Thirty. I turn 30 next week.
I catch myself repeating the number, as if rubbing my thumb over a warm coin.
"For a man especially, the rest of his life is mostly defined by the time he's 30," is what my 76-year-old friend told me a couple of years ago.
At the time I doubted her statement, but I feel truth in it now. My habits are increasingly prone to stagnate. The ambition of my adolescence is waning. It's taken so long, so much effort and heartache, to find a woman who loves me better than anyone I've met before; a warm house that seems happier than not; and a steady job that doesn't make me rich but provides enough to have a life and use my college degree in journalism.
But I catch myself thinking, is this it? I am unimpressed with myself. Perhaps this is the feeling people bemoan so often as the line of us proceeds past this milestone etched with a three and a zero.
When I was a teen, I thought I'd basically be president of the country by now. Yet I continually discover how little I understand in the world and how few skills I actually possess. The more I learn the less I know - the old saying is disturbingly accurate.
I feel lucky just to live another day. Reveling in that appreciation too much, however, is likely to bury the dreams I thought I lived for.
Chasing dreams means risk. Nothing is free, and sacrifice and commitment are always the starting bid. I have sacrificed and committed. After playing the game for a while, though, the top of the mountain starts to look more dangerous than it might be worth.
According to Maslow's Pyramid, I'm doing OK. I have food and shelter, health, love and affirmation - but I can't take my eyes off that top, pointy block, the coveted "self actualization." Who doesn't want that? Of course I want it, but I'm at an impasse.
Life is a gambling game. Some wager is always on the table as long as we stick around. It's easier to play with confidence when you're young, just starting out and time is mostly all you have to lose, which you can easily afford for a while.
I don't have as much time now. At this point, to reach the next level, it seems I have to offer up something of equal value - my job with benefits, say. I could leave a good gig to chase a career that might have more fulfillment, or I can do nothing, in which case I'll keep my stability but risk losing opportunity.
In the latter case, I might live the rest of my life wondering what could have been. In the former case, I might slide all the way back to Square One, which I did four years ago.
If that happens, if I'm without a job that has benefits or at least pays very well, I might have to move to Nebraska or who knows where just to survive, and my girlfriend would be here, where her career is entrenched. Nebraska is a long way from the mountains, the closest place to hell on Earth as far as my lifestyle/religion is concerned. (Plus, as a Colorado native and graduate of CU-Boulder, I'm a Buffs fan to the end.)
After 30 years, I've been beaten up enough to know that bad things happen to the best of us all the time. More struggle lies ahead, there is no doubt.
Which route on the peak do I tackle from here? Right now, snow and rain has me stuffed in my tent, hoping the weather might clear enough to look ahead and get a better view of things before I commit to a line.
I can't stay here forever, though. Staying in a tent is not a life. At some point, I might have to step blindly into the storm and hope for luck.
What I want most for this birthday is a solid reason to believe the rest of my days will be at least as good as the first.
What I really need, however, is solid belief, that intangible power that can't be bought or taught and ultimately defines a life.
- "Open Space" appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.