After my birthday every year, I look to make a photograph where the number of my next birthday is in the image. On a Michigan Road trip earlier this year, I came upon this just south of Rochester, and it was perfect.
Today I complete 55 trips around the sun and begin my 56th. For most of these years I sought after perfection. In my 50s, I’ve finally come to accept that seeking it sets me up for disappointment and disenchantment. I’m a recovering perfectionist! But it’s good to be open to perfection when it finds you. Then stop and enjoy it as long as it lasts.
Every New Year’s Day I announce a theme, usually a single word, that represents the way I want to grow. As I turn 54 today, I want to reflect on this year’s theme, which is congruence — that is, to live a life true to my values and needs, to be honest with my yes and my no.
I’ve leaned into this year’s theme harder than any year’s theme before. I’ve really worked on advocating for myself.
The timing could not have been better. Shortly into the new year I took a new job as Director of Engineering in a software company. Unexpectedly, I’ve found myself needing to set strong boundaries with a particular VP. His function and mine are interrelated; we work fairly closely together. Sometimes he oversteps.
At first, I wasn’t sure of the fellow’s intentions. Did he think I was incapable of my job? Was he trying to take over territory? In time, I came to see that he is acting in good faith. He just has a command-and-control kind of personality, and tends to direct anything that doesn’t seem in order. Fortunately, every time I’ve set a boundary with him, he’s honored it. I’ve even given him critical feedback a time or two, and he’s received it well and tried to act on it. I believe that in time he will trust me and my team and I won’t have to draw lines with him anymore.
Also unexpectedly, in June I had to have a very blunt conversation with my boss. When he hired me he agreed to let me hire a layer of managers to directly lead the engineers — all 21 of them. That’s a lot of direct reports, far too many for me to do a good job of managing them and also do the other duties of my job. But then the money to make those hires kept not coming and kept not coming. And then my company took a very large outside investment, which created a lot of activity, and my already full schedule became double and triple booked. I had barely been keeping up with everything, but not anymore. I went on the fast track to burnout.
My mistake was waiting. I should have held my boss to his promise from day one. I kick myself now. I try to give myself a pass because I could not have seen coming the large investment and the performance pressure it has placed on us. But even without that, I wasn’t doing every aspect of my job well enough because there was simply more than I could do.
At home, I’ve started several conversations with my wife about what we want out of our marriage and our home. The crazy family challenges we’ve lived through have tended to put us in constant go mode. There’s been emergency after emergency. It’s left little time for us to talk about and work out what we want our home and our life together to be. Except where I personally take care of things at home, this home life isn’t what I want it to be. But as we’ve talked about what we want, we’ve both tried hard to honor it, and be honest about when we can’t.
This has been hard. I have not enjoyed it. At my core, I want harmony to simply exist, so I can live placidly within it. I’ve always known that’s not realistic, that you have to work at building and maintaining alignment, but I’ve generally put off doing anything about it unless I was backed against a wall. I hope that as I keep practicing this, it will become a normal part of my behavior.
I don’t expect to be perfect. It’s just that where I’ve had unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life — and I’ve had considerable helpings of both — at the root, I didn’t live true to my values and needs.
As I turn 53 today I’ve been thinking about the life lessons I still haven’t learned.
Chief among them is that I will always have shortcomings. During my 40s I put a lot of effort and energy into working through shortcomings. I believed, deep down, that I was unacceptable because of the ways in which I failed or fell short. I felt real shame over a few of those shortcomings. I wanted to identify and eliminate them all.
I’d like to get over that in my 54th year. That’s not to say I won’t keep working to be a better man. I just want to to accept that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that I may never be able to change certain things about me that I wish were different or better.
I want to be a better man because I want to have a better life, one less characterized by stress, disappointment, and sadness; one more characterized by peace and joy. I want to not be a jerk or an ass in the world, even unintentionally, even when I feel justified. I want to be more effective in the things I do and in my interactions with others. I want to build people and institutions up, not damage them.
It might surprise you to learn that I’m largely driven by anger. I see things that are wrong and it pisses me off. I want to correct or control them. I want to fix what’s broken and shape what’s wrong for right. I want justice. It’s my basic nature.
My photography and my writing counterbalance the anger. Photography is a wonderful distraction where I can lose myself in pleasure. Writing helps me discover what I think so I can make peace.
I still haven’t learned what to do when I feel angry. I’ve spent my life trying to not yell and punish in anger like Dad often did. He always played it down by saying he only raised his voice, but his raised voice always frightened me so. I don’t want to pollute my world like that.
That’s led me to internalize angry feelings. Sometimes I can process them and let them go. Once in a while they leak out in passive-aggressive ways. Mostly I get stuck in them. They keep me awake at night. They lead to pervasive feelings of disappointment. Unchecked, that disappointment leads to depression.
This year I’d like to work on dealing with anger more in the moment. First, I’d like to analyze quickly whether I can act on the thing that has activated my anger. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
For the things I can’t do anything about, I want to work on acceptance — radical acceptance, if need be — and set boundaries that let me protect and care for myself.
For the things I can do something about, I’m still afraid of losing my cool like my dad used to. That will remain unacceptable to me. But if I can just stay steady in that moment, and speak swiftly, I think I can speak my mind and discharge the anger without leaving others feeling burned. Take a quick breath, find as even a tone of voice as I can, and say what’s bothering me. Stay steady, speak swiftly. Maybe that will sometimes change things. But if it doesn’t, at least the anger should reduce and be less likely to linger.
I think this starts with me accepting my basic angry nature. After 53 years it’s still here, which is strong evidence that it’s not likely to go away. This is who I am. I don’t have to like it, but the path to peace and sanity is to accept it.
Every year on my birthday I write about growing older. But 52 isn’t that old.
It’s twice as old as 26, which is about the median age of the software engineers who work for me. I feel twice their age as I notice their youthful good looks and see them struggle through things I mastered long ago. I miss my youthful good looks but would not unlearn these valuable life skills to get them back.
As the rest of my 50s unfold I look forward foremost to our children all building independent lives. I’m eager to see what they choose and whether it brings them joy and satisfaction. I am eager for Margaret and I to turn our attention toward the life we want to build for ourselves, and to enjoy our children and grandchildren.
I liked being 50. I liked saying that I was 50. I told everybody who’d listen, as a Kindergartner happily tells everyone he’s 5.
I’ve always enjoyed the ages that end in zero. I feel like I’ve crossed some threshold, and I dream about the next phase of my life. What new adventures will come?
My 50s truly are turning out to be a new phase, with adventures unlike anything that came before. I never dreamed of some of the adventures we’re on, most of which I never would have chosen. Frankly, some intensely hard stuff has come my family’s way. We’re pushing through it okay.
But that’s what I wrote about last year when I turned 50. This year I want to write about vanity, specifically mine, and how looking in the mirror bruises it. I’m looking noticeably older.
I remember in my 20s noticing middle-aged men who tried in humorously ineffective ways to look younger and hide what time had stolen from them.
I swore then I’d let aging just happen to me. If my hair were to fall out, there would be no Propecia or Rogaine or Hair Club for Men for me — if the hair loss became serious enough I’d just shave my head. When I went gray, I vowed not to reach for hair dye or even Grecian Formula. If my face turned into used-up shoe leather, fine. Well, not fine, but I was going to just let it be. Aging, do your worst — I would not let your signs rule me. I would find peace and happiness regardless of how I looked.
And then I was blessed not only to keep all of my hair, but also to never have more than a few random wisps of gray. And I just kept looking young, even through my late 40s. When I’d get carded buying beer cashiers would do a double take. Some of them even said, “You can’t possibly be this old.” Man, that felt good.
Those days are over. Cashiers never say anything when they hand me my driver’s license anymore — if they bother to ask for it at all. The lines on my face tell no lies. And after a haircut now I can see right through to my scalp on top. It was a genuine shock the first time I saw that. At the rate I’m going I’ll have a pretty healthy bald spot up there by the time I’m 53.
I expect no pity parties. I’ve had a great run and I know it. It just hurts to see my youthful looks go. It is a daily surprise to see my morning face in the mirror.
But I’m determined to stay true to my youthful vows: I will age boldly and proudly. It looks like my 50s is where physical aging will accelerate, so I’ll have plenty of practice.
I’m going to miss saying “I’m 50!” though. 51 just isn’t as exciting of a number to say.
I am astonished that at my age I’ve remarried and am about to leave my longtime home to share a life with family I never knew I would have.
When I was younger, even through my late 30s, those who had lived a half century seemed so settled to me. Their lives, I was sure, had fallen into predictable grooves. I like predictability, and those I knew who had it wore it well. I looked forward to it in my own life.
But who knew all of the adventures of the half-century mark? Of helping children step into their adult futures. Of having fully adult relationships with our parents. Of hitting our stride in our careers. And, given that so many divorce now, remarriage and new family.
Except that these things feel like adventures only when they’re going well. Some children stumble and fall, or even fail to launch. Our parents are aging — when is it time to stop driving? To find a retirement home? And on the job sometimes you watch someone younger than some of your children, with all the life experience that implies, move up fast and pass you by, and make mistakes you learned long ago not to make.
This stuff is incredibly hard! The blessing of this age is the resilience to handle these difficulties. If I had encountered them at half this age I would have needed a rubber room.
I turn 50 today. Joys and disappointments abound. Honestly, this year there have been more disappointments than joys. My wife and I have experienced some real difficulty with children, parents, and jobs. Point is, this age teaches that this is what life is. That youthful dreams of winning at life, of being a Master of the Universe, were never within reach. That all there is every day is enjoying the good while working through the bad. That God put people into our lives to love, and our best satisfaction in life comes from loving them with all our might.
I’m gathering my whole family at my home this afternoon. We’ll grill various bits of animal flesh, nosh on fresh veggies and sweets, drink gin and tonic, and just enjoy each other. My goodness, but do we like each other. I predict I’ll reach the end of this day satisfied.
I made this photograph when I was 42, and thought even as I made it that I ought to use it on this blog when I turned 50! It seemed so far off in the future that I wondered if I’d still be blogging then. Answer to my then-self: lol yup.