My birthday is a good time to inventory my accumulated wisdom. Sadly, there ain’t much. The longer I live, the less I know. But what I do know will fit quite comfortably here.

I will spare you the obvious. If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you. I will omit those issues that divide us, such as whose politics rocks harder and which religion has the most vengeful god. And I won’t go anywhere near the stockpile of trivia that chokes my brain, things that would only appeal to specialists, like batting averages, chess openings, and how to put a positive spin on disco.

What’s left? The Magnificent 7: Seven items that I hope will have some practical use for someone other than me. Keep in mind that everything I’m about to say flows from the perspective of a heterosexual, Jewish, innately lazy married male with no children and you should be fine.

Ready? Here we go!

Item 1: Get a dog. No matter how you feel about life on any given day, if you own a dog you will have to feed the dog. You’ll have to walk the dog. You’ll have to adopt a schedule that benefits the dog. When you’re standing in the rain and the cold searching your pockets for a plastic bag, you won’t be mired in existential dread, you’ll be thinking about how good it’ll be to get back inside where it’s warm and dry. A dog will teach you to savor the little things that make this life so sweet.

Don’t like dogs? Get a cat. A cat has a very different lesson to teach, and that lesson is: You are not important.

Item 2: Volunteer. When you’re younger it’s difficult to find the time and the motivation to volunteer. It gets easier as you get older. This is why retired people often claim they’re so busy, they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. Finding the volunteer activity that suits you best could be a lengthy process, but I’ve found a way to speed it up. Volunteer for three to six things over the next year or two. At the end of that time you’ll know which one you want to pursue. Do that one and drop the rest.

Remember the secret to volunteering: It’s not true that we get more from volunteering than what we put in. Sometimes we feel we’re getting very little back. Sometimes we feel empty. Sometimes we feel aggravated. No matter what you feel, volunteering always does someone some good. That’s why you should do it. Don’t feel appreciated after a particularly tough effort? Remember what the cat taught you.

Item 3: Wide world of men. Women: Stop complaining that men are simple. Granted, my gender is not as complicated as yours. But if men were as complicated as women, there’d be no human race. And stop reading Cosmo. They say they can explain men, but they’re lying.

Item 4: Women 101. Men: Listen up, simpletons. Stop wondering what women want and ask them. The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!

Item 5: What to do after you say “I do.” On the day I got married, we had two friends in attendance who’d been married for 23 years. We thought they were an old married couple. Today, they’ve been married 46 years and we’ve been married 23. What makes a marriage work? All I can tell you is that you should never spend a dollar on a book, a class, a seminar, or on anyone who promises you the answer, because there is none. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. It might not even work for me next year. I suggest you take the money you were going to spend on the book, class, etc. and take your partner to dinner or dancing or to the beach. That I know will work.

Item 6: How to go to bed. Every day, do one thing you give a damn about. It may take you an hour, it make take you a few minutes. Do it. When you shut your eyes at night, the next-to-the-last thing you think of should be that thing you did. The last thing should be expressing your thanks to whatever or whomever you thank when the lights go out. Accomplishment and gratitude are two of the three most important ingredients for a good night’s sleep. (The third is exiling the person who snores.)

Item 7: Your 3am panic attack. What do you do when you can’t sleep, you can’t stop thinking about what you haven’t done or may never do or the people you’ve lost, the walls are closing in and you can’t breathe? Get out of bed. Move. Do not activate anything with a screen. Wash the dishes. Play the piano. Brush your teeth. Go for a walk. You can walk in your neighborhood at 3am. Statistically, it’s the safest time of the day to walk.

Don’t want to walk alone? Item 1: Get a dog!

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STEVEN BRYAN BIELER bats right, throws right, leans left. Long ball hitter, but deadly with a vignette. Long-range plan: To appear in The New Yorker's "20 Under 80" fiction issue. Bieler lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, the mystery writer Deborah Donnelly, and their dog, who is illiterate. He works as a writer and editor and teaches chess to grades K-8 (the one population of chess players he can always beat). Bieler makes fun of your favorite bands at http://rundmsteve.wordpress.com/.

38 responses to “Everything I’ve Learned in Life in 888 Words”

  1. Oh, hey, Steven, I recently discovered your Thor piece. Well-done! Good list here. I particularly like #7. Tomorrow morning during my 3 a.m. panic attic, I will play the piano. It’ll have to be “Fur Elise” or “The Entertainer.” Those are all I know how to play anymore. I think my family will enjoy this as well. Happy birthday!

  2. Gloria says:

    Great list, Steven! I hope that “cat” can be interchanged with “dog” in #1. If so, we’re golden!

    • Steve Bieler says:

      My dog, The Notorious S.M.A.L.L., does not believe in the interchangeability of dogs and that other species. Fortunately for you, Gloria, he can’t read, so interchange away.

  3. Wes says:

    Now that’s what I call value for word count! Thanks for passing along your wisdom, and have a swell birthday.

  4. Dogs are awesome. Everyone should have a dog. I’m sad that I live in a rented house that won’t let me have a dog… although our neighbours cats always drop by, sniff all our stuff and ignore us…

    • Steve Bieler says:

      I hope you can improve your living conditions soon! My diagnosis is that you require one and possibly two dogs. Until then, I’d be happy to send you some surplus dog fur. The Notorious S.M.A.L.L. spends most of his waking hours ejecting fur and growing replacements for future ejection.

  5. Dr. D says:

    If I can substitute motorcycle for the cat/dog thing, then all is good. Happy birthday.

  6. Happy birthday Steve! sounds to me like you’ve learned a lot! Though I think you might be underestimating your dog…

    • Steve Bieler says:

      I’ve learned never to underestimate dogs. You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet 10 years later they can still surprise you.

  7. Darwin says:

    Happy Birthday and thanks for surfing rag bra (1st def in urbandictionary!). You specifically excluded disco, but I might add “listen to George McCrae’s _Rock Your Baby_” more often to my life’s lessons.


  8. Robert says:

    Even as I type these words, I’m being watched by three cats. Intently.

    [Scratch that. A daytime July 4th explosion sent them running for the basement. So they wouldn’t take a bullet for me. Okay, I get it.]

    Your pith and unsinkable humor are a joy to me, Steven. Happy, happy birthday to you.

    • Steve Bieler says:

      Cats find the act of writing interesting, I think because they can’t understand why you’d prefer to do that rather than serve them.

      Thanks for your kind comments and your master grilling skills!

  9. […] have a new post in The Nervous Breakdown. This time around I use the occasion of my birthday (July 3) to share everything I’ve ever […]

  10. Accused of Lurking says:

    Three Items in Response

    1. You have inspired me. (I plead the fifth on what you have inspired me to do.)

    2. Thank you for answering the question that has always troubled me. Now I know that titles are included in the word count.

    3. I am slowly coming around to your point of view that Precious and Few may not be as good a song as I once thought it was.

    • Steve Bieler says:

      1. If after your secret inspiration your devoted spouse brains me with a frying pan, I will know to keep my mouth shut on my next birthday.

      2. If you type “End” at the terminus of your manuscript, that does NOT count.

      3. Now I feel guilty. It was never my intention to strip you of one of your few simple pleasures. But it was either that or hit you with a frying pan.

  11. Liz says:

    On the way to see Super8 today, Mitch and I were discussing my impending sabbatical. He proffered some advice; it is your Item 6–Every day, do one thing you give a damn about–with a slightly different spin. His advice was to start the each day with a win–that this will take the pressure off and set the tone for the rest of the day.

    Night and day, you say… but both are about preventing angst. Excellent advice.

    I have to say that while each item is a pearl of wisdom, the only one that I don’t do already is Item 7…. in particular, the part about the screen. I plan to try it. I’ll get back to you next year.

    Happy Birthday, Steve-o!

    • Steve Bieler says:

      My dear Liz: I start each day with a blueberry muffin….I modified Item 6 from an inspirational comment by the screenwriter Jeff Lieber: “Every day write something you give a shit about.” (My favorite quote on writing is from Hemingway: “Write it the way you see it and the hell with it.” That, I found, did not translate well for the purpose of this list.)

      I wish you well as you embark on your sabbatical! I’m sure your cat colleagues will render all possible assistance…unless they figure out how to work the can opener, in which case you’ll be excess baggage.

  12. Philip says:

    Steve, despite your disclaimer I think you ARE a wise man. It goes without saying that we have already substituted “cats” for “dogs”, not only in your article but in our lives. Given that, I disagree with the statement “you are not important.” Yes, that’s what they want you to think, but it all breaks down when the food runs out. I have to ask if there is a significance to the order of your suggestions.

    Happy birthday and thanks for sharing. I would have just eaten the cake and gone to bed (following item #6, of course).


    • Steve Bieler says:

      The only significance to the order of my suggestions is that I wanted to ease readers into the topic with cats and dogs before hitting them with men, women, and relationships. Panic attacks had to come last.

      If I had known people were going to call me an old man I would’ve started with something about respecting your elders. If you don’t respect your elders, your elders are going to respect you, fool!

  13. John says:

    Is “dog” interchangeable with “brain?” If so, then your list is right on for me. Thanks for sharing your ever entertaining take on things, Steven – glad to have you as a neighbor. Now get your ass over here and mow my lawn!

    Happy birthday old man – hope you had a great day.

  14. mickie says:

    Warm birthday wishes to you….. topped off with a year ahead full of blessings! And heck, who would want to go backwards in years and find themselves once again in …..oh my gosh…..junior high school 🙂 !

  15. Linda Jordan says:

    How about #1 as – Get a horse. Then you get to spend even MORE time outside in the rain, feeding, watering, scooping up–well you know. And appreciating things like sleeping in, hot tea and maybe even a wood stove. Oh wait, what was I thinking, horses are a lot like a big dog.

    What a fun post! Have it really been 23 years? I hope you had a lovely birthday old man!

  16. Carin says:

    Well-written and well-said. Happy birthday!

  17. Liz says:


    I’m sure it would work for dog hair as well…

  18. angela says:

    Aw, now I want a dog! Fun piece. I really like, “Every day, do one thing you give a damn about.” There are many days I feel like I didn’t do anything productive. Maybe focusing on just doing one thing I care about will help.

    • Steve Bieler says:

      Some days I have to admit that I didn’t do anything I gave a damn about, or even a darn or a small heck. But I always have the thought of all the great things I’m going to do tomorrow to keep me going. Good luck! (And get a dog!)

  19. Kathryn Scribner says:

    Item 4: Beautiful! Steve, you’ve hit it on the head: “The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!
    Do you mind if I read, no, SING that to my non-simpleton but evidently LISTENING-impaired husband? The same husband who gets grumpy when I ask him what he’s doing, and he says
    “I was (blank)”
    and I say, But I really want you to (“BLAH”)! Today while you have time! and he says,
    “No, you asked me to (blank) last (fill in month, week, year) and so I’m doing it.” (and you can’t stop me)….
    Telling him that things have changed, priorities are different, or that it’s June and taking down the Xmas tree lights is really no longer relevant, does no good. He’s listened, goddammit,and no-one can say that he didn’t. Listen.
    Happy Birthday! Love the chess stories. You can come over and have Jasmine play you. She kills.

    • Steve Bieler says:

      Thank you, but I don’t want to get between you and your listening-impaired husband!! He might strangle me with his Xmas tree lights, assuming he’s pulled them off the house by then.

  20. Denise Mosakowski says:

    Happy Birthday Steve! Love your Magnificent 7 and especially your oneliner..”.If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you.” I really enjoy your style of writing and now feel I missed out on some spectacular conversations we all could have shared sitting around the dining room table… mmmmmmmm…. maybe that will become one of my magnificent 7’s….. never miss an opportunity to be fully present and aware that you are in the company of someone who is Magnificent! Have a wonderful birthday celebration.

  21. Barb says:

    Three unrelated comments:
    Intro: For anyone on a religious quest (or rant), I highly recommend Faithless “god is a dj”
    #8 for me is: Every time I hear the Zombies “Time of the Season” I immediately become 16 again and get this shoulder/chin/hip groove on.
    #6 just became the theme for my birthday year. Thanks, Steve!

  22. Gemma Utting says:

    Hummm, number 3 is good.
    Maybe I ought to start reading Cosmo.
    It might shed light on the man in my life who set out to apply for a job
    one rainy January day in 2011, in Boise, Idaho.
    We’ve been living in Auckland, New Zealand ever since.
    This seems complicated to me.

    But he, along with the 2 dogs – are still quite wonderful!

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