Wednesday, September 2, 2020

What your fifties have in store for you

Mark Fries, Andrew Steelie, and Derek Smith--Marilyn Madness 2016


Fifty is one of those milestone birthdays that many people dread. For young people, those over 50 are “old”, but when I turned 50, I felt anything but old. It was a time to be more comfortable in your own skin, coming to grips with your place in the world, your abilities, and your lot in life. Major life events will come your way no matter who you are.  Advice is not exactly what anyone needs at this point. A head’s up will give you something to think about.


It’s time to figure out what you’d like your legacy to be. You’ve got 10-20 years to make an impact others will remember you for. What will it be? I realized at that time that I wasn’t going to write the be-all-and-end-all scientific papers or books. I wasn’t a big money person. But, I did have a treasure trove of great people who had come through my lab! Supporting them in research and life seemed The Thing for me to do with any extra ounce of energy I might have. The legacy has come to pass—in 2016, “frolleagues” [friends who are also colleagues] gathered for a conference (Marilyn Madness) in my honor. We sang karaoke that first night, listened to the best and the brightest speak and exchange ideas, and enjoyed each other’s company. When I held my Zoom retirement “party” in June, about 90 folks tuned in for a 3+-hour roast session. Although visits have slowed due to COVID-19, I’ve had a stream frolleagues visit me in Riverside and Mariposa.


Then, it’s time to think about how you envision retirement. Will you gently ease out of obligations? Will you spend your last years traveling the world, eating on the expense accounts and seeing friends, or will you continue to chug away well after turning 70? I chose to have an Encore Career—time in a new position as an academic, teaching ecology, managing faculty, and building a new type of research environment. Notwithstanding the burden of dealing with a neurodegenerative disease, the Encore Career has proven to be deeply satisfying. Not only was I able to move to a different environment, but I’ve met hundreds of new and interesting people.  I have been challenged to put my career skills to work. As I slide towards 70 in a couple of years, I’ll have taken what pleasure I could from the work I’ve been able to complete.


My colleague Doug Rumble began a whole new scientific endeavor when he turned 70! He joined Ed Young, at UCLA, on a project to design, build, and run one of the largest isotope ratio mass spectrometers in the world. They named the beast Panorama, built a lab in the basement of the Earth Science building at UCLA. Doug spent many months in Ed’s lab watching over the instrument, hob-knobbing with Ed’s postdocs and being first in on the action. It kept him “youthful” rather than having the sad task of shutting down his “normal” isotope laboratory.

Move in day for Evan, 2009



After the heavy lifting years of having children to care for, you will probably become an Empty Nester in your fifties. I may have cried when dropping son Evan off at University of Connecticut in 2009 (age 57), but the tears dried up quickly as Chris and I settled into a new routine. We’d been following Evan’s sports career in high school—soccer, basketball, and volleyball. I made it to most home games and many Sunday soccer matches. That was great fun, but when it ended, I had more time for my own sports career as a track and field Senior Olympian. I took a 16-month position at NSF as a Program Director. It was fun to be in the “real” world having to commute on the Metro, wear business clothes and shoes every day, and pretend I was interested in the minutiae of running a government agency. Our weekly schedules included more cocktail hours, new foods, and watching movies in the evening rather than maintaining the quiet for homework and study.


Others I know find the lack of children in the house to be a cheerless void. Partners who had shouldered the primary responsibility for child rearing now expect their partners to pick up more of the slack on shopping, cooking, and cleaning. One fellow I know came home with seven jars of mustard because they were on sale, much to his wife’s chagrin. The home emphasis was now on them. It can be a tricky time to re-negotiate a marriage.


Whether it’s this decade or the next, your parents will die—often one or more in your fifties. You may be required to shift from childcare to eldercare suddenly. The death of a parent is one of the most defining things of your life. My husband’s parents died first—his mother far away in California, while his dad spent his last few hours in our care. We experienced two Code Blues—when a person’s heart stops and a medical team pushes you out and they rush in. We made the decision to suspend life support. We planned the funeral, communicated with family, and let the experience wash over us. My father was next—I made it to his bedside from a vacation in Puerto Rico to be there for his final breath. It was a gift. At the funeral home a day or so later, I learned how to pick out a coffin, plan a service, and what a funeral costs (more than you think.) I gave his eulogy—not my first, but when it’s your father, you’ve got to be strong. Be prepared. Make sure you know how to attend a funeral, how to grieve, and how to keep going.

Evan and my father in Jersey a few months before he passed



Humans, elephants, and killer whales are some of the only mammals that outlive their reproductive careers. Once this happens, we women are expected to use our wisdom for the next generation. Ladies may groan at this, but sure as anything you are going to go through menopause. In my mother’s time, women were given sedatives (Valium) and hormone replacements to keep them “happy”. In my time, women were told to schmear some hormonal crème on their bodies and wear layered clothing. In other words, tough it out. Menopause can be a joke for some. It isn’t. Each woman will go through this in her own way. Today, the pendulum has swung back and some hormone replacement therapy can help ease the physical and mental symptoms through this transition.


Men have their own challenges with a decline in testosterone. I’ll leave it to a man to describe his issues. Aside from the purchase of a sports car, the most serious issue for both men and women is subtle weight gain. Even with just 1-2 pounds per year from when you are in your forties, by the time you reach 60, that can add up to 20-40 extra pounds often around your middle. Making the adjustment to healthier living should be in your cards.


I’ve saved the best for last. This is the decade to live your vision that you created for yourself in your forties. My vision was to study as many different ecosystems as I possibly could. I took on the Arctic with multiple trips to Svalbard at 80° North latitude. I studied boreal forests and taiga in Newfoundland and northern Quebec. I branched out to the Mediterranean climates of California; rivers and estuaries in the temperate and tropic zones; mountains with deciduous forests. I did field work on all of the continents except Antarctica. It was a hell of a lot of fun and I grew tremendously from the experiences.


I knew what I was doing! I had wisdom--finally. I advised and I trained. The hard work of the forties paid off.


"Men" in Black photo shoot, Svalbard Arctic 2005

If you are one of those who envision taking a sharp Left Turn, this is your time. UCR’s Dean Kathryn Uhrich who has over 100 patents as a chemist, said, “I decided to use my God given talents to lead a university to greatness.” Many of you may have a startup company, new business, or a deanship on the horizon. Maybe you’ll finish a degree you started when you were younger. Whatever that might be taking a chance now might be possible.


The sixties will be there before you know it. And the sixties are now the new forties!

1 comment:

  1. I'm 50 and an isotoper. This might just be relevant! Thanks Marilyn for the continued stories and sage advice.


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