1. Bad Things HappenAbout two months ago, one of my colleagues was stopped in traffic, sitting in his car. He was rear-ended by a van traveling at 60 mph. His car was destroyed, hit so hard that it also destroyed the car in front of him. He survived with, relatively speaking, few injuries. Many broken ribs and the attendant punctured lung. A fractured vertebrae. They say he is lucky to be alive. As he lies in his hospital bed, hammering his morphine button and trying not to breathe, it is not clear how lucky he feels.
I can relate. Much of this year has been spent dealing with a serious problem of a most unfortunate nature. Nobody hears the details and says "you are so lucky!"
At the same time, many elements related to this problem have gone my way. Given my situation, I would say I got lucky. I even ended up with a new old friend, which is a remarkable trick.
Metaphorically speaking, I get to walk away (for now), under my own power, looking more or less the same. Not without some damage on the inside, though. I am keenly aware of life's color, now more vivid than ever, but I lament that my ability to perceive that color has been subtly dulled, perhaps permanently.
49. It could be worse.
2. What MattersEconomy forces clarity. When you can only keep a few things, you figure out what you consider important. When you only have enough time or energy to do a few things, you focus on the critical tasks. Moments become hours, hours become days, days become weeks. The time scale expands and you realize you always only have enough time and energy for a few things. So you think about what matters most.
Who do you want to see? What do you want to do? Something productive? Something fun? Should you build memories for others or yourself? They'll all be lost eventually, like tears in rain, but as with sakura blossoms, that just makes them more beautiful and essential. We spend our lives writing in sand. The wind and waves will come.
You might look at what you have achieved in your life and wonder if any of it matters.
Zoom out far enough to see the biggest picture and the answer is "no", at least, not to the universe, or most people on earth. What about at a smaller scale? Did you make a difference? Maybe not to "the world" or "millions of people". But perhaps you affected the lives of a few people.
You hope those people remember you, and maybe they will also try to have a positive impact on the lives of those around them.
You hope you have a few more chances to make that difference. You know what matters to you, and resolve to be better, more focused, more productive. But also to appreciate the reality of life and the patience it requires.
49 suggests what matters is what you choose, how you react, how you live, in the moment and overall. Or maybe you have no idea what matters, and you are just grasping in the dark. You don't understand a thing.
49 says "But then again, who does?"
3. Who Are YouI spend time wondering what happened to people I used to know and lost touch with. A list of faces and names to chase down on the internet.
I gaze out the hotel window at the trees, drooping in the humidity and heat. I have come a long way to see some old friends, tell them some stories about who I am today, and learn who they are at this moment.
I wonder what people see when they look at me now. My core remains largely unchanged from my teenage years, for better or worse. I think I've gotten better at being a decent person, though I still have a long way to go. I still feel vital, though I can feel the years weighing on my shoulders a bit more. More experienced. Wiser?
Soon I will be 49. Who am I? Still a musician, for one thing. A student, for sure. Perhaps still a teacher of sorts. I am a writer. A worker. A husband. A middle-aged white guy. Boring. Fascinating. Generous. Talkative. Introverted. Creative. Derivative. On balance, someone good?
4. Every MomentI am awake and alert, even if I do not want to be. 90 minutes ago, I could barely keep my eyes open, but now I cannot get comfortable. I quietly struggle so as not to disturb my love, sleeping by my side.
My skin is acutely sensitive. Moving my hair hurts. Clothes dragging across my skin is sublime, almost painful. Physically, it is like I have had a layer or filter stripped off, or that a gain control in my nervous system has been cranked up.
Not just physical, either. Emotionally raw. I find myself on the verge of tears at odd moments, and occasionally euphoric.
I swallow, and my throat hurts. Sore. Dry. Have I ever been so acutely aware of my body for so long? I think of the hours I have spent pushing myself physically. I do not recall even mile 12 in a long run reminding me of the meat-sack I live in so much.
I wish it were raining. I miss the sound of the raindrops on the roof and windows. I cannot remember the last time I saw rain.
Eyes half-open, conscious. This is a part of life, too. I try to relax my body, hoping my leg does not start twitching. I try to quiet my mind, wishing the fragments of songs repeating would just fade out, along with the shards of memories and ideas. Perhaps all of that brain noise is constantly there, a kind of mental tinnitus obscured by daily consciousness, and brought to the foreground only in the sensory deprivation of the small hours. How do I ever get anything done?
It still sucks, and I wish I was sleeping soundly. But at 49, I have a new understanding of how precious every moment is.
5. Decayed, DecayedIn 2007(!), I realized I had no time to waste, and returned to writing and recording with a new sense of freedom and urgency. The first album I made was "Decayed, Decayed", a look back at 2 decades of making music and life, and a look forward as well.
The title track:
It’s 20 years since this started up
Let me tell you how it was:
a 4-track Radio Shack tape deck
I tried to get it down
Record what I had to say
I thought I had all the time I wanted
Somehow it got away
There were so many big plans for me
They all told me I was Great
13 years of experiments and studies
I finally escaped
4 years I lived in winter
9 in L.A.
Everything used to work just fine, now it’s not OK
Broken bones won’t heal
This broken heart can’t feel
And scars (some self-inflicted) on skin rashed and peeled
My knees crackcrackcracking
My guts slowly rusting
Hair thins and turns gray
It’s just a matter of time
You see you’re already in line
The short straw in your hand is previously defined
With every breath you draw into your gasping chest
Think of how sweet it tasted
And all the time you wasted
Was it worth it in the end?
Would you do it the same if you could do it again?
Doubts and questions piling up
The laws of physics simply state the case:
There is no escape.
I walk beneath cherry blossoms listening to the rain.
6. In Lieu of Gifts
If you like having me around, if I have made a difference in your life, do me a favor:
She is brilliant and hard-working. An embodiment of values I hold dear, and the kind of person we should all aspire to be: someone who has taken her powerful intellect and relentless drive and focused it on service, on keeping people like you and me alive.
She is quite literally the reason I am able to celebrate being 49, and have a good chance of being able to celebrate 50 - 55 and beyond.
7. LuckyLike many years past, I am sitting in a comfortable chair, coffee nearby, and music playing on the stereo. I am writing about this year, today, myself. I write for the same reasons some people dance, I suppose. Because it feels good. Because I hope nobody is watching. Because I hope someone is watching. Because I want to while I still can. Because I still can.
At 49, I am lucky enough to see some dreams come true, and wise enough to be careful what I dream about. I have also seen nightmares made real. The knowledge that there is no "waking up" can be the scariest part of all.
There are plenty of awful things one could focus on. The state of the world. Statistics, science, numbers. Damage and pain, now and in the future. What does that get you?
I do not want to ignore or minimize the darkness out there. But at 49 I want to spend as little time as possible upset by things I have no control over.
I tell myself to focus on what I know to be true, rather than spiraling down about what might happen. It is not easy. That is as good an indicator as any that it is the right thing to do.
I am lucky. Lucky to be here, to be awake and alive, to see the sun come up, to get one more day. I hope to see some of my friends later today, and more of you in a few weeks.
Happy birthday to me.