August 1st, 2014
Today is my 60th birthday. There will be no cake, no candles, no ice cream. I've never understood why people are so excited to celebrate birthdays. Everybody has them. They're not much of an acomplishment, really. I would feel the same confusion if someone said, "Congratulations, Michael! You have ten fingers! Yeah. So what. Please do not write to congratulate me on not dying yet. Instead I thought I would offer you the benefit of my perspective after so many trips around the sun.
I do not remember my 10th birthday at all. I do remember that my family's summer vacation that year included a visit to the New York World's Fair and Niagra Falls. I wasn't old enough yet to have a past.
Life in my 20s was Utopia. I went to Indiana University in Bloomington, planning to major in oceanography. I wanted to sail the oceans with Jacques Cousteau, and he and I were going to save the world together. There were 35 thousand students on campus, and at least half of them were women. Luckily I was at my physical and sexual peak. If my best friend manages to outlive me, you'll probably hear some of the lurid details in the eulogy he threatens to give. I used to wake up 30 seconds before the alarm each morning, excited to start the day. Every day was going to be an adventure, and I felt sorry for anyone not lucky enough to be me. I enjoyed the music of John Denver, especially the song Surrender. I felt as though I were living some of the lyrics.
Sweet, sweet surrender
live, live without care,
like a fish in the water
like a bird in the air.
I hated my 30th birthday. The year before I had been working 16-18 hour days for nearly ten weeks. It was the first two day weekend I had off in a long time, and my only goal was to sleep until noon on Saturday. However at 9:00am someone was pounding on the front door and would not go away. When I yanked open the door to chastise the idiots who woke me up, I discovered my parents and youngest brother at the door wishing me a Happy Birthday. I had been so busy I literally forgot my own birthday. As we ate cake my brother asked me how it felt to be old. I was astonished. I told him, "I'm still a young pup!". He looked at me in disbelief and said, "Young pup? You're twenty-nine! For the next twelve months his surprize gnawed at me, until I realized - I have a past. As it turns out, I had subconsciously accepted the premise that any normal person was married and starting a family by the time they are 30. Since I was still single I felt like a failure, but wasn't sure why. Needless to say, I've resolved that dilemma... by realizing that I am anything but normal.
I was a skydiving instructor the weekend of my 40th birthday, so naturally I spent my time at the dropzone. I probably took twelve people for their first tandem ride, and at the end of the day my friends celebrated with a huge barbeque - and a traditional cream pie in my face. I wasn't happy about turning 40, but I wasn't nearly as depressed as a decade before. Very late Sunday night as I drove myself home through the California desert, I realized that "for a guy my age" I was doing pretty well. I had spent all day jumping out of "perfectly good airplanes", and I was taking highway curves at 90 miles an hour. That's when I figured I still had a few good miles left in me.
My campaign staff delighted in turning my 50th birthday into a huge fundraising event. It was upstairs above a bar on 4th Street in Austin, Texas, and hundreds of my "friends" attended. I never tasted my own cake because I spent the day at the head of a line of people hoping to talk politics with me. Everyone was granted five minutes of my time, so I was busy until closing time. It turns out that someone stole the last piece of cake that had been put aside for me, so it was another work day like all the others.
Most of you already know that I am acting as care giver for my aging parents. It appears that old age is contagious because I feel much older than the 60 years I actually am. Ironically, I stumbled upon my favorite John Denver song. It was uplifting at first, but then I realized that it didn't resonate with me the way it used to.
There's a spirit that guides me
a light that shines for me,
my life is worth the living
I don't need to see the end.
From my perspective as a graybeard, I realize that young people face life without a fear - or concept - of death. Their whole life is ahead of them and their options appear limitless. However, as you start to reach the end of your life, you DO need to see the end. By that I mean, evaluating your past accomplishments to see if they have met your youthful expectations. In other words, are you the person you hoped you would become?
80 years old
My mother was 20 when I was born, so she celebrated her 80th birthday in March. My daily conversations with her are filled with stories of the past. She talks about her days in school and the teacher she idolized. She talks about her father, and describes him as a strict disciplinarian who was big enough to carry out his threats. All of her anecdotes are of the past... because she doesn't have much of a future anymore. Most of us cannot share her perspective, yet. But all of us are headed in that direction.
For Christmas at 6 years old, I got my first chemistry set. My parents were already cultivating my scientific bent, and I have been known to turn an elevator ride into a brief psychological experiment. It should come as no surprise that I would attempt to gather some useful data using this newsletter as an informal survey. What I want to know is this:
0) your age
1) what you think your greatest accomplishment has been so far
2) what you hope to accomplish in the next twelve months
3) how you would like to be remembered when you're gone
Here are my answers:
60 years old
1 - becoming a skydiving instructor. Earning my Accelerated Freefall rating was the hardest thing I've done, and I am proud to have spent several years as a "skygod".
2 - continue my responsibilities as care giver, and to reverse the atrophy of my body since the surgery to install my artificial shoulder
3 - I would like to be remembered as a man who lived by his principles as though they were laws of physics... not just virteous aphorisms that can be ignored because they just aren't practical.
Your perspective would be greatly appreciated.