Column: I turned 50 and AARP started sending me mail. I had to find out why. – Chicago Tribune

I have a secret to reveal: I’m part of a vast left-wing conspiracy hellbent on turning patriotic Americans into Marxist drones by giving them better health care and making it easier to vote.

Just kidding. That’s no secret!

The REAL secret I’ve been harboring is this: Earlier this year, under cover of night, I turned 50.

I know, it’s shocking. I have the calves of a 30-year-old marathoner and the looks of a young George Clooney. But the calendar doesn’t lie.

I decided to keep this arbitrarily momentous January birthday quiet because we were still largely pandemic-bound. There was no way to safely accommodate the requisite celebrity-packed party, Air Force fighter jet flyover and fireworks display.

No, I declared to my wife and kids, I will hold off on turning 50 until next year.

But then something unjust and terrible happened. Something that shook me to my core.

I started getting mail from AARP.

When the first envelope arrived, I threw it out, assuming it was delivered accidentally and intended for someone at a nearby retirement community or cemetery.

Then a second letter arrived. I glanced at the name in the address box. Rex Huppke.

When I came to, the letter was still in my hand. I could have sworn it looked at me and said, “What’s up, old man? Have a nice nap?”

How could this be happening? I’m just barely not 40. Why is AARP sneaking up on me like the Grim Reaper?

When I was growing up, my grandparents were AARP members. They also happened to be very old, so I logically linked AARP with people like my grandparents, and that mental link has remained. The “American Association of Retired Persons” is, I assumed, the kind of thing “retired persons” get involved with, and my person remains very much not retired.

So unless AARP was writing to tell me they will pay me to retire immediately, I was both uninterested and deeply offended.

I opened the envelope and out popped a laminated card that read, “Welcome to the ‘50′s Club.’” I passed out again.

This was no mistake. AARP was targeting me, and in doing so the organization was offering me a three-piece set of luggage and an array of “exclusive discounts, programs, and resources.” I’m not one to shy away from discounts or free luggage, so I read on and found that one benefit is a “Top Tips series” that includes “The Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods,” and another is “online games” that include daily crosswords and solitaire.

I passed out a third time.

I believe in aging gracefully, and that’s why I stood up from my third AARP-letter-induced fainting spell and screamed: “I AM NOT OLD AND I DO NOT WANT TO READ ABOUT ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS AND PLAY ONLINE SOLITAIRE BECAUSE I AM YOUNG AND HIP AND FUN!!!”

Fully flustered, I decided it was time to get on the phone and figure out just what AARP wanted with a strapping young man like myself. I dialed up the organization, realized “dialed up” is a very old thing to say, felt sad, increased the font size on my word processor so I could see the notes I was about to type, felt sad again and then started chatting with John Hishta, AARP’s senior vice president of campaigns.

“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF ALL THIS, YOU MONSTER?!?!” I thought about saying before politely asking why AARP was sending me mail.

“In many respects,” Hishta said of folks entering their 50s, “it’s a period of transformation for a lot of people in terms of their lives and where they’re headed. People start thinking, what are they going to do with the rest of their life. Am I going to make changes with my life? We’ve found it’s a good age to ask people to join and be AARP members moving forward.”

OK, that’s not entirely mean or unreasonable.

Hishta also explained that AARP abandoned the American Association of Retired Persons title a long time ago, sticking with AARP as an acronym for nothing and aiming to open the brand up to people who aren’t at retirement age. A person of any age can become a member, and I would appreciate it if younger readers would sign up so I feel better about myself.

AARP does a slew of advocacy work on important issues like health care, age discrimination and retirement planning.

“Financial-security-wise, very few people in this country, very few, have any retirement savings whatsoever, almost none,” Hishta said. “And when you start talking about lower-income folks who may be making a below-average salary, probably most of them have no ability to save in a 401(k) or something similar. So we’re fighting for those types of programs in individual states.”

While I would’ve been fine with Hishta just saying, “We’re sorry, Mr. Huppke, we accidentally mistook you for an older person, please accept our apology and keep being very young and awesome,” the truth is my experience is an example of why so many Americans reach retirement age unprepared, both mentally and financially.

As a culture, we’re resistant to the idea of getting older. We avoid planning for upcoming phases of life, to our own detriment. AARP shifted its demographic focus over the years to address a need, not to make freshly minted 50-year-olds feel blue.

I still haven’t decided whether I’ll go for the free luggage and the promises of online solitaire. But I do feel brave enough now to reveal my once-dark secret: My name is Rex Huppke. I’m 50 years old, and AARP wants me. And I’m OK with that.