6:22am, Sunday morning, October 30th
October is all but over and in less than a week I will turn 42. I don’t intend to celebrate this, even though I have often thought that I would. I remember very little of my 40th birthday. Actually that’s a lie, right now I don’t remember it at all. It may come to me, but I wont force it. Last year I had friends over and we did all the things you’re supposed to have grown out of by your forties. Or at least cut back on.
I hadn’t planned that night. Birthdays have never had any great appeal to me, but I have friends who like to celebrate. Birthdays, holidays, wine sales, road works, you name it they’ll celebrate it. They refused to allow me not to celebrate my birthday. And I didn’t want to be a bad friend, so…
It’s not that I have anything against birthdays, or parties or celebrations. I think I’m just uncomfortable with being the centre of attention. If I put myself there it’s ok, but to be placed there does tend to make me a little jittery. I’m not a wall-flower, I’m not easily embarrassed and I’m not particularly shy. I am, however, a lot more comfortable watching than being watched. And I love to watch people. I do this an awful lot, but I can safely say that I don’t do it critically. I’m not summing people up or making judgements, just observing. Trying to figure them out. Trying to answer the questions I most want answered: how do people be people? What do people do?
Perhaps, I’ve sometimes wondered, my reticence to be in that spotlight of attention is actually the fear that someone looking for the same things might come to the conclusion that I don’t seem to know how to be a person. That I just don’t have the knack of it. Maybe birthdays are especially bad times to find myself in such situations. I should have that down pat by my age. Whatever age I am, or have been. Of course, on my birthday that figure is one larger than it ever was before and therefore one worse than yesterday.
Around three years ago (I’m pretty sure I was due to turn 39, but as I don’t pay them much attention I can’t be sure) I thought I’d hit on a scheme to avoid celebrating my birthday. I disabled my date of birth on Facebook so that none of my friends would be reminded of their duty to wish me a happy one. My housemate knew that it was in November but wasn’t sure of the date. Sometime around this time, about two weeks from my birthday, she asked me when it was and I gave her a date that was about three weeks after the actual date. The thinking was that I would have time to tell her that the day had passed and that no celebrations were necessary. My actual birthday came and went without any fuss and it was perfect. I had to do the family thing, of course, but I’m used to that and it’s a small family.
The weeks passed and I forgot about the erroneous date I had given my friend. One evening she arrived back from the pub with another friend in tow. It was early for them to be back and when I asked them why so, they broke into a slightly drunken version of Happy Birthday. As the penny dropped they misread the expression on my face and said ‘We know you don’t like to celebrate your birthday you wierdo, but you have to do something. So drink up!‘
Sharing a drink and some laughs with friends is always a good thing and once the singing and hugging was over with it was just like any other Friday in our house. It all went fine until my housemate went to the toilet and my other friend asked a simple question: ‘So when was your birthday?’
What she meant was, was it Wednesday, Thursday or today? If your birthday is Monday or Tuesday you might celebrate it the weekend before. I found myself trying to remember what date I had said to the housemate, and that pause gave me away. ‘Hang on a minute. You have to think about that? What’s going on?’ And so I had to quickly explain what I’d done.
‘What are you two laughing about?’ the housemate asks, coming back into the room. ‘Well we just left the pub early to come home and celebrate this eejits birthday and it was three weeks ago!’ And we laughed some more. What else can you do? When you’re caught you’re caught.
When that friends arrived up for last year’s party she double checked with me that it was actually my birthday. I even had to produce my passport!
Birthdays aren’t impossible, I am. This is just one of the seemingly countless quirks of my personality. But turning 42 was supposed to be different. This is something that has been on my mind ever since I read The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The computer Deep Thought, having been asked to provide the answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe, and everything, gave the answer as 42. To better understand this answer, Deep Thought created a computer powerful enough the generate the correct question. That computer was the Earth, and was unfortunately destroyed just before the end of it’s program. To save time, the pan-dimensional beings who had made it decided to make up their own question to explain the enigmatic answer of 42 given by Deep Thought. Their question was How many roads must a man walk down?
I loved every word that Douglas Adams wrote, and the order he put them in. I can’t remember when I read that book for the first time, probably something like 25 years ago. Sometime in my mid teens. And since then it has been in the back of my mind that one day I would find myself turning 42. How many roads would I have walked down by then, I often wondered. The closer I got, the more I realised that that number would be a lot less than 42, but still more than many others that I know.
What is a road? And how do you know that you’re on one, or have just left one for another? Well, experience tells you that you’re on one, and time tells you that you’ve left one. Some people find a road they like very early on in their adult life and stay on it for ever after. They stick it out and become masters of it and never seem to tire of it. Some people start to loose interest in their road and make the brave decision to find another. A change is as good as a rest and all that.
Me? I’m never sure. Do I like this road? Did I choose it, or just find myself on it? Does it lead me anywhere useful? Will it be my last road, or should I keep a bag packed, just in case?
I’ve moved lots of times, and I’ve had more careers than I care to think about. But I get itchy feet, and after a maximum of five years I’m always looking to change something fundamental. Where I live, what I do, or both.
Now, as 42 is just around the corner I find myself wanting to change the question. How many more roads must this man walk down? I find myself living in the same place for 5 years. That’s longer than anywhere outside of my family home. And I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a living for almost 6 years. That’s longer than I’ve done anything else. But things aren’t going great. This recession has made it very tough for those of us who make their own work. In the past I may have taken this as an opportunity to start fresh. But I’m turning 42 and I find that I don’t want to make those big changes. Not now, anyway. But the idea is there in the back of my mind where it waits patiently for the right moment.
The 42 year old I though I would be was supposed to have finished wandering. I’m tired of being a gypsy. So next week when the time finally comes, I wonder what I’ll do. I can’t possibly know now, I’ve never been good at planning that far in advance.