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Birthday girl gains fresh perspective on 40 years



I TURN 40 today, and though I’m not the most accomplished person in the world, I feel like I’ve done pretty well for someone who was originally identified as a tumor rather than a fetus.

Gotta love that cutting-edge, 1970s prenatal care.

In any case, I was feeling pretty good about myself until I read The New York Times obituary this week for John Fairfax, who by the time he was my age, had pretty much done everything but colonize the moon.

If you’re not familiar with Fairfax, who died this month at 74, he’s basically what you’d get if Indiana Jones and James Bond conceived a child during a joint rock-climbing expedition and then took turns over the next nine months carrying him in a uterus made of rugged leather and hand-forged steel before giving birth to him—naturally, of course—on a homemade raft over the Mariana Trench during typhoon season.

The man’s DNA was made of derring-do.

As a teen, Fairfax ran off to live by himself in the Amazon jungle, later becoming a fur trapper, pirate and smuggler before successfully crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a rowboat. As a senior citizen, he made his living as an expert card player.

By comparison, my own life felt lacking in both the swash and buckle departments.

Then I remembered that I’m 40, which means the clock is ticking on my already-diminished mental faculties, which means that pretty soon, the actual events of my life will matter much less than what I perceive them to be.

So starting now, my perception—made hazy by time, space and pharmaceuticals—is that Fairfax’s adventurous life closely parallels my own.

For instance:

  • Fairfax was born in Rome, Italy. I was born in Georgia. There’s a Rome in Georgia. Eerily similar.
  • At 9, after a dispute with a fellow Boy Scout, Fairfax swiped a gun from the Scoutmaster and shot up the campsite.  I was a Scout once. And I’ve been camping. And I’ve fired a gun. That none of those things happened concurrently is really beside the point.
  • When he was 13, Fairfax, who had moved to Buenos Aires with his mother, ran off to live by himself in the jungle, where he survived by skinning jaguars and wildcats and selling the pelts to locals. Likewise, I have been bitten by mosquitos and I have skinned my own knees many, many times, which is awfully close.
  • In college, upset over a failed relationship, Fairfax attempted suicide by challenging a jaguar to a wrestling match. At the last minute, he changed his mind and ended the fight with his gun. In college, upset over a failed relationship, I briefly considered fighting a jaguar to the death. Instead, I ate an entire package of Oreo cookies while listening to the complete works of Morrissey, which is almost the same thing. Also, several years later, I tried to give my cat a bath. I was unarmed, so I’m pretty sure my scars are way worse than Fairfax’s.
  • Fairfax once served as a pirate’s apprentice. So did Westley, the hero in “The Princess Bride,” which it just so happens I’ve seen 14 times.
  • In 1969, Fairfax became the first person to row across an ocean alone, crossing the Atlantic in 180 days in a wooden rowboat. When he came ashore in Hollywood, Fla., he’s reported to have uttered, “This is bloody stupid.” I said the same exact thing in the early ’90s after spending all five days of a family cruise to the Bahamas seasick in my cabin.

Swash and buckle, baby. Swash and buckle.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428