On Turning 40 In The Year Of The Apocalypse

My 40th comes during the apocalypse. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’m sure Alan Watts would’ve had some great philosophical insight that I would only half understand. Too bad he’s dead.

If you’re not into autobiographical rambling, you better stop reading right now.

Now get this straight, I’m not a big believer in birthdays. Being that it is early January, my birthday was always combined with Christmas. Since I’m of the Catholic persuasion (my family has 3 nuns in it, which makes absolutely no difference at all besides highlighting how family reunions were peculiar – not in a bad way, just different), I always found it odd people wanted me to share the big day with Jesus even though mine is in early January. That has to be some kind of sin in the Book. Whatever. People born in the summer can kiss my ass.

Like I said, I turn 40 in a few days, and I find myself stumbling through the forest of my mind catching something beautiful between the patches of poison ivy. Seriously. It hurts. If you know me, I’m a sentimental fool. I mean, Harry Crews and Chuck Norris would probably punch me in the mouth just because I’m one of those mild mannered guys. And while that would make a great anecdote to tell people at parties, I hate eating blended steak through a straw. I say all this because when I reminisce about all the great people who have impacted my life, who are a part of my life, I’m pretty content. The apocalypse doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I don’t even feel the need to store a basement full of MREs or get a shotgun. I do have a cool Swiss Army knife though and that will come in handy. It has a ton of gadgets.

Growing up, I went through some hard times with my family and more importantly with myself: drugs, fights, jail, rehab. I dealt drugs to support my habits and my habits were powerful. They were my religion, and I went to church daily. I saw things that I had no business seeing. At 5 or 6 years old, I was licking joints for adults. When I was 7, I got my first Playboy. In 6th grade, I witnessed the body of my neighbor, a kid in my grade, wheeled out with a .38 bullet in his head. By the time I was 16, I hung out with people double my age, bought drugs from guys who saw worse and were rougher than I ever was, and I constantly hurt the people who cared about me. If you ask any addict, my story isn’t that different than theirs. The only real distinction: I was lucky.

No one could help me, but people tried.

I read a recent study where scientists found that rats were extremely social animals. Go figure. In fact, one rat would literally help another escape a trap and share its food before eating any of it by itself. After watching reality television for over a decade, I’m not so sure we can say the same thing for our species. I can honestly say, though, luckily I had a few special people stay close to me. They spied me inside the emotional plexiglass, clawed at the walls, tried to free me. When I finally opened that door, they were there.

So that’s really what I’ve been thinking about lately: my family and friends.

I want to honor these people who were with me during the good and bad times. Unfortunately I could never do them justice, especially with mere words. Language is a frail, brittle thing that way. My problem is I cling to so many moments I can’t sift through them to find that one.  If only I could paint clear moments that say everything without saying everything. James Wright did that so well. Everything would be so much simpler if I could do that.

John Henry Newman said we have to train our mind to think. He argued that being smart, to regurgitate information, was easy but to use that information in new ways was true education. My grandmother never went to college, but she is one of the most learned women I know. See, I tear up every time I think about her. It’s stupid to tear up in a coffee shop. People look then quickly turn away. I told you I was a sentimental fool. Note to self: don’t write reflections on turning 40 in the year the world will end at a coffee shop.

My grandmother survived a rigid and emotionally cold mother. She got through the depression and WWII. She followed her husband’s baseball career (drafted but was injured) and cared for him when another injury on the docks completely debilitated him both spiritually and physically. She watched over him during electroshock therapy and bathed him. She buried him. Now she takes out old photos and tells stories to her great-great grandkids. She recently received a Presidential award for volunteering but will only show it if we beg. She buys us goofy Christmas ornaments every year. She hates the Tea Party. She still says, “shucks,” “phooey”, and “fuddy duddy” in everyday conversation.

My mother and father have been immortalized in my poetry. At least moments. Shards of glass. I suppose I was following in the tradition of Snodgrass, Lowell, and Sexton in writing confessional poetry even though I didn’t know it at the time. When I was in graduate school, I remember reading a critic who said confessional poetry was “rather shameful,” and perhaps it was/is, but screw it. I did. Sometimes I do. That’s one of the nice things about 40: I accept who I was and who I am (even my insecurities).

My best man, Steve Ida, witnessed my bumbling through middle and high school. While I’m pretty sure his mother didn’t care for me (she only spoke Japanese when I was there and often went into her room to pray), Steve hung out, spent hours on Axis and Allies, and played a ton of pick up basketball with me. He was the fastest guy on the court, but the clumsiest one too. You know that screech of skin on hardwood? Yeah, that was Steve. And he always laughed about it. Every single time. Steve was the only friend who gave me the advice I didn’t want to hear.

Another buddy I keep in touch with, Dan, set me up with my wife. It was a blind date for prom. At first she balked at the idea; after all, it was only a few months before that I had sold her then boyfriend acid, but Dan assured her I was reformed. Against her better judgment she went. She told me multiple times she wasn’t sure why she said yes. I’m still not sure why either. Sometimes I tell her because I was hot and had a “history.” She tells me to keep dreaming. Prom night I ordered lobster (which I hate but I wanted to impress her), and talked her ear off. It’s amazing she saw me again. Then I met her family.

I don’t get people who dread their in-laws. From the very first moment I met mine I liked them. Gracious, kind, always looking to laugh. What most drew me to them was their openness with each other. My family was generally shrouded in silence, divided by rooms and television screens, but my wife’s family aired their thoughts, good or bad. They spent a lot of time at the kitchen table reading, ready for discussion. I hate to admit it, but I was terribly envious.

It’s interesting to reflect on the people who had an impact one’s life. It begins as a drizzle then turns into a torrential rain. Those people are like wonderful songs that make me sing at the oddest moments: Cutting a 2×4, walking the dog, staring out a coffee shop window.

I’ve met and nurtured some very important friendships over the years; well, I can count them on one hand. I went to undergraduate with Scott, a fantastic poet in his own right, who recently scared us with a liver transplant. A few others: Lowe, a fellow English instructor who, for 7 years, did construction and house painting every summer with me; Beth, the most giving, fun, caring person I have ever met in my life (seriously); and Steve.

Now the first time I met Steve was in grad school. He had a tie (green with polka dots I think) wrapped around his forehead like a doo-rag and played darts with steak knives. I believe it was the same party we painted abstracts on the kitchen wall and two friends decorated asses then pressed them on top of the abstracts. A color copy of sorts. Yeah, we threw out the brushes. Our families have grown up together and in the same direction – but he can keep the earthquakes, floods, and broken water lines. I’d write more, but he reads my bullshit blog sometimes and I don’t want to give him any more fodder for his ego. Besides, I’ll buy him some Bushmills and tell him I made it all up just to mess with him.

But I always return to my wife and 3 awesome daughters. I stare at the ceiling, pet the puppy, let my mind spin so fast I think it will just tear apart. My wife is stronger than I am. She’s more honest. She’s better with the kids. She experiences joy and frustration and love more deeply than I. She can garden while I can only dig holes. My wonderful children deserve dozens of posts each, but I have an aversion to writing about them in public forums. I know, I’m weird that way.

What does turning 40 mean? 2012?

I hear it’s time for some kind of crisis. I need to start working out, get on a diet, buy a Mustang, pull an American Beauty and smoke dope while working at some burger joint, but the closest I’ve come to a midlife crisis is taking on a Ph.D. program full-time while working full-time (yes, I’m a dumbass). In 2012, sleep deprivation may bring on a nervous breakdown (though as long as I keep on my meds I should be ok). And the steady production of writing will slow down, but as evidence by last semester it won’t come to a complete screeching halt. Even if I’m blessed with just a fraction of positive feedback from people on my writing, I’ll be ecstatic. Snubnose Press (which has a family of writers I’m honored to be a part of) picked up my novel, a number of anthologies included my work, and I haven’t run out of ideas on future projects.

Turning 40 during the year of the end of the world means I spend a lot of time cherishing my family and friends and remembering to focus on the beautiful mysteries of life. 40 isn’t so bad. Maybe even a better age than any one I’ve ever had.