A Birthday Celebration

BY JOHN MCCULLY

Mr. Hubbell is having a birthday. We will not give away his secret, that is; his age, not because he is by nature secretive but because he believes that modern society makes too much of these events, that the purveyors of materials that might be given as gifts have used crafty psychological levers to crank up the expectations in the age-old custom of gift giving. Mr. Hubbell is inclined to think it is all a little out of hand.

Nevertheless, on this birthday, he is in for a treat, many treats indeed, and when he awoke early in the morning, as is his custom, it never crossed his mind that it is his birthday until he reads his email and his Mother’s note of congratulations and love, on this, his 60th birthday.

Mr. Hubbell is shocked: he thought he was already 60 and that this was his 61st. At first he is delighted, and he remained so even as the implications of not knowing, as had been the case for perhaps more than a year, the difference, seeped into his thoughts. What if he had been mistaken the other way. He might have now been 62, in fact. So he has possibly saved himself perhaps two years by approaching the matter intelligently, he tells himself with great delight. But his delight is short lived. What if he has lived the time he thought he was 60, and he was only 59, and now must he live 59 because 60 has already been done. Or will he just make a big correction and go directly to 63, and forget the whole thing. This idea appeals because it means he might advance to greater wisdom because of his greater age. He contemplates the virtue of being older and therefore to be respected more for no other reason. He thinks that older people are respected for good reason, that is the reasoning they have done and their ability to do so based on experience: the lessons learnt. But what if reasoning is a linear process in that it is sequential in time, as intuition would have it. If he was already 60 and now instead of being 61 he is 60 again, and 59 didn’t exist, has he not disrupted the linearity of wisdom and undermined his own credibility. He wonders how he will resolve this conundrum. It is possible that he will never trust himself again, he tells himself.

Mr. Hubbell arrives at his office. His colleagues have arrived early and strung balloons and greet him with smiles and warmth, projections of love. Mr. Hubbell is an emotional person and he fears such scenes because affection and gracious behavior in his fellow human beings, love, often makes him cry, and he only cries in private.

He sits at his desk and begins to work. He looks out the window high up on the twentieth floor and watches a family of peregrine falcons nesting on a ledge on a nearby building, the young learning to fly, to develop the stealth and speed of their parents and testing their skills in mock battle with their siblings. Soon it will be the real thing, he thinks, and wonders what will happen in a few short years from now when they get old and have not the strength to hunt and kill. He supposes they will die, and that will be that.

Mr. Hubbell goes for a walk. He walks along the street and comes to a public area that has been paved with large pink flagstones laid out in rows.

As he looked ahead he sees that the rows of flagstones are precisely spread out into the distant, the future for him, as he walks. He steps onto the paving and proceeds. He quickly realizes that he is following one particular path, one set of end-to-end flagstones, and that it is comfortable and natural for him to do so. He wondered if he might take another path, another line of flagstones, as the way forward. With frivolous deliberation he lightly changes course and finds himself one line to the right. Perfect, he thinks, I can move freely from left to right and choose and re-choose the path forward. He continues with the experiment and moves not one but two paths to the left. His pace and overall direction remained steady and steadfast. He fells very pleased with himself, and gives a little skip as if to celebrate his accomplishment. But as he proceeds he becomes aware that being so far left of center is boring, and the huge gray mass of concrete rigidity, the superstructure in its form, becomes overpowering and constricting by virtue of the relative diminishment of his being. He moves back to the right again, again skipping lightly across the difference and the different paths. But now he feels his chosen path is too near the hard edge of the street, the traffic, the madness of modernity rushing by to nowhere but itself in both directions, the sum total being near zero. He breathes in the cruel mad edge of the fueled economy; he is not gratified, nor enlightened, nor happy enough. A skip to the left again and Mr. Hubbell feels more comfortable knowing full well that comfort only begets discomfort. Perhaps, thought Mr. Hubbell, the best place to be as one moves forward, is dead center. He counts on the left and the right and back again and concludes that dead center is in fact the line between two paths, and with a half skip dead center becomes his chosen way forward.

Mr. Hubbell thinks about the peregrine falcons and thinks that if one could fly a path becomes not necessary, not important, irrelevant, not possible, and the way forward becomes a soaring three dimensional curve, a contradiction of linearity, a denial of the very existence of conformity, rigidity, structure, structuralism, form other than free form, a contradiction in terms. He raises his vision and looks high into the heavens and totally ignores the patterns at his feet. He steps lightly in order that this gravitational deviation does not cause him to loose balance and stumble out of control. His step becomes fluid and confident like the young predators soaring high over the building cliffs. His elevated view affords him wonder even as he dances along, and the edges of vertigo beckon.

Mr. Hubbell is at restless peace, and forgets his birthday, how old he is, or isn’t, as he seeks to understand the celebration of his approaching death.

18 August 1999