24 November 2008

On the Morning After Turning Forty

I’m just a girl with my head screwed on
I’m just a girl with a smoking gun

— Eurythmics

There was, oddly, no palpable change. The alarm clock went off as usual. The cold milky white light of early winter flooded through the windows, as it always does when the sun dips low on the horizon at this time of year. The morning coffee tasted the same, the first cigarette crackled and burned in a familiar way. Neither flooded with a newly acquired sage omniscience nor weighed down with the depression of wasted youth, one showered and shaved with the usual alacrity, and made one’s way into the city, with its demands and quibbles and annoyances, beeping appliances and red lights and merge lanes.

At what is most likely the prime of my life, I remain unfixed. Gazing in the mirror, the act of vanity, I closely examine the face reflected back, my face. People tell me I do not look my age. Yet, I notice the signs, the lack of elasticity, a persistent sagging under the eyes, the mild yet durable imprint of lines across the forehead. One’s skin does not bounce back from a late night or a stressful week in the way it once did. The face settles into a jowly countenance of, of what? Disappointment? Preoccupation? Distraction? Dissonance? Only by bringing my mouth into a wide, clown-like grin do I approximate conventional happiness, of a mildly insane sort. Tired with the effort, I let my face fall, resuming its somber sobriety, the battle scars of all the good times.

I wish I could say that attaining my current state of grace has given me, serendipitously, some sort of insight into the meaning of life, about what is most important, about separating the wheat from the chaff, of sons and daughters calling me Daddy and the warm, nightly embrace of another who loves me for the proverbial me, the compelling messages of advertising and popular culture and sentiment. A random day on the calendar, of course, does not endow us with such enlightenment. I turn away from the mirror with a shrug, return to the computer, sip a Fresca, light a cigarette, and load Facebook.

There, in that digital bonfire of the vanities, I scan the photos of my contemporaries, my Facebook ‘friends,’ some who are actual friends and others somewhat more imprecise, some from those vaunted bright college years and others from graduate school. Some look older and others, disturbingly, the same. And yet still others have an effect that is neither, yet both. They look evolved, comfortable in their skins. I too have evolved, but into what?

All I know for sure is that I have survived an arduous year, the life equivalent of swimming the English Channel, and now I return my shoulder to the wheel of the tenure-track, to an approximation of regular life, to work. Arbeit macht frei, or so they say. My social world, once broad and lively and pleasantly distracting, has severely contracted, a retrograde movement from macro to micro. I dislike talking on the telephone and am terrible about email. I promise to write but am distracted by work, by the lake, by listening to Tom Petty and Alphaville and Mary J. Blige, by smart little books on Bismarck's German Empire and catching up on my Michael Cunningham. Only a handful of stalwart holdouts have managed to develop a benevolent tolerance for such bad habits, spread out in an archipelago stretching from San Francisco to Toronto to Montreal to Providence (of all places).

More importantly, there is nothing like a life crisis to palpably demonstrate who one’s friends really are, and I would be lying if I said I was terribly surprised that over the course of the last year so many have disappeared into the ether. Somehow, such sudden, trap door exits now seem expected, normal, unremarkable. People change, tastes diverge, interests and enthusiasms become too elongated through time and space, taxing their elasticity beyond even the supple, insipid boundaries of sentimentality. As goes Facebook, so goes the world. I have been 'un-friended' by many I once thought intimates, and as on Facebook, one is generally not notified when one is unceremoniously removed from a life. My desire to know, to plumb the reasons and rationales remains, is matched by the knowledge that one will never really know why for sure, only that there is no longer any there there. Certainly there are worse things, but the effect of this process of loss has been a curious distance fueled more by boredom with the machinations of people than passionate feeling. I shrug my shoulders.

Rodriguez once wrote,

Though I am alive now, I do not believe an old man’s pessimism is necessarily truer than a young man’s optimism simply because it comes after. There are things a young man knows that are true and not yet in the old man’s power to recollect. Spring has its sappy wisdom. Lonely teenagers still arrive in San Francisco aboard Greyhound buses. The city can still seem, by comparison with where they came from, paradise. (27)

I returned to this quote in Rodriguez’s morbidly fascinating essay “Late Victorians.” What this young man knew that the older one cannot recollect is an abstraction, of course, since we are real time compendiums of our experiential knowledge, but perhaps a useful abstraction. This young man believed in friendship, in community, in ambition matched only by gleeful dissipation. Forty seems to mark a space where dissipation becomes slightly more literal than figurative, a lack of elasticity. As for friendship and community, well, in my current state I’m no longer sure where exactly to place those. Hypothetically, they exist, but like rare orchids or an elaborate facial ritual, they’re a bitch to maintain.

Rodriguez's queer first words of “Though I am alive now” always struck me as intriguing. The narrator must, on some level, be obviously alive, yet the connection of that state of living to knowledge seems purposefully unclear, for Rodriguez is too much of an anal retentive stylist for such a line to be an accident. It seems to place Rodriguez in a strange position of generational interlocution, but a confusing one that smacks of hypochondria and delusion, two sentiments not unfamiliar to Rodriguez, but still.

But perhaps that is the point. I am a coastal extraterrestrial (ethereal, homosexual, intellectual), crash landed in the mid-western zone of North America. Salvaged from the wreck: notepad, laptop, one-half pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a dogeared copy of Joan Didion's "The White Album," one compact disc by Yoko Ono, one travel-size tube of ClarinsMen Shampooing Ideal, and an orange Lamy fountain pen.

Though I am alive now.


Maggie said...

Happy birthday.

(You're not the only one who's felt her circle of friendships contract rather severely in recent years, and I don't even have a crisis to blame. Is this just to be expected in middle life? I don't know.)

And God, I love and miss your writing.

Anonymous said...

I miss walking around the lake... "Am I pretty?"

I hope that I am on that list of friends who stuck around through the past year. Cuz I will always be your *Luv Buckets*

momo said...

My circle contracted when I became a parent, but it has expanded de nuevo in unforeseen, and delightful, ways.

capcha: whizess

Professor Zero said...

40 isn't nearly as weird as 50. But take it from me, who didn't know this: 40 is the age at which absolutely to stop taking crap from people and do what you want.

Timothy Burke said...

I just want to say that second to last paragraph is just...wow, great. Sorry to gush.

Anonymous said...

Ah, my dear, wait until you are 50 and are in peri-menopause and a dying marriage. More than the skin sags, believe me. (And I am still looking for a TT job - !!) At my age, a Chronicle article by an adjunct professor relating how finally landing a permanent job came hard on the heels of her Botox treatment becomes something of an inspiration (however desperate) instead of the dismal confession of the ruthlessness of today's academic job market it ought to be.