I turned 40 today, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a little about what this milestone means to me, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it all. So I wanted to write down some of the loosely-connected thoughts and memories that have occurred to me over that time.
If you went back twenty years or so, and I asked people who knew me then to name my most distinctive qualities, “fear of strange food” would have ranked very highly. I was notorious for eating only the most whitebread (and mayo-saturated) items in the supermarket: Pringles, Lucky Charms, Coca-Cola. (Somehow despite this intake I was 6 ft. 1 and 130 pounds when I arrived at college.) “Foreign” foods with even the hint of spice were out of the question. In college I did finally get the inevitable taste for Indian and Chinese, though even then the joke was that, no matter what the cuisine, I would inevitably track down the dish that was closest to Steak-Ums and order that forever after. My diet was literally plain vanilla: For my first thirty years, I actually hated chocolate.
I bring all this up because the other day, I had what I believe was my first taste ever of pistachio ice cream. I had studiously avoided it all this time for one, entirely irrational, reason: its distinctive green color had suggested to me at some early age that it was “minty” in flavor, and thus not at all tolerable. I didn’t like sharp tingle of mint on my tongue, and much preferred smoother, nuttier flavors like butter pecan. And so I simply never tried it. Ever.
You know where this is going. It turns out that Pistachio has a lovely smooth, nutty flavor that lands squarely in my ice cream wheelhouse. (My wife delicately suggested that the fact that pistachios themselves are nuts might have been a clue.) And I spent that last four decades actively avoiding it for entirely imaginary reasons. What a waste! How many other equally ludicrous mistakes are out there? Can I spend the next forty years tracking them all down and unlearning them?
As some of you know, I’m in the middle of writing a new book. I’ll finish it sometime late this summer, and it will likely come out early next year. So that means I’ll have published six books before I turn 41. That sounds pretty great to me, though I confess it is only finally now catching up to the publishing schedule I imagined for myself when I was in high school. (I had a whole plan to publish my first book – likely a book of short stories or poetry – in my early twenties, but slacker that I was I didn’t get around to it until I was twenty-eight.) The stat that I’m actually most proud of is one that never occurred to me as a teenager: the total number of editions for all of the books, including the translations, which is now something like 50. Thinking about that number – and seeing all those spines up there on my shelf – never fails to make me happy.
I was thinking about all those books this week, but more than that I was thinking about the current state of the floor next to my writing desk. This is what it looks like today, a fair representation of the state it’s been in since I starting writing the new book earlier this year:
Despite what I’m about to write about this unruly pile, believe me when I say that I wish my office were tidier. The pile genuinely bums me out. Part of my growing up is an appreciation for the pleasure that tidiness affords you, the sense of everything being in the right place. But I’ve also learned that I can’t work without the pile; when you’re in the middle of a research-heavy book (like all the books I’ve written) you need to have a couple dozen books and essays sprawled out beside you as you write – it’s simply not efficient to reshelve them dutifully every night, given that the next morning you’ll likely be looking for the same page you were scanning the night before. So the pile persists.
For some reason, the other day I glanced down at the mess of books on the floor, and I got a sudden flash in my memory from 1985. I’m in my bedroom in suburban Washington and some friends are coming by to pick me to up go out to a movie, including a couple of girls that I’ve just met from one of the other – more intriguing, more artsy – high schools in D.C. When I hear the doorbell ring, I go on this mad rush, tossing all my legal pad drafts of poems and stories across the carpet, then adding all the impressive-sounding books I’ve been pseudo-reading of late. (“Qu’est-que-ce ca? Oh, that’s just Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller. Do you know it?”) It was pretty much all make believe, but I seem to recall that it worked whatever weird adolescent magic it was designed to do: I got the billing as the smart, eccentric writer guy (albeit the one with weird food issues.)
I flashed back to this whole episode – which I probably hadn’t thought about for at least a decade – and the first instinct was to chuckle: still a poseur after all these years. (No doubt if I was sixteen now I’d be posting pictures of the pile to my Facebook page to impress the girls -- which, for the record, is totally, totally different from posting those pictures to your blog.) But the second, and longer, thought was different, and more satisfying: if seventeen-year-old Steven could time-travel to his current workspace and see what it looked like, I think he’d probably be psyched. I think he’d take one look at my office, and say: “This turned out pretty much according to plan.”
And it’s true of much more than my office floor. I was always one of those kids who thought actively how cool it would be to have kids myself. (Part of the dream of being a writer was bound up in this fantasy of working from home, and being around my children all the time—which has more or less turned into reality.) In my late teenage and early college years, I had a slightly silly romanticized idea of a turbulent, writerly marriage, in part as a reaction to my parents’ stable, happy marriage, but I got over that soon enough, and realized that my parents were a great model for the kind of marriage I should have. And so when I look around, and think about the amazing family that has grown around me, and think back to that image of my future life that I had as a teenager, there’s a very satisfying feeling of continuity.
All this reminds me of great quote from the intro to Pynchon’s Slow Learner short story collection, a book which may well have been included in that 1985 pile on my floor, where forty-something Pynchon imagines going back to hang out with the twenty-something Pynchon, and asks something along the lines of “Would I even like that guy? Would I want to sit down and have a beer with him?” But sitting here at forty, for whatever reason, I’m imagining it the other way: would 1985 Steven have happily had a beer with the current model? I think he would, and that the pair of us would have hit it off. That’s one measure of success, right? Your continuity with your past selves; their willingness to let you buy them a beer. (And I say that with first-hand knowledge that 1985 Steven had a killer fake ID, so that’s not a factor.)
About a year and a half ago, my wife and I joined the Park Slope Food Co-Op, which for those of you who don’t know, means that once a month I spend three hours bagging dried fruit in the basement of a grocery store. There are a thousand things to be said about the Co-Op experience (and experiment) which for the most part I have enjoyed immensely, but thinking about turning forty reminded me of the striking initial impression I had after doing my first shift. As I packed up the last box, I had a strange, almost bodily, feeling that something was different, and it took me a while to realize what it was: it had been years, maybe decades, maybe all the way back to high school, since I had had such a strong impression of time moving so slowly. You’d bag up and price ten pounds of apricots and then turn and look at the clock and be absolutely amazed that only fifteen minutes had passed! Everything in my life was about accelerating time, the clock clicking too fast for you to keep up with it, but here in the basement of the Co-Op I’d stumbled across the land that time forgot.
One of the things that's always stuck with me from my Mind Wide Open research is that human beings vary predictably in their perception of time as they age. Time literally seems to go faster the older you get—not just in the span of decades, but also in the span of minutes. Put someone in a room without a clock or watch and ask them to guess when an hour has passed, and on average, the older person will perceive the hour zipping by faster than the younger person.
The older I get, the more I think that one of the keys to happiness—or at least one of the signs of happiness—is getting to some kind of place where time seems to be passing at the right speed. Maybe this is one of the weird hidden benefits of hitting the exact middle of your life expectancy, but I really do feel that sense of temporal balance right now: I don’t feel like the kids are growing up too fast or too slow; I love where they are in their development right now, but I can’t wait to see the next phases too. I love having almost ten years of married life behind me, but can’t wait for all the adventures we’re going to have in the next ten and beyond.
The only thing that seems a little accelerated, here at the turning point of forty, are the seasons. I wrote most of this on Shelter Island on a little 24-hour solo excursion to hang out by myself and play a little golf, and on the ferry over it was one of those brilliant early summer days, the first real beach day I’d experienced this year. Part of me thought “Ah, that first feeling of summer in the Northeast —I love that.” But then there was immediately this shadow thought, that if the actuarial calendar is right, I’m only going to experience that first-day-of-summer feeling forty more times. The number of summer days stretching ahead of me seems, for all practical purposes, infinite. But the number of seasons themselves seems unnervingly finite. In my mind, when I think of it that way, time does seem to speed up a little.
When I described this feeling to a friend once, he suggested moving to Brazil or Australia each winter, thereby immediately doubling the supply of first summer days left in my life. But maybe the more practical approach is just learning to savor it all, the way I was doing on the ferry out to Shelter, compensating for that finite number by making each turn of the seasons last longer. Either way, I’m aiming to make it last.