On the occasion of my 42nd birthday, I thought I might reflect slightly on the last 40 years. Specifically, what I was doing on my birthday at 42, 32, and 22, 12, and 2. Those years have been transition years. At two, it was waiting for the arrival of Mark (due in September). At 12, it was the transition from kid to teenager, the end of grade school, the beginning middle school, and somewhere in the near future puberty. At 22 it was dealing with mononucleosis, senioritis, and deciding on life trajectories (job? Grad school? Med School?). At 32, I was once again contemplating life changes as I was deciding if I should quit my job and go back to school. At 42, I also find myself at the transitional crossroads. It seems that every 10 years major transitional events occur. Or maybe it is incidental, and that those events occur all the time and it is just that having a birthday makes me think about it.
I don’t remember much about being two. I assume from stories I was an active, rambunctious child. I’m pretty sure I did many terrible two things that are being returned to me through karmic transference in the form of Katie. I certainly don’t mind, as I’m sure my parents didn’t, because of how much I love her. While not on my birthday, two was also the year Mark was born and I transitioned from only child, most beloved, to a big brother, sharing equally in my parents love. I’m betting I struggled. Without the introspective tools or perspective of an adult, that kind of life change was certain to be difficult and disruptive.
At 12, I remember more. I remember reading competitions and creative writing. I remember being challenged and pushed in my ACCESS (advanced language arts) class (Mrs. Cummings class – she was the best). I also remember being bored and unchallenged by the rest of school. I remember not caring about being organized. I also remember paying the price for that disorganization, with the public humiliation of having my desk dumped on the floor in front of the whole class. I remember that girls were on the horizon, in both literal and figurative sense. Figuratively, as puberty was just initiating and changing my preteen brain into a hormone factory teenage brain. Literally, as Beth was about be born (in October) rounding out our family at six. It was a year in which I would transition from grade school to junior high (complete with 9th graders who could grow mustaches and drive). Twelve was the year I learned I could hit the snot out of baseball (even the curve). Twelve was when I discovered that sunglasses make you cool. (it would take me much longer to realize that I was not cool, and even longer to be OK with that).
Twenty two was tumultuous. The highest highs, tempered by lowest lows. I had decided that I want to go to grad school and pursue my MS in biology. I’d applied all over the country, thinking about places that I wanted to go and fish that I wanted to study. A growing spirit of wanderlust had taken hold of my soul. I was ready to see the world, to seek my fortune. Twenty-two was also when I learned that sometimes life and your own body will conspire against you. I got senioritis first. The paralysis and lack of motivation that comes from knowing that you have to push hard to reach the next life transition, but not wanting to leave the fun, safety, and limited consequences of college life. Then I got mono, and a philosophical malaise turned into a physiological one. Then I really had to push hard to catch up with my classes. Then just as I was back on my game and life returned to the baseline awesomeness of college senior year, graduation loomed. Then in the looming graduation, my dad got sick. He was in the hospital for my graduation. I thought for a while I was going to lose my dad. He recovered, but slowly. That window to revel the unfettered of no classes, no responsibility, and graduation money never opened. I went home and threw myself at the transition. I started classes, looking for apartments. Then life delivered another abrupt fastball to the head. My brain revolted, deciding that rather than function its normal high level, it would bleed and seize and render me incapacitated for some period of time. It required brain surgery to fix. While not new to brain surgery, it was worse at 22 than 14. At 22 you understand more things, the world has become larger and possibilities abound. At 22, I was a freshly minted scientist. I’d also spent 3 summers working with doctors in the department of neurosurgery. So the outcomes and consequences real and I knew them. But I survived; in fact, I had very little in the way of lingering effects. Which was good, because a few months later I started grad school. Twenty two would seem like a bad year, but ultimately it wasn’t. I did graduate. I survived brain surgery. My dad survived and recovered. I went to grad school, which led to my trips to the Amazon and set me on my career trajectory. All in all, it is part of me. Things occurred that I could have done without (Dad’s illness, mono, brain surgery), but the end result put me where I am. A replay might send my universe in a different direction.
Advance another 10 years. I am now 32. I finished my MS degree a few years ago and am working in a job I really like and that is in my field. However, I felt stifled. I get to work on a lot of different projects, but they are not my own. My opinion is valued, but I can do little to advance. Those effort I did make to advance did not bear fruit. So I’m going to make a big change. I’m going to go back to school. To get a PhD. I am 32. This was the year of the Great Berninger diaspora. I had decided to take a graduate appointment at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Mark, feeling many of the same limitations, decided to move on to a job in Chicago. Beth was away for her second year of college in Louisville. That year we went to the beach as a family, had a great vacation, and when we returned we departed. We moved Mark to Chicago, then I loaded Beth up and took her to college, then I loaded up and moved to Waco. There wasn’t much traumatic about 32. It was time to make a move and I did.
Cut to 10 years later, a wife, a child, a PhD, a career type job. But no real roots. I am a science nomad, going where the career path lead – St. Louis, Oxford, Houston, Cincinnati, Waco, Duluth, and now Columbia. Every 3-4 years I’ve moved. Now moving is much more complicated and consequential, as I uproot three lives instead of just one. But yet that transitional urge is strong and growing. I don’t think Columbia is my forever home, and as such I’m loathe to put down real roots. It might happen despite my contrarian thinking, but for now I seek the next transition.
For now I can just set goals and work towards them, and thus progress. I wrote down a number of things I wanted to accomplish before 42 and for the most part, I’ve completed or made good progress on most of them. The birthday is also a time to look beyond the short-term, toward what the long-term goals are. I’m written most of them down in GOGOBEAR. In the next few weeks, my goal is to start going through that planning and make sure it is up-to-date with my accomplishments and current thinking. It doesn’t track to seek a goal you’ve already accomplished or one that your know already is foolhardy or impossible. Many of those goals have changed with the political climate, as has my level of engagement.
At the end, my 42nd birthday will pass like so many other days, quietly and without fanfare. I’ll eat a steak, tuck my daughter in to bed, kiss my wife goodnight, and wake up another day older. But I will progress and find the point of transition for this year. It may not come on this day but it will arrive, like the slow steady march of time, I will proceed – progressing ever forward.