Friday, June 29, 2012

25 to Life

One June 8th, 1987, I emerged from the womb. On June 8th, 2012, which was just a few weeks past, I turned 25 years old. Normally, I'm not one to let a little thing like age stand in my way. It's just a number, after all, a little tally to remind oneself how much time (approximately) one has spent on this earth. It means nothing more and nothing less than a simple mathematical equation. So why, then, do we worry so much about our age? And why did I suddenly start doing it, too? What was it about the number 25 that made me want to dive under my bed in fright, never to emerge until I'd somehow mastered a way to hack into the time-space continuum and somehow freeze my age in this perfect position for the rest of eternity?

In a nutshell, I think it's because (like everyone else) I was intimidated.

Anyone who's met me in person knows that I'm pretty much an overgrown kid with stubble. I never really had what you could call a "normal" childhood; it got pretty wacky at times, and certain situations pretty much forced me to grow up way earlier than any kid should be expected to. In light of that, I'm pretty sure I developed what them crazy shrinks like to call "Peter Pan Syndrome" or something; because I was forced through some heavy stuff and had to make some big adult decisions as a kid, I seem to be making up for it now by being more of a kid than ever. Try to talk to me about politics or taxes or insurance or pretty much anything that has to do with money, and you'll notice that my eyes will start to develop a fine glaze, my mouth will slowly droop open, and I'll just proceed to smile and nod until you change the subject to something my little brain can wrap itself around. I could have a two-hour conversation with you about dragons. I could talk for days about the finer points of why Count Dooku's lightsaber is curved. I could write a friggin book about the evolution of Batman from his inception to present...but try to explain to me how no-fault car insurance works, and before long I'll be begging you for a quick and painless death so that I won't have to hear any more.

Now, that sounds like kind of a bad thing, doesn't it? Common sense dictates that any responsible adult living in this madcap world should have some kind of idea of how taxes and insurance work. They should at least know a little bit about residual income or savings accounts or the detailed benefits of choosing one cell phone plan over another. Knowing about this, after all, is important. More important than Batman, at any rate. But I just can't. I physically CANNOT get my brain to understand these things. When I try, it hurts. You'd get the exact same response from me as you would if you tried to explain these things to a 3-year-old. Which, in short, would be, "Huh?!?"

I don't think this will ever change. As far as taxes and accounting are concerned, I'm pretty sure that I'm a lost cause. And you know what? I'm cool with that. Batman and dragons and lightsabers may be silly things that were made up by silly people, but you know what else is a silly thing made up by silly people? Taxes and insurance and cell phone plans. They're all just random bits of data. Nothing more than numbers. Kinda like age. Some people care about 'em, and some just don't give a damn.

Like I said earlier, the idea of "getting old" never really bothered me, because I always feel like a kid inside anyway. It wasn't until this year that it started to actually make me think. Two separate incidents, one at each of my jobs, gave me a bleak feeling inside. And for a while, I felt a little down in the dumps. Until a third incident occurred which completely turned me around.

Incident #1: I recently came into the position of a Starbucks barista, which means I make overly-complicated caffeinated drinks for bitchy, picky soccer moms who leave their sunglasses on indoors because...well, because they're bitchy, picky soccer moms. During one of my shifts, I was asked to walk around the store with a tray full of frappuccino samples to hand out to the crowd. When I approached a small family, the mother thanked me and took one of the samples. Her little boy tugged on her sleeve and said, "Mommy, can I have a sample, too?" To which his mother replied, "Well, sweetie, you'll have to ask the Starbucks man for one." At that moment, I froze dead in my tracks because I realized it was the first time ever that someone had referred to me as a "man" without adding the prefix "young" or the suffix "child". I was so stunned that I didn't even hear the kid when he asked me for a drink. I was sure that his mother must have been talking about somebody else; perhaps my manager was standing right behind me and he was the fabled "Starbucks Man" in question. But nope.

It hit me all of a sudden right then and there, in the middle of the store, as I stood holding that tray of delicious frozen mocha-coconut beverages amidst a crowd of increasingly confused onlookers. I realized that no matter how many Simpsons quotes I knew, no matter how many Star Wars action figures I owned or how far I could get in Super Mario Bros. without dying or what my favourite Pokemon was...I wasn't a little kid anymore. I wasn't a teenager, either. Hell, I don't even classify as a young adult! According to my age, I am, without question, an adult. A man. A grown-up. Remember when we used to say,"When I grow up, I want to..."? I've reached that point, the point where I'm supposed to stop dreaming and make that "..." a reality.

Incident #2: The day before my 25th birthday, I was called in to work a shift at the banquet hall (my other job). I was expecting another wedding, or a stag, or a baby shower, or an engagement party, or the usual fare. Instead, the party in question was something I'd never done before: a high school prom.

As I went about my business, serving pasta and veggies to a bunch of hyperactive 18-year-olds who were too focused on trying to get laid to touch any of their food, I felt as if the greater hands of fate had put me in this position before my 25th birthday so that I could face my own mortality in some weird way. Here were these upstart youngsters, graduating from high school, fresh and ready and eager to take on the big world that waited just beyond the horizon. Many of those kids will go on to college and university to become doctors or executives or chefs or hotel managers or teachers. And here I was, seven years their senior, with nothing to show for it but two minimum wage jobs, a stagnating acting career, and a few unpublished manuscripts that nobody's interested in reading because "ooohhh, they're too long". Needless to say, I was kinda bummed out.

And then, today, something glorious happened. Incident #3: I beat The Legend of Zelda.

Being one of the biggest and most epic games in the entire Nintendo library, very few people back in the day could boast that they'd successfully finished the game. It was one of the very first video games I ever remember getting my grubby little paws on. If I close my eyes, I can still see myself: I'm 3 years old, sitting on my little plush blue chair in the middle of the living room in the Rexdale-based apartment I used to call home. The coffee table was to my right, the ginormous tacky wall unit to my left. And in front of me, encased in a cocoon of wood grain, was the television set. I had a plastic NES controller in my hand, and a second after my mom pressed the POWER button on the console, that little red light blinked on, and the Zelda theme music began to whistle its way through the television speakers.

I spent hours upon hours hunkered down in that blue chair, trying in vain to get any farther than Level 4, but I just couldn't. Anyone who's played it can back me up here, too: The Legend of Zelda ain't no walk in the  park. As a little kid, I could beat the likes of Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog easily. But Zelda? No such luck. The game defeated me. I loved it enough to keep trying, but could never get far.

Until today.

June 29th, 2012: I booted up my Nintendo Wii and selected the virtual console version of The Legend of Zelda. After hacking and boomeranging my way through nine increasingly merciless levels (and admittedly using a walk-through to help me find some heart pieces and stuff) I stepped into that last room and lay the smackdown on Ganon, the Prince of Darkness himself. And you know what? He was surprisingly easy.

After he exploded, I made my way behind him to where the imprisoned Zelda stood. She proclaimed me the Hero of Hyrule and thanked me for all of the shit I had to go through to get this far. Then the credits rolled, and the game congratulated me on a job well done, ending with a reminder that I could now try the much more challenging "Second Quest". And that was it.

I sat perched on my couch, Wii controller in hand, my memories flooding back to that apartment in Rexdale where the much younger me had tried in vain to get this far. And it hit me like a ton of 8-bit bricks. Ganon, Zelda, Link, the Triforce, all of opened my eyes to what was really going on with this whole "turning 25" business.

Like I said, my childhood was rough around the edges, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. We've all had to sit through some pretty unpleasant times with nothing to comfort us but the hopes that they would soon be over and we could get back to the good stuff. We've faced a lot of challenges and had to make some pretty hard decisions, and for better or worse, they've all led us to where we are today. Whether you're 5 or 15 or 25 or 75, you are who you are because of what you've done to get here. And though things may seem hard or intimidating, they're really not all as bad as they appear. When Ganon started attacking me, I was startled by how quickly I was able to dispel him with a few hits of my sword. And before I knew it, he was dead at my feet. I was expecting some nigh-invincible demi-god of evil. Instead, I only had to deal with a big blue pig in a helmet who exploded after five hits.

And when Zelda thanked me for my courage and praised me for getting this far, she really wasn't kidding. In 25 years, I've accumulated a lot of experiences. Some good, some bad, some absolutely mind-blowingly fantastic. Each one of them has made me stronger and taken me one step closer to this point. If everyone would take the time to look back on things they've been through, they'd congratulate themselves, too. Finishing school. Getting married. Making friends. Keeping friends. Performing good deeds. Learning to drive. Learning to walk. Just like in the Nintendo game, these steps became increasingly more difficult as time wore on. But we never shut the game off and gave up. We kept on playing, discovering new things, forging new paths, and making wiser choices. So congratulations to all of you for making it this far. We've beaten Ganon, we've rescued Zelda, and (best of all) we have more to look forward to!

The game encouraged me to try the "Second Quest", which features a rearranged world map that's twice as hard as the first game. When I turned 25, I reached a point in my life where one chapter had definitely ended and a new one was about to start. Up until now, I'd just been focusing on how slow my progress seemed to be, and how intimidating the upcoming chapters looked from my perspective. But now that I've learned to look back on the accomplishments it took to get here, I can proudly and confidently flip the bird at the screen and tell Ganon to go fuck himself, because I know that if I could make it this far, you can be damn sure that I'll trudge my way through the Second Quest, too. And who knows? Maybe that will take me another 25 years, when I'm 50 and I'm huddled in front of the Wii 4000, ignoring the young man in the business suit who's desperately trying to explain to me how retirement savings plans are supposed to work. Or maybe I can use my newfound knowledge to beat the Second Quest in a matter of weeks. Either way, I'll be there with bells on.

To all those of you who've sat back and frowned at the prospect of aging, who've desperately sought after hair dye and botox and sports cars and trophy wives to latch onto that youth that you feel is slipping out of your grasp, relax and take it from me. That youth isn't going anywhere unless you want it to. You're just in the middle of the Second Quest, babe. And you're going to beat it...eventually. We all will. So bring it on.

Cue the Zelda theme.

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