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One of those birthdays

Potato Chips (Kettle Brand)

Potato Chips (Kettle Brand)

In a week I turn 55.

Turning 30 was delightful; stationed in Germany, I took myself on a tour of the Benelux, and on the Big Day, wandered enchanted through the Kroller-Muller museum. I was thrilled to leave the twenties behind.

Turning 40 was sweet; we were in New Jersey, Sandy threw a party, and all had fun. I look back, and there were people at that party who no longer walk this planet, and I am so glad for every celebration behind me.

The big deal at 50 was not where we were (Florida–wow, did we really live there once upon a time?), but that I had reached an important goal: to be writing again by 50. It meant so much to me to see my essay about my friend David published in White Crane–my first literary publication. Only people who have published literary writing understand the hurdle (and the effort behind it) of that first piece, first drafted in 2005.

(An aside, writing-humor-style: the person who replied, “Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to write a short story one of these days,” as if short-form literary writing were an unskilled project of a long morning, like cleaning a gas grill. Yup, you try that. Send it in to the New Yorker–the go-to submission for people who know nothing about writing.)

But 55 is freaking me out!

I suspect the problem is the way I absent-mindedly do “birthday arithmetic,” which is probably a holdover from a very early job as a records clerk at San Francisco Juvenile Court, where we filed records by the Soundex system, which had my brain doing small calculations all day long.

My birthday algorithm is this: double the age and decide if I’ll be alive.

I could easily see turning 60, as far away as it seemed. 80 was definitely within reach, given my hale family. 100 was remotely feasible, given advances in medicine, even though no one in my family had lived that long. But 110 — that seems entirely out of reach. I know people who are nearly 100, but I don’t know anyone who is close to approaching 110.

I realize birthday arithmetic is completely illogical. The arbitrary doubling of my current age is a ridiculous exercise. But it makes as much sense, or lack of sense, as grown men weeping over an athletic team, or Canada releasing a stamp featuring the Kraken (which if anything hale from England), or anything about Justin Bieber.

My solution to birthday-arithmetic-angst is to double down on the life ahead of me: personally, professionally, spiritually.

I’m excited about New Zealand and plan to use next Friday as a work-from-home day (after 11 days of going to work, the natural rhythm of fall Orientation) to work on my presentation and my workshop. The former will be about radical optimism (I just finished Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and highly recommend it) and the latter will be based on Reframing Academic Leadership.

At some point I’d like to collect my published essays into a book and offer it for sale. That’s a project where I wish I had a Life Intern (or one of those old-fashioned wives). I also greatly enjoyed writing an article for the library trade press (big thanks to Valerie and Karen at ALA!). At one point I didn’t want to do that any more because I wanted to reserve time for literary writing, but the latter is not happening. It isn’t demeaning to journalism to say it doesn’t lean as hard on my right brain. I found myself enjoying the rhythm of research, interview, synthesis, and writing–a pair of old slippers that fit perfectly after I dug them out of the back of the closet.

I’m occasionally attending an Episcopal church on Wednesday evenings, because I appreciate Sandy’s church leadership and yes, I attend many services, but she cannot be my pastor and her church is not my denomination. (Other pastor’s spouses will “get” what I mean.)

I’m also thinking strategically about the next 25 years of my working life: 15 in the regular full-time workforce, 10 as a consultant. Given my family’s lifespan, I will have another 5 to 10 years after that (if not more, due to aforesaid advances in medicine) where, oh, I don’t know, I can spend mornings writing, and in the afternoon emulate the woman on Packanack Lake in New Jersey who sat on her front porch in a rocking chair, eating potato chips and hollering at passers-by (Sandy and I agreed many years back we’d like to be like her someday).  In the meantime, as I focus on the pre-potato-chip era, I am enjoying the sense that I’m not just rolling in every day but have a map in front of me and a bright flashlight shining on it.

Onward, the dreaded march!

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  1. Ally wrote:

    I think everyone is allowed their own unique form of birthday angst – my own odd angst at my 30th birthday this year had nothing to do with me turning 30 (though it is just WEIRD) but had to do with the fact that it was double confirmation that my mother had turned 60 four months before that… So I freaked out over my mother’s age and not my own, because goodness knows my parents are not supposed to be anywhere close to old… But I can’t argue with the fact that my mother can retire in a couple of years, that’s scary… So birthday angst that is not the norm…

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  2. “so old”???? keep it up, grasshopper… ;-)

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Julie wrote:

    The potato-chip-and-rocking-chair scenario sounds attractive to me, I’m sorry to say. But then there’s the old miles to go before we sleep thing. Happy Birthday! Live long and prosper.

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Ally wrote:

    My point that didn’t come across well is regardless of ones actual age, birthday angst is a personal issue and I just find it interesting to see which birthdays do and don’t bother people if that makes any sense… Not that I really have the right to be intrigued by it yet as a youngun…

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Maia wrote:

    But don’t forget your great-uncle Sher lived to be 102 (which isn’t 110, I know) and many of your great aunts lived past 100…so maybe the potato chips start at say, around 95 and still give you a decade of chips and hollering?

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  6. Heather wrote:

    I turn 40 in exactly a week and am suffering my own little bit of birthday anxiety, but I like your birthday arithmetic! It helps me realise that I am probably only halfway through my time, and have a lot yet to do and give :-)

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  7. Hmmm, our great aunts lived past 100? Really? I thought most didn’t make it to 90.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Be intrigued anyway! and I was ribbing you.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Dinah wrote:

    My people die at 72. I am betting on the fact that decades of smoking took them out sooner than I will go. But really, Karen, are you planning to work till you’re 70?? Sheesh!

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Happy Birthday for yesterday :) I really look forward to hearing what you have to say about Learned Optimism and Positive Psych. I did a lot of reading around it when my mother died and it had a big impact on my outlook on life – especially how I raise my boys.

    Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  11. First, happy birthday, and enjoy it!

    I am a (normal) college career older than you, but this spring I became 10 years older than my father was when he died. Somehow, with a new and happy life, that did not stress me out as much as turning 5 years older. I am not sure why.

    Keep writing. Whatever you can. I have always admired and enjoyed the writing I have read (here and elsewhere). It is something that you do so much better than many other people.

    My only other words of advice (and my blood pressure is lower now than it was when I was your age), is to take time for you. Yes, going to services is good, but reading about 11 days in a row at work is not so good. I left one job where I did get psychologically burned out. Don’t let that happen to you.

    Oh, and happy birthday!

    Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  12. Cary Gordon wrote:

    I use the same system, but I quadruple my birthday age.

    Now dead in theory for over 40 years. Maybe JJ Abrams can do a show about me.

    Monday, September 17, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  13. Megan wrote:

    Your comment made me laugh — I grew up in Packanack Lake!

    Monday, October 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

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