Twenty-one years ago, I woke up after what I thought was the worst night of my life. I had found out at dinner the night before that I hadn’t gotten the full-tuition package from Vanderbilt. I had promptly locked myself in my room with the lights out listening to Edie Brickell sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on a loop and not come out until morning, where a surprise was waiting for me when I got to school.
See, I was turning 18, which means that I was legally entitled to look in my file, at the “permanent record” and see what was said about me from the very beginnings of my educational career. Including what I’d actually scored on that test all those years ago that had branded me with the scarlet G for the rest of my academic career. I got to school, the receptionist presented me with the file, and I opened it to read a letter at the top that was a review of my academic standing as of the end of the 1985-86 school year as I got ready to go to high school. It rated me as being a rounding-error away from dropping below the minimum threshold and suggested that I needed remedial work if I were to qualify for my high school. It went on at length, continued on the back page, where I flipped it over to see “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!” At which point the small crowd that had developed without my notice exploded with laughter and presented me with a T-shirt – plain black marker on undershirt, the traditional style of my alma mater – with the actual number in huge numerals on the back.
Looking back, I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I do now, or should have – but that was largely due to the mutual reinforcing traumas of Valentine’s Day and the sudden end of my college search. I knew I wasn’t going to Vanderbilt now – I had full ride offers and more from both Alabama and the school I ended up attending, and I called the latter that afternoon to accept. Obviously, had I known what was to come, I would have insisted on taking the offer from Vanderbilt and eating the loans, and doing everything in my power to make Vanderbilt possible, because that decision is one that ultimately ended up taking most of the 1990s to recover from. So it goes.
I say that to say this: tonight, there is someone out there who was born into the world at the moment I was looking at that piece of paper. And tonight that person is going out and getting well and truly legally plastered with his or her friends. Because it’s been just that long.
Half a life ago would put me in late 1991, a time when I was starting to undergo some serious transformation. My sports interest spiked for the first time, I smoked for the first time, I discovered that professional football existed before the Super Bowl era, I discovered that my college existed before the 1970s, and I picked up the trombone for the first time in over five years and joined the bands – largely to give myself an ironclad excuse to be at every game, girlfriend or not.
Now? I don’t know. I don’t feel 39. I don’t feel like this is going to be some kind of big odometer rollover. And I know for a fact that I probably won’t feel any different from mid-February 2012 to mid-April 2012, barring a Vanderbilt national title in basketball, because when you get right down to it, our lives aren’t measured out in easily-demarcated years. They’re measured in random eras – places lived, loves lost, championship seasons, cars driven, a million overlapping criteria that let us look back and try to gauge the distance we’ve come.
There’s not really anything I want for my birthday this year. Nothing I can buy with money, anyway. I have had everything I wanted in my life, even if I don’t have all of it anymore, or want all of it anymore, and even if I would like some more of what I already had (there’s probably a new Timbuk2 messenger coming sooner rather than later, and will probably get a bunch of custom work done to boot). For today and tonight, though, I’m content with another cup of coffee, dinner with friends, and turning in early to snuggle with my sweetie. Tomorrow will take care of itself. You play the days like you play the games: one at a time.