And So We Enter THAT Year: On Turning 49
Of course, I didn’t wake up on the beach. I walked there this morning while on vacation. Waking up on the beach would have been the result on good news—partying all night by the ocean—or bad news—having my body unceremoniously dumped there after asking a biker gang, “So, what do you ride, Huffy or Schwinn?”
But turning 49 means I’m now legally obligated to enter the “crucial year before 50” phase, in which you are meant to review your life’s plan, appreciate what you have done, accept what you now won’t do, and know that this is your life. But as exemplified by the fact I chose to major in English, I never mapped out a “life plan.” The closest I ever came was writing a bucket list when I turned ten. Of course, I didn’t call it a “bucket list” because that term didn’t exist in 1977 (and the only terms that meant anything to me that year were things like “the force” and “power converters”). But like a bucket list I did write it in the belief my life was coming to a close. This wasn’t due to any morbid outlook or fear of disease/being pulled into windowless van/believing Skynet would eventually fall on our house. Instead, it was entirely due to the killer bees.
In the mid-to-late 70’s you couldn’t turn on the news without getting the latest update about the killer bees’ path of death and destruction. Weathermen would pull double duty as doomsayers, pointing at large clouds o’ stinging demise on maps of the contiguous 48 while saying things like “By summer, the Carolinas as we know them will be gone.” The fear even resulted in its own disaster movie from a studio system that also tried to generate mass hysteria over a baby-eating octopus (Tentacles) to, uh, electrified earthworms (Squirm). (The fact I saw both in a double-feature shows just what a dead zone the summer movie season once was.) We would also hear how the killer bees came to be when angry “Africanized” bees mated with “docile European” honeybees, a statement so over-the-top offensive that it might as well have been followed with “and they’re coming for your daughter, too, so lock up the doors and watch The Waltons.”
Then the reports would be followed by a commercial like this:
What I’m saying is that even for someone who lived through the 70s that decade never made any sense.
But whether due to fear of bees or watching my brother on his fifth birthday pause right before blowing out his cake candles to say “What does it all mean?” a sense of time both finite yet undefined was always there. Which brings us back to my bucket list at age ten, consisting of only four goals:
1. Write a newspaper comic strip.
2. Write humor books.
3. Work with puppets.
4. Become a Jedi.
I wanted a career in comics from the very moment I got my first Peanuts collection…and someone said I looked like Dondi. That book also proved a significant turning point, since up until then my spirit animal had been Eeyore and it was refreshing to find a chronically depressed character who was at least human and had friends despite himself. And years later I would get to write my very own comic avatar, one who can either be seen as personal acceptance or a howling cry for help.
Once I discovered Peanuts I started reading every comic strip I could get my hands on, leading to my crushing disappointment when I found out the Vanderbilt Elementary School library did not carry Doonesbury books. When I shared this startling discovery at home with my dad he said, “Good, he’s a commie.” To which I could only say, “So non-commies don’t like comics?” (I don’t believe that was my dad’s intended take-away point.) My mom, however, liked the strip, mostly for Zonker and usually for the ones in which he talked to the planets, which made me wonder what exactly was going on at home when my brother and I were at school.
But reading comic strips led me to actively write and draw for the first time. Before then I would just tell myself backstories for inanimate objects around the house, including how the toaster felt it was wasting its MFA degree and if the Crayola Box Sharpener was like the Logan’s Run carousel for Burnt Sienna. (When you’re a pathologically shy kid who can barely make eye contact with others you find yourself creating rich inner lives to your Jets mug that had nothing to do with Joe Namath being on its side.) And it encouraged me to create my very first comic strip, Mr. Quack, about a duck billionaire who couldn’t swim, couldn’t fly, and whenever he tried to quack would only belch. A therapist would summarize this as “So you projected all your feelings of inadequacy onto Scrooge McDuck?” I would say at least I didn’t make him cry when he couldn’t blow up a balloon properly and be so afraid to speak that he once peed at his desk in school rather than ask to go to the bathroom. (The reasons being “Even as a kid I was hoping to syndicate the strip” and “Really, Ces, you don’t have to share EVERYTHING today.”)
As for number two on the list, writing humor let me speak without actually having to speak out loud, which eventually led enough people to say “Gee, he’s kind of funny” as opposed to the usual “Gee, his poor parents.” Plus, it allowed me to write scripts that featured my friends and create my own Choose-Your-Own Adventure books that finally allowed an option to end the story like an episode of the now almost completely forgotten syndicated TV show When Havoc Struck.(Read: Shit got real…then burst into flames.)
In regards to number three, I like to think that by “work with puppets” I meant getting a writing gig on Sesame Street, not turning down any office job in which my supervisor wasn’t made of felt and seen only from the torso up from behind a wall, always left meetings with their body facing forward and head facing sideways as they waved their arms over their head, and had someone else’s hand up their ass. I also could have meant getting to appear as a kid on Sesame Street, which would have been an odd/immature goal for a ten-year-old but makes sense given that while I couldn’t say “boo” to kids my own age I bet I could have counseled Grover that it was okay he wasn’t a good waiter because that was merely the Clark Kent to his Super Grover.
Fortunately, due to persistence, dumb luck, and the remarkable support of family, friends, and those reading this right now, I’ve somehow managed to accomplish almost everything I first dreamt of while cowering from bees, people, and the Sunboy (that’s for another day). I get to write Sally Forth and now Judge Parker (which I’ve already received a minor warning from the syndicate about regarding how I used the word “panini”) as well as do my own webcomic. I also stumbled into writing humor books by graduating from talking with toasters to talking with pets, which I’m going take as progress. And through further good fortune and the help of a dear friend I even got to write for puppets on a children’s TV program, which is the closest I can get to working on Sesame Street while still having one of the puppets yell, “I can’t believe we open in New Haven in three weeks!”
This leads us to number four on the list, which I can now let go because a 49-year-old padawan is the sort of thing that would excuse Anakin’s killing spree in Revenge of the Sith, and there is no way in hell I would ever help rationalize the Star Wars prequels. (Apparently this still counts as a priority at 49.)
But like I said near the start of this rambling post, the year between 49 and 50 is not just one of final reflection before accepting the way things are but also accepting that this is my life as it will be. And that is where I hit a stumbling block. And it’s not simply because I’m far too nostalgic to let go of a past thanks to a thought process that really should feature this message every seven minutes…
It’s also because I’m trying to make up for lost time. I flushed away almost all my 20s due to deep, deep depression, pathological shyness, and the absolute inertia that was the crazy, mixed-up child of those two issues. So now I always feel like I’m trying to make up for a period that is definitive to so many people’s character and career prospects. And frankly, that’s not the healthiest thing. And it might explain why I often feel out of step with others my own age. But it has proved remarkably motivational. For several years shame was my greatest motivation, as I would allow myself to reach the very edge of “unmitigated disaster” before realizing “Christ, this is embarrassing” and right the ship. And now “getting healthier” is that very force. Sure, I may not ever be an adult in the traditional or even the “Bless his heart” sense. Sure, I’ll always have part of my brain tuned into the past, perhaps betraying that sense of immaturity as I wonder how every group of kids in Saturday morning cartoons had a band with a recording contract while my childhood band Coach had to lift the crowd noises from Cheap Trick at Budokan so we could record a “live” album. Yet I don’t think I’m ready to accept that everything is as it will be. Besides, just accepting has never really worked out for me, because that’s when I grind to a halt. So because of everyone and their support, I’ll just keep trying instead, screwing up but maybe stumping into something nice as well. And as the years continue it won’t be this…
And that’s one to grow on.