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--- J O H N   M C C A L L A

In search of mental clarity and a clear complexion by the 30th

I SPIT A MOUTHFUL of Aqua Fresh into the sink and make my first mistake of the day - a glance in the mirror. This particular mirror is not kind; flanked by two exposed fluorescent lights, it quietly and effectively reveals every pore of my not-quite-30-year-old face, still wretchedly road-mapped from sleep.

A stuffy head battered by flu season and a tousled mop of cowlicks make for a hideous enough pre-coffee sight. But today a beacon of light beams out from the center of my face - a shiny red zit, luminous enough to guide a fleet of reindeer-drawn sleighs.

Or - for those versed in esteem-deflating Clearasil commercial-speak - The North Star.

On the 30th I will turn 30 years old, and I have The North Star jutting from the tip of my stuffed-up nose.

THE COUNTDOWN TO 30 has been playing out on many different levels and in many different mood swings the past few months, and all analyses drift toward trite despair when it comes to the fact that I don't feel at all like an adult or even a reasonable facsimile.

I passed through the mid-20s with no visible scars (nor the oxy-moronic "real job"). In 1985, at the impressionable age of 17, I moved to Center City from Delaware County - the same year Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city.

I moved out of town in 1991, the same week I graduated from Temple, feeling ever-so-cool with my new journalism degree and lots of clips from trade magazines that probably never graced a single respectable coffee table.

I freelanced, freeloaded and freebased for a few years. (I'm kidding; I didn't have much time to freelance.) I wound up in New York City - a waiter rather than a writer. But NYC was expensive and I was cheap.

Now on day shy of 30, I'm back in Philly and still benefitless. ("I'm impervious to harm, because I have to be," my friend Molly chirps as if doing a testimonial ad for the HMO-deprived.) My freelancing has moved out f the freeloading sector and I no longer have the patience to serve another human being another ramekin of sauce on the side.

Spiritually, I have been making headway in my quest for meaning. I won't get into the steps I've taken, but there are at least a dozen.

But I will share this: a few months ago, when I first contemplated finding meaning in my life, I rushed right into a Buddhist meditation seminar held at the Holiday Inn at 13th and Walnut Streets, where one would quite naturally expect to find spiritual epiphany.

The workshop was to be an exercise in accessing the clarity of one's mind. Clarity, I discovered, is difficult to achieve while in the midst of full-throttle nicotine fits and hunger pains.

First, the seminar's smooth-scalped high priestess informed us that we had to resist urges to intellectualize the process that leads to the clarity.

The first meditation; concentrating on breathing for the journey inward, was interrupted by a ringing phone and late arrivals. Our hostess advised us to shut out our thoughts (possibly because she suspected I was giving her a complete mental fashion makeover.)

When the floor opened for questions, I suppressed my urge to ask my instructor if she had ever tried bangs, figuring my transcendental days are at least a bit farther down the road, or will at least cost more than the ten bucks I paid for the workshop.

After the meditation, I did feel more relaxed - similar to the feeling I get after watching Lindsay Wagner on the Lifetime network and taking a nap.

MAYBE THAT'S THE ANSWER: the secrets of the Buddha lie merely in mundane melodrama and narcolepsy. But, for now, I still have this zit, and despite my niece's recommendation of some "mad-good" cover-up, I can't help but feel a bit unprepared for my upcoming age.

In many ways, I know I'm smarter now - 'cause I feel so utterly clueless. Once, I sat in judgment of the huddled masses, all at a safe distance from my corner bar stool at McGlinchey's. Now, I marvel that so many people are tolerant enough to make it through the maze of life's responsibilities and not cave from the minutiae of daily upkeep.

Poised at the age of thirtysomething's Michael and Hope, I guess I finally can stop trying to figure out which character from The Breakfast Club I most identify with.

Now, student loan officers call and pleasantly inform me that if I just send a check for $2,000 or so, I'll be caught up. Overcome by the head-slapping realization of someone who could have had a V-8, I thank them and say it's on its way, just as soon as I count the change for my next pack of Marlboro and a Little Debbie snack.

Such necessities as smokes and snacks are naturally high on the hit list for the new, grown-up, 30-year-old me. In upcoming weeks; I'm quitting smoking, joining the gym, learning to cook, buying a new wardrobe, decorating my apartment, starting a savings account, planning a real vacation, and throwing away all my socks and underpants with holes in them.

FINISHING UP a freelance article today, my nose coated with thick globs of Clearasil, I typed my usual last line: "-30-"; it's a traditional symbol used by journalists, signifying the end of the copy. I don't remember where it comes from, but the number and the fact that it means "the end" lead to predictable "Logan's Run"-type thoughts of the age and its mythical finality.

But the facts are; I have a zit and, come the 30th, not much, including battles with my complexion, will change.

I'd take comfort in the fact that I'm not turning 40, but by then, problems of zits and cowlicks will probably have given way to the problems of no zits and no cowlicks. But, at least I'll still end my stories the same way.


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