I was barely into my teens the first time I saw Blade Runner. It was on a rented VHS videocassette, probably eight months or a year after the film’s initial release, so that would’ve been some time in 1983. And I would’ve been 13 years old. The movie has a very specific time setting — November 2019 — and I remember being taken by the idea that I would likely live to see that future, as incredibly far off as it seemed then in the early years of the Awesome ’80s. I once did the math on the back of an envelope to figure out how old I would be when that future arrived, and the answer — 50! — was as fantastical to my 13-year-old self as flying cars, off-world colonies, and genetically engineered replicants.
Here we are, only six weeks away from November 2019, that once-distant future imagined in the now-ancient past, and today, as hard as it is for me to believe, is my 50th birthday.
Fifty. Five-Oh. Five decades. Half a century. You can’t see this, but I’m sitting here shaking my head in wonder.
My friends and Loyal Readers (assuming any of you are still out there!) know that I struggle with birthdays, and with aging in general. Of course you know that, I write about it nearly every year. The thing is, when this time of year rolls around, it’s very difficult for me not to dwell on what I have to show for the time I’ve spent on this planet… or rather, what I don’t have to show for it. I don’t have children, I don’t own my own home — hell, I’ve never even moved out of the home I grew up in! — and while I do have this thing that can be called a career, I didn’t choose it so much as I slipped on a metaphorical banana peel and fell ass-backwards into it. It works well enough for me, but I can’t help help thinking something else would work better if only I could imagine what.
And I haven’t written any of those novels I used to talk about. That one really hurts.
Bottom line: When I look at pretty much any of the factors that are considered to be markers of success in our late-stage capitalistic society, I haven’t amounted to much. And yeah, that bothers me, as much as I try to shrug it off.
That said, however, the last few birthdays have seemed easier, and I’m surprised to find that I’m pretty sanguine about this one in particular, even though it’s a big landmark. Maybe it’s true what they say about giving less of a damn as you get older. But I think I was also comforted this year by some wisdom I received from an unexpected source, a young lady I’m coming to think of as my work-daughter (as opposed to a work-spouse… yeah, I’m definitely getting older!). We were chewing the fat a few weeks back, and I mentioned my angst over not having done much with my life, and she responded, “Maybe not, but you’ve seen a hell of a lot.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that I’m always talking about all the things I’ve seen, from concerts to movies to different places to just “the good old days,” and she thinks my stories are cool. As I returned to my desk, I started thinking that she’s right… I have seen a lot of things in my time. (And here we circle back to Blade Runner and its replicant anti-hero Roy Batty: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… “)
Not all of those things have been good, of course. The first big headline events I remember being aware of were the death of Elvis Presley and the Jonestown Massacre, when cult-leader Jim Jones coerced hundreds of people to drink poisoned grape punch or else just had them shot. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis. The AIDS epidemic. The Challenger disaster. The terrorist bombing of a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Exxon Valdez. The loss of another space shuttle, Columbia. The nightmare of 9/11 and all the disillusioning, disheartening stuff that followed it.
Mass shootings have become virtually commonplace.
I’ve seen nine U.S. presidents in my lifetime. One of them was impeached, one of them narrowly avoided it by resigning, and we’ll see what happens with the current one. There have been four out-and-out wars (by my reckoning) and more small-scale
“actions” than I can remember. Lots of economic ups and downs in that time too, though fortunately not a full-scale Depression 2.0 (not yet, anyhow).
I’ve seen all kinds of social mores and paradigms evolve, reverse themselves, or completely vanish in the last 50 years. I was an impressionable child during the free-loving, post-sexual-revolution years of the ’70s and I’ve long held something of a grudge that AIDS and a social backlash came along right about the time I was coming of age myself. I feel like I missed the party by that much. On the positive side, though, same-sex marriage is a thing now and, generally speaking, seems to be more and more accepted, despite the forces that are trying to push people of all descriptions back into their closets. Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places, and practically everybody I know over a certain age is using CBD products to deal with their aches and pains. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking has gone from near-ubiquitous to barely tolerated, and probably soon to disappear entirely.
And then there’s technology. Good lord, the technology. Sometimes my childhood seems like it was in the 19th century, not the 20th. I remember when computers were something you only saw in science fiction movies, and then they were always the size of refrigerators, with spinning tape reels behind glass doors. The idea that it’s only a few decades later and we’re all walking around with one in our pockets, smaller in many cases than a paperback book, is truly boggling.
Home video — which didn’t even exist when I was young — has gone from video cassettes to DVD to BluRay to streaming. My earliest TV was a 17-inch black-and-white “portable” with a finicky vertical hold and rabbit ears. Our “big screen” during much of my childhood was a color set housed in an enormous solid wood cabinet, and you changed channels by walking across the room and turning a physical knob.
Music: from vinyl LPs to cassettes and 8-tracks to MP3s, Napster, iTunes, Spotify, and now, improbably, vinyl LPs again.
Fashion: I’ve lived long enough to see the fashions of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s all make comebacks.
Cars were enormous when I was a kid. My first one, a 1970 T-Bird, was approximately the size of a supertanker. They’ve become smaller, then somewhat bigger again. Sedans are fading away in favor of SUVs and minivans. Driverless vehicles are on the horizon (I’m not thrilled about that one).
I watched as our civilization survived the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, Y2K, the Mayan calendar “end of time” in 2012, and any number of near-misses by asteroids.
When I was a kid, we had nine planets in our solar system and knew of no others anywhere else. Today, Pluto has been downgraded to not-a-planet and we’ve spotted hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars.
But that’s all big, societal-level things. On a more personal note, I’ve seen the farm town I grew up in become a suburb, and Utah itself change from a somewhat isolated outpost of civilization — I always related with Luke Skywalker’s lament that Tatooine was the point farthest from the bright center of the universe — to a well-known and even desirable place to be.
I’ve seen Big Ben and the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton and swans lazily gliding along the river behind the colleges of Cambridge, England. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and the Hollywood sign and the great cathedral of Cologne, Germany. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and a house shaped like a shoe. The lights of Las Vegas. Gettysburg. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Mustang Ranch. The Lincoln Memorial. At the Smithsonian Institution, I’ve seen Julia Child’s kitchen, Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s chair, Lincoln’s blood-stained top hat, and the star-spangled banner itself. In the British Museum in London, I saw the Rosetta Stone and the body of a man from the Iron Age. I’ve seen Hadrian’s Wall and Glen Coe, Loch Ness and Culloden, the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies. I’ve seen buffalo and alligators in the wild.
I’ve seen ditch banks burning in the springtime and alfalfa swaying in the June breeze. I’ve seen wide-open spaces and the enormous skies that tower above them. Two-lane roads and superhighways and turnpikes. I’ve seen a stash of dirty magazines hidden in a barn for the neighborhood kids to find long before anyone even imagined the Internet.
And I saw the Twin Towers before the bastards knocked ’em down.
Getting back to the subject of my birthday, I’d be lying if I said I’m not bothered by the physical signs of advancing decrepitude or by the idea that I now have more years behind me than ahead (referring to Blade Runner again, the scene where Batty confronts his creator: “I want more life… fucker.”) But when I look over this list, and I think of all the things I could add to it if I didn’t fear I was already straining your patience, I feel pretty good. All of that is more than enough to do my own version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” So Work-Daughter was right. I do have quite a lot to show for 50 years after all.
Not to get too sappy as I’m winding this up, but maybe I shouldn’t have been thinking about Blade Runner in connection to this day. Maybe a better choice would have been the movie I’m going to see this afternoon, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the tagline of which is “The human adventure is just beginning.” That feels uncharacteristically optimistic for me… but to my surprise, it is the way I’m feeling. And isn’t that weird?