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Nine years before that I thought about the number 21, 18 three years before that, and five years earlier still, 13.
According to conventions of the religion I was born into, I became a man at 13, amidst much fanfare from my family. Secular society called me an 'adult' at 18. At 21 I proudly told the grocery store clerk I'd be happy to show him my ID, at 30 I was no longer trustworthy, at least by the reckoning of some folks, once upon a time. And at 39, I was one year away from life "beginning". And so the number 40 crossed my mind. But of course, it wasn't only a number.
You know, from pretty conventional beginnings, I've managed to sculpt a pretty damn unconventional adult life. Certainly not the life I expected to have. The adult life I expected to have was what you, if you're one of my older friends reading this, likely have: house in the suburbs, 2.6 kids, wood-panelled station wagon, metaphorically speaking, at least. But the long-range goal I saw for myself, it turned out, was in opposition to the collective result of the individual choices I made along the way.
So I found myself, at 39 years old, in a place where I was content, but nonetheless a much different place than I had expected to be, and a much different place than a vast number of my friends seemed to be. Like the wise man said, it isn't easy being green, and when you find yourself standing across a gulf from everybody else, it's only natural to step back and question your position.
What did it matter that I had built a moderately successful consulting career out of nothing, had the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted, traveled, slept late every day, and supported myself well in one of the most expensive cities on the planet while working an average of 10 hours a week? I had met none of the conventional benchmarks of reasonable success in our society. I don't own a home. I don't have kids. I don't have the benefit of a partner's constant love, support and company. With only occasional exceptions, I wake up alone every morning. None of these things particularly bothered me, until this great, glowing icon of the number "40" appeared in my path, beneath the light of which these truths suddenly cast some harsh shadows.
And then I realized: what kind of shit is that?
"Not until you're 18." "Under 21 not admitted." "Don't trust anybody over 30." "Life begins at 40." Our whole lives we're fed expectations and preconceptions, implicit beliefs hung upon milestones decreed by holy men, by lawmakers and greeting-card company presidents, long dead men whose lives bore no relation to mine. And yet, how many of us ever think to challenge these presumptions? I never did, until my life, seen in the light of those men's inventions, and of other men's lives, even my friends, started to cast shadows that I didn't like.
But despite how it may have looked to those around me at times, in 39 years of life I was lucky enough or prescient enough never to have made a major decision that, given the information available at the time, I wouldn't make again. And in a moment of clarity I realized that if my approaching 40th birthday caused me to see my life in a light that disturbed me, clearly, what needed to be changed was the bulb.
So I'm not turning 40. I decided to abandon the whole loaded system. I needed to go back to my youth, when each birthday was joyful, a celebration of another year of growing, of learning, of thriving - a new accomplishment, another step into a wonderful land, instead of a mapped and labeled checkpoint on a well-trodden road that I once followed but now was no longer on.
I gave a lot of thought to how I could mark the passing of my life without evoking the dismal specter of life passing by. Celebrating day milestones seemed a natural and obvious scheme - every 100, 500 or 1000 days - but I felt like a simpler system would be more likely to be adopted by my family, who get sentimental about occasions like birthdays but would be unlikely to be willing to do that much math to determine the date. Weeks have always felt like an artificial division to me, and still require the use of pen and paper to determine the important multiples of.
So I compromised, keeping the day of celebration the same for the sake of simplicity, by celebrating important intervals of months since my birth - multiples of 10 months or 25 months. So, after doing some initial calculations, I realized my 470th month anniversary had passed a few days before, on February 11, 2008. so my first month anniversary observance occurred, without fanfare, on my the day I was 475 months old - 25s and 75s seemed important enough milestones to celebrate - on July 11, 2008. My 480th would be Dec. 11, 2008, today as I write this, then my 490th will be in October 2009, then nothing until the big 5-0-0 in August of 2010.
The mathematically astute among you may detect that today's anniversary, my 480th, is particularly significant for an unrelated reason. It is that this means I have completed 48 ten-month celebration cycles, and 48 is divisible by more integers than any number up to it, or, in fact, any number until 60.
The system still had some flaws, though. For it to be a valid new paradigm, and not a desultory intellectual curiosity, I felt it needed two more pieces to tie it all together. I needed a name for the 10-month span of time - ten years is to 'decade' and ten months is to what? - and I needed a derogatory name for the old, year-based system of marking birthdays.
Surprisingly, no amount of research could uncover an existing term for a ten-month span. After conferring with numerous intelligent friends, web pages on Latin and Greek word roots, and much introspection, I eventually settled on "decemester", which literally means "10 months." "Decamensus" and "Decad" were strong contenders for a while, also.
The system was nearly complete. All that remained was to come up with a derogatory term for the old, annually-based birthday scheme.
As luck would have it, a few weeks later, I was relating my thinking to Jeff, a good friend and astute observer of the human condition. Once I finished explaining it all to him, and had said that all that was missing was a derogatory name for the old system, without missing a beat he looked at me and said,
Good old Jeff. My system was complete! It works!
I'm no longer anxious about where I stand in relation to predetermined notions of where I should be as I move through life. The goalposts have been removed. I no longer recognize "years" as a valid measurement of age - they're just irrelevant to me.
I just celebrate accomplishing another month, or 10, of life, with no burden of dreams of success or love beside which real life might come up short.
I'm feeling really good about the new system. It suits me well. I'm really glad I came up with it.
Especially as without it, I would have turned 40 this year. Whew! Close one! Talk about dodging a bullet!