Let others freak out at turning 30 or 40. Let others greet their new decades with $12-an-ounce moisturizing cream and anxiety attacks. Not me. I'm no more mesmerized when the zeroes click into place in my life than when the speedometer turns over a new 10,000-mile mark.
But this odd-numbered birthday is different. This one has been lurking around, waiting to ambush my mind. You see, at the age I'm about to be, Mozart was dead already.
Now why, you ask, would someone whose musical career ended in the college chorus line of Guys and Dolls be worrying about Mozart?
Because Mozart has always been a convenient symbolic figure in my life. Someone to make me feel totally inadequate. Someone not to be able to live up to. Someone to make me miserable. Nice healthy things like that. I mean, if you want to feel like a wipeout, there is always the specter of old Wolfgang inking in the G clefs.
Remember when you were 5 and thrilled at being able to tie your shoelaces? Mozart was composing minuets. Remember when you were 30 and still hadn't "found yourself"? Mozart had finished The Marriage of Figaro. Need I go on?
Of course, Wolfgang isn't the only such handy source of low self-esteem and discontent. In the third grade there was always one kid who was on the gold book when you were on the green. There was one guy in college who had his first play produced on Broadway while you were completing your language requirement.
I had two friends publishing novels in New York the year that I was writing obituaries in Detroit.
I suspect that most of us were geared at a young age to all those grades and annual reports. There wasn't any such thing as an overachiever back then. He was just someone ahead of us. Someone to chase.
Now, however, it strikes me that there may be some advantage in arriving at the age at which Mozart was dead already. You don't have Wolfgang to kick yourself around with anymore. It occurs to you that you are far too old to be precocious, and you'll never be a Young Achiever. You'll never again be able to write Don Giovanni at 31.
Instead of whipping yourself to mush after the goals of others, you begin slowly to reset those goals. All this is called learning to live with yourself.
You stop living for Who's Who or the obituary column. You begin to give up the notion of living for the record, for others, or for the fleeting immortality of card catalogues and Chamber of Commerce plaques. As one friend put it: "If I'm not going to be Shakespeare, I might as well enjoy life."
At the age at which Mozart was dead already, you begin to gain what some people call perspective and others call "losing the old drive" and others call mellowness. For a day or so you might be repulsively philosophical. You might ruminate on the fact that the earth will be cold in a billion years or so, that most people's life's work is their life, and that there's not a whole lot of point in just making points.
The next trick, I suppose, is to learn to accept your limitations without trapping yourself in them and to find some of the important lines: the line between eternal dissatisfaction and smugness, the line between anxiety and boredom, the line between being driven and being immobilized. The line that we describe as a balanced life.
As for me, I may get there yet. I have at least finally realized one truth that comes with the candles: I'd rather be alive than be Mozart.