As has been my custom for many years, I took the day off for my birthday and my annual exercise in masochism.

Up at 3:30 a.m., while the near-full moon was still high and no one was stirring except the newspaper deliveryperson, I sweated through a brisk walk — a mile for each decade (I used to run off the decades, but that was when there were fewer of them and before the knees began protesting).

Sun peeping over the horizon, I gave both cars their semi-annual washing, and cleaned the upholstery and seat crevices of our darling four-year-old granddaughter's dried-but-still-gummy spilled Coke, petrified french fries, assorted Barbie accessories (why she insists on ripping off all Barbie's clothes, I don't know), half-eaten-but-still-sticky pieces of candy, 49 cents in pennies, nickels, and dimes, and unexplainably, since neither my wife nor I are fans, a Limp Biskit CD (which I was tempted to fire up on the car stereo, but the neighbors would probably have called the cops).

By the time that was done the heat index was inexorably moving toward the predicted 110. After mowing various weeds that pass for a lawn, I grabbed the hoe and hacked the vegetation from around the tomatoes I foolishly plant each year, knowing full well they will only sulk in the horrid gumbo clay soil, and that even if they actually produce a few tomatoes, the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, slugs, and horde of other critters will ruin them before they can get to the luscious stage of ripeness that I've dreamed about during the winter months of mushy, mealy, tasteless supermarket excuse-for-tomatoes.

A flurry of gutter cleaning, shrub pruning, and weed-eating took me to lunch, by which time, sweaty and grime-encrusted, I'd flirted enough with heat stroke and headed for the air conditioning and a long shower.

However absurd this annual birthday folly may seem, given July's heat and humidity, performing these relatively mindless tasks offers an opportunity for introspection re: time's passing, how far we've come, and how much we take for granted.

I have only the shadowiest memories of the privations of the late Depression years that were all too real for my parents and those of their generation. But I do remember, as a child in the years following, how little we had — yet how much.

My parents, and those in the tiny community where they lived and farmed, worked hard in those broiling summers, pre-air conditioning, pre-TV, pre-supermarkets: grueling, drudge labor, in the fields, in the house and garden, looking after children, just surviving. Of possessions, they had pitifully few compared to today.

But there was a closeness of family then, of children who were born, grew up, married, had children of their own, died, and were buried in the same small community, often having never traveled farther than the county seat (unless to serve their country). There was a continuity that seems somehow will-of-the-wisp today, as family and friends flit about the country in search of bigger and better rungs of the corporate ladder.

Our communion is electronic: hours in front of a TV, watching a flickering video version of life; electronic conversations with scattered children and distant friends; hurried e-mails. We reach out and touch… electrons.

I would not, of course, give up the air conditioning my ancestors never had in those sweltering Mississippi summers, or the other comforts we take for granted. Technology has snared us inescapably in its web, and as long as we can keep the electric generators spinning, the petroleum flowing, and the computer chips growing ever more powerful, our lives will become all the more distanced from those of previous generations.

Everything is relative, we're told. The privations of my forebears are only dim memories for those of my generation; for my children's generation, it's just the stuff of novels and movies — they can't begin to comprehend.

But we owe much to those who preceded us, for their toil, sweat, ingenuity, and courage that paved the way for all that we have today. It is well to occasionally remember that.


e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com