many days when two different men send me roses. Or one man, for that matter. In fact, it was just the oddest coincidence that one time, although that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again, does it?

Sometimes when I’m at the symphony or at Stage West or traveling, I see the kind of woman I want to be for the rest of my life. A Gail Godwin heroine or perhaps someone like Pilate in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “When she realized what the situation in the world was and would probably always be, she threw away every assumption she had learned and began at zero. First off, she cut her hair. That was one thing she didn’t want to think about anymore.” Instead of those women, though, the protagonist with whom I identify these days is Elaine in Margaret At-wood’s most recent novel. Cat’s Eye. Successful in her career and as a mother, Elaine still wavers unendingly when selecting the right dress for an open house, at fifty still tumbling between the confidence of success and the insecurity of adolescence. “That’s you,” said the man who knows me best when he read the book. And it is.

You can only spend so much time on things that don’t matter, my friend Jim says, and finally, I believe that’s true, just as I also believe that at times, Jane Fonda’s and Tom Hayden’s marriage problems matter a whole lot (but not Madonna’s and Sean’s), and so does what I’m going to order tomorrow night at my favorite Thai restaurant. Music matters tremendously, clothes seldom do, politics do not, usually, and of course, menus matter. My friends matter more than they ever have, and so does my job and the independence and freedom it allows. Romance matters, and so does sex. Patience matters more, with others and with myself, although I still don’t suffer fools any more gladly than in the past, except of course when the fool is me. Which happens, I now don’t mind admitting.

Nor do I mind admitting that fifty scares me, too. Oh, not fifty, but thoughts of the future it forces me to face. I’m scared to death of senility, of incapacity, of poverty, of being sick alone and dying alone. Logic and family ties tell me this aloneness isn’t likely to happen, but reality-and the daily news-shoots that ending straight into my heart. A friend scorns another who worries because she isn’t pretty anymore, but I know what she means. It isn’t just a whine born of vanity; it’s the awareness that, contrary to the athlete’s complaint, the legs aren’t the first to go. For most women, that common pret-tiness of girlhood is the first to go, and when it wanes, you know you’ve crossed a bridge into middle age. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I want to be the prettiest shopper at Minyard’s again. Just one more time.

When we’re young, we avoid the old, those hesitant strollers through supermarket aisles. We see them and we turn away, quickly. Now, in middle age, I face them squarely, smile a wide greeting; then, at least several times lately, tears come to my eyes. These are the parents of my contemporaries. These are my contemporaries. I wonder who’ll hold my arm so patiently.

Do you know why this empathy surprises me? Because-and this sounds so simple-minded I’m almost embarrassed to admit it-I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Do you suppose there is a twenty-five-year-old alive who would believe that? My life, except for having two children and a nice place to live, in no way resembles the one I set out to lead; still, each year just gets better. Yet there is little here I could have foreseen.

For instance, I never would have predicted that someday not only would I like my brother, but that he-that geek-would be one of my all-time best friends. Or that at fifty, I’d still stare at the floor in a sulk when my mother says she would prefer my hair- oh, just a little shorter (and maybe a whole lot less blonde). I remember a cartoon from The New Yorker with a rather forbidding middle-aged woman in pedal pushers and hoop earrings who stands with hands on hips and stares into a full-length mirror. “Well, well, well,” the woman says. “Little Sally Johnson. All grown up.” For the most part, that’s the way I feel, thinking of being fifty. Little Sheila Renfro, all grown up. Why did it take so long?

And The Good News Is.



At fifty-Nelson Rockefeller became governor of New York (1959). ● Edward Gibbon completed Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1787). ● Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species (1859). ● Bram Stoker wrote Dracula (1897). ● Anthony Quinn starred in Zorba the Greek (1965).

●Lord Robert Baden-Powell started the Boy Scouts of America (1907).

●Camille Saint-Saens completed Carnival of Animals for orchestra with piano and xylophone (1910).

●John Baskerville completed his Baskerville typeface (1756).

Thoughts on Turning Fifty

WHAT DO OTHER LOCALS THINK ABOUT STARING DOWN THE BAR-REL OF THE BIG 5-0? WE DECIDED TO FIND OUT:From Charles T. Terrell, Chairman of the Board, Unimark Insurance Companies:A FEW THOUGHTS ON BEING FIFTY:① It is opening your first piece of mail from AARP and reading an apology that they mistakenly omit-ted me for years.② It is explaining that Ernest Tubbs, Webb Pierce, and Slim Whitman sang the same music as The Judds.③ It is fifty years of experience and accumulation of knowledge in the most exciting years of history and trying to remember any of it.④ It is remembering the firstyear of marriage living on $385 amonth and thinking it was plenty.⑤ It is the impossibility of ac-cepting that Doak Walker is sixty.⑥It is wondering why my friends are getting so old-looking.⑦ it is being angry at my moth-er for not making me take violin lessons and myself for not taking Japanese-so I could have known what twelve of them were saying about me last week in an elevator in New York.A FEW MORE SERIOUS THOUGHTS:① It is remembering what hav-ing polio was like and shuddering to think what my life would have been had the virus not broken. Be-ing thankful for surviving it and cancer as well,② It is the absolute joy of grandchildren and our laughter when they cause their parents the same problems our babies caused us. It is cherishing our family and being thankful that all but one are still alive and healthy.③ It is the never-ending emp-tiness of losing a father.④ It is realizing that all men are imperfect and err, even the greatest or most successful.⑤ It is remembering when great leaders were not rare and heroes were for real.⑥ It is being thankful for family, peace, and opportunity but fearful of what we are leaving our grand-children in crime, drugs, and the environment. It is the memory of complete freedom as a child in a small town versus the insecurity we feel for our grandchildren today. It is the memory of doors not locked at night versus elaborate burglar alarms.⑦ It is being thankful for old and true friends and realizing what rare commodities they are.⑧ It is the frustration of know-ing I have accomplished so little in making the world a better place and the challenge of wanting to do so much more.Most importantly, being fifty, or contemplating fifty, beats the hell out of the alternative if you were born in 1938.From Brent Berryman, manager, public affairs, LTV Corporation:Thanks for your kind letter reminding me that my big 5-0 is in the near future. (Please note that it is well over one year away!) I am really excited having this fact ex-posed to the whole world through your fine publication.In looking forward to the big event, I realize that because of questionable planning some years back I will have the opportunity to: a) concern myself with college tui-tion all during my fifties; b) worry about being kicked out of AARP (I lied and joined at forty-eight); and c} look forward to driving my teenage son’s fifty-year-old Chev-rolet. We relate to each other!From Carole Shlipak, Executive Director, Dallas County Communi-ty College District Foundation:My philosophy is to live each day to the fullest and let the weeks and months take care of themselves. I think I am far wiser at fifty than I was at thirty, and also at forty. Set-ting priorities and keeping them is essential. I believe as we grow older we become more sensitive. The fiftieth birthday should repre-sent that-the ability to give and receive more from life.A New Market For The “New Old”

A New Market For The “New Old”

As Dallas grows and grays into older age, the marketplace, for the first time, is gearing up to meet the senior surge. Rapidly overtaking the once-lucrative youth market, this fifty-plus age group is the most affluent segment of the population. As life expectancy increases and more people move into the area, the trend toward an “older” city will continue. Today, one-fourth of adult Dallasites are fifty or older, and people sixty-five or older outnumber teenagers. The political, social, and economic power of the new old will continue to increase as the first of the 76 million baby boomers reach age fifty in the year 1996. By the year 2025 more than 40 percent of the population will be over fifty.

Though often depicted on television and in newspapers as frail and without finances, those fifty-plus are actually doing quite well. They own nearly 80 percent of all savings, 68 percent of all money-market accounts, and 77 percent of all financial assets in America. But despite the statistics, according to a report from the Gerontological Society of America, con-sumer supply has lagged surprisingly behind demand. “There is a terrific lag in recognizing that older people are coming into retirement better educated, healthier, and wealthier than ever before.”

How well Dallas will adjust to an aging population remains to be seen, but evidence does suggest an effort is being made. Numerous marketing strategies and civic programs are either in place or under consideration i by private and public agencies:

●At Dallas City Hall, planners are beginning to address the problemsassociated with an aging population. Mildred Cox, director of transpor-tation, says the city is considering ways to make streets safer for olderresidents who are slower to react and may be physically and visually im-paired. Suggestions include increasing the size of traffic signals, makingstreet lights and reflectors brighter, and enlarging directional signs.

●With seniors comprising 67 percent of cultural events audiences, it isnot surprising that the arts community is catering to the special needs ofthis group. Infrared sound systems with adjustable volume controls areavailable at Fair Park Music Hall and the Majestic Theatre. Both these itheaters and the soon-to-be new home of the Dallas Symphony, The Mor-ton H. Meyerson building, have seating areas in their orchestra sectionsthat can be removed to accommodate wheelchairs. The Meyerson buildingalso has separate restrooms for older patrons and the mobility impaired.Special menus are prepared for diners concerned with sodium, cholesterol,and caloric intake. Says Todd Martin, marketing manager of the DallasSymphony Association, “Older individuals are such a vibrant part of theDallas Symphony that we try to direct our efforts toward them. Becausethey support us, we accommodate them in any way possible.”

●The Dallas banking system is engaged in a battle to attract thelucrative senior market. Most large financial institutions, and even somesmaller ones, have marketing programs aimed directly at attracting theolder depositor. Many area banks feature free checking, theater and traveldiscounts, seminars, and “personal bankers” for those age fifty-plus,

●Shopping centers, including Town East, Prestonwood, NorthPark Center, and Irving Mall, are attracting senior shoppers through a varie-ty of events, including “senior days,” special discounts, and, most logical of all, “moll walking” in a safe, climate-controlled environment.

●Fashion has not been overlooked either. Jan Craig of Aunt Ivy’s, aDallas-based clothing design firm, creates fashionable, comfortableclothing far the aging body-with Velcro closings, large buttons, deeper-cut arm holes, and easy-to-wash fabrics.

●According to Dallas interior designer Joan Maehr, as America ages,architects, builders, and industrial designers will need to adjust for the Iphysical changes that affect older people. The glare of a highly polished .floor, while aesthetically pleasing to some, can have a blinding effect onan older person, and high-pile carpeting may mean tough going for thosedependent on canes or walkers. Levers will play a more important role inturning faucets and opening doors. Lighting levels will need to be in-creased. Age changes color perception-blues and greens becomegray-and a poorly lit or outlined doorway may not be easily discernible.

●At retirement communities, innovative ideas are making the lives ofolder adults more livable. Among these are easily activated emergencycall burtons, special locks that allow a resident to swing open a door eitherway, non-glare fixtures, stoves with front-end controls, chairs that are atproper seating heights, and grab-bars in the bathrooms.

Many people don’t fear growing old as much as they fear losing their independence. Fortunately, proper planning and innovation can go a long i way toward ensuring an independent and comfortable lifestyle.

-Patricia Jones-Carlyle

From Tricia Smith, Tricia Smith & Associates:

As I approach fifty, I’ve begun to reflect on how I feel. I know that a lot of things hurt and that what doesn’t hurt generally doesn’t work anyway. My knees buckle and my belt won’t. It’s tougher and tougher to make ends meet, such as my fingers and toes.

Fifty is one-half a century. . .five decades. Will I be on the downhill side of life after my fiftieth birthday? I don’t think so.



From E. Larry Fonts, president, Central Dallas Association:

Yes, I’m a member of the Fif-tysomething Gang. We’re easily identified by thinning hair, thickening waistlines, stronger glasses, and weaker recall. It’s fun being empty-nesters-there’s more time to enjoy one another. But the prospects of future sons-in-law and grandchildren sure tend to refocus your priorities. There’s less concern about the future, more comfort with who you are, and a greater appreciation for the opportunities to work with vital people on significant issues.



From George W. Bramblett Jr., partner, Haynes and Boone:

Concerned about staring down the barrel of the Big 5-0? It’s really no big deal! I wish you had asked when I was fifteen. Staring down the barrel of sixteen was a really daunting experience.

Professor Clyde Emery spoke the truth on our first day of law school. He said your professional career is a marathon; if you approach it as a hundred-yard dash, you will be bitterly disappointed. Welt, I have not been disappointed and I am not finished with the race. Indeed, I am not half finished.



From Sheila Taylor:

Some good things about being fifty; unless you’re on the slow side, you’ve figured out by now that you really don’t have to hang out with people you don’t like, and you know the lyrics to an awful lot of songs by now.

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