by Dean Wallraff

Thoughts on Turning 50


It is not an appealing number, 50, made, as it is, from 2s and 5s. 2s are common, the tiny building blocks of computer logic, the atoms of our digital world. 5s are popular far beyond their deserts, having gotten their gig as part of the 10s, the girders of our number system, whose prominence came arbitrarily, because of the number of our fingers and toes. A base-12 world would be an easier place to calculate in, and wouldn't slight 3, the neglected favorite of mystics.
     49, my present age (my 50th birthday being tomorrow), factors into 7s, the other mystical favorite, a prime that has always appealed to me, though it's underused and underappreciated. Music, for example, is made mostly of 2s and 3s, with a few 5s thrown in, both at the long time scale of rhythm, and at the short one of harmony. 7's simplest interval, 7/4 is the smallest just interval that's not well represented in our musical scale. I like to use it in music, but to do this I have to write music in a different scale.
     Decades, like centuries and millennia, are arbitrary intervals of time, but decades do serve as useful milestones because there are the right number of them in our life. Judged just by the roundness of the number, 50 is the most significant milestone between 0 and 100.
     What is this 50-year milestone? In terms of length of life, it's more than the halfway point - the life expectancy of a reasonably healthy American male 50 years old is 79 years. In terms of career, it's also more than halfway - if I started work at age 20 and will stop at 70, the midpoint is 45. The greatest significance is that, at age 50, old age is on the horizon. I'm eligible to join AARP. 50 is the start of the last decade of middle age. (Maybe I'll say that about 60 in another decade.)
     My age is relative to the other people in my life. One of the reasons I'm glad not to have had children is that, so often, I feel in others a passing of the baton of life off to children - the children become the main event. This could have distracted me from my own life, my own unique contribution. The selflessness of living for or through another can be a virtue, but it can also be a cop-out. I'd feel a lot older if I'd so intimately watched and helped another person grow through childhood, adolescence and college, into romantic love and work. I would never feel, as I sometimes do now, the same age as those 25 years younger.

     In the other time direction, my mother Evelyn died two months ago. With my wife Benita she was planning a surprise birthday party for me, and a little birthday trip to Las Vegas. I've missed her especially during this birthday, because I'm always feeling how she should be here. At least I got to know her well when we were both adults. I never had that chance with my father, whose mind started deteriorating with Alzheimer's disease just as I was getting into college. I would give a lot to spend a few hours with him as he was when he was 50 years old, but that sort of age equality is what we never get with parents or offspring; instead, they serve as bridges to other generations.
     There are no longer other generations left for me, making me an orphan in both time directions, cutting me off in that dimension. I've been compensating in an orthogonal way by developing some wonderful friendships. And, being the oldest remaining member of our family, I'm finally understanding at a deep level that I'm really an adult, at least in the private sphere.
     It's harder to feel like an adult in the world at large because it's hard, even for a thinking person like me, to resist our society's trivial values. The highest regard is for fame and celebrity itself, for a person made into a worldwide brand like Pepsi or Disney. Few question the value of the contribution made by Sylvester Stallone or Michael Jordan. Few would value higher, as I do, the contributions of Charles Rosen, whose books changed our view of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven, or of the late Claude Shannon, who invented information theory. The large-scale branding of people wasn't possible in ancient Rome, or in America at the time of our revolution. It's a creation of the mass media. Rock, the first truly mass music, is adolescent. Movies are made for the 15-24 demographic. More and more, children's tastes are being imposed on all of us. It's hard to feel like an adult in the midst of the pervasive worship of fame and success, when what's famous and successful is childish.
     What of my own contribution? My dot com company, to which I've devoted most of my professional efforts during the last 5 years, has just died. I had planned to grow it into a big, successful Internet retailer of educational and entertainment software, to make it an effective sales outlet for small, struggling publishers. Two big things went wrong. First, the market vanished for the kind of software that interests me the most, electronic multimedia books on topics of interest to adults. I think that this market will come back in some form, perhaps related to e-books. The second big problem was that it turned out to be impossible for me to raise sufficient capital to grow this business. I spent most of my time during the last three years on this problem, and learned more than I ever wanted to know about small-business high finance. Bottom line: we sold close to a million dollars worth of software, but a lot of it was mainstream product that didn't need our help. The contribution I ended up making wasn't worth five years of my life. My best work contribution so far was the DMX-1000, one of the first commercial digital synthesizers, which I developed and marketed during the 1970s.
     What now? I'm at a crossroads, professionally. I've promised Benita not to start any more businesses, because we've saved relatively little money for our old age (I was hoping to solve that problem with, and we need some financial security. I have to get a job, ideally using such skills and knowledge as I possess to contribute to a cause that I feel is worthwhile, such as education, publishing or healthcare. I'm open to new ideas and new directions.
     It's ironic that, for all of my talk about finally realizing that I'm an adult, I'm in a state that's remarkably similar to the one I was in when I moved to Boston 26 years ago, with a lot of ideas, but unsure about what I would do. I got into computer music then. Who knows what I'll do now?

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.