My favorite part of Facebook is its birthday-reminder feature. It’s simple, efficient, and, most importantly, one-sided. The user is encouraged to “say something nice” or to “let so-and-so know you’re thinking of her”. No need to do something memorable, like include a D.H. Lawrence quote or type your message in Mandarin Chinese. You don’t even have to trouble yourself with spelling; a simple HBD will do, then you click a button, and your message is added to a group of names that the recipient will scroll through later in the day, making mental notes of who’s absent and comparing the total amount of wishes to those of other friends.
Unlike Facebook, a live person has the tendency to take it a step further and ask how your birthday feels, as though it’s a secondhand sport coat they just loaned you. This is especially true for “milestone” birthdays. Ask a person how it feels to turn twenty-one and you’re likely to hear “Awesome! I can finally throw away this Idaho driver’s license.” Ask a person who turns forty, like I did earlier this week, and you’ll probably hear one of two boilerplate responses. The first is the overly dramatic “it hasn’t sunk in yet”, as though they just received news that a loved one was murdered. The second is the cautiously optimistic “it wasn’t as bad as I thought”, which is most commonly associated with an extracted tooth or a prostate exam.
I’m considering two possible answers to this question. Maybe I’ll go with something cheeky, like “Turning forty feels great! I’m gonna treat myself to a bone density scan and then follow that up with a chemical peel!” But I’m leaning toward something that cuts right to the core, like “My back hurts when I sneeze, and no, I will not stop wearing my leather pants to the office, so fuck you.”
I’m not sure how different a person can feel the moment he or she turns forty. Age is a long, flat stretch of the Nebraska interstate; it’s hard for things to sneak up on you. A friend of mine told me that turning forty didn’t really hit him for about a week, like it was a pot brownie. “Holy shit,” he said one morning on his drive to work. “I’m forty years old. I’m forty…years…old.”
A year later the same friend told me that forty-one was even worse than forty. “Now I’m actually in my forties,” he said. “Before, I was just forty—singular. Now that it’s plural, it’s like…damn.”
When I told him that age is just an arbitrary number, he scoffed. “Yeah, easy for you to say. You’re still thirty-nine.”
What awaits us in our forties? A middle-aged version of the Hunger Games? Does a government agent show up at your house to confiscate all of your black t-shirts and Nike high tops?
One friend told me that significant physical and psychological changes do occur, not necessarily on your fortieth birthday, but somewhere in the early months of that year. “First off, your balls will drop two to three inches,” he said. “And you’ll become less tolerant of some things, but more tolerant of others. For instance: I will not budge when it comes to politics or how I raise my kids, but when it comes to rock bands reuniting with a new lead singer, I’ve softened my stance. Three years ago I would have been like ‘fuck no, Journey without Steve Perry is sacrilegious’. Now I’m totally cool with it. Something bizarre happens when you enter that decade.”
Others contend that if you want to feel young, spend more time around young people. Because nothing says Carpe Diem like a group of twenty-five year-olds checking their Instagram feeds. I work with a significant amount of young people, and whenever I broach a cultural topic with them, they usually preface each answer with their birth year: “I was born in 1990, Danny. How would I know what Woodstock is?”
I can’t argue with this. How would they know? They don’t listen to the radio or watch television, and it’s not like they have a little electronic box at their disposal that can answer any conceivable question in a matter of milliseconds.
As a test, I asked an intern if she could name the three countries that constituted the “Axis of Evil” in World War Two. She chewed on her carrot stick and made a face that implied either the vegetable was rotten or my question was a nuisance. Finally she shrugged and said “Russia, the Middle East, and I forget the third one.”
“Oh for three,” I said. “Not bad.”
After lunch the Human Resources Manager informed me that many liberal arts schools had begun curtailing their history curriculum, omitting certain events that students might find troubling, like war.
“What could be troubling about World War Two?” I said. “We’re talking about the Greatest Generation here.” She promptly responded that the term “Greatest Generation” had been deemed inflammatory in some college classrooms, as it sets an unfair standard for future generations. She then suggested I apologize to the intern for asking her a question she couldn’t answer, which could have potentially damaged her self-esteem. This is like being sued for negligence by a burglar who trips over your coffee table and breaks his knee.
Words were not readily available, so I stared at the HR Manager and made a face that reminded me of my father, the look he gave me whenever he caught me talking to myself, as I often did as a child, staging make-believe interviews with Johnny Carson while dressed in the blazer and tie from my First Communion. This is the face I’ve employed most often in response to today’s youth: slack-jawed, eyes narrowed. It’s not disgust, or shock, or anger; it’s disorientation, the way a senior citizen stares at a shopping mall site map, trying to calculate where they are in relation to the Cheesecake Factory.
I’ve tried to connect with the young people at work, but they speak in a hybrid language I don’t understand, a mixture of acronyms like FOMO, euphemisms like “Netflix and Chill”, and clinical terms like microaggressor. The other day a coworker told me he was going to meet “the fuckboy”. Upon seeing my look of bewilderment, he clarified: “Oh, that’s what I call my weed dealer,” he said.
I sighed and shook my head, remembering a simpler time, when drug dealers were named after whichever fast food restaurant they routinely met you at.
At work, there are three other men my age. The four of us have formed a lunchtime support group, where we walk to the health foods store and talk about the 80s. Some days we’ll engage in a light debate over rock bands, like Poison versus Motley Crue, other days we’ll take a headier tack and discuss the more controversial episodes of a popular family sitcom like Silver Spoons.
Thanks to my support group I now feel less alone among young people. I can even eat lunch with them in the kitchen, provided there’s at least one other person at the table that can quote The Lost Boys or dance like Vanilla Ice. We don’t need to speak, just the occasional eye contact over our sixteen-dollar Whole Foods’ salads while the rest of the kitchen breaks into a heated argument over Jennifer Lawrence’s career.
“You’re just getting old and bitter,” my friends tell me. “Don’t you think every generation looks at its successors with disappointment?” Maybe so, but there is one fundamental characteristic that seems to be dwindling with each new guard: suffering. Not real suffering, like incurable polio, but quasi-suffering, like growing up without a rewind button on your Walkman, or wearing generic sneakers on the first day of school. Suffering, like it or not, is the taproot of character: the easier life gets, the worse people are at it. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever my bowel disease flares up and I can’t make it to the bathroom in time.
When I was twenty-two I was the assistant to a movie producer in Los Angeles. Twelve hours a day sitting at a desk, headset on, listening to her phone calls. Rare was the day she didn’t publicly humiliate or degrade me for something inconsequential. She’d walk through her Benedict Canyon home, cell phone pressed against her ear, talking to some actor or director, all the while searching for a reason to demoralize me. Usually she’d stop her conversation mid-sentence and address me over the phone: “…I think this character would be a fabulous departure for you after that last—Danny, are you a fucking moron? How could you feed those cats pâté? Let me say it slowly this time, so you understand: Chunks…in…water. Jesus Christ, do you have a fucking brain, or don’t you?”
It’s one thing to be called an idiot in private, but in front of Ray Liotta? I’ve been consoled by Whoopi Goldberg because she felt so bad for me. I’ve been forced to apologize to Jared Leto for sending him the wrong Hermes scarf, to which he replied, “Dude, it’s no problem. Really. Please stop crying.” There is a select group of celebrities out there—some of them personal favorites—who’ve listened awkwardly to the sounds of my torture over such offenses as misplaced yoga mats or unpaid dry cleaning bills.
Every job I’ve had has come with its own demeaning quality. If I wasn’t getting yelled at in the professional world I was serving rich people in Newbury Street restaurants or parking their cars at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Do you know how to drive this car, or should we get someone who knows what the fuck he’s doing? This isn’t a bloody Honda, mate,” Rod Stewart said as he handed me the keys to his Rolls Royce.
“Yes sir,” I said, nodding subserviently and then driving his car to the VIP lot, where I thoroughly searched his glove box for drugs.
Maybe I’m biased, but I can’t see millennials enduring that kind of garden-variety abuse without a civil lawsuit. The interns at my office have their own parking spots. They make special requests for ergonomic keyboards. They ask the receptionist for restaurant suggestions when their parents are visiting. They sit in client meetings and interrupt senior-level management. They are important, they are special, and they demand to be treated with respect, but they can’t tell you who the president was before Reagan.
Now that I’ve set foot into my forties, it’s time to give something back to society. That something is pain, humiliation and suffering. You may think it’s sadistic or counterproductive, but slowly you’ll begin to see and hear the difference. Our popular music will sound less like Imagine Dragons and more like Bob Dylan. Movies will look less like The Fault In Our Stars and more like Midnight Cowboy. Fewer staged photographs will appear on social media, the kind with a coffee mug, a folded New York Times and a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, all artfully arranged atop a rustic kitchen table. Happiness will become a reward, and no longer a curated experience.
* * * *
“In a recent interview, Malcolm Gladwell said, quote, the only interest Mr. Pellegrini’s so-called ‘Crusade of Suffering’ serves is that of his own ego. A New Yorker editorial called you ‘grandiose, bitter, and incapable of adapting to a changing social climate’. There are a lot of critics out there who call you a fraud; some have even said you’re a cult leader. So let’s go on the record, once and for all: who is Danny Pellegrini, and why should I care?”
I leaned back in my chair and thought about it for a moment. “Terry, let me tell you a story,” I said. But before I could continue I was cut short by the sound of footsteps.
“Who are you talking to this early in the morning?”
I looked up and saw my girlfriend, Amanda, standing in the doorway to my study, making that disoriented face.
A lot has changed now that I’m old, but I still do the make-believe interviews. Only now they’re with NPR, not Carson.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
Best of the Fool: