The End of the Twenties: An Ode

During one of the multiple family dinners out that I demanded during my extended visit home for Thanksgiving, one of my sisters-in-law, D, made an enthusiastic announcement: that, soon, she is going to turn thirty.

I’m not being smug with the word “enthusiastic.” It’s an accurate description of her tone: she said it with excitement, enthusiasm, eagerness. (Alll sorts of positive adjectives that begin with the letter E!)

This surprised some of those seated around the (awkwardly oversized) table where we were busy devouring mediocre plates of Italian food at a new place in Park Slope–my parents and two present brothers.

“Really?” They marveled. “You sound so unfazed!”

The two younger women, though–my other sister-in-law, F, and me–both nodded in (eager) agreement as D, gesturing wildly above her spinach-covered pizza, explained herself.

“I’m so done with my twenties!” she crowed. “They have been awful!”

F, now forty, is actually the only person to ever warn me about this–years ago, taking a jog around Prospect Park: “No one ever tells you,” she said, “but your twenties are actually really hard. You don’t know what you’re doing with your life, everything is complicated, ugh, it’s terrible. My thirties have been much better.”

This seems contrary to just about all of cultural lore. Growing up, the only thing I thought sexier than the teenagers on Beverly Hills 90210 were the twentysomethings on The Real World: being in your twenties seemed to be about being beautiful and glamorous, working minimally and drinking maximally, walking around big cities with a fashionable haircut, leather boots and the distinct stride of a person who is absolutely satisfied.

Now that I’m on the far, northern side of those years, I know just how much the reality differs from that fabulous image. Being in your twenties means figuring yourself out. Endlessly. Working a lot of the time. Getting increasingly bad hangovers. Still struggling on a daily basis to look presentable. Not knowing anything about your future, and realizing that as years pass you know even less.

Sure: I feel more confident, and certainly more certain about my passions than I did in college. But that’s pretty much where it ends.

After dinner that night, I snuggled with my seven year old niece as she fell asleep. (Sorry, this is too adorable for me to keep to myself: my niece requires two adults to put her to sleep, one to read stories and then one to spoon with her as she sucks the thumb of her left hand and reaches around with her right to tug on your earlobe. Not kidding.)

So yeah, that alone could have made me cry. But what really sparked it, I think, basically, was that I’m in my twenties.

Someone who I’ve talked to in recent days, I can’t remember who (it could have been my mother, but it also could have been the cute guy from Oklahoma I sat next to on the plane yesterday–you know me, I’m an equal opportunity sharer), tried to convince me that this point in my life is really so exciting! “There’s so much possibility!” Mom/plane guy assured.

I get that. I get that I’m still young, that I’m extremely privileged in many ways, that I’m lucky to have at least one project demanding a serious amount of focus and mental space. (You know, that book thing I said I wouldn’t talk about.) But I am also just exhausted from so many years of being uncertain about so much. That elusive troika: where I’m gonna be, what I’m gonna be doing (books don’t pay the gas bill, much less rent), and who I’m gonna be with.

Spooning with my niece in her bedroom the other night, I glanced around her room and marveled at the gorgeous stillness of her life: wooden horses, porcelain cats, stuffed pandas; peaceful cuddling with the nearest available earlobe. I don’t wish that I was still seven: free will is kind of nice. But I do long for a time when I will stop feeling so angsty, so searchy, so preoccupied with what’s next. For a time when I’ll find it easier to just sit still.

I doubt turning thirty will make all that, magically, stop. But might as well keep hope alive: I’ve got two years left, and I kind of like the idea that I won’t be terribly sad when they’re done.

On Jonathan Franzen, and Growing Up

I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Franzen.

For the most part, I adore his writing: I devoured “Freedom” in roughly the time it takes to finish the Sunday crossword. I similarly enjoyed “The Corrections,” and many of his essays in “How to Be Alone”–which may be one of my favorite book titles, ever. I find his craft  instructive, his characters’ compelling, his sentences crisp and funny.

But there’s something about him.

M and I recently argued about whether his notoroious Oprah snub qualifies as clever or dumb: I argued the latter. (In 2001, after Oprah selected “The Corrections” for her Book Club, he at first accepted and then expressed his reservations so frankly and so publicly that she had no choice but to rescind the invitation.)

“Why,” I said, “does anyone write anything besides to get as many people as possible to read it?”

(Okay, maybe there are a few other reasons. And snubbing Oprah may or may not have gained Franzen more readers than he lost. Details.)

Regardless of whether it was savvy, though, the Oprah move does come across as the behavior of someone who takes themselves, and their work, very seriously.

My sense about this was affirmed when I heard a Fresh Air interview with Franzen, re-aired recently for “Freedom”‘s paperback release. When Terry Gross asks him why so many of his characters are depressive, he explains that his readers–readers of serious fiction–are complicated, sometimes depressive people, too. (Also, that depressed characters are funnier.) I mean, come on. Whether he wants to admit it or not, his books are highly readable. And again: as a writer, there’s just something off about judging your potential audience.

But now that I’ve gotten my Franzen-feelings out of the way, I can tell you what he also says in that interview that struck me as really, really smart.

He talks about what it means to be an adult. This is something I think about a lot–especially lately, in the wake of what feels to be a more-significant-then-before birthday.

In his Fresh Air “Corrections” interview, Franzen talked about the fact that so long as our parents are alive (and well), it can be easy to dodge a full acceptance of adulthood. And in this one, he describes that, for him, it wasn’t until his fifties that he really stopped walking around every day feeling like he was about twenty-three.

“I feel, actually, about fifty-one,” he says, “and it’s shocking.

I think I came to the realization a while ago that one may not ever truly feel their age. So there’s some hope in Franzen’s admission. But what I find most interesting is the way that he framed what it means to be an adult: to be a child, he explains, is to have everything be possible. To be an adult means to accept that those possibilities have shrunk–accepting our identities as narrower. As finite. As limited.

And when you think of it in those terms, it’s no wonder so many of us are so loathe to accept our “adult” status. We’ve been told our whole lives that everything is possible. How, and when, are we to resign ourselves that it isn’t?

The other night, after a concert in Santa Fe, I got into a bit of a friendly argument with an aquaintance who insisted that thirty is middle-aged. (He’s twenty-nine.)

“How can you possibly say that?” I scolded.

I pushed him to admit the absurdity of his position. But he wouldn’t.

“I just feel really old,” he said. And when I made him explain why, his response paralleled Franzen’s definition: “There’s just a lot of stuff I feel like I’m too old to do.”

But when I demanded specifics, his best response was: “play professional sports?”

I mean, yeah: I used to take comfort in the fact that even the youngest of the champion Olympic figure skaters was older than me. And it was slightly traumatic when, by the late 90s, they no longer were.

But not that traumatic: I never really thought I’d be a Gold Medal skater. (Well, I did: until I got to the part of the lessons where they expected me to do jumps, when I was about eight. That illusion shattered pretty quick.)

There are a lot of illusions, though, to which I still hold dear: that I’ll be a successful writer.(Whatever that means.)  That I’ll find an ideal mate, have a happy, uncomplicated family where money and love and success are all, blissfully, taken for granted. That my parents and siblings and close friends will be around as long as I need them: you know, forever.

Basic and universal ideals, in other words, that are as unrealistic as they are common. Not that I won’t find some measure of those things, like most of us: but I won’t find them in the clean, simple way they exist in my imagination.

And I know that. But I don’t really know that: I still walk around most days, feeling about twenty-two, thinking I’ll find them.

And you know what? Until life forces me to learn otherwise–for Franzen, it was the death of his close friend, David Foster Wallace–I’m pretty okay with that.

I know innocence doesn’t last forever, but I’ll keep it so long as I can.

 

 

On Over (and under) Thinking Happiness

For our final class, my nonfiction professor invited all his over for for a potluck, a book swap, and the (required) opportunity to deposit with him six essay-filled envelopes that he would, the following day, ceremoniously send to literary magazines on our behalf.

Also in attendance (and, presumably, relieved of the above-mentioned duties) were his wife and two young sons: aged eight and ten.

While the rest of us ate dinner–taquitos, calabicitas, salad and pita pizza–I glimpsed the eight-year old, straddling the back of the living room couch with a pile of three Garfield books in his lap. The expression of pure, unadultered, consuming joy I saw–not just in his face but in his whole, lanky little-boy body–awed me. I made eye contact with my professor and gestured with my chin.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen anyone that genuinely, completely happy,” I said. My professor nodded.

“That one’s kind of an old soul, “ he said.

That moment has been on my mind for the past twenty-four hours, as I’ve walked around Washington DC with an expression not very dissimilar from that ecstatic boy’s.

Last night, snuggling fireside with my friend L on our friend A’s couch, my insides humming with childlike warmth and orange rye punch, I had a doubting moment—the first, it would seem, of several.

“Is it wrong that this feels worth flying across the country for?” I asked, weaving my fingers in and out of his, interrupting a conversation about our latest reading material.

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On Me and New York and What’s Meant To Be

Just about the first two questions I received upon arriving in New York City on Friday—where I went this weekend for my brother’s not-really-at-all-impulsive wedding (sorry, J)–were these:

From my best friend R, who I called in the cab from LaGuardia: “Welcome home! Oh sorry—is it strange for me to call New York ‘home’?””

From my mother, who I met near her East 92nd street office for a pre-wedding blowdry as we powered down Lexington during rush hour: “Oh! Are you having culture shock? Do you always have culture shock when you come back here, still?”

I am inclined to say I had no clue how to answer either of these questions—but, in fact, my real-time response to each one was a fairly assured ‘no.’

As in: no, it’s not strange at all to refer to New York as “home.” I was born here, it’s where virtually my entire family still lives and where my parents still occupy the house in which I grew up.

And: no, while I regularly tell of a consistently violent cultural jolt each time I visit the city, even when it was only from DC (Aaaah! Everyone’s more stylish than I am! And skinnier! And walking with even more speed and apparent urgency!), it seems that nine years of fairly regular ins-and-outs has numbed the shock.

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Friends and Family

My group of friends from college all met one another, more or less, within the first week of school our freshman year. Friendships have evolved and shifted over time, of course, but–despite all of us dotting the country like lakes dot Minnesota–we’re still intact. We have a lot of love for each other. And on those precious occasions when we do gather, we love to express it: our reunions are always filled with blissfully excessive quantities of cuddling, hugging and liberal lavishing of the phrase “I love you.”

This weekend we gathered for a wedding: the first among our intimate clan. You won’t be surprised to learn that I really, really did not want to leave. I mean, I seriously contemplated ditching my flight out of Cedar Rapids this morning and catching a ride to Minneapolis with a few folks instead. If not for Bonita, I probably would have done it.

I know as well as anyone that it takes time to find community and get settled in a place–certainly to build the kind of collective love so many of us find during college. I also know that I’ve got a pretty respectable cache of folks here in Albuquerque considering it’s just coming up on one year since I moved. But there’s a difference between friends who are friends and friends who are family.

I’ve spent the past week–first in New York, then Washington, and finally Iowa, for the wedding–surrounded by the latter. And as thankful as I feel to have people in my life who are so so loving, so loyal and so affectionate (not to mention so good with a Sloop John B harmony), I can’t help but be reminded of how exhausting it can feel to spend the bulk of my time without them.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today in lowbrow gym reading, I perused myself some Glamour. (I claim, by the way, to read the New Yorker at the gym. Once in a while I do. But let’s be real: when there’s a lighter option available, I am not above taking it).

This issue featured Katie Couric conducting a serious interview with Whoopi Goldberg. Okay fine it was really, really unserious. Among her puffy questions was one about what she knows now that she wished she had known in her twenties.

Being Whoopi and being awesome, she replied that she wished she knew that being twenty-something is not, in fact, all that different than being fifty-something.

Which, if you’re not Whoopi, may be more or less true. But regardless it reminded me of a conversation I had last night with one of my best friends, R.

R is starting law school in the fall, which means she’s moving back to New York. She is currently contemplating a decision: whether to go back to her bright-but-expensive-and-ideally-located Brooklyn apartment, or move in, for a few months at least, to her parents bright-but-free-and-ideally-located Brooklyn house.

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Relationships, Careers, Priorities and Abstractions

When I was deciding where to go to graduate school, about a year ago, I had lunch with a family friend who is in her 70s, exceptionally accomplished, and whose opinions I take as seriously as anyone’s.

At the time I was choosing between New Mexico and North Carolina, having begun to tell people that I’d ruled out Columbia “unless I tripped on a trust fund.” I didn’t.

I was also, at the time, dating my Missed Connection: the guy I met through Craiglist after a subway sighting, who is a labor lawyer and performed his younger sisters’ weddings, and who frequently gets mistaken for John Krasinski, the guy from The Office.

In other words, the one who–on paper–seemed like an absolutely ideal husband. And who, accordingly, I had concluded should probably be my ideal husband.

As I weighed my options, he was also weighing his–having been offered a job in Washington DC. A place, it was not lost on either of us, within reasonable driving distance from the school I was considering in North Carolina.

I should add that, despite my delusions about marriage, I actually managed to keep things rather casual between us. Or rather, allowed him to: we only saw one another a couple of times a week. We were both clearly smitten, but despite occasional teasings about who was going to leave whom, we refrained from indulging–to each other at least–in fantasies of our shared future.

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On Ever Feeling Our Age

When I was little, I took comfort in the thought that even child stars were older than me. People like Michelle Kwan and Macauley Culkin.

As though, given a couple more years, I too could become an Olympic champion or become male, blond and dysfunctional after starring in a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

When I started high school, the reigning national Spelling Bee champion was in my class. I rationalized the fact that such people were now my peers with the bizarre way that she compulsively tapped her feet and thrust up her arms during freshman English class.

I thought that I’d still managed to hang on, to some extent, to this method of self-justification.

But today, reading a profile of Greta Gerwig–the female lead in Greenberg, who I fell for in the movie Nights and Weekends–and seeing that she, like me, is twenty-six–I hardly flinched. Which made me wonder: when did I surpass the age when it was surprising for me to be older than a critical mass of really successful people? Really successful people who aren’t even considered young to be successful?

In other words: when did I get to be older than I feel?

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An Ode to Boys

One of the silliest things a guy has ever said to me was when I asked whether his ex-girlfriend and I were at all similar (a terrible, terrible question, I know): “No,” he said. “She’s a girl and you’re a woman.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this–besides feeling uncomfortably, vaguely flattered and realizing that his propensity for cheesy commentary was easily exacerbated by red wine.

Frankly, I have no clue what separates “girls” from “women” in guys’ minds. (Thoughts welcome, fellas. I know you’re in double-digits now: out yourselves.)

At the moment, though, I am preoccupied with what separates “men” from “boys” in mine.

This largely stems from the fact that, the other day, my dad sent me an email in response to a post in which I used the term “boy.” (As in, S and I were “talking about boys.”)

“Didn’t you mean ‘men’?” he wrote. “Or am I missing something?”

I honestly hadn’t considered my word choice, which I wrote back and explained. And by way of daughterly edification, I added that many males my age are still, in fact, very much boys.

“That’s a pity,” he responded.

I laughed, and thought: yes. And then, no.

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