40th birthday Smiling at my 40th birthday party

Atari 2600
I was born September 11, 1969, at 3:36 PM. I didn’t breathe right away, so one of the delivery nurses baptized me. I’d heard the story from my mother, about how her first glimpse of me was through glass, an immense child in a tiny incubator. I heard the story from a different perspective a few years ago, when someone approached after church and asked if I was Sue Albers’ son. The facts were the same, but the retired nurse finished by saying, “We weren’t sure you were going to make it; look at you now!” She’d been there when I emerged stubbornly, four decades earlier, in the hospital just across the street from the church where I was now a cantor.

The other day, Susan pointed out a Facebook meme, one of those with a figure on a dock at twilight, captioned “The older I get, the less I care about what people think of me. Therefore the older I get, the more I enjoy life.” She thought that suited me. It’s true I care less what people think – it’s part of the wisdom we all acquire. But I don’t know if I enjoy life any more, at least not yet. I’m satisfied, which I think is maybe the best we can hope for. Happiness is elusive, subject to the whims of brain chemistry – I find it’s more reliably obtained via drink than circumstance.

When I was young, I looked for approval – for signals that I was on the right track. It took a long time to realize what was right for others wasn’t always right for me. Back then, I believed life held infinite enjoyment in some undefined future – by following a good path, my dreams would certainly be fulfilled. A career in the arts, lots of sex, and all the Oreos I wanted, whenever I wanted them.

My thirteenth birthday is one I recall vividly. A group of boys gathered, including (maybe not limited to) Tom Moran, Brian Paulsen, Chris May, Dave Mihal, Tor Ekeland, and Ted Burger. Ted gave me the Genesis double-LP Three Sides Live, an astonishing, lavish gift. We’d set up Tor’s father’s Norwegian army tent in the backyard, a musty three-room canvas monstrosity. A TV was procured, extension cord run from the house. Someone brought an Atari 2600, a game console I lusted for but never owned. Someone else brought marijuana, which I pretended to smoke (as a lifetime non-inhaler, I have no trouble believing Bill Clinton’s assertion on the subject.)

Late in the evening, a girl arrived – someone who lived on my street. My friends took turns in one of the tent’s rooms, receiving hand jobs and blow jobs. Let me clarify: I didn’t know what those were, and my imagination suggested something illicit and delicious. I was nervous but willing to try (if worse came to worst, I figured I didn’t have to inhale.) But I didn’t get a chance, even though it was my birthday. She drew the line at me and Brian, because we lived on her street, “and that would be weird.” Thus began an intense, painful crush that persisted throughout the fall, one of dozens in my life. I remember them all, sweet nostalgia mixed with residual longing and shame.

[Addendum to the above. In a Facebook comment, Chris May wrote “Boob, all we did was feel a boob. But, yes you were shut out!” I certainly would have believed feeling a boob constituted a hand job. It’s also true that none of those 13 year-old boys would have protested at the time, “All we did was…” Another commenter felt badly for the girl, but she had absolute control of the situation, as well as my heart for the next several months. We’re still friends.]

Susan threw me a surprise party for my 40th. It was my first surprise party, my favorite birthday ever. A friend took me for lunch at the Colgate Inn, then insisted we should look around the University bookshop a while (he’d been given a time to have me back.) While we were lost between the shelves, closing time passed and the lights went out. I found my friend, and we found the doors locked. After ten long minutes of searching we came to an exit that opened without an alarm. That made us late, which I didn’t know until we got home and discovered a houseful of people I wasn’t expecting.

When I was young, I was accused of not smiling for pictures, of not showing emotion when I opened gifts. I’m still that way, although like the guy on the dock I don’t worry about it as much. I hope I showed my 40th birthday guests how much I appreciated their efforts. There wasn’t marijuana, Atari, or blow jobs, but like another Mary I treasured their tribute in my heart. It sustains.

My 32nd birthday was 9/11/2001. No party that year – in fact, we ended up at a prayer meeting. I’d never considered the 911 connection until then. Monstrous, terrible, numbing day. Needing to expend energy, I finished the day by running 3 miles in the dark, as fast as I could. A few years ago, my mother told a 20-something in her office it was her son’s birthday. “How terrible. It must have been awful to be in labor that day.” So that’s how I greet my mother every September 11: “It must have been awful to be in labor that day.” Never forget. I won’t.

I had lunch this afternoon at Brewery Ommegang, in Cooperstown. With me were two dear friends, a priest and a lawyer. I remarked on Facebook there must be a joke in that, so here goes.

A blogger, a priest, and a lawyer drove to a bar in Cooperstown. The priest couldn’t figure out how to program his GPS, which gave very strange directions. The lawyer complained every time the GPS spoke, calling the disembodied voice stupid, and wondering why people didn’t just stop and ask for directions anymore. “Because we might get shot,” said the priest. At Café Ommegang, the lawyer complained he should have brought his jacket, so the blogger requested a new table. They ordered Belgian Frites with chipotle aioli and truffle aioli. When the lawyer saw the sauces, he asked for “plain ketchup.” The priest looked at the blogger and said, “Why the long face?”

At Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY, 9/11/2015

I’ve known these guys for years, and they insist on reminding me how young I am. I was discussing age with another friend yesterday, who’d confused the days and wished me an early happy birthday. We agreed we hadn’t yet reached an age where we’d want to go backward. Bodies wear down, and minds, to an extent; I can feel the years when I run now, or when I try to read a magazine (I love the iPad’s adjustable font size.) I know I don’t think as quickly as I used to. But that guy on the dock has a point. With age comes the luxury of perspective – realizing what’s important and what can be set aside. I don’t miss worrying about whether I’m making the right decisions, whether disaster is imminent. (I wonder if that’s why my younger self couldn’t smile? He looks worried in the pictures, even to me.)

Mike Larson called this morning. Mike’s known me thirty years now. “I want you to know how proud I am of you, for everything you’ve overcome and for who you are. I’m always amazed at the balls you keep in the air.” I told Mike I did it in part by watching him, and that I’ve had a comparatively blessed life, considering the troubles of so many. Those are true, but it’s also true that Mike brought a smile to my face this morning. Like the nurse I met in church, he might also have said “We didn’t think you were going to make it.” (I’m sure he thought it sometimes, back when I was living in his home.) Look at me now…

More smiles throughout the day from each birthday wish on social media. Every quick note brings a distinct memory of each person, more ways to recognize how blessed I’ve been. I have a glass of Scotch in front of me courtesy of my brother-in-law David, and I raise it in honor of another brother-in-law, John, who went too soon just last month. Earlier this evening, Susan, Sarah and I had dinner at my favorite restaurant, courtesy of a gift from my theater troupe earlier this summer.

So… Belgian beer, fine food, good Scotch. No marijuana, but I can have all the Oreos I want. I have work I like and many friendships, and overwhelming love. I’m alive. This week, September 6-12, was National Suicide Prevention Week. I learned a few months ago that another dear friend came within a few breaths of being done. That recovery has been difficult, but it’s coming along. I’ve been there myself. So many have kept me from crashing, kept me breathing, have sustained my life over the years.

I’m blessed, and grateful.

 40th birthday
Smiling at my 40th birthday party