Thirty-Nine And Holding

December 24, 2010

The first day I started one of my first desk jobs right out of college I opened up the desk and found that the previous resident had left a keychain that said, "Thirty-Nine And Holding". Even though thirty-nine was still quite a few years away at that point I still thought I’d better hold on to it. So, of course, I promptly lost it. Its message stuck with me, though: avoid turning forty at all costs. Well, not all costs. If it’s a choice between death and turning forty, I’ll take cake. Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” I hate to sound morbid, especially since I like to think I worked all that out of my system on previous birthdays. Several years ago on one birthday I wrote this little poem:

A birthday passed is like death:
A miracle without fanfare.
One moment you’re drawing breath,
The next you once were.

Birthdays should be happy occasions, especially this one, in spite of the fact that turning forty is the last major milestone. It does seem a little unfair that all the milestones are piled up so close to the beginning, though. First there’s just being born, which I’m sure was a pretty major accomplishment, although I had a lot of help from my mother with that one. Then there was turning one, which I don’t remember. Turning two is also a milestone because, hey, in one year you’ve doubled your age. Then there was turning ten, which meant the end of single digits, and then turning thirteen and officially becoming a teenager. Although technically turning seventeen wasn’t a major milestone it was a very good year. On my seventeenth birthday an older friend told me to enjoy it because eighteen would suck, and I’ll be darned if he wasn’t right. Then there was twenty-one, the last milestone before forty. I’m not sure why forty is a milestone, although one of the interesting things about it is I’ve now officially outlived people who, for most of my life, have been heroes to me, or inspirations, or, in some cases, have inspired me to run in the opposite direction.

I’ve now outlived Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath, Caravaggio, Mozart, Andy Kaufman, George Gershwin, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Lou Gherig. I’ve outlived Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, along with Keats and Byron, made being a Romantic poet a leading cause of death in the 19th Century. I’ve also outlived Caligula, which may not be something to be proud of, but at least I can say I haven’t lived like Caligula. So let’s get away from all the talk about death. As I got closer to my fortieth birthday the most important thing was how to celebrate it. Get a tattoo? Buy a motorcycle? Build a Viking ship in the basement? Let the hair grow out of my ears? I had no idea. Then, a few months ago, my wife told me to take a couple of vacation days in early December. At the time I figured she was going to a dog show and would need me to come along and help. Even though I don’t show dogs myself I like to go along and help out. For one thing it’s always fun to watch our dogs run. I’m proud to say that our oldest dog, who shares my birthday, has twice earned her Master Agility Championship. This already puts her in some pretty rarefied company, but she’s not content with that and is working on a third. And dog shows are also usually a chance to spend time with her friends’ dogs. Although I’ll always love Dalmatians best I enjoy hanging out with my wife’s friends’ dogs which include some perfect Poodles, some wonderful Weimaraners, some brilliant Boxers, and, er, some Shelties. I apologize if I’ve left out any breeds, but I’m pretty indiscriminate in my love of dogs. And a lot of dogs seem to feel the same way about me, except Pharaoh Hounds which, for some reason, won’t give me the time of day. I

t never occurred to me that the vacation days I was taking would have anything to do with my birthday, because it was too early in the month. This is not to say my birthday, which falls less than a week before Christmas, has ever been forgotten or put aside. My wife has always been very considerate about treating my birthday as a separate event. My mother did that too when I was growing up, so I was seven before I realized that all those parades and lights had nothing to do with my birthday. The day of what I thought was going to be the dog show I tossed a few clothes and some Viking ship plans into a suitcase and helped pack up the van. We drove a few blocks, and stopped for breakfast. This confused me slightly because, normally, my wife wants to get to the dog show and get set up as early as possible, but I really didn’t question it. I’ve learned that, when it’s dog show time, the best thing to do is to go with the flow, wait for instructions, and don’t extrapolate. So I was more than happy to stop for breakfast. After breakfast my wife revealed that she’d combined two of my favorite things—surprises and travel—and that we weren’t going to a dog show. In fact at no point had she ever even suggested that we were going to a dog show. This is why I shouldn’t extrapolate: when I do I inevitably get things wrong. We were, in fact, making a surprise trip to Atlanta for my birthday. She’d scored tickets to the Cirque du Soleil, which is a lot more fun to see in person because, among other things, someone twisting themselves into a pretzel is much more impressive when they’re three feet away from you. Then there was the aquarium where the beluga whales were amazing but, for me, the high point was petting the stingrays, even though their personalities reminded me of Pharaoh Hounds. And there was a Salvador Dali exhibit, which was not only fantastic but I’m pretty sure The Persistence of Memory is one of those paintings you’re supposed to see before you die, but that’s another story. And there were also some incredible restaurants, including an Irish pub that, in spite of being in the middle of Georgia, was really authentically Irish, not one of those breagach Irish places that are about as Irish as Lucky Charms. It was an amazing trip. It’s also significant that it was in Atlanta because we had to go over a mountain to get there. And then we went over the same mountain on the way home, which gave me an idea. Turning forty was so much fun that I’ve decided I’m going to do it again next year.

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