Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On the big 5-5, looking back at the big 4-0

Age 40, in Vilnius, Lithuania

     Today's my 55th birthday. I was puzzling over which column to drag out of the vault—a guy should get a break on his birthday— when my former colleague, Kara Spak, posted something on Facebook about the column below, saying it made her want to work at the Sun-Times. I had just looked at it and decided to pass—a bit ominous, in light of later developments in my life—but figured, if she remembered it after 15 years, then it's probably worth revisiting. And heck, as creaky as I sometimes feel at 55, I think I'm doing better than the guy who wrote this. 

     We parked at the curb. People were streaming into the party. A fine, elegant, North Shore home. The big door opened. There was a flash of tuxedo. I froze in my tracks.
     "This is black tie?" I said to my wife. "You didn't say it was black tie."
     My tux was hanging in the closet at home. I was wearing black jeans and a gray golf shirt under a $3.99 Old Navy vest. Casual, yes. But it was a surprise birthday party for a friend. I figured pizza. Lowered lights. "Surprise!" Not this.
     "Don't be so inhibited," my wife said, dragging me toward the door. "Be proud of yourself."
     She did not add, "Stop cringing, you worm, and be a man," but that's the meaning I took. Head bowed, I shuffled toward the door, feeling very naked, fashionwise.
     The tuxedos were, it turned out, on the help. The people taking coats at the door. It was that sort of party. A harpist played in the dining room. Fancy bartenders. Piles of shrimp. A singer at the piano.
    It was the surprise birthday party for a friend. Her 40th birthday. Turning 40 is hard, and I can't imagine entering that bleak year in a more upbeat way than our friend did: surprised by her husband, surrounded by their friends and children, reveling in the trappings of material success.
     I couldn't help but be reminded, of course, of my 40th birthday, last June. I knew the sad tale would find its way into print, sooner or later, but thought it would take years until the sting subsided. But six months seems to have done it. I regaled anyone I could corner with the story, until my wife made me stop.
     My 40th birthday was spent working, in a bass boat, watching Gary Klein pull bass out of Lake Michigan. For some guys this would be heaven, and for the first few hours it was diverting. But the day ground on, the fish piled up, and I was very happy to reach shore.
     Happier still to get home. Nobody was there. We still lived in the city, so I strolled on over to Friar Tuck's, the neighborhood saloon. Slumping against the bar, I raised a glass and toasted my birthday.
     "On your birthday, you get a free drink," the bartender said. "What'll you have?" I said a shot of Jack Daniel's would do wonders. She disappeared for a moment—I should have known something was up—and returned with a big inflatable sheep, the product of some novelty shop, whose original purpose I shudder to imagine. There, balanced in the, ummm, anal cavity of the sheep, a shot glass filled with whiskey.
     I looked around. Another bartender had a camera. The place grew quiet. The patrons turned to watch.
     There comes a time when a man has to make a stand, to calculate his position in the universe and make a dramatic statement of the sophistication, grace, dignity and decorum he brings to his life.
     I took the inflatable sheep in both hands and drank. The camera flashed. The photo, for all I know, decorates the bar to this day.
     This sounds like a sad tale, and it may be. But I'll tell you, if I live to be 100, I'll never mark a birthday in such an apt fashion again. We get the birthdays we deserve. Our friend, with the surprise party—the harp and the singer and the shrimp and the household jammed with friends—was a perfect expression of the world she has carved out for herself. And my encounter with the sheep, well, let me tell you: The whole damn year has been like that.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 12, 2000

34 comments:

  1. I remember that column. Happy birthday, my friend. How far you've come. May we all find ourselves in a place where we are honest about our past, its relationship to our present, and (with luck and work and grace) our futures.

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  2. Your friend Bill has confirmed what I thought to be your destiny. Everything we do indeed gets us to where we're at. Good Yuntov!

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  3. Best wishes, Mr. Steinberg. I turn 56 next month, so you are still a youngin'. That's okay about the sheep. It was all in good fun and it was a thoughtful piece of writing.

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  4. Lithuania isn't the usual path for Euro travel. Did you have rels there besides Poland?

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    1. I see you have lost weight since that pic.

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    2. Nah, visiting with Valdus Adamkus, who used to live in Chicago, but renounced his citizenship, went back to Lithuania, and was elected president. Oh, and yeah, about 30 pounds. All that whiskey packs the fat on you.

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    3. I wish I could use whiskey as an excuse. For me it's edible carbs.

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    4. I guess the carbs would be a bit safer, unless one had diabetes.

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    5. I've heard of that sheep trick at fraternity parties.

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  5. I wish I could pretend that there's something cosmically significant about sharing a birthday with you, but failing that, I'll just wish for no more shots from a sheep today for either of us.

    john

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    1. Hope your special day is a good one too, John.

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  6. And you both share a birthday with Saul Bellow.

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    1. Speaking of which, today is the centennial of his birth, with a celebration being held at the H.W. Library this evening. But I don't doubt that both NS and Mr. Savage are aware of that... https://chipublib.bibliocommons.com/events/551ec4882730cb1f1f02154a

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    2. Thanks. Didn't know that. Read "Him with his Foot in his Mouth" not long ago. I don't know what makes Bellow's writing so appealing, but it is fun and I for one identify with his characters even when they are quirky and not particularly likable.
      john

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  7. Thinking you're doing better than your 15 years ago self affirms the sentiment of some famous lyrics.

    "Grow old along with me
    The best is yet to be."
    Robert Browning

    "The best is yet to come."
    Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Notably performed by F.Sinatra.

    And contradicted by Phillip Larkin: "A chap in the Guardian said that the best thing about being sixty is that it isn't being seventy. And while this is true it is something that time will cure."

    Have a nice day off.

    Tom Evans

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    1. very nice, Tom, especially on the Browning quote

      No wonder Elizabeth liked him.

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  8. Wow. Many would have been too sheepish to write such a column, but your willingness to do so with such flair is part of what makes you one of the best.

    It occurred to me a while back that we had lived a few blocks from you in Lakeview East the whole time you lived there. Ah, Friar Tuck's. It's quite a statement about the rest of the competition on Broadway back in the day that Friar's seemed like the logical choice, if one wanted to hit a tavern. Uh, we spent more time there than I care to admit, but I don't recall ever seeing that mind-blowing shot-delivery ruminant... Perhaps you missed out on the days when Gaffer's and Brian Boru's were a couple of other options down toward Diversey. But, hey, Friar Tuck's is still going strong, evidently, the folks there were pretty friendly, and I was always a sucker for free popcorn...

    "Piles of shrimp" at the North Shore party. And you probably thought: "Oh there's shrimp? Gimme shrimp. Am I taking too much shrimp? Can I have more shrimp?" ; ) May there be much more shrimp and no more inflatable-sheep-ass-dispensed Jack Daniel's in your future. Happy Birthday, NS!

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  9. Good thing Mr. S. doesn't keep kosher. Those orthodox Jews don't know what they are missing.

    Jakash, I like how you turn a phrase as well.

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    1. Old joke about a Rabbi and a Priest confessing to each other about having sampled their respective forbidden fruits, ham and sex. The Rabbi says "it was OK.' The priest says "better than ham."

      TE

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  10. Interesting how many ladies can make a good living as bartenders these days. My Euro born parents would have had apoplexy if their kids worked in a bar, especially if female. We wouldn't think of it.

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  11. Happy birthday, Neil, and many healthy returns of the day.
    40 didn't bother me at all. Neither did 50. 55 slid by with hardly a blip. But 60 -- that's a real number. Didn't bother me as much as stun me -- where the fuck did THAT come from? Now at 63, I'm still amazed at it, and often talking just like the coots I used to make fun of.

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  12. don't worry, 60 is the new 50

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    1. Actually, the common consensus is "60 is the new 40". So I guess 50 is the new 30 :)

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    2. That's swell, so long as I can make it to, say, the old 80

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  13. well they'd be wrong then, 50 sure isn't 30, etc

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    1. @Anonymous -- No they wouldn't; haven't you ever heard that common expression (60 is the new 40) -- I didn't mean it LITERALLY for gosh sakes. And to extend the idea, imagine someone who is 80 years old and still feels good, is active and enjoying life....perhaps 80 is the new 60...:)

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  14. Hitting the fifties can bring home to your mortality. Some guys try to escape it by going the "trophy wife" route and starting a new family. Some just continue to pretend they'll live forever even though the body is starting to give signs that it's wearing out. Drugs or alcohol or just getting lost in something else lets other people get through the day. A few ponder their life and what it means and what if anything of value will remain after their demise. Neal - like it or not - you are on the downward slope of the cycle of life. Enjoy these days for time always wins in the end.

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    1. Every stage in life has its ups and downs. I don't think any age is the best or worst. It's what you make of it and with your options, including changes in physical status.

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    2. Wendy - as you get older, you have to face the fact that you will not live forever and your body will remind you of that as it ages as well. It also forces almost all of us to acknowledge at some level that our lives did not account for much in the grand scheme of things. If your hope rests only in this life, then death will extinguish it. I have a different perspective as a religious person but that does not mean that I do not have times when it seems that my life was of no more significance than a temporary phenomenon - here today, gone tomorrow.

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  15. how pessimistic

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  16. Interesting article in the SunTimes today how people are living longer, Medicare is growing broke, one sickly spouse has to take care of the more sickly one. Living longer propped up by meds with no quality of life while Pharmaceuticals and hospitals, nursing homes, etc. make $. Or the middle aged grown child is doing double duty. Thank good ness for Asst living if they can afford it or the grown child is the stressed one.

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  17. Too bad A-N-A couldn't even say happy birthday to Neil. Same with Scribe since they are regulars.

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