For months, I’d thought of how I would spend my 50th birthday, and what reflections I would record thereafter. Historically, it was a rare subset of privileged human beings who made it to this advanced age, though today it’s considered the halfway point for first-worlders of my generation.
I had planned on getting into extraordinarily good shape for this day, to show how “age is just a number”. And I was on a promising path to achieving that goal, as well. But, ever the victim of irony, instead my 50th birthday began just has the last 14 had begun: with me lying on the floor, icing my lower back.
So instead of the fantasied photo of rippling abs and Fabio-licious flowing locks, you get this awkward photo of me sucking in my belly and wearing my old mhuay-thai boxing shorts from 26 years ago. Hey, they still fit!
I’d celebrated the last day of my 40s by driving to Montreal to see a friend. But began the first day of my 50s cradling a fragile lumbar spine while singlehandedly loading a couch into a jeep, then driving said jeep to Toronto, with rearview mirror occluded and right blind-spot impossible to assess.
I guess I wanted to end my final days of youth-like frivolity with genuine physical stupidity. Here’s my exquisite breakfast on the drive, my first meal of my 50s: Greek yogurt and coffee inside a car:
I am, in every measurable way, a blessed man. My blind massage therapist used to remind me at every appointment what an unusually magical life I’ve had, how things just seem to work out for me. Sure, I’ve had failure and heartbreak, stress and fear, pain and disappointment. But the highs have been stratospherically high, while the lows embarrassingly shallow.
We live in a world in which we strive for comfort, for ourselves and our family and progeny. Yet we take pride in struggle, and try to convince audiences of how hard we’ve had it. Really, very few of us have real, objective difficulties. Most issues and travails we encounter are not genuine existential crises. But as life gets easier, we tend to lose track of that very important fact.
So my life is great. If it were to end tomorrow, my chunk of existence might not be worthy of a Hollywood (or Bollywood) film; but I think it would still warrant a few stories. The kinds of things that people think they care about are the episodes in life that make it onto your Wikipedia page: famous people you’ve caroused with, unusual activities you’ve joined, etc.
Me, I’ve met world leaders and legendary thinkers. I never tire of telling the tale of when I met Pierre Trudeau when I was a young boy, and how that meeting affected my thinking throughout my life. I met Nelson Mandela when he first got out of prison and was doing a world speaking tour. I was quickly presented to the Dalai Lama when I was working the door at one of his speaking events. My intellectual hero, and the reason I became a scientist –Carl Sagan– I would encounter in that same venue. A certain President of a certain small nation I would encounter on many occasions; but the first time we spent most of our energies discussing, and admiring, each other’s fashion choices.
The list goes on, and it’s amazing how little it really means. I used to think meeting an ambassador was a big deal. Yet now I have a few as Facebook friends, and they’re likely reading this blog post now, remarking to themselves, “Hey! I am a big deal!” But people are just people.
I remember the first time I had to meet with the Indian ambassador (well, High Commissioner; same thing) at the Indian embassy in Ottawa. I was running late, of course. (I’m always running late… but I’m rarely ever actually late. Get that nuance?) It was the dead of winter. I don’t have a car, but I do use a local car sharing service called Vrtucar, in which members just reserve one of the shared fleet of cars, which are all parked strategically around the city.
Anyway, since I was running late, I quickly reserved a car and ran to its station. There was a solid block of ice on the windshield, and I did not have time to chip or melt it away. So I rolled down the window and drove it with my head sticking out. In a blizzard.
So I met the Indian ambassador with a frostbitten face and ice in my hair. Oh, and also with a gaping hole in my crotch. This I discovered when we sat down for tea and I uncrossed my legs.
When you’re a poor immigrant kid struggling to be taken seriously in a new country with unnavigable hierarchies, your social “betters” are mysterious. The challenge, and joy, is getting to a point where you know, at every level, that only your loved ones matter.
But that’s not to say that the people you meet, in whatever capacity, can’t offer some useful insights. I’m reminded specifically of my early years as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. As a scholarship winner, I was entitled to attend regular formal group dinners with other winners. As a student of Victoria College, these dinners were held in Northrop Frye Hall.
Joining me at several of these events was Northrop Frye himself. He held a certain fascination for undergrads, was almost smiling graciously, and rarely said a word. But his presence was warm, welcoming, and reassuring.
I don’t remember what we talked about. I was probably caught up trying to figure out which fork to use. Somewhere in my brain I realized that this was the man that the building was named after, but my nervousness and discomfort prevented me from fully appreciating that fact.
Indeed, I would not fully realize the towering intellectual importance of Northrop Frye until decades later. Today I am humbled not by his timeless contribution to the humanities, but by the humility and generosity of the man. It’s a personal value that struck me as noble and worthy of embracing.
At that same time, a professor in my department won the Nobel Prize in Physics. And one of our graduate students made it onto the cover of Time Magazine for discovering a supernova.
All heady stuff for a poor kid from a poor family who had no right to expect such experiences and exposures; no right to expect anything beyond mere survival, as that would have been a sufficiently golden life.
It’s interesting that these are the memories upon which I dwell, as I pass a chronological milestone. Turning 50, what surprised me was how my thoughts turned to role models, especially ones that I never really had relationships with. Of course, I am fortunate to have excellent people in my life –parents, siblings, friends, teachers– who provided wonderful examples of behaviour and philosophy. But my thoughts today were of more distant examples.
Northrop Frye was one. Trudeau and Sagan were others. But on my long drive to Toronto, couch in tow, my thoughts unerringly turned to David Bowie. It helped that I was listening to a recording of his Serious Moonlight concert. Everything I wanted to say about Bowie, I wrote in his obituary. But there’s another element to his example that lingered upon today.
This is from my 48th birthday
I had always seen Bowie as a exemplar, not just of style and appearance, but of behaviour. He was mocked for being different, ridiculed by those he admired, accused by those who did not understand him. He wrote a song for Andy Warhol, which Warhol openly hated. He was deeply inspired by Anthony Newley, and sent Newley a copy of his first recording… which Newley destroyed in disgust. He was even openly derided by supposedly objective journalists during interviews.
Any one of those experiences would crush the fragile sensibilities of today. But Bowie never lashed out at his attackers, never sank to violence, profanity, or petty rivalry. There was a palpable classiness in his behaviour that I noticed early on, and that I strived (and failed) to emulate.
The relevance of Bowie’s journey to my birthday is this. I was startled when David Bowie turned 50. How could my idol age? And yet he did. And he celebrated 50 with a global tour. And he looked fabulous doing it. He got married again, even had another child, and seemed to re-invent himself as a normal human being for the second half of his life.
And I suppose that is the goal, right? To get to a point where you can be a normal human being. I think I’m there.
So why I am so blessed? What makes my life so great? Well, the turkey thinks everything is great right up until Thanksgiving, right? So maybe the headsman is coming for me soon; one never knows. But even such an ending would not render the totality of my life nothing but goodness.
Subjectively, I could argue that having a good life is really a function of perception. I could be the kind of person that focuses on his many failures, heartbreaks, fragilities, limitations, and genuine scares; and there have been more than a few. But instead I am that person who tends to remember the good. So that helps.
Objectively, I am —and I will employ this eye-rollingly overused and largely meaningless word– blessed. As of today, all the people I care about the most are alive and happy and have their full faculties. It’s important that everyone try his best to have as wonderful a relationship as possible with one’s parents, something that many people can only manage once well into middle age. And I certainly have that.
I am lucky to be in a long term, stable, and loving monogamous relationship with someone whom I utterly do not deserve. And while I do not have children, I have the boundless and purest of parental love for a certain quadrupedal canine, for whom I would stop the world and everyone upon it. Those, I believe, are powerful ingredients for the soup of happiness. The maturity and wisdom to know when you’ve got it good are new talents for me, but I finally have them.
Barack Obama once asked an audience, if they could not know their race or gender, where and when would they choose to be born? His answer, and mine, is right here, right now. Because we live in the best time in human history, in the best place in the world, in terms of freedom, bounty, knowledge, comfort, safety, and health. It might not often seem that way; but it is surely the measurable, demonstrable truth.
What am I trying to say? Well, after 50 years of life, I have learned a lot about what I don’t know. I have not learned the secrets of the universe, as I had hoped I would. Instead, I think I’ve learned perspective. I know how to be happy. I often deride my students who overuse the word “crucial” in their essays. I almost never feel stress or worry, because I know that only a few things in life truly are “crucial”. Everything else is just a masquerade of constructed importance.
What are you worried about today? Ask yourself, if you explained this worry to your ancestor of 20,000 years ago, if he or she would think you’re an idiot for thinking that such a thing is important. Few “worries” pass that litmus test. And the ones that do are ultimately about family, relationships, and happiness.
I think that this is what passes as spirituality. And that is what I have acquired at 50. I wonder what I will have acquired at 100. Other than dementia and bad knees, that is.