The F Word

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, October 6, 2009

March 2008. I am about to turn 50 when life sneaks up on me and does the equivalent of what my brother used to do when I was eight and he was sixteen: jump out from behind a door and scare me so bad all I can do is windmill my arms at him, then run to my mother whining about how unfair everything is. Yes, that’s exactly how 50 hits me — only there’s no brother, no mother and no door.

Fifty? I’m one of those people who has always rattled off my years easily, still feeling — despite my litany of injuries — well, not old, at least. It never even occurs to me that at the mid-century mark I’ll start looking around, scrutinizing the lay of the land. But I do just that. Where am I? The words form. What is this unfamiliar territory?

Turns out, it’s Cliché Territory … an age-scape of oft-used words and images, of dumb cards, of trying to act your age and trying to look younger, of cresting a cliché hill and not wanting to look over to the cliché other side. I feel a welling up inside me, a panicky straining at the straightjacket sleeves. Which is, in itself (I know), just another cliché.

Standing there with no one to windmill my arms at, and desperate for a place where the mixes are fresh, I don’t know what to do. Run away? Run away in my head? Spend some money? Google some answers?

Survival instinct eventually leads me to consider doing something I’ve never done before: throw myself a party. Instantly uncomfortable with the idea, I am drawn to it even more.

Unlike my own daughter, I didn’t grow up with over-the-top birthday parties. Themed extravaganzas like Rainbow Twirler and Circus Midway and Tea Party with Miniatures, and my personal favorite, Maimed Wildlife, which was the one where all the animals from the wildlife rehab place traipsed through our house. A turkey vulture with one wing, a baby river otter with no mother, a goat with a diaper on, some chicks for added mayhem, and a deer that clopped in dropping pellets on the Turkish rug while cagily studying the wide-eyed 4-year-olds and their even wider-eyed parents.

I never had a birthday party at all growing up. In our house, you got to pick what you wanted for dinner, you got to pick what kind of cake, and you got a present or two. It was a big deal and it felt good. In college, I probably celebrated by drinking way too much; and then after that, I flailed even at the concept of hailing the self. So years later, who needed a surprise party? The surprise would be throwing myself the party. Surprise!!!

I book a restaurant, a DJ, and a pastry chef, and then wonder if anyone will show; and, miraculously, they do. We eat, clink glasses, and dance until a piece of foam core board with fifty candles tacked on is actually lit and held before my face, a bonfire of blazing years forming the numbers 5 and 0. I inhale and, feeling a light-saber surge, extinguish them all simultaneously. For a moment not a soul in the room moves or makes noise, and then there is an eruption of laughter, applause and loud cheering. It’s almost as if the candles are sucked dry of fire by a force greater than the birthday girl.

Photos corroborate a decent party. But as I re-examine the photo of me and all those flaming numerals, I realize something sort of important has happened. I seem to have traded in a worn-out question — Why? — for a fresher one — Why Not? Why not have a party? Why not hail the self once a year?

Because even though Why? might be a perfect question for 2-year-old children, it’s not necessarily that great for 50-year-old women. In a certain mood, Why? begs all sorts of pointless, banal and self-destructive answers, whereas Why not? opens mystical doors, stretches the brain. Makes one uncomfortable in dangerously exciting ways.

Why nots start going off in my mind like baby fireflies just learning to sputter gold spume into the night. Why not black coffee with sugar? Why not Janis Joplin on my iPod? I mean, why not a million things? One evening, I park my car alongside the tourists who have stopped to gawk at the valley, the light, the clouds. They open car windows to the trilling birds. I am a tourist. We’re all tourists.

It’s simple really: I just want to suck in the fire I took from those candles and then let it burn some in the open fields ahead. It’s never too late to be a late bloomer, you know.

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