Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Live Specifically

I ran this in my local newspaper column on this date a few years ago. It's my little birthday meditation.

            There were many things to note and ponder when bin Laden was killed. After I’d processed some of the larger implications, I noticed something that had never struck me before—Osama bin Laden and I were born the same year.

            True, in different parts of the world, in different cultural and economic circumstances, but still—we were born the same year. 

            After that common origin, our paths diverged pretty quickly. In 1970, his father died; my dad just lost a little more hair. In 1974, when I was getting over being dumped by my first big-time girlfriend, bin Laden was marrying his distant cousin.

            We both went to college, but when I got out, I crashed in a friend’s living room while looking for a teaching job near Cleveland. When he got out, bin Laden went to Afghanistan looking for Russian soldiers to kill. In 1984 I was working out the business of being a newlywed; he was working out the business of funneling truckloads of money to jihadist groups. By 1988 I was raising two small children while he was establishing al Quaida.

            By 1994, while I was tangled up in melting down my marriage, bin Laden was being thrown out of both his family and his home country. After the same number of years on the planet, I am occasionally an insensitive jerk, but he’s a deceased murderer.

            It’s the specifics that matter. Here are more people who were born the same year that bin Laden and I were: Scott Adams, Brad Bird, Laura Branigan, Berke Breathed, LeVar Burton, Steve Buscemi, Dan Castellaneta, Andrew Dice Clay, Katie Couric, Merrill Cowart, Bill Cowher, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Bill Engvall, Stephen Fry, Nick Hornby, Martin Luther King III, Christopher Knight, John Lasseter, Jon Lovitz, Kelly McGillis, Donny Osmond, Kevin Pollack, Ray Romano, Michael W. Smith, Eddie Van Halen, Sid Vicious, Vanna White, and Hans Zimmer. Plus the millions of people who, like me, are not at all famous.

            Each one of us has had the same amount of time on the planet, and yet everyone has done something entirely different with the days allotted.

            We don’t talk nearly enough about specifics. Instead, our discussions and stories of life are often in generalities. Movies and tv shows are set in some sort of generic city. When tales are told for many years, they take place in some timeless zone where there’s no difference between one year and another. For how many decades was Charlie Brown six (-ish) years old? In what city did the Brady Bunch live? These sorts of details so often don’t matter in our fiction, and yet in real life, nothing matters more. Did you grow up in Franklin in the sixties or Oil City in the eighties—it makes a difference, and the difference is in the specifics. But many forces conspire to hide this—if you awoke in the middle of one of our nation’s gazillion cookie-cutter malls or retail spaces, could you even guess where you were?

            We even lose specifics in the rear-view mirror of history. Locally we talk about The Oil Boom as if it were a solid continuous event. But for the people who lived through the wild ups and downs, six months was the difference between fortune and ruin.

            As students in school we behave as if we are all on one track, one road that leads to one future destination. Then graduation comes and the specifics of each individual trajectory create an explosion, a beautifully wild pattern of fireworks. 

            A belief in a general-purpose life can be stifling. We think that, faced with life choices, there’s something that Most People Usually Do, and we shy away from any choice that seems too strikingly unique or specific.

            That’s a mistake. There is no such thing as what Most People Usually Do, or How It Always Goes, or What Usually Happens. We may discuss life generally, but we live it specifically. We make a choice, and it makes a difference. I can talk about Changing My Life, but it’s a meaningless phrase—my past can’t be changed because it is set, and my future can’t be changed because it doesn’t exist yet and you can’t change what doesn’t exist. We create our futures daily, and we should build them out of specifics, made to order, custom built for each one of us alone. 

            That’s how people move the same distance through time and travel to entirely different places.

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