Today is the last day of my thirties.
For the last month I’ve had an item on my to-do list that I’ve just never gotten around to doing. That item is: write something about turning 40.
I was talking about this with a friend the other day while we were bobbing around in the pool, playing with the kids.
“When I turned 30,” I told her, “I was in Mexico for the weekend, eating lobster and drinking margaritas. I hadn’t met Mike yet. I was living in LA, jetting around the world, and writing an essay a month. I think my essay about turning 30 talked about how I wasn’t sure I wanted to have kids. Now I’m turning 40, and I have kids, and I write an essay a year.”
“What would you say about turning 40?” Sarah asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because I’ve been busy redesigning websites and mastering SEO and taking on new work contracts and trying to teach Alex to poo in the toilet. I haven’t had time…”
Here, I paused, before correcting myself.
“I haven’t made time to untangle that.”
So last night, after the kids were asleep, I sat down to unearth that essay I wrote about turning 30.
I don’t often re-read my own writing once I move past a piece, and revisiting this essay was like sitting down for coffee with someone I used to know well and haven’t seen for years. It highlighted how dramatically this decade has changed me. It also gave me a springboard for considering the milestone I’ll hit tomorrow, and the ten years that have brought me here.
So, in the weeks ahead I will make the time to write something about turning 40. Today, however, I’ll start the thinking. And in the meantime, I’ll let my 30-year-old self take over the blog, just for today,
Here is that essay, Where’s The Fun In Normal?
Where’s the fun in normal?
Right up until I was 29 years 8 months and 14 days old I thought turning 30 was no big deal.
Then I noticed that I was preempting the question. You know. That question.
“How are you feeling about the big three O?”
I’d starting answering this before the other person had even finished asking. I’d pull a bland adjective out of thin air – fine, good, great – and deliver it with breezy unconcern.
Then I’d let it sit there.
The other person would usually pause, waiting for me to fill the silence with bright protestations about how I really am fine about the fact that I’m turning thirty and still single, with no prospects of popping out babies any time soon, and how it’s all been worth it because I love my job and I wouldn’t trade all the experiences I’ve had in the last ten years for anything.
All of this might be true, but I don’t like being expected to say it. And when I don’t oblige with the culturally correct dialogue, the conversation usually moves on.
The day I turned 29 years 8 months and 14 days old, however, the conversation didn’t move on. I looked up to notice that the person who had just asked me the question was staring at me with rather more puzzlement than I thought the answer warranted.
“What?” I said.
“Fine?” she repeated.
“I ask you how you’re feeling about the situation in Somalia and all you have to say is fine?” she said.
That was when I began to get annoyed. I didn’t want to be one of those people who have a crisis about turning 30. It’s just so… normal.
Over the last couple of months I’ve tried hard to understand what’s freaking me out about this milestone. Of course, it is possible that I am subconsciously worried about the ticking of my biological clock. But I really don’t think this is the major problem. When I look at other people’s children, no matter how cute, I usually just feel relieved that they’re not mine. The fact that I’m not in kiddie-headspace right now was only underscored by a conversation I had last week with my boss’ wife.
“Oh, little Will’s getting over his first bad cold,” she said, exhausted, when I asked her how the kids were. “He’s not really sick anymore, just miserable. He’s been hanging off my leg, whining, wanting to be held all the time, and I just can’t get anything done.”
“Gee,” I said, “That must make you want to bend down and tell him, ‘Get used to it buddy, that’s life, deal with it. You’re going to feel bad sometimes and people just can’t put their lives on hold to pay attention to you every time you’re grumpy.’”
“Ummm, no,” she said, clearly making a mental note never to ask me to babysit. “It makes me want to pick him up and comfort him.”
OK, I thought, so if the root of my present angst isn’t children, perhaps I’m starting to fret about the fact that I might die alone in my sleep at the age of 92 with no one by my side?
I admit this vision does cross my mind occasionally, but so does a vision of being killed at 32 during a carjacking in Nairobi. Dying alone at 92 doesn’t even come close to making my list of “top ten worst things that could happen to me in life.”
Maybe it is just the mathematics of it all. Math has never been my strong point, but even I’m smart enough to figure out that using conventional reasoning and the most favorable of equations I’m approaching the “33% of life” mark.
However, I would venture that time doesn’t count unless you can remember it, and this changes the numbers in the equation significantly. For starters, I can’t remember much from years 1-10, so I’m really only 20. Of those 20 years I’ve spent roughly 7 asleep. In “real time” I’m only just turning 13.
But even as I calculated it out, I knew this wasn’t it either. I’m not really the type to stare at an hourglass, fascinated by the trickling sand. Well, not for long, anyway.
I didn’t put my finger on it until yesterday. Someone asked me what I’d been doing in Kenya the previous month, and I talked about leading a workshop series on trauma and humanitarian work for counselors and pastors from Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda.
They did a double take.
“How old are you?”
As I said 29, it hit me.
I won’t get asked that for much longer. I will soon lose the double-take factor because, as I turn 30, I’m losing my child prodigy status.
OK, before you write me off as a complete narcissist, let me explain.
I was never much of a child prodigy as a child. In fact, I probably didn’t even rate as normal. I did get my photo in the paper once when I was five, but only because I was reading a Babar the Elephant book wearing a set of headphones almost as big as my thick-lens glasses. I was sitting on the floor of the library with one leg twisted awkwardly underneath me, the perfect illustration for the article they were writing on special needs children. This was somewhat of a recurring theme in my early years–my school had me tested for learning disabilities when I was 11, and I was 13 before we moved for the 5th time in my life and I managed to make my first real friend.
Perhaps simply by virtue of contrast, I sort of feel that I’ve earned some late-bloomer child-prodigy-status during my twenties. I’ve made friends, and kept them, across seven moves in four different countries. I’ve picked up three university degrees. I’ve driven a police boat underneath the Sydney Harbor Bridge, slept in a tent in the Masai Mara, and volunteered in a slum in Manila. I’ve written a novel. I’ve traveled the world teaching about trauma and stress management. I’ve been, largely, happy.
We define who we are at least partly through comparing ourselves to others, and wherever I’ve lived over the years I’ve always been somewhat “different” – in accent, in color, in language, in career. By my late teens I’d learned to turn being different to my advantage in most situations. But, I’ve recently realized that being different, and being seen to be different, has become an important part of my identity in its own right. Now that I’m turning 30, I’m finding that I’m less worried about not having achieved the milestones of marriage and children than I am about the fact that people are going to start expecting me to be capable, knowledgeable, and accomplished as I travel the world. The fact that I am (sometimes) all of this, will no longer be surprising and noteworthy. It will be normal. And where’s the fun in normal?
I’m a firm believer in fun being more something you make than something you have, so finding some good answers to that question is one of the challenges I will carry with me into the decade ahead.
Along the way, I’d also like to shake my fear that normal equals boring, and that boring is a fate worse than death. I aim to check my instinct to take a different path long enough to ask myself whether there are good reasons to take it, apart from the fact that it’s different. And I will continue to struggle to outgrow my habitual tendency to judge my life through the prism of other people’s perceptions. It’s not that I think other people’s perceptions shouldn’t matter. It’s more that they shouldn’t matter quite so much.
Before I turn 40 I also want to, ummm…. swim with dolphins, raft down the Amazon, and fulfill one of my most cherished ambitions–to eat ice cream on every continent in the world.
Right then, I’m clearly fresh out of deep and meaningful commentary for now. Since it’s Friday night here in Los Angeles I might just have to take myself off and find some fun.
Now doesn’t that just sound… normal? It seems I’m already making prodigious progress! As a reward, perhaps now’s a good time to book a trip to Antarctica later this year for me, Ben, and Jerry.
Let me know if you want in on the action.
It’s bound to be fun.