Friday, November 7, 2014

On Turning 40

I understand that very few people who have spent any time beyond the age of 40 have any interest in reading of the anxieties and introspections of someone who just now nears that milestone. I imagine it’s like hearing about someone else’s root canal after having had one yourself: you don’t want to hear about it because either a) you know it isn’t as horrible as people have made it out to be or b) your experience was so horrible that no one else’s could possibly match it.

I understand, too, that in a week or a month, after I have settled somewhat into my 40-ness, I too might have little patience for the angst of 39-year-olds bemoaning their entry into “oldness.”

But forget one-year-older me for now. I’m going to write about turning 40 because there is something important about it. Or at least there seems to be.

That 40 is just a number, I know. At least in my head. Creating a milestone solely because the number in that tens place ticks up a notch is ultimately an arbitrary choice based on our numbering system. If we had developed a binary system of counting, my big birthday would have occurred eight years ago, when I added a whole new digit to my age, from 11111 (31) to 100000 (32), something that won’t happen again until I turn 64, or 1000000. Similarly, if humans had evolved with twelve fingers and toes, our counting system might have been based on twelves, and my 40th birthday would still be 8 years away.

Time would not have passed any faster or slower, of course, and that is my point. Reaching one’s 40th year — or 480th month, or 14,610th day —is no more meaningful for one’s place in the universe than is turning 27 3/8. As an old friend on Facebook put it, on my 40th birthday, I’m still just a day older than I was yesterday.

Everyone who survived the last week has done exactly the same thing.

Over 35% of the population of the planet is 40 or older. About 97 million people will turn 40 this year — that’s over 265,000 every day.* So turning 40 isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence.

But for all its commonness, we all know people who will never be able to do it. Birthdays are a time for looking back, and part of that, especially on a milestone birthday, is remembering the people who will never do the common thing you’ve done.

Like David Lowe, who was hit by a car when we were both in the fifth grade.

Or my wonderful aunt Liz, who wasted away into oblivion from cervical cancer when I was still in middle school.

Or my friend Jasper Carter, who fell asleep driving home from a church lock-in the summer before our senior year of high school and drove into a tree.

Or my summer-camp brother Charles Hass, who was stabbed outside an Oakland liquor store while he was looking forward celebrating a move and a new job.

Or my real brother Jay.

Milestone birthdays are also reminders of our own mortality. If our lives were place on a graph, these major markers would loom taller, like gravestones rising above the grass. Milestone birthdays remind us in a big way of the unceasing and uncontrollable passage of time, every new day, hour, or second bringing us that much closer to our inevitable nothingness.

It’s about at this age, too, that we begin to notice that the magnitude of the tragedy of one’s death is inversely proportional to one’s age. The death of a 40-year-old is, on the whole, merely tragic. Not horrific. Not unbearable.

Marking our 40th birthday is, for most of us, I think, bittersweet. On the one hand, we have lived (one hopes), and there is the possibility that the years that have passed could be doubled and then some in our future. As if, given everything we’ve been through so far, we could plausibly start over and do it all again and have enough time to do it.

But we wouldn’t want to. For all the experiences, both painful and joyous, that we have in our first four decades, we know that they represent only a minuscule ort in the vast buffet of experiences that are in a life.


I admit it. This post has derailed. I had intended to write about my personal feelings about turning 40, and instead I’ve veered into larger, more philosophical issues about life and death and aging. Sorry.

I think it’s safe to say that the thought of turning 40 hasn’t made me nearly as anxious and introspective as choosing to write about turning 40. But therein lies an important element of what it means to be human. We focus on the things that are important to us. But the effect works both ways: By focusing on something, we make it important.

Turning 40 has become a big deal because I have focused on it. I’ve made it a big deal.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that 40 is the new 30. Trite though I recognize that statement to be, I’d like to believe it. I certainly don’t feel like what I thought “being in my 40s” would feel like. I still feel like I’m in my mid-30s, if I’m being honest. (And I’ve surprised more than one person with my true age; people who meet me seem to think I’m in my early 30s, so thanks for that, genetics.)

These are the things that I’ll try to remember, that I’ll try to focus on. After a few days into actually being 40, I’m sure I’ll look back at my current anxiety and laugh. Turning 40 is, after all, the easiest thing to do for someone my age.

Still, if 40 is the new 30, I’d like to start talking now about how we can make 50 the new 30 in, oh, say, about ten years?

*These numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and my sometimes fuzzy grasp of mathematics.