Martin Amis’ mid-life memoir is called Experience. Now I know why. Turning 50 recently, I realized that experience is something you acquire, not something you seek.
As a woman, 50 is an age you’re supposed to dread. So much so, that I know a few smart confident women in their late 30s who are already scared of revealing their age. Fifty-year-old women, we’re told, start to become invisible to men and 18-year-old shop assistants. Personally, I can’t wait for the latter.
Fifty we’re told, is the beginning of our long slide into physical decay and social irrelevance.
Well, screw that sister. I celebrated my 50th with an entire month of travel, dinners, lunches and a loud party. I may even crack out the black dress from 1984 at the back of my closet one night and dance on a table with my girlfriends.
That’s what experience does. It gives you permission to say: ‘This is how I am. The best and the worst of me. I don’t need your approval. I’ve already given myself permission to succeed and to fail.”
So what does my experience tell me about living well? As a birthday present to myself and for all the lovely post-50 women out there, I made this list.
1. At 20, you will think that you and your partner have invented sex and that you’ll lose all interest when you turn 30. Hah!
2. Don’t f**k with your hair. (If you need reminding why, then pull out your 80s photo albums.)
3. Experimenting with fashion needs to stop at 30. Never be tempted by photo spreads in magazines you’re reading while getting your hair dyed back to its natural colour. You know what works.
4. Your close friends are more likely to give you unconditional love than your family. (See number 5).
5. You will never please your mother. Stop trying.
6. Being financially secure really is better than being ‘bohemian’. Owning a house doesn’t tie you down – it gives you a handy place to sleep, eat and watch bad TV.
7. Staying in backpacker hostels doesn’t make you morally superior to people in five star resorts. It makes you prone to bed bugs and STDs.
8. Learning to say ‘no’ is just as important as learning to say ‘yes’. Keep a list of excuses on the wall above your computer. My current one includes: “My llama just died and I’m still grieving.”
9. There are people who are all about themselves. And after 50 years on the planet you start to see the pattern. Avoid them.
10. Good parents take little credit for their children. Bad parents can contribute to f**king them up. Good parents know their major role is confined to love, support and the all-important role of door bitch.
11. If you live your life on the basis of what people who don’t like you or your opinions think about you, you’ll live your life in the shadow of the least important people.
12. You may look older now. But you’re more comfortable in your own skin. (Mental flashback to 16 will confirm that one.)
13. Never have long-term sex with anyone who wants to renovate your body or your ideas.
14. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what to do with your body. Your choice. Go the gym everyday if you want. Have Botox. Lie on the couch and read gossip magazines and eat chocolate. Whatever.
15. Be happy about the fact that younger generations of women have even more opportunities than we had – at least in most parts of Australia. Lobby hard to change inequality for women wherever it happens.
16. Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses three times when you are 21 does not make you any smarter. Smart women are everywhere and many of them never finished high school.
17. Good women are the people who know to call you when something bad is happening to talk you through it. They’re not the one who call when everything is shiny and air kiss you.
18. Read and listen to people you disagree with – being sceptical and informed means opening your mind to other views and being open to change.
19. Generosity is the most important thing in life, work and friendship. It’s what outlives us.
20. It’s a messy business being human. Enjoy.
Off to find that 80s frock and put some champagne on ice.
*Professor Catharine Lumby is the Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. A former journalist, she is the author of seven books and a researcher in the fields of media and gender studies.