Mrs. Mayfield started this.
Way back in 1982, she had our class write down down everything we could remember learning (in a Life Lessons sort of way) in the year that had passed. It was a class assignment and, as a classic overachiever, I took it very seriously. And, like so many of those random exercises teachers tend to give students, this one stuck with me like a stink on a funky shoe that you just can't get rid of.
Since then, every birthday has bore witness to my deep self-reflection of the Big Things I Learned in the Year prior. For years, I wrote this listicle out long hand and I'm pretty sure most of the remnants are locked away in a box somewhere in my mom's basement. Since 2005 or so, I've kept them as blog posts and saved digital documents.
The list generally contains things unique to that specific year peppered with a few lessons I just have to keep learning and re-learning until they gel, I suppose.
Today, I am fifty-one years old. A full six years past my predetermined demise and a year into my fifth decade. I did the math and realized that:
In My Twenties: I Was a Teacher
In My Thirties: I Was a Theater Producer/Director/Actor
In My Forties: I Was a Public Radio/Storytelling Person
Not entirely sure what my fifties will end up being but I'm now fully into that decade. What did I learn in my fifty-first year worth remembering?
Some years are glides through the park; others are Normandy Invasion style melees that only Steven Spielberg could re-create. Year 51 was of the second category. The quick synopsis goes like this:
Protagonist has everything pretty well set up in terms of career and art, the third (and final) marriage is swimming along wonderfully, and for the first half of the year, he is oblivious to any of the machinations being set in place to topple the House of Cards he has erected. Then all hell breaks loose, friends instantly become foes, work becomes a battleground, the internet becomes a bludgeon on his fragile existence and the machine breaks down. And then, as the protagonist has the uncanny ability to be bathed in shit and come out smelling like a newly waxed crotch, things turn out pretty damn good.
Jumping right into the mid-year bunch of nonsense involving a bit on online bullying, in the aftermath, Scott sent me a story.
This was a hard lesson to learn. And perhaps I didn't learn it correctly but I've certainly gleaned some sort of information.
My mistake was not unfriending a toxic, self important asshole without a phone call; my mistake was participating in her online theatrics in the role she decided to give me. She and a man I barely knew went on the full offensive, ginning up dozens of people to comment on a situation they knew next to nothing about and I played along, arguing and spitting along like a rube. I was outraged and felt maligned and pilloried and I fought back. DUMB. All my righteous indignation about being called names by dipshits got me was being fired from a gig I enjoyed and the bitter after-taste of defeat.
With that written (and I spent a lot of time writing so much more about that particular circumstance and the blowout that followed but, ultimately, you either know what went down or don't care and even I'm fucking bored with tales of an internet troll and her sycophants so I kept it for the inevitable book yet to be written) here are the quick hits of learnings derived from that unfortunate slice of time:
THE OPINIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE THE VALUE YOU ASSIGN THEM
If you don't value me, my opinion of you or anything else is worthless. Double that for you. Value is given, not demanded and if no one gives your opinion value, it has none. No matter how much you may fret and argue, if you have no worth, your voice has no worth.
Too many opinions came this year from people whom I hold no genuine value. Too many opinions that ultimately don't matter. Clear out the weeds and focus on the opinions of those who matter.
RED FLAGS EXIST TO WARN YOU, DUMBASS!
Heed the warning; blame only yourself for ignoring them.
If you're driving down an icy highway and you see signs that tell you there is danger ahead and, in your hubris, decide to ignore them, own the fact that it's your fault you are stuck in a ditch with an airbag jammed in your face and a broken collar bone jutting out of your neck.
If someone bullies your friend and you think "That person would never do that to me! I'm special!" you are wrong. If someone you work with is duplicitous and conniving to get ahead of someone else on the job and you say to yourself "Not me. He would never even think of stabbing me in the back to feed his ambition!" you are wrong.
BULLIES WIN MORE OFTEN THAN NOT
This applies to both tiny bullies and billionaire bullies. And all bullies think their bullying is justified. This doesn't mean one should simply cede the victory to them but understand that, in spite of the underdog/hero narrative that you live within, fairness is never a guarantee.
DON'T EXPECT LOYALTY FROM A COWARD OR A CLIMBER
Be loyal. That's the only thing you can control. Expectations of reciprocation will leave you disappointed. And when you genuinely try to train your replacement, don't be shocked when he undermines you so as to replace you.
IT'S ALL JUST A HOUSE OF CARDS, THIS SECURE EXISTENCE YOU CREATE
The security of reputation, of stability, of importance, is nothing more than an illusion, a fairy tale you tell yourself like a daily affirmation. You choose to believe this fiction until the bottom falls out. Then you blame everyone else. Best to not invest in the illusion in the first place. This is not to say one shouldn't build Card Houses but only to understand in their construction, they're impermanent at best.
OK. Water under that bridge, as they say. I've set new boundaries, figured out who I can and cannot trust, and have far better things to do that sit in that sallow bowl of sewage a moment longer.
While a lot of the second half of the year got eaten up by that minuscule Trumpian nightmare, there were a lot of other revelations worth spending a few keystrokes on.
THE LONG LASTING MARRIAGE IS ALL ABOUT COMMUNICATION AND KISSING (A LOT)
I love my wife. If you spend more than five minutes with me and we are talking, it's highly likely I will tell you something about how much I love her. More important that, I tell HER. Every day. It's important to tell her how vital she is to my life and to take time to also talk about the hard, complicated stuff.
We celebrate Month-a-versaries on the 12th of every month. Flowers. Cards. Prizes. And the inevitable sit down question "How's Married Life?" No holds barred. It works.
Also - you may be too busy to have tons of sex once you get into the groove of partnership but you always have time to kiss. A lot. If you've spent a day and not really, passionately kissed your spouse, you're doing it wrong. Go kiss him/her/them right now. I'll wait.
EVERYONE NEEDS SOME TONE POLICING (ESPECIALLY ME)
Waking up on November 9, I realized that all of my anger and outrage and the the time I spent howling through the digital noise about injustice and equity and civil rights and capitalism was absolutely pointless and without any external affect. My screaming amounted to nothing but the good feels I received for voicing my strident, self righteous opinion.
Here's the straight deal: nobody really gives a shit how angry you are and the more you yell and ALL CAPS WRITE and bark, the less anyone will listen. You can roll your eyes and stomp your feet and piss and moan, but like climate change and the failure of Neo-Liberal policies, facts is facts. I'm going do my level best to police my own tone. Why? Because I want people to listen to me. If you want people to listen to you, tone it down some. Or be happy shouting into a plastic bag.
INDULGENCE IN EMOTIONAL REACTION AND EGO IS THE DOWNFALL OF EVERYONE
The world has plenty of Kirks. We need more Spocks. Somewhere along the line, it became popular to place a lot of importance on our feelings over rational thought. The results of this trend is more and more division in our culture and the election of Donald Trump. Suck it up and be logical.
DON'T LOVE SOMETHING THAT CAN'T LOVE YOU BACK
I loved hosting The Moth and representing the organization but they are in New York and a thousand miles away and when push came to shove, I was disposable. What I am left with is a true love for the craft of storytelling. And The Moth had become a comfortable rut to slide on through without any challenge to my creativity. So leaving turned out to be a solid benefit.
I love my job but my workplace has taken a right turn into a Corporatist approach and I realized this year that loving a place and an institution that cannot love you back is a set up for nothing but heartbreak. Show up, work hard, get paid. Expect nothing more than the ducats at the end of the two weeks and you're good. If you find that you are becoming shackled to the idea of being civilized, exit but exit GRANDLY. Otherwise, reframe things in a way that make your cubicle seem less like a self-imposed prison and more like a place to feed the machine without feeding it your soul.
IT IS THE STRENGTH OF CHARACTER RATHER THAN THE IDENTITY THAT MATTERS
Your skin color, gender, sexual identification, religion, economic class are all a part of what makes you you. Can't be dismissed lightly.
That said, anyone can be bereft of character and that transcends all the rest of it. Character transcends identity; integrity is more important than ideology.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. SERIOUSLY. EVERYTHING.
If there has been a Life Skill I have perhaps over-employed this year it is reframing circumstances. Manually shifting my attitude into a less dramatic place. Actively moving the camera to see the humor in some humorless situations. When confronted with enough outrage and an avalanche of feelings of personal injustice and injury, almost physically forcing perspective is absolutely required.
With the properly in-focus angle, I can handle anything. With the corrected attitude toward seeing myself as a joke and thus everyone else kind of funny, things are bearable. Even Trump and his evil henchmen.
TRAVELING WITH THE RIGHT PARTNER IS THE BEST USE OF YOUR TIME
The best moments of my 51st year were all on trips with my wife. Trips to my parents' home in KS; trips to her parents' homes in PA. "Team Retreats" to Ann Arbor or Starved Rock. A vacation to New Orleans.
Traveling should be a priority—even if you can't afford to fly to Europe, you can hop in a car and go a few hours out of town and check in to a hotel for the weekend and relax. Being with the right partner makes that simple trip into a holiday. Trips with Dana are the dreams I never thought to dream but can't wait to dream up more.
I AM NOT THE HERO OF MY OWN STORY
In what one could arguably call the Age of Narcissism, considering oneself the hero of one's own narrative arc seems pretty normal. As if we are all each in a movie about us and, as the one person watching the whole thing, it makes perfect sense that the hero of each story is viewer.
No hero of any story sees theirself as the hero. Harry Potter isn't the hero of those books. Rocky isn't the hero of his films. They are the protagonists but if they were to see themselves as the heroes they would suddenly not be.
So, I am the protagonist of my story but not the hero.
That is not to say there are no heroes in my story. In fact, there are a lot of them. My mother, my grandfather, my dad, my sister, my wife. Teachers who stood for something. Mentors who guided me along the path. Doctors. A few of my employers. Some of my friends.
There are plenty of heroes in the Nicholas Nickleby version of my fifty-one years. I'm just not one of them.
AND FINALLY (...whew...)
I ended up mid-year writing a manifesto of sorts with some additional detritus. If there is anything that crystallizes the lessons I have absorbed over my past year, this is it:
That's it for 51. It was an often tough year to endure but, at the end of every tough year is the realization that I survived it wiser and with a bit more purpose. Who can really ask for more than that?