I don't know why it's such a big deal. Thirty-seven was bigger than forty. Forty-nine was nothing. But hitting the big "five-oh" this month looms large.
I think there are several reasons. One such reason is that I'm the "youngest" in my family. But there's no way that fifty can be considered young. So I'm a living symbol of the aging of my family. I don't mind getting older and slipping into the elderly life, but I don't want other people to get older. It's a conundrum.
In many ways my life has been very simple and straight-forward. I've worked very hard to achieve a level of anonymity and poverty granted to just about everyone else in the world. Somehow the time of each day gets filled without much effort on my part. Generally the time is filled with interest. I'm not a clock-watcher by nature.
Time, in its wibbly-wobbly way, though, doesn't always make itself known to me in a straight line. As often as not it folds in on itself, and I'm stuck wondering where I am or where I'm going to. Am I walking along to the park in Dallas Center, Iowa to see Court Garloff at the playground, or am I walking in the Kremlin over the Christmas holiday in 1993? Am I in the same place? Or neither?
I'm a member of that group of folks who neither quite belongs to the Baby Boom nor to Generation X. I'm part of the 50 – 54 year old folks that Paul Ryan wants to screw with the change in the Medicare program. Too young for Woodstock, and too old to be entranced by any of the Molly Ringwald films of the 1980s. Living in a place between The Big Chill and The Breakfast Club.
I've been lucky in that I've been employed more often than not. I've done every possible job you can possibly do in the theatre. I've been a professional actor and director. I've been a script doctor. I've been a dramaturg. I've been a music director. I've been a really bad choreographer, a so-so tech director, and a very good stage manager. I've designed sets, lights, and costumes. I've painted auditoria, and even had a job once scraping the gum off the bottom of the auditorium seats.
In between those jobs, I've had more than 20 other kinds of jobs. I've worked as a janitor and a bar tender, of course. I worked as a secretary to a world-class surgeon at Johns Hopkins. I boxed goods coming off a conveyer belt. I've mowed lawns, been a disc jockey, and a librarian. I've had jobs where I had a secretary answering my phone calls while I sat in an office bigger than yours. And I've had jobs where my "office" is where I stood slinging hamburgers.
Among the weirder parts of my life is that I knew rather precisely what I wanted to do at an early age. When I was about 12 years old – once you got past the "I-want-to-be-an-astronaut" age – I knew that I wanted to work in the theatre. Not TV. Not film. The theatre. And I also knew that I wanted to teach in college. And I knew that I would do anything to accomplish that.
Which, curiously, is pretty much what happened. I've been oddly single minded in what I wanted to accomplish with my life.
I've committed the paired sins of being completely right at the wrong time, and of being very wrong at the right time. I ask forgiveness for both. We all make misjudgments and are very wrong in saying something or doing something that can be very hurtful. I guess there is no "right" time for that. But I think even worse are those times when you're absolutely right, but it's the absolute wrong time for that kind of rightness. Or, there are times when being right does absolutely nothing good for anyone.
Ten years ago this month, Scene 4 included my article "Shifting Sands." It was my apprehension at the then beginning of the War in Iraq. I wrote:
As I write these words, the United States of America is at war in many places -- in the War on Terror, in the War in Iraq, in the War in many places. Particularly with the land war in Iraq, a columnist has a clear choice -- write about the war or ignore it. This particular war with its attendant political and diplomatic difficulties seems to me like walking through a fireworks factory with a flame-thrower while wearing a roller skate on one foot and a snow shoe on the other. It can be done safely, I imagine. But it takes a great deal of skill all the way across the floor and come out with your skin pretty much on your body.
So, even though I had no great schooling in foreign affairs or in the "intelligence" that led our great nation into the great fiasco that was the Iraq War, I had the sense God gave bears – sense enough to know that war is chaotic and hell. If someone says war will be cheap and/or easy, they are selling something. So I was right. Big deal. Who did that help precisely? No pleasure comes with "I-told-you-so." "I-told-you-so" won't re-attach a limb on a vet's body.
And goodness knows I've been right at the absolutely wrong times in terms of numerous relationships. What idocy.
As I say, I work in the theatre as much as I can, but the bread and butter these days comes mostly from teaching. I had a conversation with a student the other day. He asked a simple question that I can't quite remember at the moment. (Hey, I'm getting old, I have an excuse, right?)
But it got me thinking.
What am I really teaching? What are the students really learning? To be brutally honest, I learned maybe two or three things in my undergraduate days. And none of them in a theatre class. I learned something about real listening from a piano teacher. I learned something about making art from a music theory teacher. I learned something about how my body moves from a fencing teacher. That's about it.
So I am mainly doubtful about even being remembered by the vast majority of my students in another ten or fifteen years. Forget about me imparting great life lessons.
When I graduated college, Windows had not been invented yet. My brother was a computer enthusiast and had a kind of "make-your-own" kit that included saving fairly complex programs (for the time) on a cassette recorder. He hooked it up to the family tv as a kind of monitor for the thing. So I have a work life of another 20 years, probably, and one of the foundational tools of our culture hadn't even been invented yet.
I've worked as a computer salesman (a bad one) and as a database developer (a pretty good one). But I couldn't have trained for that when I was in college.
My grandparents were all born in the 19th century. While I didn't know them well, I do have ties to that world in which they knew – a world that existed before a World War. A world that existed before television and super-highways.
I have a two-year-old daughter. It seems reasonable that she might see the dawn of the 22nd century – a world that will seem commonplace to those people. I live in between my grandparents and my daughter. A small swirl of protoplasm banging about in a small eddy of time on a small patch of earth on a small planet off to the side of a mighty big cosmos.
So what can I tell my student that will make a lick of difference?
I tell him that the thing that gives me hope is that students still laugh at jokes written by Aristophanes and Plautus for very different cultures in a very different world. That a 21st century person can share a laugh with a millennially dead Athenian tells me that something links us as humans. That we can still comprehend all of the motivations in the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite and Nathan the Prophet tells me that people are always just people. Matters not who nor where they are.
So I pity the poor students who study nursing, for example, or any other training like that. I have nothing against nurses, please understand. There are people quite dear to me who I love who are nurses. But can I imagine a world in which we have some technological device that we can have inside our home that tells us our ills and creates a printout, or nano-device that can cure this virus pretty easily? Sure. When I went to the doctor this week, they didn't take my temperature by putting anything under my tongue. They waved a wand over my forehead, and the wand told the nurse my temperature. There were centuries in which there were no nurses. We may see that time come again.
So I can't imagine my daughter's world. But I can have hope that as long as humans remain human, they'll need human stories. I've chosen to be a part of a very old and ancient technology. People sit in the dark and tell a story.
In my article ten years ago I finished with this:
I end with two quotes from Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. The first:
"Through innumerable centuries, humans march in file through time; one generation following the other, and the burden of life is passed from hand to hand and the will of each person may decide whether that burden shall become lighter or heavier. The duty of each one of us is to see that it becomes lighter."
"The future belongs to us as long as we are alive."
So as I cross the big 50 mark, I have something to say to you directly. I've often wondered who you folks are out there. Sometimes I wonder much. It doesn't matter that I know you, I guess. Thank you for showing up here as the years have gone on. I deeply appreciate you out there on the super-highway reading along. I apologize for the stupid things I've said. I apologize for the right things I've said at the wrong time.
So I ask you to do this. It doesn't matter if you're doing a show or not. Sometime this month, find a young person and sing with them a song taught you by a parent or grand-parent. Sit at a table with some folks. If you're not given to believe in the divine and this offer table grace, do something graceful and go around the table and just say out loud one thing you're thankful for. Hopefully that one thing will be something human and not some material object, but no worries. Share this good life with someone else, even for one brief moment. That's enough.
Me, I'm going to spend the month playing Lear. If you're near Reading, Pa, look us up.
"The future belongs to us as long as we are alive."
Pretty good advice.
Be alive. Be good. And may peace be upon you and upon us all.