That sweet, sweet dopamine.

This Monday was my birthday. I’m not one of those ladies who’s freaked out by aging. I like being in my thirties. So far, so good, and a lot better than my twenties, for sure. I know myself better now, and am more willing both to stand up for what I think I think and to change my mind. Point is, my birthday doesn’t make me feel icky because I’m older, any more than any of the other things that constantly remind me that I’m sliding inevitably toward death. No, birthdays are gross for me in the same way I think New Year’s Day is for a lot of people – an arbitrary demarcation of time that we imbue with some regenerative power. Turning a page, a new leaf, a fresh start. And then I get all existential crisis-y and become insufferable for a minute.

For the past couple of years I’ve asked my friends and family to please not get me any gifts, but instead go and do something nice for someone and tell me about it. I got a great collection of good deed stories this year, you guys are awesome. My mom paid the toll for the car behind her on the turnpike. My buddy bought jump ropes for a school in Costa Rica that needed gym equipment (because I like jump ropes). Another friend and her son went through all his old toys and donated seven (seven!) trash bags of usable things to the shelter in our hometown. But I think my favorite is from my friend Will who owns Hero Hunter Comics in Asheville. A very shy older lady who is not internet savvy came into the store and asked him if he knew anything about cosplay, because she wants to make a Winter Soldier costume and wear it to Comic-Con. So adorable! He knows nothing about cosplay but agreed to help her figure it out. She was so skittish he really thought she’d run away in the middle of their conversation, but by the end she was telling him how she’d been going to the gym for this and showed off her muscles. Good on you, my friend, for helping a scared fan in need.

And good on that lady for asking for help. I don’t know anything about cosplay, either, in any practical way, but I do know that it draws attention. Seems like it would just be easier to go to a convention in invisible mode, in the jeans and a t-shirt nerd uniform, and remain unnoticed. Cosplay is a big step for a lot of fans with social anxiety stuff, particularly in that crazy Comic-Con setting where costumes of the same character are constantly being compared to each other. In theory it should be a safe space, but scrutiny can be hard if you’re shy.

But for the record, if I ever make it to Comic-Con, I’m cosplaying as Patrick Rothfuss. I don’t think he’ll mind, but I wonder how many people will think I’m just Hagrid in a Serenity shirt.

Anyway, good deeds. They come in all shapes and sizes. I think I started asking folks to do nice things for my birthday because I’m stuck up here on the mountain and don’t see many humans myself. I’ve been screwed over by geography in a lot of ways. I do want to help people, but I’m not sure that I know how. I have, like, maybe two skills, outside of being physically healthy and able to do manual labor. And while the thought of getting super buff building houses for the homeless is appealing, that sort of satisfaction would probably be lacking in intellectual engagement. Gotta feed the old brain, as well, ideally.

Then I say shit like that and I feel selfish. “Whine, whine, whine, what do I get out of helping people?” What an asshole. The argument could be made (and has been, actually) that all altruism is inherently selfish. We get a dopamine rush out of it, strangely-wired creatures that we are, and that’s what we crave. The “goodness of your heart”? Dopamine. Which is not to say that it doesn’t count or anything, obviously, but it makes us happy to make people happy. It’s beyond our control. The human condition. We’re dopamine junkies, all of us. Use your brain chemistry for good and not for evil, is the lesson here, I guess.

While it makes me happy – so, so happy – that the people I love did good things on my behalf, honestly it’s got me a little rattled. I have a Plan, and I really love my Plan. I see it all in my head, me in my dumb little bookstore, playing records, suggesting excellent scifi to the masses. That picture makes me smile every time. But here’s the problem: where’s the room in the Plan for helping anyone? Handing out good books aside? The other part of the Plan includes using the bookstore as a jumping-off point for things like literacy programs and writing tutoring, so why don’t I just do those things? Skip the part where I make money and get to do the thing I love and just get right to the helping people? Wouldn’t that be better, in the long run? Should I, with my in-my-thirties flexibility of principle, give up on the Plan? Rolling Planless makes me all kinds of squickity. But maybe it would be good not to have this tunnel vision. I don’t even know. I’m on shaky ground. Everything is weird. Stupid birthday.