Un-place-able feelings on turning 33 this humid June evening of 2010. A few days have passed now, and no Messianic rapture or Biblical signs have gripped me. 33 is the Jesus age, when, if we believe the written accounts, that guy emerged from obscurity and everything happened. A benchmark age – he was doing that at this point in his life. What are you doing? 30 was nothing, just like being a senior twenty-something – hardly felt it. 27 was more of big deal, being the Rock Star Death age: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. Facing the fact that you are now older, in theory a more mature human being, than Jim Hendrix ever was is one hell of a sobering thought... and time to give up those rock star aspirations of your youth, I guess. So, if I’m not doing my Sermon On The Mount now, and I’m not nailed to a bit of wood by this time next year, well, Jesus... what a let-down. I’d better get a move on.
On a more serious note, there is a reason why Jesus was this age when he did what he did. The early thirties mark the point at which you’ve been around a bit, you’ve learnt a lot about how the wider world works and the way people work – just how much more complex and serious and difficult it all is than you thought it was. It will by now be clear whether the passionate plans and expeditions of early adulthood are resulting in triumph, failure or more likely an unforeseen luke-warm compromise of the two. And with this understanding comes an independence, a calm confidence, a touch of world-weariness, perhaps... but it’s all still to play for, your faculties are “in their prime” and you’ve got plenty of youthful strength in you yet. A good time to take stock, clear your throat, and make a confident pronouncement on it all. Jesus was, after all, basically looking at his society, his culture, and saying: “You’re doing it all wrong. This is what the score is.” And he called himself meek! Makes me wonder if “meek” is a mistranslation, or has come to mean something different – I suspect he just meant poor and lowly. For someone as bold, militant and swaggeringly self-confident as Jesus to genuinely think themselves “meek” as we now use the word... well...
When you are young you don’t understand why adults are so serious and cautious. It takes time, misadventures and battle scars to learn this. The complexities of the adult world seem boring. It’s a constant wonder to me, the process of how it slowly dawns on you that such things as business, the workplace and politics are actually fascinatingly organic and very, very human and everything to do with how everything around you is. And suddenly this stuff is accessible to you. I always presumed the reason adults were so square and didn’t pay attention to cutting edge hip trends was because they were all conformist and out of touch... I never expected to realise that, when faced with what the world is really like (as opposed to how it appears in most films, comic books and TV) cutting edge trends (and “cool” in general) are all so much f***ing bullshit. No f***er cares what music you listen to, what T-shirt you’re wearing or how radical your haircut is – that suddenly looks like so much vain, unimportant, self-absorbed, pop-culture-cliché bollocks. Get serious. Grow up.
*Sigh*. This is the teacher in me talking. I told some of my students it was my birthday, but not my colleagues. I suspect this is the wrong way round, but professionalism has never been my strong suit. I didn’t tell my colleagues because then I’d have to bring in a damn cake. Never understood that... Actually, that's not true, because I’m happy to bring in biscuits for the staff room all the time (“Biscuit club” was instigated this year and has become an essential comfort and bastion against the stress, bleakness, low morale and division that lurks constantly on the threshold. “Biscuit club” is in constant threat of collapse and cessation, and I will not – must not – let this happen...) I didn’t tell them because, well, it just didn’t seem important. I would not normally tell my students – when they ask when my birthday is, or how old I am, I normally say I’m immortal and have always existed since the dawn of time. Seems plausible. Students, especially the girls, are always telling me it’s their birthday with expectant “pamper and fuss me and let me get away with not doing any work” batting of the eyelids, and I take some malicious delight in playing the curmudgeon and shrugging the shoulders at them. Well done, I say. It’s always someone’s damn birthday – seems to happen every damn week. I had always kind of presumed they’re old enough to take this as good-natured joshing, but maybe not... I made a point this year of telling a class it was mine so that they could get their own back. I told one of them (that I’d been particularly unresponsive to on their birthday) that I didn’t understand why I hadn’t received their gift, it must surely have got lost in the post. They replied (a little bizarrely, it has to be said) that they’d got me a dead fish killed by the Mexican Gulf BP oil spill, but they’d left it in their attic. Ah, I said, because you know I like them... they chuckled modestly at that last line, but I must admit the thoroughly un-amused sulky pout with which they initially responded made me think twice – about how mistakenly serious they were taking my curmudgeonly persona, and also the kind of cynicism I was instilling in those young, happy, innocent minds...
I have unnecessary issues with greetings. “Happy Birthday”; “Congratualtions”; “Merry Christmas”; “Good Luck And All The Best For The Future”; “Love You” (no, hold the phone before you judge me on that last one, let me explain...); they can all seem like so many unthinking, knee-jerk, clichéd utterances, so token, so expected that they are practically meaningless. Anyone can, and will, say them. There’s not necessarily any thought or feeling behind them. Getting that kind of token response from someone you have a close-knit history with, and attachment to, is surely an insult, I would think; much better to say nothing at all... But I am wrong. It is not better to say nothing at all. On the afternoon of my birthday I got a barrage of text messages which were all much the same – but it didn’t matter what the content was, it still made me feel warm and appreciated just to know people had remembered and took a moment to think of me. So I am wrong. But even so I feel this pressure to say something different, that stands out, that shows I put some thought into it, even if it’s some cynical cruel-on-the-surface wise-crack. I’m not sure everyone understands that if it appears like an inappropriately cynical or sarcastic quip it’s because I put some thought into it to make it appear that way, just for them. Mmm. I am aware how dysfunctional this is.
Still, I have steadily been amassing these kinds of inappropriate birthday greetings over the years, many from other people, and I just love them when I get them myself. Favourites include: “Happy birthday - the terrifying spectre of death is one year closer”; “Congratulations on your participation in the aging process”; “Congratulations on achieving your current position in space-time”; “Birthday attack! Get older now”; “Happy shit n that”; “Everyone has birthdays all the time. You’re older. Well done. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” Ah, endless variations. Why can’t you buy cards with these types of sentiment? There is a niche in the market here. I might start a greetings card company.
It’s been an odd few years, these past few. I feel more confident in myself than I ever have, and am really quite happy, proud even, with who I have become – and yet I have grave reservations about what is (or rather isn’t) going on in my life. I can’t say anything monumental has really happened, for better or worse, but since entering my thirties I still seem to have got ever more jaded and wizened. Mainly because, I suppose, in those most salient and important areas, work and relationships, things have been... well, complicated. Difficult. And ultimately of very modest success. My move into responsible adulthood proper has so far left me with very little “fruit”. I stand, at 33, alone and with no prospective passionate love interests orbiting on my horizon – or none that are actually still available – despite an uneven couple of years of high hopes and turbulent emotional investments. Career-wise, what started out as something I loved, all positive and satisfying, has left me painfully aware of what I am good at and what I am not good at and I have become full of doubts as to whether I really want to put myself through it year after year – I simply don’t seem to be able to muster the speed, organisation and energy with which some of my more successful colleagues get through, and approach, the work. I am constantly stressed and exhausted, never have enough time, my brain pulled in a million directions at once, and it still never seems to be good enough. My “career” is something I kind of drifted into, has not been the stellar success it might have been, and is certainly not secure – financial times as they are, I will very likely not have full-time work next year, may be out of a job altogether. But then, I was never ambitious. Epicurus suggested the key to happiness was a simple, modest, tranquil life: With good friends, creative and intellectual stimulus, avoidance of over-indulgence and independence from the struggles and petty power politics of human society. What Epicurus didn’t make clear is that achieving that latter one is damn hard – indeed, nigh on impossible unless you’re a hermit – and just as “ambitious” a goal as any competitive struggle for success and achievement... So, with this in mind, as my Jesus birthday approached, I began to wonder if it wasn’t a timely time for a radical change, a clean slate – had I really attained anything worth holding on to? Should I be preparing to wander in the desert for 40 days and preparing my Sermon On The Mount after all?
I typed “age 33” into Google and looked at the first few things that came up. First was “Celebrities listed by age: 33 years old”. Thought that would be interesting. I scanned through the first 4 or 5 pages, 100 or so “celebs”, and only recognised about 4 people. Don’t know if this is a sign of my age, or a sign of The Age. Alicia Silverstone and Anna Friel are 33. So is Brett McKenzie out of Flight of the Conchords. That was a touch-stone I liked. I wondered what various names were doing at 33... David Bowie had already been Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke, and through his Berlin period, and was prancing about in a pierrot outfit in front of a JCB for Ashes to Ashes. Eddie Murphy was on Beverley Hills Cop III, about to do Vampire in Brooklyn and henceforth stop swearing and, well, being funny. Or being in good films. Nietzsche was a Professor at Basel (though he got there at 24, which is just unfair) but had yet to go properly “funny” and write all his best stuff. The Chuckle Brothers were still in obscurity, despite winning on both Opportunity Knocks and New Faces. My Dad was raising my 3 year old self.
The second Google entry was a Wikipedia entry on the number 33 that included these facts: “33 is Jesus’s age when he was crucified in 33AD, according to many but not verified historically.” and “According to Al-Ghazali the dwellers of Heaven will exist eternally in a state of being age 33.” That’s comforting. I am now the Ideal Age. “In my prime”, damn straight. The third Google entry contained notes on theoretical life-stages according some Developmental Psychologist or another: “As young adults enter the culminating phase of early adulthood (ages 33–45), they enter the settling down (ages 33–40) stage. By this time, their career (at least the first one) has been established and a spouse found. If a couple have not already done so, they will probably decide to have one or more children and start a family.” This made me want to cry. Oh Jesus Christ, this did not make me feel like a successful human being at all. But, then it dawned on me: Jesus hadn’t done any of that shit either. And that made me grin like a loon.