40 black balloons go by
I sat in my office holding a black balloon, trying to remember the quiet way to let the air out.
Copy Editor Kim, one of the co-conspirators, told me there were exactly 40 black balloons in my office. For a few days, I left them there as decoration, the smell of latex giving my work space a slightly dizzy, medical facility atmosphere.
Coming in on a Monday morning I went after them first with scissors.
The sound of it reverberated off the walls, deafening me. I approached a second balloon, wincing as my childhood dog, Muffin, used to when I played my trumpet.
I work on the fourth floor of the Breakwater Marketplace building in Rockland. We're next to a community college and a physical therapy office, above government offices, at least one lawyer, a daycare. I pictured people all over the building looking up at their ceilings, frowning. "Newspaper people," they would huff. What a tribe of brats and misfits we are.
This is what it feels like to be 40.
BANG! Giggles from co-workers down the hall.
I had come to work Jan. 30 just like any other morning. It was all about the iced coffee and planning my day. It was a Wednesday, so at least I didn't have a deadline. When I came around the corner, I knew I was in trouble.
A "Happy Birthday" banner was hanging on the door. Two bright orange traffic cones were stationed in front of the door warning, "CAUTION! 40 YEAR OLD SENIOR MOMENT," and my first thought, oddly, was, "That's not in AP style!"
Inside, along with the balloons, was a poster depicting my life. Me as a cute, pudgy, innocent baby. Me dressed as Darth Maul from Star Wars one Halloween. My boom box from the '80s, my buddies from the early '90s. Me and Christine in college, then getting married, then with Wesley in his incubator. Me as a newspaper man, cutting clippings on the floor of our first apartment in Rockland.
"Oh no!" I said, seeing it.
It was kind of interesting to see the phases of my life spread out like that. After all, that's more how memories work. You don't think of your biography as a timeline, do you?
Memories are like a shoebox full of Polaroids. On a rainy Saturday afternoon you pull it down from the closet and go through them, one picture at a time and all out of order. "Ah, this is the time I went to church camp with my cousin Ben, and here is the time we went to Washington, D.C."
A few days later, here I was, letting the air out.
Juliette, one of our reporters, stopped by my office to talk about a story she was working on. She winced as I sank a push pin into a balloon.
"I seem to remember on 'Super Friends' they said if you put tape on it and then push a pin through, it will let the air out slowly," I was saying.
"'Super Friends?'" She's young.
"Stupid 'Super Friends!'" Maybe it was "Schoolhouse Rock" or "3-2-1 Contact."
"Why don't you untie them?"
"I tried. They won't come undone."
"Pop them up here, closer to the knot," she suggested. Her last job was working with children in schools and I think I detect that teacher tone now.
Finally I get the hang of the tape trick. Air slowly hisses out of the balloon, like the sands of time running out of my hourglass.
"You're over the hill now," Dad says on the phone. There's a note of glee in his voice, like when he told me the hernias he had operations for are hereditary.
"Why does that make you so happy?" I asked him both times.
Why not, I suppose. One of the pictures on my office wall is of him, Mom and me when I was about the age my son is now. Dad was probably younger than I am. At the time I thought of him as the grownup, the guy with all the answers. Now as I look into the picture, I see a guy of 38, 39, thinking, "What am I doing? I have to take care of these people!" I see a guy just like me.
I remember writing a poem in his card on his 40th birthday. "Oh no, the big four-oh," it said. That little rhyme was probably the best indicator of where my writing career was headed.
But I think my birthday gave my colleagues a little fun. My understanding now is that on a busy Tuesday deadline day, reporters and designers were sneaking off to the ads department to blow up black balloons.
"It looks like you're loved," a visitor to my office said, seeing all the balloons and the pictures.
I smiled. A thought like that can make you feel downright young.
Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.