I had a tiny breakdown last week. I blame Theodore Roosevelt.
People go on and on about Roosevelt, talking about how he rode a moose, admiring him for getting shot just before a speech and powering through it, thanking him for regulating food so we don’t accidentally eat poor orphans anymore. Whatever. He’s always been a little too mainstream for me. I like my presidents so low-key that people forgot about them while they were still in office.
My dad gave me TR’s biography months ago, but it wasn’t until the last A Song of Ice and Fire character had been horribly disemboweled that I took a crack at it, and now I understand the hype. Theodore Roosevelt was essentially the human equivalent of the Energizer bunny, but better.
At Age 23, Teddy Roosevelt had…
1. …mastered German, French, Greek, and Latin.
2. …become a published ornithologist.
3. …graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, as a member of its most exclusive clubs.
4. …beat illness and asthma so handily that he was an amateur boxer, a rower, and, when the Harvard doctor suggested he get a desk job or die, said, “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you told me not to do.”
5. …met, courted, and married his first wife.
6. …published a book on the naval war of 1812 which is still used as a textbook.
7. …hunted for buffalo in the Dakotas, where, incidentally, someone would later carve his giant head into a mountainside.
7. …begun construction on a mansion.
8. …entered Columbia Law School, excelled, and then dropped out because he had…
9. …successfully run for the New York Assembly and became a prominent member almost immediately.
Reading this has been incredibly inspiring. It’s also slowly crushing my soul, the way Roosevelt slowly crushed the life out of the wolves he caught with his bare hands by reaching into their throats when they jumped on him. (That’s an exaggeration. Teddy never caught a wolf bare-handed, but he sure as hell tried.)
Listing his accomplishments at age 23 may seem strange, since Roosevelt later went on to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, fight honorably in the Spanish-American War, successfully run for New York governorship and then the vice presidency, and win the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, and there was that whole “President of the United States during its golden years” thing. TR’s 23rd year was impressive, but by no means his best. I picked 23 because last Friday was my 23rd birthday and Teddy got me all worked up.
At Age 23, I Have…
1. …forgotten pretty much all the Spanish I knew. I can have a conversation in German if no one else speaks.
2. …consistently mixed up “ornithologist” and “oncologist”.
3. …never begun to think about even applying to Harvard. That first list has two #7s in it. That’s how much I’m not Harvard material.
4. …never been athletic at all. Doctors will never have to tell me to sit down, because I already do that.
5. …recently stopped saying “boyfern” instead of “boyfriend”. TAKE THAT, COMMITMENT ISSUES!
6. …never written a book. My friend and I have talked about it, and I made us a shared Google Doc that I haven’t looked at in over a week. That should count for something.
7. …been to South Dakota, where I saw Teddy’s giant head but no buffalo.
7. …started renting an apartment twice my age with a charming amount of lead paint.
8. …rejected the idea of law school because I…
9. …looked into library school instead, but then I got a job where I’m paid to write on the internet, so I postponed that plan. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.
TR managed to get all those things done because he never, ever stopped moving (like a shark with a mustache and pince-nez). I used to take a nap after work, but now I see ain’t nobody got time for that. Life is short and I’ve spent all my time sitting on a couch when I should have been on safaris and running for public office and stuff. I’ve never felt more inadequate in my life.
The day before my birthday was a little rough. I don’t even feel justified saying that, because when TR was 25, his wife died after giving birth to his daughter on the same day his mother died of scarlet fever. IT WAS VALENTINE’S DAY. My worst day doesn’t approach that level of awfulness. Last Thursday was falling apart in little, stupid ways, and to top it all off, I realized I’ve never killed any buffalo, it had taken me a week-and-a-half to read a third of a book TR would have knocked out in one night (that one is not an exaggeration), and my 23rd birthday was one more unimpressive milestone in the inexorable march towards death.
That’s how Teddy Roosevelt made me cry in the middle of a gas station parking lot.
I woke up the next morning with a different attitude, though. Theodore Roosevelt should have died as a sickly child, or after college when he went hunting for grizzlies instead of sitting down, or when someone shot him mid-speech. If you could go at any moment, you have to cram in as much life as you can. Maybe “speak softly and carry a big stick” means “sneak up on life and beat it until it starts crying”. So that’s what I decided to do, because it was my birthday and on your birthday you do what you want.
All day, I kept thinking about what a weird, cool tradition birthdays are. It’s really easy to think about being one year closer to the end with so much left to accomplish, but it’s more fun to think of it as the one day a year when you’re the most-special person in the world (even if it’s only in your head). You’re so special, people give you free dessert and presents that essentially say, “I’m grateful you exist! This gift is to thank you for being alive and here and great! Keep that up!”
And that’s how Teddy Roosevelt gave me the best birthday ever.