WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON -- In the Middle Ages a particular pope was so deeply revered that once a year he paraded through Rome's streets wearing a ridiculous hat to discourage excessive veneration. In our children's eyes, we are always wearing such hats, but especially on our 50th birthdays, when we have long ceased to be young and are a long way from being venerable.
When the mail arrived the other day, the Prodigy, a.k.a. Victoria Will, age 10, was amused, with malice. There, just as she had delightedly warned that it soon would be, was a copy of Modern Maturity magazine. That is the monthly publication of the American Association of Retired Persons, which sends it to you as your 50th birthday impends, whether you want the magazine or not. You don't, trust me.
Looking forward from age 50 is no bowl of blueberries but looking back, and distilling lessons from things, is difficult to do without sounding like Polonius when he was loading down Laertes with bromides. However, from among the bric-a-brac of experience, I have plucked a few strategies for living.
For example, I have a telephone-answering machine. I never turn it on. Part of the fun of venturing out and about is to return home to that cold machine and think of all the calls I was able to miss. The world is too much with us anyway without allowing it to ambush us on tape.
Let us hope the world beyond America's borders will be less intrusive for a while. To have been born seven months before Pearl Harbor and to turn 50 two months after Desert Storm is to know the centrality of war in America's modern experience. The jubilation about our most recent war -- the biggest parades will be in June; the celebrations are lasting five times longer than the war -- suggests we have become a bit too fond of the narcotic of mass experiences.
I began my professional life as what my father was, a college professor, doing philosophy. It has subsequently been my fate, chosen but not planned, to live as a writer in this political city.
Washington often seems dizzied by the rush of little events. If we did not notice them the day they happened, we would never notice we had missed them, so swiftly do they sink beneath the surface of serious history. In Washington I have learned that it is symbolically correct that the Capitol is on the edge of the continent. In a good society, politics is a dignified profession with a vital jurisdiction, but in most lives it is and should be peripheral. Unhappy is the country in which people cannot talk about themselves or their relations with others without recourse to political categories.
When someone called William Butler Yeats' attention to Thomas Mann's ponderous assertion that, ''In our time, the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms,'' Yeats demonstrated the superiority of the Celtic to the Teutonic temperament by writing a short poem, ''Politics,'' which begins:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
One pleasure of becoming stricken in years is that almost all strong passions centered on politics seem disproportionate. This is particularly so since the defeat of totalitarianism, which tyrannized us, too, by making us think about politics constantly.
It is marvelous to imagine what was going on in the mind of the woman who so detested William Gladstone that she sent a wreath to the grave of the heifer that knocked him down. Politics is not crucial to the principal ingredients of happiness -- cheerful children, feisty friends, fulfilling work and a strong bullpen.
We who came to social consciousness in the 1950s acquired, with every breath, the sense of America's vigor, the ''glittering in the veins'' and the ''crush of strength'' that Wallace Stevens sensed one night on the Connecticut Turnpike in 1954. It is truly said that ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. America has not done badly in the struggle to achieve that elusive balance of freedom and security that characterizes a society in which the strong may freely strive and the weak need not feel fear.
To be paid for the privilege of writing about the American pageant is bliss. As Henry James lay dying, his hand made writing motions on the sheet that covered him. I hope that will be true of me, but not soon.
*George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.