The day our daughter was born, two friends arrived at the hospital bearing giant bags from CVS. While we passed around our newborn bundle, who weighed less than our cat and had eyes of Caribbean blue, they unpacked the items, one by one. They'd attached a sticky note to each, with clear instructions: Infants' Tylenol (for fevers or teething pain). Baby wipes in a resealable pouch (great for car and train trips). Rubber bulb (for suctioning gunk from tiny nostrils). Rectal thermometer (no explanation required).
Our baby hadn't been delivered with a manual, but this pharmacy trove was nearly as good. We were newbie Scouts, setting off on a mapless, years-long journey that everyone promised would transform our lives. At least we had a tool kit.
Now that my best friends are edging in on 50 (including one of the givers of the Baby Survival Gear), I've been thinking about a parallel gift for midlife. Popular culture doesn't offer much: a rack of Hallmark cards featuring black balloons and saggy-boob jokes; age-defying potions for hair and skin; the absurd promise that "50 is the new 30!"—a slogan that must have been coined by a 22-year-old who studied marketing instead of math.
Here's what my "welcome to 50" gift basket would include:
–Reading glasses. Cute, inexpensive ones, so it won't matter when you lose them or need to upgrade to stronger magnification. Multiple pairs, so you can stash them in the bedroom, the kitchen, even the bathroom for reading the infinitesimal print on the bottle of artificial tears.
–Speaking of which: Artificial tears. And some purse packs of tissues. Turns out that both dry-eye and leaky eyes (caused by plugged tear ducts) are hazards of age. Take your pick.
–And for the opposite end? Pantyliners. K-Y. A few rolls of indulgently soft toilet paper. 'Nuff said.
–The book you never finished in freshman lit. Fess up, now: Was it "Moby Dick"? "A Tale of Two Cities"? "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"? Read it now. You'll glean more than you would have at 19. And no one will give you a final exam.
–The item of clothing you just couldn't part with (okay, it's not exactly a gift, because I scavenged it from the back of your very own closet): those Pucci hot pants in peacock and chartreuse, the paisley cape, the suede wedgies, the cat's-eye glasses winking with rhinestones. Back in style, baby. Or not. Once you're 50, there's no dress code. Wear what you love. Tip your proverbial red hat to anyone who scoffs.
–A container of bubbles with a plastic wand. You're not too old.
–A Frisbee. Same reason.
–Sunblock. The expensive kind. It's cheaper than skin cancer.
–A travel game of Scrabble, Boggle or Trivial Pursuit. A collection of crosswords or Sudoku. "Yoga as Medicine." "How to Play Guitar: A Complete Guide for Absolute Beginners." A book on making sourdough from scratch. A Rubik's Cube. Because the newest neuroscience says conventional wisdom is all wrong: You can teach an old brain new tricks. In fact, those new tricks—whether acrobatic or algebraic—will help keep the neural circuits both supple and sharp. This is not wishful thinking: the American Psychological Association, in a 2011 article, noted that the brain remains "plastic"—capable of rewiring itself and developing new connections—well into middle age. In fact, brains seasoned with decades of experience and learning may be calmer, less reactive and better able to navigate the social world than younger, jumpier brains. So there, hotshot 22-year-old marketing genius: Let's see how well you cope in the annual psychodrama of a family Thanksgiving!
–A copy of The New York Times, or your local daily, from the day you were born. Not only so you can hoot over the cost of a movie or gas or a year at Harvard (one dollar, 27 cents per gallon and $1,520, respectively, in my birth year of 1962), but so you can take the long view of today's political shenanigans. If you're 50, you've lived through Watergate and Contragate and the whole cringe-worthy Monica Lewinsky saga, and you've learned not to be shocked by the narcissistic, hoggish entitlement of men in elected office. (Cue the tissues, or the artificial tears.)
–A membership in the resistance organization of your choice. See above. Just because you're not shocked doesn't mean you're not outraged.
–A bottle of Sriracha. You started life with 9,000 taste buds (no wonder toddlers are so picky), but between 40 and 50 they die off, and the ones that remain shrink. So spike with abandon; the pungent Thai condiment pairs well with scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes or Bloody Marys.
–Speaking of Bloody Marys, how about a crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or a velvety, garnet-colored Argentinian Malbec? Or if you teetotal, a bottle of spicy Jamaican ginger beer. Gather your people. Make a toast: to the dusky July blueberries, to the ship that brought your grandparents here, to all the ones you love. Sip deeply.
–What else? A library card. A scrip for a once-per-decade colonoscopy. A culturally appropriate variation of the blessing, "May you live to be 100 years old." A pad of sticky notes, to remember it all. And a koan, either from Thai tradition or the Talmud. Take your pick, as it's not much different than the advice people doled out when our daughter was born. Savor the moments, they said, and we snorted, because the moments were sticky and poopy and disheveled, riven with 4 a.m. feedings and mind-caving exhaustion. But they were right. They're still right. Happy birthday, half-century-old friends. Life is so short. We must move very slowly.