Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Hear It's Your Birthday!

“If it weren't for the honor of the thing ... I'd just as soon pass.”
Abraham Lincoln's favorite joke, about a man who had been tarred, feathered and ridden out of town.

Few things in life change more radically than our attitude toward birthdays.

The single-digit years are all about acquiring age. You're six, then six and a quarter (although you have no concept of what a quarter year is), then six and a half, six and three-quarters and finally seven ...

Whew! That seemed to take forever.

There is not a day in the long, long year when you don't know exactly how far away your next birthday is. Depending on the time and season it happens to fall, you contemplate how it compares to Christmas, gift-wise. It's probably a one-gift event, as opposed to the multiple gifts that Santa will bring, but might it be combined into one giant birthday/Christmas mega gift? Maybe a pony? Or a little sister? Or a go-cart?

As you hit double digits there's a three-year limbo land where you are really just waiting to become a teenager. Teens have a reputation: sullen, moody, rebellious, complicated. You can't convincingly pull off any of those qualities at ages 10, 11 or 12. (Unless you're ridiculously, bizarrely, prematurely mature like LeBron James or Ellen Page.) So you impatiently await each birthday, while getting the last bits of fun from your still-age-appropriate toy soldiers or dolls.

Ahhh, the teen years. The first few months of teenhood are for testing boundaries, but the urge to get older is still very strong. After all, although 13 and 14 are technically teen years, the real fun doesn't start until 16 or 17, right?

So every birthday is a step up.

As a late teen you have life pretty well figured out. Of course, adults never listen to you or let you do anything cool or have a clue how difficult it is to be you. That's okay though. Soon, as the birthdays accumulate, you and your gang will be running things. Then they'll see.

But here it comes … age 20 … your first tiny speed bump in life. Twenty! Two-oh. Two decades. A fifth of a century. A cause for pause. It's a little startling, but you've always wanted to be at an age where people take you seriously.

Except they don't, do they?

Sure, you keep climbing into your 20s, but now the whole environment has changed. You're not the mature student anymore, the grizzled senior. Now you're the kid at work. The real world is not here to accommodate you. And about that work … no one ever really explained how looking down the barrel of 50 years of 40-hour weeks can make you want to pull the covers over your head, stick your thumb in your mouth and spend a week in bed.

With great effort, you resist that urge and jump into the work force like a good citizen. But it's your first inkling that somehow life seems to be speeding up on you.

So you keep having birthdays (which is the good news, as they say, considering the alternative), but they almost imperceptibly become less and less fun. Yeah, 32 … you're getting up there. Yeah, 37 … somebody gives you a walking cane as a gag gift. Uh oh, 39 … the next one's a biggie!

And then you get one more five star birthday! Sometimes it's 40, sometimes it's 50 … one of those zero years is deemed significant by those closest to you and they make a big deal out of it. Anything from an expensive dinner out, to a surprise party, to a Caribbean cruise, just to let you know that your friends and family will really miss you when you die.


Yep, people are thinking about your mortality. (Don't worry, they're mostly against it.) When did that happen? There you were, the promising future of youth ... and before you can turn around ... you're the approaching specter of death? Where was your window of opportunity? When was your time for being in charge of things? There was so much you meant to do. Where did the time go? When did a year get so short?

But there are no answers forthcoming. You vaguely remember hearing these questions somewhere before … oh, yeah … it was from the old-timers, many years ago. Oh, crap.

Your age seems to be climbing faster than the tote board on a Jerry Lewis telethon. (Somebody turn off those phones!)

And so now each birthday is both an accomplishment (it's too late for you to die young now) and a reminder that there are a finite number of birthdays left. Those sounds you hear as you get in and out of a chair are the grunts of the elderly, and they're coming from you.

You don't remember when you started, but you read the obituaries every day now, and you're seeing some of the same people from your past that you saw in the wedding announcements decades ago. (Sometimes it's even the same picture since, for some inexplicable reason, survivors of the deceased often choose a 30-year-old picture to serve as our last look.)

It can all be a little scary, this accumulating of birthdays. I try to stay positive with this thought:

Even though this is the oldest you've ever been, it's the youngest you'll ever be again.

(It didn't really help all that much, did it?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Naysayers

It seems that since the very dawn of time (and I have no doubt until the dusk of time) there have been those people who can't see anything but the downside.

I've always wondered how those people motivate themselves to get up in the morning, given their negative outlook on the world.

But then I figured it out.

It occurred to me that some of us actually enjoy being the voice of doom. It gives those people a sort of purpose in life. Also, it's true that when things go well most of us are too happy to assign blame to the naysayers for not believing. And when the worst happens they get to tell us they knew it all along.

I have a feeling that the first human who invented skunk soup or tried to milk a chicken heard the caveman version of that sentence people just love to say: “I told you so.”

So what if some ideas aren't exactly genius quality?

As long as we keep trying to think of new things some of them are bound to turn out right. But we have to learn to ignore the negativity, or we won't even try.

Which brings me to my completely speculative account of History's Great Naysayers:

On fire:
“Are you kidding? That stuff killed my best pig! (I'll admit that it did smell oddly delicious though.)”

On the wheel:
“Mark my words. I just know that thing is gonna roll over somebody one day.”

On the written word:
“So let me get this straight. These marks you carve in stone are a way of talking to people who aren't here yet? I see. And will they be bringing the sun god for dinner, too?”

On indoor plumbing:
“I'm pretty sure that people are gonna want to keep that stuff as far away from where they bathe as possible, sport."

On the printing press:
“You have to put each letter in separately and backwards? I don't know, that seems like a lot of trouble, especially since hardly anyone can read.”

On electricity:
“It's like lightning. And you want it to come into my house. And it will give me light just like what I already have with my gas lamps. Hmmm. Sorry, maybe that idiot Edison next door would be interested.”

On the computer:
“Why in the world would anyone want a computer in his home? To calculate the weekly grocery bill in 1.6 seconds? Really. I'll just kick the kids out of their room and put a giant Univac in there.”

On the Internet:
“It's not a real place, right? And people type to one other? And tell us all about their day? And frustrated writers publish things they call blogs? And you have to pay to be there? Well, good luck. I'm sure it'll catch on like that New Coke or trout-flavored toothpaste.”

I will admit that it's tempting to be skeptical about new ideas. Many (maybe most) do turn out to be less than spectacular. (There was actually a man named Edsel Ford who could attest to that.) But just about every advance that humans have made was the result of one or just a few who believed there was a better way.

And even if most of use don't have great ideas that will change the world, isn't optimistic just a more pleasant way to live our lives?