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40 is the New 14

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They told me 40 was the new 30. Then 50 was the new 40. Then 50 became the new 30, which would make 40 the new 20. Now that I’ve reached midlife, I know that in my case they all were wrong anyway. Forty is actually the new 14.

When I turned 40 last year, I noticed subtle but disturbing changes. Not the three grey hairs. Not the brow furrows.

Rather, I sensed a vague lethargia, a growing tendency to lollygag and daydream. I was perfectly healthy and sleeping well, and, as far as I could tell, free of heavy metals, too punchy for dysthymia and too content for ennui.

What does it mean when you’re happy staring off into space doing nothing? I finally put my finger on it. It’s called lazy.

Other changes followed. I developed celebrity crushes. I dumped my classic rock radio station and started downloading pop and hip-hop. I read novels that are short on character development and long on intergalactic war. Sometimes I sleep until 10 a.m. I leave my clothes on the floor. I hang out in stores like Forever 21. I’m horny. I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me. It took me months to recognize the stranger I had become. It was me, circa 1981. I had become a teenager. One with three grey hairs.

I’m not sure what made me regress like this, but I have three theories. One involves the fact that I don’t have children. Couples without children take turns being the child. So, over the years, my husband and I have slipped in and out of baby talk, have borrowed the phrases and antics of our friends’ children and have in general acted like clowns with no real children ever arriving to force maturity. We’ve been married 14 years. On some level, the imaginary baby I was eventually grew into the virtual teenager I’ve become.

My segue into the 40s also happened to parallel an inexplicable resurrection of ’80s music and fashion. Last month, for example, I finally broke down and bought one of those extremely wide leather belts, the kind that vivisects your spleen the moment you lean forward to peer at the calorie count of a Baked Berry Stella. I had forgotten that feeling, just like I had forgotten how those oh-so-hip-you-thought black leggings are going to ride up the moment you take a seat (especially if you bought them at Forever 21), a sensation I had not experienced since the Reagan years. Once this kind of muscle memory is disturbed, who knows what else, long boxed up and stuffed under the bed with the rainbows and unicorns and vapor of Love’s Baby Soft may escape? Like my current habit of painting my toes with silver Wet ‘n’ Wild nail polish. Or rolling my eyes.

But there’s a third premise: maybe me at 40 happens to have a lot in common with me at 14. Maybe my 40s represent a return to my essential self, one that was temporarily disrupted by my 20s and 30s. In my early teens, I had little sense of the future and no real goals beyond copping a ride to the mall. I accepted each day as it came since, at that age, I had no choice. At 14, I had yet to be squeezed into any particular shape. At 14, I still remembered how to play. At 14, I was often just plain silly. My 20s and 30s were another story. Adulthood brought decades of the To Do List. Each day was an opportunity to do more or do it better while somewhere in the back of my mind a wall of clocks always ticked.

By the time I reached 40, I recognized that life is not necessarily a straight line ascending ever upward toward ultimate success but instead is looking more and more like Jackson Pollock drip art. Plans fail, and opportunities come from out of the blue. My husband and I have a question we ask each other (usually after watching three back-to-back weeknight episodes of Law & Order): “Do you think you’ll ever amount to anything?” In my 30s, the answer to that question filled me with sadness. Today, it gives me relief.

Me at 30: You will achieve professional and personal excellence by the age of 39.

Me at 40: What-ever.

Theories aside, there could be a less flattering explanation. Some men when they reach middle age dump the wife and kids, buy a sports car and date women with names like Bethany and Brittany. They are, in short, living out their teenage fantasy life. When I fritter away a weekend on a science fiction trilogy or spend an hour searching YouTube for clips of cats falling off furniture, I’m doing the same. The new mysterious me may have a simple diagnosis after all: Nerd Midlife Crisis.

Regardless, 14 at 40 is turning out to be a much bigger kick than 14 at 14. Three decades is not nearly long enough to forget just how horrendous the teenage years can be. Even with the three grey hairs and the brow furrows and that thing that happens to your triceps, I prefer 40 for so many reasons:

1. Driver’s license.
2. Bigger allowance.
3. Thanks to running, weight training and whole grains, I have a body I only wished for at 14.
4. Big hair is out. People now pay money to get their hair as straight as mine.
5. I don’t buy hideous clothes no matter what Mary-Kate Olson is wearing.
6. I have a boyfriend and he’s a hottie.
7. Somebody invented YouTube.

Unexpectedly and wonderfully, 40 gave me the opportunity to be a teenager again with more fun and less angst. But what comes after 14? I hope the next few years bring a second chance at being 20 or 30. One of these days I’d like to fulfill the daydreams while keeping the contentment. Eventually, I’d like to stretch again and set goals, this time remembering to appreciate the journey, not just the destination. I’d like to burn with bright energy once more, but without a To Do list and a deadline. I’d like to be a little better than I am, but not nearly as good as I once thought I needed to be.

In the meantime, midlife is not what I expected. But it is, like…wow…you know…totally kewl.


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