Tag Archives: Birthdays

Slumber Parties, Cancelled Surgeries, Distant Flamingos

The daughter of one of my colleagues recently celebrated her ninth birthday. Three or four other young ladies were invited to spend the night. Unfortunately, the evening turned sour when one of the guests – a strong personality – led a sort of revolt against the birthday girl, recruiting others to her side and refusing to participate in the planned activities. Tears and recriminations followed, and the night was largely spoiled. I had a slumber party on my ninth birthday too. Adam and Chris and Neil were invited. We camped out in the living room, our sleeping bags thrown down in front of the TV. We drank gallons of Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper and ate M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces. After my parents went to bed, we watched episodes of Benny Hill on the local PBS station. It was, at the time, one of the most outrageously fantastic nights of my life. The lesson here is never plan activities.

Someone ought to invent a word for the special pleasure of cancelling surgeries. Twice now I’ve scheduled a hernia repair surgery and subsequently cancelled it because I felt so well. Anyway, it’s a minor hernia. In the past three years it’s only rarely caused me notable discomfort. I figure, if I can hike nine miles with a heavy pack and suffer no ill effects, why volunteer myself for the carving table? I’m in no rush to be anyone’s roast turkey. St Paul in his letters complained of a mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” a temptation that pestered him to no end. I’ve come to believe the apostle had an inguinal hernia too. It’s a convenient complaint for a regular church attender: you’re immediately off the hook when fellow parishoners want help moving their pianos. The temptation, however, is real, and St Paul was a passionate man.  For all we know, he may have scheduled and cancelled dozens of surgeries all over the eastern Mediterranean.

On a father/daughter birding expedition last month, I was shocked to see, at a great distance but still unmistakeable, a flamingo in San Francisco Bay. I would have doubted my own eyes, but apparently there have been several confirmed spottings in the past two years. My daughter was ecstatic, breathless, leaping up and down and shouting her astonishment in an attempt to interest passersby.  How, and why, had it come here? Despite the absurdly pleasant weather we’ve had this winter, Northern California is not yet the tropics. David Sibley in his field guide assures us that any flamingos spotted in the western continental United States are escapees – from the zoo, presumably, or from some Hollywood celebrity’s or tech magnate’s personal golfcourse. My daughter and I prefer to imagine that our flamingo was simply fed up with all the other flamingos back home – their gossip, their politics, their pet causes. It wanted some quiet, some isolation, some anonymity. But anonymity is hard to come by when you’re the only bright pink animal around for hundreds of miles.

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Marginalia, no.162

Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing.

~ Jacques Barzun, who turns 103 today

Great-grandpa Charlie expressed his mastery of the profession by a customary Midwestern silence.  He seemed to have been born old.  It was hard to imagine him as anything other than an object of unsettling wonder, a stiff-jointed human antique. Born in 1891, he died when he was 102 and I was twenty. As a child at church or civic functions he must have been surrounded by Civil War veterans, like I was by WWII vets when my grandparents’ generation still ran the show. Charlie farmed a patch of Iowan earth well into his nineties. Visiting him, my father would switch on a tape recorder and try to provoke reflections on all that had changed down the years: electricity in the home, automobiles, air travel, the Apollo moon landings. What was it like to see the world change so much?  “Oh, it was something,” Charlie would say. And not much else.


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Marginalia, no.147

I can see the hair on your head turning grey already.  Your beard looks to me like a map of the world with its mixture of greys and whites, of reds and blacks.  Look here.  See, this is Asia; here are the Tigris and Euphrates.  Here are the mountains of the Moon.  Do you see the Nile marshes?

~ Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III

Today I cross the thirty-seventh parallel and time’s geography lessons feel a little tedious.  Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time Nick Jenkins says that a man never feels so old as he does in his middle thirties.  I hope that’s true.  It’s a pleasant thought to someday find myself contented in child-like antiquity, white-haired and bent, standing ankle-deep in the Nile marshes.

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Marginalia, no.77

One day he saw that he was older than he had ever been before.

~ Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxies

Thirty-six times round the sun today.  But chronological advancement and age (as implying maturity) are two different things.  There were moments in childhood when the latter outstripped the former, like the hare racing ahead of Aesop’s tortoise.  Somewhere along the course, I think, the hare has fallen asleep.

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