Dan turned 40 this week. I’m studying him closely for signs of a midlife crisis emerging suddenly like a case of adult onset acne. But there he is, snacking on leftover birthday cake and smiling at wonky kid-made gifts. He’s the dashing star of the new zen film: aging and acceptance.
“So, how is it? How do you feel?” I ask, half expecting him to spout something wise and illuminating about this milestone, which my friend Cynthia calls, “40 million” (as if uttering “40” by itself emits an overly self-conscious echo, the way some people will always throw a carton of ice cream next to their condoms on the supermarket conveyor belt).
“Oh, pretty much the same as I felt yesterday. Probably the same that I’ll feel at 41 or 42. You know, virile,” he says, leeringly.
This is the kind of answer that I both expect and roll my eyes at. I mean it must be hard being so full of equanimity, Dan and all those Tibetan lamas. It’s no secret that my 40th birthday movie will be the great psychological thriller, “No need to fuss over me, but where are the goddamn Hawaii tickets?”
And it’s not that Dan is ungrateful or blase about the enormity of luckiness that is his life. It’s more that he practices satisfaction as something to realize, not attain. Every morning he packs a lunch from our leftovers, content to slop the latest permutation of rice, beans and elk meat into a dish, eating it at the precise temperature of his truck cab at noon. <em>Shudder</em>.
Dan invited a few friends over to celebrate, most of whom had hefted an elk leg out of the wilderness with him at some point in the past 13 years. The most enthusiastic partiers were the 6 and under set, assembling themselves at the dinner table like non-violent protesters, not budging until the cake came out.
And really, it was absolutely lovely, if not slightly evocative of parties at my grandma’s senior center, what with the heavy reminiscing, cocktails at 4pm, dinner at 5pm (including low-sodium, non-spicy versions for the kids). While the children frolicked and parents drank responsibly, I kept thinking about the irony of it all.
It’s hard to even name, this irony. It’s how I sometimes feel in the bustle of after-school pick up, all the parents striding purposefully down the hallways. The smell of tempera paint—as if piped through the vents—is so reminiscent of childhood, I almost expect to see my own mom stepping toward me with her 1970’s pocketbook banging against her hip, her very presence a lighthouse of safety and comfort.
Sometimes this adulthood feels like a prepackaged costume the doctors handed me after my first baby was born (complete with new grey hairs and exciting late-night internet research on BPA!). And six years later I’m still figuring out how to lace up the sensible shoes and not snicker when the pediatrician cups his hands in the air, demonstrating how “you want their poop to be a solid brown log.”
Somehow I thought it would be different, this adulthood, like you grow up and the oceanliners “self-confidence” and “competence” anchor at your dock forever. I don’t even have an ironclad parenting philosophy; you know—the kind you wear on your belt, flicking open to produce an array of efficient and appropriate tools to get out of any bind.
I once thought being an adult meant having it all figured out, now I see it’s more like the grace and luckiness to continue learning.