How I Spent My 50th Birthday

A few weeks ago, I turned 50, and before I turned 50 I wrote an allegedly hilarious description of all the things I had planned for the day. So what did I really do? I guess I owe everyone a full description.

I planned to drive up to Bear Mountain very early and hike to the top. Although it sounds like a cute place to hike, it’s actually pretty grueling. But there was terrible monsoon-type weather, a really ferocious storm. My religious friends tell me that a 50-year-old man with really only one actual leg should not really go on that kind of hike by himself. (My left leg was massively reconstructed some time ago and now is mostly metal and screws.) So G-d, with this terrible monsoon, was stepping in to protect me. That seems pretty unreasonable to me. Even if true, I think He should have more important things on his mind. Why should He have made everyone’s life miserable to keep a 50-year-old man from falling on his ass? Why would G-d protect me, rather than John Lennon, whose unrecorded recordings over the last 35 years would undoubtedly have brought the world far more joy than the final book of the Watt O’Hugh trilogy? Anyway, I don’t buy it.

But what was I to do? I’d taken the day off, and told my family that I intended to spend it on the top of a mountain. Now I had the whole day to myself.

Oddly enough, although I didn’t plan to do this, I wound up watching an old Cavett episode on the web. When I was a kid, old people loved Dick Cavett. He was like a really attentive nephew. On the episode I saw, he politely listened to Groucho Marx and Truman Capote debate books.

Capote: I think [comic writing] is the hardest form of writing there is. … A writer like Evelyn Waugh, you know, is a great comic writer.
Groucho: Who’s that?
Capote: Evelyn Waugh? English novelist?
Groucho: Yes. Yes. Ring Lardner wasn’t bad either.
Capote: But I don’t consider him a comic … I don’t consider Ring Lardner a comic writer. I mean …
Groucho: He’s a dramatic writer, actually …
Capote: Yes, see? [Capote smiles extremely smugly. Audience laughs.]
Groucho: And, but he wrote, and all those books that he wrote, they were – Golden Wedding and all those? Eventually there was another one.
Cavett: Yeah.
Groucho: And Lardner, well of course, I was always crazy about Lardner.
Cavett: I find that people who like those writers of that period often – they always say Lardner was – they often say Lardner was the best, for some reason. I don’t know why.
Groucho: Well, I think he was close to it, in that era.

Wow, that was boring! I am not making that up. An actual conversation on the Dick Cavett show from 1971.

So I got up and went to the Guggenheim. The entire museum was filled with postcards that a conceptual artist had filled out. See the photos: floor after floor of postcards. I’m not making this up. Every day he wrote down what time he got up in the morning and mailed it out to some poor guy, some acquaintance who was doomed to receive a stupid postcard every day. One might say, “I got up at 10:30.” Another might say, “I got up at 11:45.” (He always managed to get a good sleep well into the morning, which pissed me off. Sleeps late, writes a postcard, gets a show at the Guggenheim.) This was part of a work called (appropriately) “I GOT UP.”

According to the Guggenheim, “Through radically restricted means, [his] work engages the personal and historical consciousness of place and time … Like his other serial works, I Got Up combines a rote, impersonal system with the communication of personal information. The mass production of postcards and mechanical stamps contrasts with the handmade nature of the work—the physical gesture of stamping—and the intimate moment it records. The series also contrasts a regular, repeated act with the act of doing something each day at changing times.”

Hmm. The communication of personal information. The time you get up is “information,” and sending it to someone is “communication.” The act of doing something at changing times. Like one morning getting up at 11 and the next morning getting up at, I dunno, some other time. The consciousness of place and time. Like if you get up at 11 in the morning, that’s a time, and if you write it down, that’s the consciousness of time. Because if you weren’t conscious of it, you couldn’t write it down now, could you?

I guess I get it.

But can the guy paint a picture of a flower? I mean, I can write a postcard!

Look, I don’t begrudge the guy making money off this. More power to him. Really. Because maybe he was a really nice guy.

I had budgeted three hours for the Guggenheim, but it really took me only about 15 minutes. I stood in front of a display of postcards and nodded. I read a few. I looked around to see what everyone else was making of this.

The day ended with a meal of shakshouka with the wife over on 10th avenue. That brought back memories. All’s well that ends well.

Steven Drachman's photo.
Steven Drachman's photo.