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At 50: older, wiser, clearer-headed

The Baltimore Sun

I turned 50 this weekend.

And I find myself both more contented and filled with great expectations than any other time in my life.

Old enough to have learned a few important lessons -- some simple and hard, others obvious but elusive - I am still young enough to benefit from them.

Long ago, I gave up booze and its sibling shenanigans, but still break out the cast iron skillet around 10 p.m. - lifting it the extent of my exercise - to fry up hard salami and cheese like they used to do at DiNitti's back when Little Italy was Little Italy.

(Only people whose odometer has turned over say things like "back when ... " with gumption. You other old-timers can complete the sentence with the outrage of your choice.)

Many summers ago, sitting in the surf at Ocean City with my father, I tried to describe that season's despair - the persistent edge of a dull, serrated butter knife - of the real and imagined struggles of adulthood.

A marine engineer who has never shown self-doubt or the affliction of half-assed artistic temperament - a man who actually makes decisions based on fact and not emotion - Pop took a long look at his first-born and said: "For Christ's sake, Ralphie . . . you're almost 35 years old. Don't you think you ought to know yourself by now?"

I answered as I'd done since the old man was much younger than I am now.

"Don't know, Dad ... "

I do now.

As Paul Revere and the Raiders sang back when rock & roll was rock & roll: "Such a good, good, good thing, baby ... "

The road stretching out from the St. Agnes Hospital delivery room on May 24, 1958 -- the 17th birthday of an audacious kid from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman -- spans the year "Great Balls of Fire" was Number One across to an era in which the deaths of entertainers with names like "Pimp C" warrant space on the New York Times obit page.

Between then and now, so much weirdness has rained down on the world it almost makes marrying your 13-year-old third cousin - as Jerry Lee Lewis did not long before I was born - seem relatively tame.

Live long enough, say the Methuselahs, and you'll see it all.

I optimistically reckon that I've seen a little more than half of the show. Bacon sandwiches and fried chicken notwithstanding (a recent "procedure" declared that all is well), I intend to be around for the second encore.

When I turned 10, the Beatles put out the White Album, and it made me happy for months and months. It still does.

Those of you with record players, particularly true believers mindful enough to save the gorgeous head shots that came with the double album, please throw on side three, track one.

"We're gonna have a good time ... "

(With all due respect to a whole that will always be greater than the sum of its parts, I believe that I love George best of all as I age.)

When 20 rolled around, I scored my first byline in The Sun with a profile of Studs Terkel, interviewed in Chicago over the same weekend I saw the Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" tour at Soldier Field.

Studs, who turned 96 this month, published his most recent book last year. By the Terkel timeline, I'm not even in the fifth inning of a game sure to go extra innings.

At 30, I drove to Rolling Fork, Mississippi with fellow pioneers Art Lien and Tyrone Crawley after seeing my wife and her parents off to Disney World with our three young children. It was the summer that people starting saying that Elvis was alive. Like my marriage, alas, he was not.

But 40 was not a good year. After 20 years on the newspaper's city desk, I had had it with the tedium and grind of daily journalism. And with battling a nightmare relationship chronicled in my fiction as "The Long Vietnam of My Soul" - the hard year proved more worthwhile than many breezier times. In 1998, with eight years of treasured sobriety to my credit, I used a residual check from a script I wrote for Homicide to spend a week at the kind of place people used to call a "fresh air farm."

My time at Caron in Wernersville, Pa., - where I took a hard look at the patterns of my thinking instead of the havoc of my drinking - has paid emotional dividends ever since.

And now I am 50 and a day.

I am a half-step slower, maybe a quarter-of-an-inch shorter and almost 40 pounds heavier than the summer Mick and Keith scored big with "Miss You."

And that's all fine by me, because I enjoy and appreciate the fewer things I now do one by one more than the many things I once did all at the same time.

The bad food, while significant, is not as frequent as I've led you to believe. And an exercise I do enjoy is late afternoon walks with a book, most recently Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I've been reading for a year.

Pirsig's classic is dense and confusing, and between paragraphs I stop in front of flowers decorating the sidewalk.

Rosebushes always remind me of my Italian grandmother, and as I breathe in their fragrance, I say a prayer for her soul and my soul and thank God that my parents are still with me in my 50th year and that my kids are healthy and doing what they want in this world, and if I happened to bump into you earlier the day, I pray for you, too.

Made it, Ma!

Top of the world!

Rafael Alvarez is a writer based in Baltimore and Los Angeles. His email is:

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