On my birthday a year ago, I wrote about the noise of construction equipment demolishing the homes across the street to make way for a road expansion project. Now that project is nearly completed, and the workmen and their machines have moved on down the way, and I’ve been enjoying a few weeks of relative peace and quiet before traffic is unleashed onto the newly added lanes in front of my house. Meanwhile, here on the eve of this year’s birthday, my main sensory impression isn’t auditory, but olfactory: The air is thick with smoke from a wildfire burning out of control in the next county south of mine.
As I did last year, I’ve been straining to find some metaphor in all these impressions and coming up with nothing. If there is any meaning to be found in sparkling new concrete and hazy air, I’m not sharp enough to find it. And maybe that’s my metaphor right there, the encapsulation of exactly what it feels like to be only one planetary orbit away from the half-century mark. I’m just not quite sharp enough. Not anymore.
I can feel you rolling your eyes and muttering, “Oh boy, here he goes,” but it’s okay. I’m really not depressed about my birthday this year, at least not to the extent I have been in previous years. And I’m not feeling particularly old either, at least — again — not as much as I have in years past. But I have become keenly aware in the past twelve months of how very young many of the people around me are, if that makes sense, and also just how much the world no longer seems to be geared toward me and my preferences and priorities. I keep thinking of that scene in The Last Jedi where Yoda tries to get it through Luke’s thick head (and those of a significant percentage of Gen-X Star Wars fans) that the story is no longer centered on him. It’s about those new characters, now, and the best Luke can do is help them in their own hero’s journey. “We are what they grow beyond,” he says with that impish chuckle in his Muppety voice.
Or something. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the late hour and the scotch talking. As I said, I am surprisingly un-depressed this year. But damn, I can’t help feeling like summer is winding down before I even really noticed it had arrived, you know?
You probably think that’s a long time, don’t you? Well, let’s think about that.
Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency and nobody had heard of Monica Lewinsky yet, including Bill himself. The big headlines that spring had been about a truck bomb at the World Trade Center that left the twin towers damaged but still standing, and a long siege by the FBI of the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas, that left more than 70 people dead.
Twenty-five years ago, the Unabomber was still mailing out his explosive packages from a cabin in Montana. Women pilots in the U.S. Air Force were just gaining the privilege to fly in combat. And “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a new policy solution that didn’t really satisfy anybody.
The Internet had been around in one form or another for a couple of decades, but most people didn’t know much about it, and the World Wide Web was just in its infancy. Even though Windows was an established thing, it wasn’t unusual to encounter a computer display consisting of green or orange letters glowing against a black background. Boxy CRT-style monitors were still in use, and only stock traders and Hollywood agents carried cellular telephones, which were roughly the size of a brick at that time.
Music was delivered primarily on compact discs then. And while many cars still came with cassette decks as a standard feature, nobody was buying vinyl records except aging hippies and jazz fanatics.
The biggest song of the year twenty-five years ago was Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”
A gallon of gas cost slightly over a buck, and that same buck with some change would get you three crisp tacos at Taco Time.
Twenty-five years ago, the name “Loreena Bobbitt” made men everywhere reflexively cross their legs, and Gen X was shaken by the tragic (and tragically squalid) drug-induced death of one of our own, the actor River Phoenix, on a Hollywood sidewalk.
My favorite television shows were Highlander: The Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I was building a collection of movies on VHS, and I dreamed of someday being able to afford a laserdisc player. In the theater where I worked, the movies opening this final week of April were The Dark Half, Indian Summer, and Who’s the Man?, but The Sandlot was still playing if you’d rather see that, and the original Jurassic Park was coming up in June.
I still had most of my hair twenty-five years ago, as well as a lot fewer pounds around my middle and a pancreas that worked reliably.
Yeah, twenty-five years seems like a very long time ago, doesn’t it? Except it wasn’t. Not really. To steal a line from the Boss, it all passed in the wink of a young girl’s eye. And for some mysterious reason, that girl is still with me, even after all that time. I’ve given her a million reasons to not stick around, but she’s done it anyhow.
Happy anniversary, Baby Duck. Here’s to another wink of your eye.
I’ve had this happen to me. Well, metaphorically speaking. No actual restroom confrontations, thank the Force. But yeah. The haters are… tenacious. And I’m so very tired of everything being a fight. Not just Star Wars, but pretty much everything that has a fandom. Sigh… Remember when that stuff used to be fun?
Well, the planet has made another trip around the sun, the hard gray skies of winter are softening into the rain clouds of spring, and it’s time once again for my annual tradition of wishing a very happy birthday to the irrepressible William Shatner. The once and future Captain Kirk is 87 today, and, as always, my offer to buy him a celebratory drink applies any time he (a) hears about it and (b) wants to take me up on it.
In case you’re wondering, this year’s birthday photo comes from The Shat’s latest television project, a short-run series called Better Late Than Never, in which he and three other older celebrities — actor Henry Winkler, ex-football player Terry Bradshaw, and former heavyweight boxer George Foreman — along with a young sidekick named Jeff Dye, travel the world and experience other cultures. It’s admittedly a pretty silly show that sometimes labors a little too hard to generate its fish-out-of-water laughs; nevertheless, I find it weirdly endearing, if not downright inspirational. Given my fears about aging and letting too many opportunities slip past when I was younger, it’s reassuring for me to see old people still out there trotting around the globe in their Golden Years, and Shatner in particular is amazing with his curiosity and sense of adventure. He was a hero to me when I was young for playing Kirk; he’s a hero to me now, in my middle age, for setting an example of how to keep living instead of simply… diminishing.
I hope I’ll still be traveling, discovering the world, and spending good times with friends when I’m in my 80s, just like Bill…
I’ve never gotten around to having children, and being an only child myself, I have no nieces or nephews of my own to play surrogates. Nevertheless, I occasionally find opportunities to insert myself into the life of a younger person and act vaguely dad-like for a while… or maybe it’s more like a half-assed Dumbledore. I’m never entirely sure.
One of these opportunities popped up recently when a friend of mine solicited people to write down some “words of wisdom or important life lesson” — her words — to give to her son on his upcoming 13th birthday. I said sure, no problem, figuring I’d just toss out a few pithy bullet points that would fit nicely on a 3×5 card. Instead, I ended up writing a two-page letter to the boy. To borrow a phrase from the irrepressible Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me.”
I’ve vacillated over posting that letter here, fearing that (a) my Loyal Readers wouldn’t be interested, and (b) it’ll come across as self-serving or pompous or maudlin, or just plain lame, but I’ve decided to go ahead and do it anyhow. I believe in what I wrote in that letter, and I think it’s fairly good advice, if I do say so myself. Perhaps someone reading this right now knows a teenager they could pass these words to. Perhaps someone reading this actually is a teenager, although why one of those those would be reading this old-man’s blog, I couldn’t begin to fathom. But you never know, do you?
In any event, here’s what I wrote:
Sunday, March 04, 2018
As a present to you on your 13th birthday, your mom and Mike asked their grown-up friends if they would give you some words of wisdom and important life lessons. I don’t know that I’m particularly “wise,” but I am almost half a century old, and I’ve got the white beard to prove it, so I must’ve learned something in all that time, right? Well… we’ll see, I guess. Here’s what I’ve got:
- You’re about to become a teenager, and I won’t lie to you, being a teen can be pretty tough sometimes. Nobody takes you seriously, your feelings are all dialed up to 11, and everything seems like it’s going to be the end of the world. Trust me, though… it’s not. You’ll get through it, whatever “it” is. Also, don’t overlook the bright side of being a teen. At your age, you’ve got a universe of possibilities in front of you, and you’re about to start doing a lot of things for the first time. That’s exciting, or at least it should be. Cherish that feeling, because the “firsts” get a lot farther apart when you get older.
- On a related note, don’t hesitate to sample the possibilities. At this time of your life, you have the freedom to try out a lot of different things, so do it. Get a weird haircut, wear some flashy clothes, eat some bizarre foods. As you get a little older and move out into the world, try out different jobs, and if you go to college, different majors, to figure out what you’re really interested in and what you really enjoy. My biggest mistake as a young person was always thinking everything I tried was going to be permanent. I ended up paralyzing myself because I put so much pressure on myself to get it right the first time, for fear that I’d be stuck someplace I didn’t want to be if I chose the wrong thing. Don’t do that. Experiment. Look around for what makes you happy. Not what other people think will make you happy, but what makes you happy
- If something’s making you unhappy—a major, a career path, a relationship—don’t just hunker down and put up with it. Find a way to fix it, and if you find you just can’t fix it, then move on. I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy on situations I hated because I thought I just had to endure them. The old “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” thing is nonsense. You only have to lie in it if you keep lying there. I’m not saying you ought to spend your life bouncing around from one thing to another and never settling down, but don’t think that you have to stay someplace you don’t want to be either.
- Be decent to other people. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t even have to respect them, but there’s really no reason to be unkind or hurtful to them. You don’t know what they might be going through, what kinds of things might be hurting them already. Besides, people tend to give back what you put out there, so if you don’t want others to be a dick to you, don’t do it to them.
- Here’s a big secret that grown-ups usually try to avoid admitting to kids, and often even to themselves: nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, and everybody is just trying to do the best they can. Everybody. Celebrities, athletes, the president, your parents, girls, even old guys like me. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you start thinking you’re clueless. We all are. We just get better at dealing with our cluelessness as we grow up and grow older.
- Learn some history. See old movies. Listen to old music. Talk to older people and really listen to what they have to say. Understand where things came from and how we got to where we are now. That may seem really boring and pointless to you right now, but it will become more important as you get older. Really.
- It’s a big world with a lot of wonderful, crazy, beautiful stuff in it. Explore it. Travel as much as you can. Experience as much as you can. Don’t let yourself live inside a safe little bubble surrounded by people who look and think and talk just like you, and where you see the same damn scenery all the time.
- Life is always worth living. Always. There may be days when you wonder what’s the point, and why should you struggle on and keep banging your head against the wall. On those days, you might find your thoughts going to some pretty scary places. But I guarantee you that there’s always something worth living for, whether that’s Buster Keaton movies (some of the funniest things ever filmed) or warm spring days or the taste of your favorite ice cream. Never give up, never surrender. And never be afraid to ask for help if you’re having days like that.
- Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t beat yourself up too much when you do. Just try to improve the next time out.
- Don’t be afraid of other people. It doesn’t matter what race or religion or political party we belong to, we all want the same general things, to live a good life, to find love and good friends, and to feel like we matter to somebody. But you only learn that if you’re willing to talk to other people.
I’m almost done… bear with me…
- Seek out an old song called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It’s from the 1990s, so you’ll probably think it’s ridiculous and cheesy, but listen to it anyway. Pay attention to the lyrics, because there’s a lot of good specific advice in them that I haven’t covered here.
- And lastly, print this letter and put it somewhere safe; in the future, you will wish you’d kept things. Trust me on this.
Happy birthday, Sam. Thirteen was a pretty awesome age for me; I hope it is for you too.
(some weird old guy)
I hope the boy I wrote this for will read it and find something of value in it. If he doesn’t, maybe somebody out there in Internet-land will. Hey, anything can happen, right?
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.
— Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses (1911)
Anne and I went to a party last night at which the guests were asked to brainstorm “a teaser for a gruesome Halloween episode of a popular TV show” as part of a game. (Actually, the results would more accurately be called loglines, but hey, why quibble?) Winners were chosen for funniest, goriest, and overall best ideas. I thought it was a fun little exercise, and I’m rather proud of what we came up with, so naturally I must share:
Tonight, on a spooooky episode of Hogan’s Heroes: One by one, the men of Stalag 13 are growing sick and dying. Colonel Klink has gone mad with religious fervor. General Burkhalter has gone to the Russian Front where it’s safe. And Hogan realizes that no one sees Schultz during the daytime any more…
And the second one:
In this very special episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the dead are walking the streets of Mayberry. Andy, Opie, and Barney have barricaded themselves in the courthouse. As Andy begins to rave delusionally after being bitten by the zombie Floyd, Barney ponders the best use for his one bullet…
Why yes, we do watch a lot of MeTV, why do you ask?
It’s my birthday again.
I’m home, having taken the day off in what seems to be turning into an annual tradition for me. Outside the sky is low and dark, the color of a deep bruise, and a hard rain is threatening. I can hear backup alarms on the heavy machines across the street; they sound frantic, like they’re trying to beat the oncoming storm as they crush and grind and rearrange the landscape I’ve literally known my entire life. The image strikes me as profound in some way… but perhaps I’m just being a drama queen about notching off another year, same as always.
A million miles goes by in the blink of an eye
And so I cannot try to slow time down
And years are made of sand slipping through my hands
Even faster than the speed of sound
— Mary Chapin Carpenter, “The Dreaming Road”
Now that the sun has returned and everyone has drifted back to the comforting, unchanging glow of their electronic devices, a message for any of my old classmates who may be reading this blog:
If by some chance you either haven’t heard about it or haven’t made up your mind about attending, we’re only days away from our 30-year reunion. Time to act! Details below… and I hope to see you all there!