Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thoughts on my 54th Birthday

Text and photo © Robert Barry Francos

Yes, it is strange thinking of myself as 54. I look around at people on the news, like Scully, the captain of the airplane that landed in the Hudson; he is around the same age as me, and he is all gray, and to me looks much older. Seems most people in the news who are my age do, so I guess I should be grateful, but I also find it kind of scary. After all, Obama is the first president who is younger than me (well, physically, anyway…when it comes to maturity, nearly anyone my age is older than the second Bush).

They say one is as old as one feels, but physically, I have felt older than my age for a long time, thanks to the stiffness in my back due to arthritis I’ve had since I was 19. My cousin told me part of my lack of skills as an athlete is because my parents didn’t take me to little league or anything like that. That may be true in part, but I know I was enrolled in Tai Kwon Do when my arthritis hit, my first awareness coming when we were running backwards. It hurt my ankles and my knees like crazy. A podiatrist told me it was because of flat feet, and I bought those very expensive corrective Frankenstein shoes. After wearing them, it hurt even more. It took until I was in my mid-20s to have my ankylosing spondilitis correctly diagnosed. It makes me stiff and awkward, and in significant pain for a number of years, not to mention helping me have this wonderfully bad posture resulting from a curvature in the spine, indicative of my arthritis. Not fun, but could be a lot worse: as said in a song written by Jersey Beat publisher Jim Testa, despite being older, it beats the alternative.

The only time in my life I was concerned about my age was when I turned 20. The idea of not being a teenager anymore freaked me out. This happened at around 11:45 at night, the day before my birthday. I fretted from 11:45 PM to 12:10 AM, the time of my birth. Then, when the moment passed and it was over, well, it was over. Never worried about it again. Even with growing older, as my hair turned salt-and-peppery, it didn’t bother me much. Some friends of mine, of both genders, who have turned gray, have taken to dying their hair. I’ve fleetingly thought about it, but never seriously. I’m grateful to have all my hair, and as for the color, I look at it as, hey, I’ve lived long enough for my hair to turn gray. Lots of people I’ve known never grew old enough for that to happen. I’m grateful to have lived long enough for that.

One of the aspects of getting older that has had some effect on me is gaining weight. When I graduated from undergrad college, I weighed 115 lbs. Yeah, I was too thin, but I felt good at that weight. As I’ve gotten older, especially since my 40s, I’ve gone up to 180, and I feel sluggish. Without trying to sound like everyone else in this position, I’m hoping the next year will see some of that wear away. I’d like to be in the 150 range. We’ll see.

Monty Love once sang, “Being young is only in your head.” On some level, I’ve kept that truthful. I still read comics (though I haven’t bought one in nearly a decade; however, I have read some graphic novels from the library), I like to watch horror flicks (though I’ve never been a super fan of slashers, I do like a good gory ghost, alien or monster antagonist), and punk rock is still close to my heart. Despite all of that, I know that I have matured, somewhat, though there are those who may argue about degree. A quick story: a good friend was listening to some old phone messages from the ‘80s he kept on cassette, and one was from his friend who was upset that he had called up her place of work looking for her, and told a coworker of hers (that he didn’t know) about a bizarre dream about seeing “the hand of God.” She was saying on the message in a sharp voice (he recently played it for me), “How could you just say something like that to someone I work with? Don’t you know how bad that makes me look at my workplace?” At the time, no he didn’t. Now, looking back, he’s chagrined. It’s like that for me, too. I’ve said a lot of harsh things to people without thinking twice about it at the time, and sometimes I blanch in remembrance (other times, I don’t, depending on the situation).

It is okay to mature. I have a lot of friends in my life now who love me and that I love back, who may not have if they knew me in my 20s (and bless the ones who rode it out). There is also one who liked me then, and then disapproved of my growth, turned nasty, and decided to cut me out of her life (at the end, it was mutual). I owe a lot of that maturity to my partner, who over the years has held a mirror up to me and said, basically, “Do you really like who/what you see when you do/say that?” This forced self-reflection has done me a lot of good, as painful as it has been at times, and I am eternally grateful. And yet, even at 54, I know I have a ways to go.

Looking over some of my college papers recently, I noticed a central theme in comments by my professors. They say I am good at descriptiveness, shy on critical process. Even before noticing that, I’ve always referred to myself as a “reviewer” rather than a “critic”: the former will describe how something is good or bad, a critic will detail why. The “why” has been a confusing roadblock in my looking back (or forward) in my life. It is probably why I am such a miserable chess player (though I do enjoy a good game of backgammon).

The point is I take a lot of things as they come, when I should be looking closer at them. Yes, sometimes I notice details that others have missed (which is why I enjoy editing), but themes sometimes get by me. Also, as I get older, I notice that I have more feelings than descriptive words, so it makes it harder to explain what I am thinking. This makes me come across as calloused sometimes, because I am not being clear about what’s going on in my head, but many times it’s because I am “feeling” instead. Imagine opening a book and seeing emotive colors rather than words. Sort of like that, I guess. That being said, as this will come to sound contradictory, I enjoy writing, as the large number of blogs here will attest. If you read them, you will find my professors are mostly correct; they are observations rather than critical assessments, for the most part. While I’m a bit comfortable with that (though I would be happy to have both capacities), I have found this process occasionally disturbs others. I blank out, verbally, and ride on the emotion, which can make me speechless. I’m feeling, rather than deep thinking. It’s like my mind is giant mood ring, sometimes. According to some psycholinguistic theory I learned in college, there are two types of thoughts, deep structure (the original thought) and surface structure (the thought as you send it out). Many times I feel like I’m stuck at the surface structure, and while I understand what I am thinking, what I’m saying is cloudy. I am hoping my writing will bring back more of my solid thought structures.

At this age, people start to think about retiring and slowing down, even if it is a decade or so off. I’m less than a year and a half younger than my mom was when she passed away, and about five years from the age my dad retired. For me, I am heading in just the opposite direction. Soon I will be starting anew, clearing the way for new growth. I embrace it and, frankly, am looking forward to it. Life is changing and speeding up, rather than slowing down. There are many new lessons to be learned, especially in the next year, and I feel a bit nervous about it, not wanting to fail, but am not afraid to grab hold of the swinging vine and jump. The clich√© image is of going for the brass ring on the merry-go-round. For me, it’s not circular, however; reaching for that ring is taking me on a whole new ride. It is quite exciting.

The actual day of my birthday falls on Mother’s Day this year (when I was in grade school, this overlap would embarrass me to no end, but now I think it is cool…see, maturity!). I went to my brother and sister-in-law’s house on Long Island for a dinner with some friends and I will talk to my partner who is currently far away – but not for long – on the phone, and get to wish my mother-in-law, who I adore, a good Mother’s Day. Those who read Facebook and MySpace are surely going to see the notice of the day and will leave comments. Truthfully, I will happily accept these for what they are. Some are sad when another birthday has come and gone. For me, with all the change and transitions in my life, I am happy to see this one. I’ve made it through another year, in relatively good heath, and positive signs for the future.

Happy birthday to me!


  1. Happy birthday! You're proof that growing older and becoming more mature doesn't mean selling out and becoming square. I don't care what people say, rock n' roll is here to stay :)

  2. Happy Birthday Robert! Sorry I didn't know earlier. I really enjoyed reading this. You're right, life is about change an I keep forgetting about that.

  3. Lordy, I did see the HAND OF GOD!

  4. Happy BjornBorg Day to You...............

  5. Thanks for all the birthday wishes I received here, on my social networks, and by direct voice.

    It was brave of Alan to admit it was him I was talking about in the blog, and he should be commended for it. And for those confused about his second statement, when I was much younger I liked how much "birthday" sounded like "Bjorn Borg" (borrowing a theme from Tommy Smothers who once stated, "Words to me are a plaything") so I started saying Happy "Bjorn Borg Day," instead for a while. Over the years, it has become more of a personal joke between us, and I hope to continue it for years to come with him.