Hello, new decade!
My 40th birthday was yesterday. Although I wasn’t dreading the day, I can’t say I’ve been all “Yay, 40! Finally!” either. Because 40 is one of those numbers that brings with it an off-putting sense of dead-endedness. You can’t play cutesy little age games with yourself, like “Oh, I’m just a new version of myself!” No, no. 40 is 40, finite and final.
There’s something about 40 that sounds horribly adult. 40-year-olds are people with mortgages who drive minivans and work in cubicles all day. They drink Scotch, they’re saving for retirement, they know the difference between a Roth IRA and a 401(k).
I mean, I guess. Because I am now 40, but I’m not positive I’ve ever had Scotch, and my retirement plan right now roughly boils down to “Keep working till I’m dead.” I’m between mortgages, will likely never see the inside of a cubicle again, and will definitely never own a minivan.
But those pressures– to be more grownup and responsible, to have reached whatever definition of success we hold for ourselves– only increase the closer we get to landmark ages like 40. And it’s no wonder, when constantly bombarded by examples of outrageous success at much younger ages from all sides.
Like Mozart, who was touring Europe at age 6 and wrote his first symphony at age 9. Also by age 9, Titian was already apprenticed to Bellini, and Jack Nicklaus had already started playing golf.
Casanova lost his V-card at 15. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 20. Greta Garbo had already built such a mystique around herself that audiences rushed the box office to see her in her first ‘talkie’ at age 24.
Al Capone was head of his first gang by 26; Hugh Hefner started Playboy magazine at 27; Hitchcock shot his first film at 28. And while Marie Curie may have discovered radium at age 31, all the original Charlie’s Angels were younger than 30 when the show first aired.
Judging from history, then, not only should I be much, much further along by now, clearly I should’ve started establishing my (as yet still nonexistent) legacy a whole lot younger.
Or maybe not.
Because Mae West didn’t even sign her first film contract until she was 40. Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine for polio at 40, the same age that Marcus Aurelius became emperor and Muhammad had his first vision from the archangel Gabriel.
Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company at 40, and Botticelli was 40 when he painted the Birth of Venus, one of the most recognizable artworks of all time. At 40, Constantine reinvented Byzantium as Constantinople, and 40-year-old Andreas Celsius invented the centigrade scale. Photographer Dorothea Lange joined the FSA at age 40, then proceeded to take some of the most iconic photos of the Great Depression– not to mention her entire career– over the next decade.
In 1974, Hank Aaron broke the world record for home runs in a single game. He was 40. The previous record was set by Babe Ruth, also age 40, back in 1935.
Elizabeth Barrett married Robert Browning when she was 40 and he was 32, a culmination of the extraordinary and passionate love affair immortalized in Sonnets from the Portuguese: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” (Her family promptly disowned her.)
And the Pacific Ocean got its name because the calm waters offered such a serene welcome to 40-year-old Magellan following his treacherous, violent voyage around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America.
Like Magellan, I feel like I’m just catching my breath after a rough crossing myself. At 40, I’m finally feeling whole again after my fully unsettled 30s.
Miss G will graduate high school while I’m 40, and Miss L graduates the following year. Dan and I get to slide into new lives as one-step-removed parents rather than full-time parents as both girls move on to college, real life, and whatever adventures lie beyond. And we move on to adventures of our own, adventures that, in our 40s, feel way more possible and doable than the impractical pipe dreams of our 20s.
So I can’t say I’m a bit unhappy with 40. Sure, Mozart was indisputably a child prodigy, but he was also dead by 35. While many people subscribe to that whole ‘better to burn out than fade away’ thing, I’m not one of them. I’m kind of charmed by my crow’s feet, even if not altogether thrilled at the grey hair I discovered in my eyebrow the other day.
Still, 40 feels like a landmark to me in the best possible way. In the discovering-new-oceans, setting-new-home-run-records kind of way. Although I’m only 32ish hours in, I’ve gotta say, 40 so far is kind of awesome.
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