I TURNED 42 this week, and I didn't want a lot of fanfare. Not because I'm ashamed to be 42. On the contrary, I'm proud to have made it this far. My birthday just didn't seem like that big of a deal, because, with relatively few exceptions, I usually can't tell the difference between one birthday and the next.

Sixteen was a big year. That's when I got my driver's license and learned how much my mom loved me after I helped to finish off her '73 Mustang. A few months before I hit 30, I cut off my rapidly thinning hair because the comb-over doesn't work too well for brothers. Turning 32 was huge, too. That's when I got married and this pretty lady moved in and started trying to tell me what to do. I think she's called a wife.

After I turned 40 and didn't experience any more big changes, I figured I'd cruise until I hit 65. That's when I'd retire, collect Social Security, and take advantage of all the senior perks, including the discount movie tickets and the free bus pass.

Boy, was I wrong.

Turning 42 has brought with it some big changes. Now, I go to the doctor willingly. I even took the dreaded prostate exam, which I probably would have spent the rest of my life avoiding were it not for that pretty lady in my house who keeps trying to tell me what to do. I think she's called a wife.

Had I not gone to the doctor recently, I wouldn't have found out that my prostate is normal. Nor would I have known that my cheesesteak addiction had pushed my cholesterol well into the 200s. That revelation (along with the accompanying information about increased risk of heart attack) forced me to put down the cheesesteaks. It even made me start running again.

But changes in diet and exercise can't ward off everything, a fact I recently learned at an odd place - a Christmas party.

Last week, like I do every year, I attended a holiday shindig thrown by a premier law firm at one of the swankiest ballrooms in downtown Philly. I arrived with a simple plan. I would grab a plate of food, try to avoid the drunken people, and network for an hour or so before exchanging a few business cards and slipping out the door.

It didn't work that way.

On my way to my seat with my food (turkey and wild rice - gotta watch the cholesterol), I was accosted by a tipsy reveler before running into an old colleague who was talking with two women, one of whom was an optometrist. Like any cheapskate, I tried to get free medical advice.

"I've been having this problem with my eyes," I said. "When I focus on something close, then try to focus on something far away, it's blurry."

"How old are you?" she asked.

"I just turned 42."

She said something about eye muscles weakening at 40 and asked me if I had glasses.

"No," I said.

She looked at me with something approaching pity. Then she leaned in close so no one else could hear. "You need bifocals."

"Bifocals!" I repeated, unable to contain the horror. "You mean with the lines and everything?"

"Well, yeah."

After that, it was all a blur. She started explaining some technical stuff about eye muscles. She said laser surgery can't correct my problem. She assured me that I wasn't the only one. And still, I felt like I'd aged 20 years overnight.

"Can I at least get the bifocals without the line?" I asked pitifully.

She nodded, and my old colleague tried to make me feel better. "Look on the bright side. You don't look 42."

I'd love to look on the bright side. But at my age, I can't see the bright side without my glasses.

Solomon Jones' column appears every Saturday. He can be reached at