Fifty Three Years and A Shot

Fifty Three Years and A Shot

by Don Hall

In the annual tradition of penning a list of things I learned in the year, year 53 has been a doozy. 

I’m sitting here, in my friend’s house, my computer set up in a corner of the dining room, ruminating. I’m here because Dana and I are buying a house with my friend — the combined buying power facilitating better digs and an easier transition out of the solid cement encasing my lower torso with “Chicago” etched in the side. Moved out of our Wicker Park apartment of four years in December and living the life of a couch crasher since then, life has been a few months of all anticipation and planning to get outta here and into the desert while finding small ways to make our exit meaningful.

There’s a part of me that feels I almost always stay at least one year longer than I should — my two failed marriages, my teaching career, the theater, public radio — all could’ve been cut short by twelve months and I’d likely have been better off. Perhaps I can say the same about staying the full thirty years in Chicago rather than twenty-nine. Dana and I started talk of leaving the city this time a year ago and, while it has been a more prudent and pragmatic path to that end, there will always be a nagging voice that barks at me that we should’ve just hopped the highway and skeedaddled then.

Ah, but being an adult about things has both it’s upsides and downsides, yes?

I’m no longer the kid who packed up a truck with everything he owned and lit out north in search of a landing pad. I’m fifty-fucking-three years old. In the parlance of our youth-obsessed culture, I’m on the decline of that mythic hill. I’m now referred in print as “older” as in “Older Workers Find It Difficult to Maintain a Consistent Lifestyle” or “Older Americans Don’t Understand Why the New Progressives Are So Angry.” No one hires a fifty-three year old because of his new ideas but because of his experience and banking on experience only profits he who has learned from life.

In that vein, let’s take a look at the lessons my fifty-third year on this twirling piece of gravel garnered:

LESSON #5

95% of Personal Grievance Is a Waste of Time

That’s scientific because it has a percentage attached to it so know it’s true. 

While I can’t regret the time in my life wasted with bullshit squabbles over reputation or status I can attest to the fact that the online fight you’re having right now is a waste of the simple magnetic activity of your heart pumping blood and oxygen into your parts. The fury of injustice as you rail against that colleague who has maligned you, that existential angst you feel over that betrayal at a now long gone workplace, that ennui permeating your vision caused by that sudden creeping realization that your existence isn’t terribly important is wasted time.

Recognize it, register it, and get the fuck over it as quickly as you can. Yeah, the language of masculinity is not received well these days but the truth is the truth whether it’s popular or not. Sack up and get going or waste away like Sylvia Plath and her oven.

LESSON #4

The Worst Thing You Can Do To A Child Is Convince Them That They Are Special

One in roughly seven billion ain’t great odds for standing out much. The myth surrounding the specialness of every creature is negated daily. People are in great supply so the demand for individual greatness is minimized. In the anthropomorphized Pixar-world, that chicken with a dream is far more likely to be ground into the filling for your Taco Bell Chicken Gordita than lead the revolt. 

This is not to say that we each shouldn’t keep trying to be the president despite the fact that the odds of any one of us actually becoming president is so slim as to be sadly funny, like Tom Hanks in Punchline. The mythology of specialness creates a sense of entitlement and no matter what anyone tells you, you aren’t entitled to fucking anything. Your child isn’t entitled to anything. No demand for respect or empathy or justice will change that. Don’t believe me? Ask any of the hundreds killed by assholes with a death wish and visions of posthumous glory who went out, stocked up on guns and shot up a public place. Can you name any three of them? No. But they are all special, right? Wrong.

Teach your child that he is lovable and he will learn to love. Teach your child she is capable and she will achieve. Teach your child they are special in a world of seven billion grunting, rutting, scrambling apes and you’ve set them up for failure.

LESSON #3

Your Emotions Are Like a Dog So Train Them Not to Shit Under the Sofa

A dog that destroys the house, gets into the garbage and strews it all over the place and routinely bites others rarely has an owner with their shit together. Your emotions are that dog. Get your shit together, be an adult, train your dog to live and love without destroying your hipster vinyl collection or chewing up your neighbor’s kid or humping the leg of your Tinder date and your emotions won’t be seen as a hazard or liability.

LESSON #2

Your Opinion Doesn’t Often Count But You Should Have One Anyway

Keep in mind that it doesn’t mean you are right or correct. Stifling those opinions, however, tends to lock you into an ideology or worldview that encases you like a dirty sleeping bag. Certainty is usually a sign that you’re an idiot so don’t be so goddamned certain. Fear of what others might think or do is a chokehold on your growth as a human. Sometimes the consequences will be a loss of status, money, love but pony up and join the marketplace of ideas. You only learn by trying and failing.

Ask questions (even if the questions make people uncomfortable.) Suggest solutions (even if your suggestions result in campaigns against you.) Stand for something or be mowed over by those willing to do so.

LESSON #1

Saying “Yes” Has Enormous Power

Life is made up of experiences. Places you’ve seen, rides you’ve taken, people you’ve met. Experiences almost always start with the word “yes.” Do you want to be the House Manager of the largest park and concert venue in the city of Chicago? Yes. Do you want to tell your story in front of an audience? Yes. Do you want to go out and catch this band tonight? Yes. Do you want to pick up and move to Las Vegas, leaving behind the years of connections and networks and reputation in exchange for a complete sense of uncertainty as you slowly age yourself out of the game? Yes.

“No” can be good but it is always a dead end on some level. Sure, you should have an element of survival instinct but with the guarantee you aren’t going to survive in the long run, “yes” is better. “Maybe” is fence-sitting pigshit and should be relegated to the recycling can that ends up in the landfill anyway. A shark drowns if it stops swimming. Be like the shark and keep swimming forward or die the death of someone obsessed with Netflix and pork rinds.


I’m beginning my fifty-fourth year in transition. Today I celebrate survival for 53 years and tomorrow I spend my last week in the city I’ve called home for nearly thirty years. Then off to spend the rest of 54 in a new town with new challenges and a bit of a clean slate. Reinvention, transformation. Whomever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks never met me.

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