No more meaningless than anything else

The rumors are true. In less than a month I will be officially old. I’m not talking about 25 or some silly age that kids think is old.

I’m talking about the age that means there’s no denying you’re an adult. This is the age that makes you too old to think about dating someone in their twenties. Not because you don’t want to, but because people in their twenties also think you’re too old for it. (Naturally, if you’re rich or famous these rules don’t apply. In those rare cases you can afford to be any age.) I’m talking about the age when people who are really old have stopped saying, “You’re not that old.”

I can make myself feel better about my upcoming birthday by considering a few things. I only remember a handful of days and events from everything that happened before I was 14 or 15, so by that measure, none of the first decade or so should not count toward my age.

I mean, shit, when I was seven I was just sitting around an HO-scale model train set for like weeks at a time. That ain’t livin’.

It wasn’t until I started building cool shit that I really started living. When I was in the Scouts, I built a car that won the Pinewood Derby at my school. I got a big old trophy for that. Then I built a replica of Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort Hotel out of Legos and entered it in a contest at the local mall. That won me $100 worth of Legos from Thornbury’s Toys. A hundred dollars worth of Legos was a lot. These were 1980’s dollars and I was a kid. It was like a gold mine (if you replaced the gold with Legos and the mine shaft with a mall toy store).

Things have changed since then. These days the Boy Scouts are basically a Christian militant group, Thornbury’s is long out of business, and a hundred bucks for a kids’ toys is maybe enough to get a Trapper Keeper with a couple Pac Mans on it… or whatever kids like these days. I don’t know. I try not to look at them little shits. And the dollar? Hell, it ain’t hardly worth seven kronor.

Something else that makes me feel better about my age is that when people try to guess it, they always guess it super low. I met a Swede just last weekend who gave it a whirl and was off by ten years. Ten years in the good direction, I should say.

Wow. Ten years ago. Those were also good times. Bill Clinton was president, the US Government was running a surplus, people had jobs and the dollar had value. There had only ever been one US war in Iraq and one President Bush – and we thought both of those were terrible. We really had no idea what madness was lurking around the corner. Nobody had even heard of Nickelback or “Hollaback Girl” yet. Precious times to be sure.

The third thing I think about when I want to not feel so old is that I didn’t start drinking until I was 27. That is probably enough of a story for another day, but I think not drinking while you’re going through all your first heartbreaks and hard knocks is probably a smart approach if you don’t want to age too quickly.

Certainly no one can discount the youth-preserving effects of not getting married and not having kids. I hear it’s different if their your own kids. Screaming kids that make it unpleasant for everyone else in the restaurant doesn’t seem to bother you as much if they’ve already ruined the rest of your life.

Other people also like to pitch in from time to time try to make me feel better about my age. Some people say things like, “Forty is the new thirty.” Well, this sounded like a pretty good deal but I looked into it, and contrary to popular belief, it turns out that forty is actually still forty.

My research revealed that no such official decree has been issued to alter the birth records of everyone born more than 40 years ago. In fact, I further discovered that thirty is neither the new twenty. It is still thirty. (Can you use the word ‘neither’ like that?)

I can remember when my parents turned forty and the avalanche of tongue-in-cheek “Over the Hill” birthday cards that accompanied it. I’m not so good at math, but I’m pretty sure that even if I start now, I won’t be able to meet the deadline of having kids who remember my birthday next month.

There is honestly very little I can do to avoid the upcoming date.

I realize that even without this milestone (is it a kilometerstone in Europe?) I’m already at the age where it is inevitable that people who are younger than I am are doing things more awesome and more relevant. If I do something creative, it’s probably not going to be nearly as cool or fresh as someone younger. Those youngsters are so edgy nowadays!

Case in point of someone younger than me who has excelled in life is the United States’ new ambassador to Sweden, Matthew Barzun. Okay, he’s barely younger than me. I’m 39 and he’s 38.

He was appointed by President Obama some months ago, but last week he finally arrived on the scene in Sweden. Accompanied by much local fanfare and tradition, he arrived in a horse-drawn carriage to present his credentials to the King. (Good morrow, m’lord. I bear warm tidings unto thee on behalf of the President of the Colonies and other such old timey salutations.)

In a glowing profile, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper declared “The ambassador behind Obama’s campaign success” and taped a video feature with him for their website, quizzing him on all things Swedish.

“The new ambassador from the United States had been in Sweden for just over a day when he was exposed to Dagens Nyheter‘s Sweden Test. The pressure is intense, but he passed it with flying colors,” they wrote. Whew! He made us proud.

Like me, Barzun is also from Louisville. I don’t know him personally, but we do have some mutual friends. He mentioned Louisville’s own Will Oldham in the article as one of his favorite musicians. Whoa! I like Will Oldham, too!

We have a few other things in common as well. He started the Internet news company Cnet which was later sold to CBS for over a billion dollars. I started the social networking site EggFly which was later sold to Ikimbo 2.0 for less than a billion dollars.

He worked on the campaign that helped Barack Obama get elected to the presidency. I worked on the campaign that helped me not get elected to the Kentucky Senate.

I don’t know how long he’s been studying, but I think the only edge I may have over him is with the Swedish language. I have a feeling he has better teachers than I do. Kanske han kommer att ge mig ett jobb på ambassaden därför kunde jag studera gratis, eller bjuda in mig och mina svenska kompisar till en stor fest i alla fall! (Förlåt till allihop för att jag alltid mördat ditt språk.)

Matthew Barzun isn’t the only impressive, inspirational person I’ve discovered lately who is younger than me.

A few weeks ago, I was going to meet some friends at the rooftop café of Stockholm’s Kulturhuset, a massive, gorgeous, city-funded complex of art and theatre that is located in the center of the city.

While taking the escalators up and passing through the various floors of the building, an extensive installation of colorful, gritty paintings with cartoonish speech bubbles caught my attention. I had to stop and look. By no means do I speak excellent Swedish, however, I can read and understand simple things and, like anyone learning a language, you end up learning all the dirty and absurd stuff first.

These paintings – a few of which appear to the right throughout this story – were perfect for someone at my level of Swedish and even more perfect for someone with my sense of humor.

Just the title of the exhibition and the first piece killed me. It depicts a crazed doctor talking to his patient, a little boy with a teddy bear head: “Eh, it’s nothing so harmful, it’s only a little AIDS.” That is also the title of the relentless book she has out that is a collection of her work, available online at this link.

(My apologies if my translations are not up to par. “Farligt” for example, like a lot of Swedish words, has many meanings: harmful, dangerous, critical, hot, risky, perilous, hazardous. Swedish pronunciation and context seem like two additional languages. Maybe “critical” would be better than “harmful” but either way it’s hilarious. Or better yet, maybe these are serious paintings that deal with important social issues but my Swedish is so bad and my humor is so sick that I think they’re funny.)

There are dozens of pieces in the exhibition and because of the language I have returned to Kulturhuset a few times to see them again and to make sure I’m getting it all. Some of the pictures have so much peripheral detail in addition to the main characters that it’s kind of impossible to see it all. One giant wall of maybe four by five meters is covered in tiny black and white drawings.

After I got over the initial shock and delight of how incredibly hysterical I thought it all was, a few things hit me.

When I was looking at the art without knowing anything about the artist, I suppose I presumed the pieces must have been created by a grizzled, cranky, old man in a wooden shack somewhere, scrawling out his manic manifesto one giant frame at a time, in a mess of paint and tireless endeavor.

I was wrong about all of that. The artist, in fact, is a young Swedish woman named Sara Granér. She’s 28 and lives in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.

After finding an article about her on the Dagens Nyheter site (and this one), well, again, no surprises, but she’s cute, too. (What did you expect? Of course she’s cute, she’s Swedish. Everyone and everything in this whole damn country is cute. The language, the holidays, the people, the money, the furniture, the signs. The public buses have curtains! Finding a girl in Sweden who isn’t cute is as hard as finding one who doesn’t smoke.)

The other thing that occurred to me when thinking about her art and its abrasive commentaries – using everything including serious diseases, children, authority, careers and life itself as fodder for jokes – or a dude with two jagged-sharp knives, dressed up as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, berating a sad, overachieving child with a puppy’s head for having taught himself how to become an engineer – …where was I? Oh yes, it occurred to me that something this awesome would never be hung anywhere near a publicly-funded arts space in the United States. Certainly not in Kentucky.

Of course, if it were, people would cry about how offensive it is, a media frenzy would ensue until a public apology was issued, the art was taken down and the curator was out looking for a job. God forbid if any of the pictures had filthy boobies on them.

It reminded me of the advertisements that were posted around Stockholm earlier this year with the slogan “God is not probable.” These ads were for the Humanists and advocated a discounting of religion’s role in society, and a larger separation of church and state.

Ironically, the über-conservative Clear Channel Communications owns the billboards where the ads were displayed. Yes, the same company that took Howard Stern off its broadcast stations prompting his move to satellite radio. Would Clear Channel have accepted any such ads in an American city? Not a chance.

Here in Sweden, something like Sara Granér’s art which would be considered inflammatory or disrespectful in America, is hung in a public space. Not only did it make me laugh, it made my life better by getting me excited about discovering something new and fun. Sure, it’s not for everybody. I saw some older people walking by it who didn’t get it or think it was funny, but that’s all they did. They walked by and left it for the people who did enjoy it. Not everybody has to agree with you, your religion, your morals, your views.

For America’s self-appointed reputation as a free country, it has always seemed to me like there are so many things you just can’t say in America. So few people dare to touch topics like misunderstanding or disease with humor for fear of offending someone. Obviously, these are the topics that could maybe use a little humor.

Americans are always told about – and repeating it back to each other – how they live in a free country and the rest of the world just doesn’t have it so good. I really hate saying things like this, but I have been to twenty other countries and it only took a few of them for me to start seeing that the United States is one of the least free of the bunch. You don’t even have to go to Holland or Denmark to find it. More freedom is as close as Canada.

What’s it like to live in a country where the police aren’t feared or regarded as adversaries? What’s it like to not feel like you have to look behind you when you’re walking alone at night? What’s it like to not have to worry about the cost if someone in your family gets sick? What’s it like to be able to go to college if you want to? What’s it like to be surrounded by educated people who speak multiple languages fluently? Freedom isn’t how many guns you can own without a background check. Freedom is feeling like you’ll never need a gun.

I say a lot of nice things here about Sweden and the Swedish people. It’s all true, but perhaps one thing I don’t say enough is that I am an American. I still am and I probably always will be. Of course it is so nice to be in Sweden and to see how things can be done in ways that benefit the general good of the people. A lot of these commentaries eventually bring me back to a sadness for America. The people in the United States deserve this quality of life as well. Everyone on Earth deserves it. It’s not just health care, public transit, social services, education, and information, it’s a prevailing air of dignity, respect, and the feeling that we’re all sharing the experience of life. It’s a circle and all of those things exist because of each other.

We really are all in this together and it is only to everyone’s benefit if we make the journey as comfortable as we can for as many as we can. It is to the rich man’s benefit that his city is devoid of poverty and slums. It is to the corporation’s benefit to have healthy workers. It is to your benefit that your neighbor went to college. It is to all your neighbors’ benefit that you don’t lose your job.

Earlier in this story, I mentioned that I’m at the age where younger people are doing more amazing things than I am. I know it’s always a bad idea to measure your own accomplishments against those of anyone else. Different people are afforded different opportunities and unique upbringings, and as a result, each person is capable of a different set of exploits.

Some people get their 10,000 hours of practice in at an early age and others are in the right places at the right times for things to click in the proper sequence.

It really doesn’t matter if Sara Granér or Matthew Barzun are younger than me – or better looking or have more money or draw funnier pictures or speak better Swedish. What matters is that they have opened my imagination and entertained me. It is to my benefit that they exist and are doing what they’re doing. It makes things more pleasant for me.

This is the kind of thinking that needs to be going on. We’ve seen what has happened to the quality of life in the United States as the richest 1% of people have continued to amass more and more wealth and resources. It has happened at the expense of everyone else.

You could argue that capitalism can’t be sustained because there is only a fixed amount of resources on the planet or that socialism doesn’t benefit those who are able to work harder. Sweden is using both: capitalism where its appropriate to grow business and socialism to address the common needs everyone has. Maybe there are some things that shouldn’t turn a profit. (Gasp! What? You want us to take care of somebody because it’s the right thing to do? Sounds expensive. Shoot me a message, we’ll hook up tomorrow. Sorry, bro, I have a 1:30 tee time.)

Sweden isn’t perfect, nothing is, but it’s far from the out-of-control scenario we see playing out in Washington, where instead of trying to help people survive it’s a madhouse of already fattened pigs at the trough, stabbing each other in the back to get their friends a bigger piece of the pie.

Homer Simpson once professed in awe, “Wow, Mr. Burns, you’re the richest man in the world. You own everything!” To which the frail, old man replied thoughtfully, “Yes, but I’d give it all away to have just a little bit more.”

The real reason to not worry about comparing your accomplishments to anyone else’s amounts to the ultimate way we’re all in the same boat: no matter what anyone else will ever achieve, they will ultimately die.

You know the guy who invented the light bulb? He’s dead. The guy who figured out the Earth revolves around the sun? Dead. The guy who invented the swivel chair, the pedometer and wrote the Declaration of Independence? Also dead.

Someday even I – the guy who told you that the dude who invented the swivel chair, the pedometer and wrote the Declaration of Independence were the same person – yes, one day even I will meet my maker and/or become just another 6-foot-long worm feeder underneath a beautiful Kentucky hillside stocked with hundreds of the same. All this, not any time soon, I hope.

As Charles de Gaulle famously declared, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” Quite an observation from some asshole who is now sleeping in the bone yard surrounded by indispensable men. Charles de Gaulle? Super French and super dead.

So is life completely meaningless? Yeah, I suppose it is, but no more meaningless than anything else.