Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

Intimations Of Mortality.

So I’m marking another elliptical spin around the sun, another year in the rearview mirror. This isn’t a milestone year so it’ll be a quiet affair: dinner, maybe a few drinks, a quick jaunt to Sri Lanka and back. When we’re young every birthday is a major event. Turning one is worthy of celebration, even if most of us don’t remember it, at two we’ve doubled our age, at three we’ve tripled it. At four, five, and six we really start to explore the world on our own, make friends, try on and discard personas. Ten marks the beginning of the double digits but the next big step isn’t until thirteen, considered in many cultures to be the age of adulthood, although its onset usually starts earlier. At sixteen, in the US, you can drive a car, at eighteen you can vote, and at twenty-one you can legally drink. Then the way stations only come once every ten years: thirty is when you say you’ve got the whole adulting thing figured out, even though you haven’t and never will, and at forty you’re “over the hill”. The Eternal Footman who holds your coat and snickers stands a little closer. Fifty is the half-century mark and from there, well, the years roll on at the same rate but they seem to go by faster.

Thirty years ago on another birthday I wrote this poem:

I’d like to sleep late,
Warm in my cocoon, stretch,
Before throwing the sheet
Off like a lost ship’s hatch
And like a single sailor stand
Looking out over miles of empty sea
Without a single stretch of land
To disrupt any possibility.
The reality’s more mundane:
Alarm clock, dark fumbling, shower.
All through it my brain
Mutters that I have work in an hour.
A birthday passed is like death:
A miracle without fanfare.
One moment you’re drawing breath,
The next you only once were.

It’s morbid but the truth is I really do think of birthdays as something to celebrate. The older I get the more I come back around to every one being a milestone, another year that I feel lucky just to be here.

It’s The Journey.

It’s my birthday today and, well, I always have trouble with the question, “What do you want?” Obviously I appreciate the thought and I want to be realistic, but if I could be completely unrealistic I’d want to take a train trip from Portugal to Singapore. I realize that’s not completely unrealistic since it is now possible, but I don’t want to wish for the impossible or even nonexistent.

The world’s longest train trip. For now, anyway. Source: BoingBoing

A three-week train trip sounds amazing to me. Maybe parts of it would be tedious or boring but part of the fun of train trips, and, I think, adding to the romance of train travel, is that there’s a constantly shifting landscape out there. Trains also offer a certain amount of freedom within their confines. Unless you’re the conductor you’re not driving so you can wander up and down the cars. There’s usually more space than there is on an airplane, and it’s easier to change seats.

And consider this: if an airplane’s engines stop working that’s it. The pilot or pilots will do the best they can to make a safe landing but it’s still at the mercy of gravity. Even a boat has its downside—specifically if it goes down and you end up hoping there are enough lifeboats to hold everyone. I don’t mean to downplay the severity of train crashes, which can be terrible, but if a train’s engine breaks down or it’s just stopped by leaves on the tracks then you still have a pretty good chance of walking away. Train travel may be slower but keeps you close to the ground.

Thirty years ago I took an overnight train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, Russia, specifically—a train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Florida would have been more than just one night, not to mention a spectacular feat of engineering, but that’s another story. It was an old style train, mostly wood, rickety, and a tall, thin gentleman came by and brought me some tea in a glass cup with a metal holder.

I read some but I also spent a lot of time just watching the snow-covered countryside, dotted with lights of small towns off in the distance, slip by, and I wondered what was going on in those homes that kept their fires burning all night. I slept some, and at one point I went to the end of the car and stood in the cold, wintry air. I could look down and see the tracks and gravel, and how fast the train was moving, but when I looked out at the snow it all seemed impossibly still.

Yeah, I definitely want three weeks of travel like that.