10 things to do before you turn 50

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You’ve sensed the black bunting and cruel gag gifts dead ahead, the cheerful semi-surprise party of well-meaning younger friends and commiserating older ones who, like you, have decidedly mixed feelings about hitting the big 5-0.

The very least that can be said in favor of reaching the half-century mark is that it carries less angst than the big 3-0, less sting than the big 4-0, and certainly beats the alternative.

After all, you’ve accomplished far more at this point in your life than at those previous traumatic milestones. Chances are you’ve found love and married (perhaps more than once), you’ve raised a family (perhaps more than one), you’ve settled on what you’re going to do when you grow up, and you’ve probably cobbled together enough assets to make retirement a real possibility.

Love, family, financial security — what’s not to like about turning 50?

Well, the downside is that one of these mornings you’re going to wake up and actually be staring at a 50-year-old in the mirror.

The big 5-0, as everyone who has hit it will tell you, is the physical milestone. Somebody cranks up the gravity, makes all the print tiny and turns your favorite foods against you. Your doctor becomes a nag. Your clothes start shrinking. And you forget, but not selectively anymore.

Any day now, that AARP card will arrive in the mail and you’ll be officially old. But that doesn’t mean you have to go gently into that good night — not by a long shot. After all, you’re a baby boomer. You were born to be wild.

Here are the top 10 things you need to do before you greet the big 5-0:

1. Get lost

Looking for a personal mantra as you prepare to tee off down life’s back nine? How about this one: Habits kill. By now, you may have seen more of other parts of the world than you’ve actually seen of your own hometown because you’ve been a good little Pythagorean and mastered the straight line between A and B and never got beyond point C.

But now is the time to get lost, at least metaphorically. Take that road you’ve never taken. Go to work by bus instead of train. Or get really radical, and walk somewhere. Mix it up. And be sure not to plan too much. It takes all the fun out of it.

2. Use the good china

Who doesn’t know the frustrating feeling of watching our parents or older relatives deny themselves the pleasure of using fine china, linen, silver and other great things in life? Don’t go there.

If you’ve got the good stuff swaddled in bubble wrap, locked away for safekeeping or displayed in fine glass cabinetry, pull it all out right now. Find the orneriest 3-year-old available and together build a ridiculous lunch of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches with SpaghettiOs on grandma’s finest. You’ll be grinning for days.

3. Visit the wonder window

Been a couple decades since your kids were born? Need a double shot of wonder with that latte grande? One of the best free shows on earth is available at the maternity ward of your local hospital. Just drop in and stand at the window.

There’s a wonderful charge from being in the presence of newborns, especially when we’re feeling the tug of our own mortality. If you are a parent, it can put you in touch with all the reasons you brought your own kids into this world in the first place. That’s a pretty nice place to revisit.

4. Lose the locks

Anthropologists are trying to isolate the gene that makes human beings cling against all reason to the hairstyles they had when they bought their first car. What’s sadder than a 40-year-old man with a mullet? A 50-year-old with a comb-over or a ponytail, that’s what.

At 50, it’s time to lose the locks. Guys, give your boyhood barber a farewell tip, find a stylist half your age and get short and modern. Ladies, the ’70s called and they want their long hair back. Go bobbed, go gelled, go asymmetrical, go crazy, but go short. You both will look 10 years younger.

5. Treat a stranger to dinner

Let’s say you’ve done pretty well in life, climbed the corporate ladder, made it to the top, love the view. Congratulations. Now what? Compassion for those who didn’t catch the same breaks is a pretty good place to start the cool-down from your career marathon.

Try this: The next time you dine out, look for someone who is alone, perhaps sad or troubled or less fortunate than yourself, and surreptitiously pay their waiter for their meal, anonymously. It might make a difference in their life and it will certainly make a difference, for the better, in yours.

6. Upgrade your vices

In the spin-cycle of youth, you wallowed in the shallow end when it came to pursuits of pleasure. You saw Rocky Horror 36 times, traveled with the Dead for a summer (you think), drank anything with an alcohol content and played Trivial Pursuit until your mind turned to cottage cheese. It was easy to waste time when you had so much of it.

Now you need to be a little more selective. Upgrade your vices. Read great books. See great movies. Drink better wines. Catch a live concert, philharmonic this time, now and then and spring for good seats. And spend more time with people who make you laugh. You’ve had the rest, now go only for the best.

7. Meet the folks

No one can give you a clearer forecast of what’s in store for the second half of your life than your parents. If you haven’t done so already, make a point to meet the folks on an adult level. As 50 approaches, chances are you are noticing lots in common with them that you can use to open the door to new mature relationships.

It will do wonders for all of you. Ask them about anything and everything they’ve experienced. You’ll need all the gory details, especially the health-related ones, they sheltered you from in your younger days so you’ll be able to age like a fine wine instead of a sour grape.

8. Scare yourself

One of the advantages of launching your second childhood now is that you’ve still got the muscle tone and mobility to truly push the envelope, get the adrenalin roaring and flash-test the old circuitry without winding up in the ER.

What’s the scariest thing you always wanted to try? Glacier skiing? Skydiving? Spelunking? Karaoke? Don’t just dream about it, get out there and give it a go. Great cocktail stories often involve overcoming fear. Let this be your best one.

9. Get spontaneous

Remember those habits we earlier said are buzz killers? Well, those small, comfortably predictable action sequences actually do serve a purpose. They help guide us subconsciously through our daily existence. Without them, we would spend most of every morning just getting out of the house.

That said, after 50, most of our habits start to turn against us, for good reason: We are no longer the same person who formed them all those years ago. How to kick the ones we no longer need? Get spontaneous, right now. Seek new experiences, new technologies, new points of view, new possibilities. Pursue your bliss and let it guide you to new habits that will serve you better down the stretch.

10. Laugh more

Native American folklore says that the first question we ask upon dying is, “Why was I so serious?”

Life today is full of reasons to scowl, frown, sputter and fume, but you know what? That’s just plain defeatism and it only makes you look and feel old. Find things that make you laugh and surround yourself with them.

Set laughter goals: laughing to tears daily; falling-down, rolling, pants-wetting hilarity once a week perhaps. Laughter is your tether to youth, an instant facelift, and the purest appreciation for what a cool ride this really is.