I remember when I was a young man seeing bumper stickers that said “life begins at forty”, and me thinking (in the sort of apologetically supportive tone one uses when talking to cancer patients) “well, good for you!”
I didn’t believe that life began at forty, but that didn’t mean forty was old. In fact, in my mind, forty was sort of the high-watermark of life. By the time one reached forty, I figured, they have finally gotten the hang of life. They know what they want to be when they grow up, because they are grown up, and they are being it. By forty I knew I would be well paid and living large. I would have achieved the sort of success that allowed me to drive whatever car I wanted, to make my art for a living, to take my family on cool vacations, to treat my wife to lots of nights out and to afford a gym where a guy named Derek would keep me looking svelte well into my seventies, with no real willpower on my own part.
In short, forty was my deadline. By forty, I’d have made it.
So I turned forty this year and, by a lot of measures, I guess I have made it. I get paid to make art. Unfortunately, the art I make is just monkey art, made to order for clients who, quite often, have not a single artistic bone in their bodies but expect me to duplicate their “creative vision” perfectly. Regardless of their actual words, what I usually hear from clients is “we love what you’ve done! Can you, like, make it a little worse?”* Invariably, the art I create for myself (for free, mind you) is powers of magnitude better than anything I create for clients. So even though I make art for a living, it is pretty frustrating.
And I do own my own home, yes. That was another of the things that a forty year old should be able to say. Unfortunately, our house is a hundred years old and began, literally, breaking apart during our occupation of it. We had to spend a third of the cost of the house on getting it fixed. This means that, for a good part of the last couple of years, we have been in pretty cruddy shape financially. There are some practical realities that go along with that, such as NOT driving a vintage 1968 Barracuda, NOT taking lots of cool vacations, and most assuredly NOT having any Dereks at the gym to keep me from getting woefully un-svelte. Perhaps even worse, for the last 18 months, our house has looked, more than anything, like something that was bombed and hasn’t yet received any UN aid relief. We still don’t have a porch, but at least the piles of rubble have been mostly cleared away.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that I am forty and I just recently– say, in the past two or three years– figured out what I really want to be when I grow up. I want to be a writer. I’ve written several novels, most of which have been published (well, SELF-published, which is sort of like being a self proclaimed genius) and gotten a decent number of readers. Better still, I have had a spectacularly huge professional validation from a worldwide best-seller, who chose to publish one of my short stories and called it “the kind of story that launches careers”. Hooray for me, right?
I suppose. The thing is, I’m forty. Forty was always the deadline. In a few months, I will be forty-one. The deadline will have passed, and I still won’t be what I want to be when I grow up: a published author, living off of my writings. The problem is that I discovered that that was my life goal at the very tail-end of my deadline period. It’s like running ninety-percent of a marathon, believing you are at the head of the pack the whole time, and then, within sight of the tape, having a bystander say, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be running on THAT track over there?”
I’ve been tremendously frustrated of late, despite the many encouragements I have had as a writer, simply because I believed I was at the end of my deadline. If it was going to happen, it needed to happen NOW. Every time there has been the slightest hope, I have attacked it voraciously, desperately, mentally repeating the mantra: “This is the one! It has to be! This will get me there! NOW I will get published! This is the breakthrough! It just HAS to be!” And then, when it fizzles, I find myself thrust into abject woe. I struggle with just giving up. I convince myself that I am a failure, that I should just accept my lot in life. After all, I am standing on the finish line. Forty is the deadline.
Forty WAS the deadline. It’s almost over now.
Le sigh. Le moan.
But then last night, I realized something. It was such a surprisingly comforting idea that I am still sort of reluctant to accept it. You’ve probably already though of it, haven’t you? If you haven’t, here it is: Forty was a self-imposed deadline.
Do you know what that means? That means I just made it up. I enforced in on myself. It was utterly arbitrary, made up at a time when I had little-to-no idea what real life as an adult would look like. I invented that deadline, and then doggedly whipped myself with it. But the amazing thing is– the completely, breathtakingly, astoundingly cool thing is– I can extend that deadline. I can! I can totally alter the deadline! After all, what did I know back then? I thought the idea that life began at forty was a quaint lie that old people told themselves. Now, I am forty, and I know that life sort of does begin about here. Because here is where life finally fits. Here is where you learn what you REALLY want to do when you grow up, and here is when you realize that real growth is in your mind, and your talents, and your attitude. At forty I can keep that up, and be much more deliberate about it, than I ever could at twenty or thirty, when I was spending all of my efforts finding someone to love and struggling to buy a house and making and raising babies. Finally, at forty, I’ve got the freedom to really and truly start my life as a writer.
If I think about it that way, then I am really just starting my marathon. I’ve been writing for only a few years, and already look at what I have accomplished! It’s really very encouraging. And I still have almost the whole race to go! Just think what I’ll be able to do in the coming decades! Seriously! I’m awesome!
So I am giving myself a new deadline, and I suspect it is far more accurate than the one I came up with when I was a teenager.
From now on, death is the deadline. That’s why they call it that, eh? Heh.
*If you are one of my clients, of course I wasn’t talking about you. You are awesome. You rock. It’s all those other clients who are creative dunder-heads. YOU know the ones.