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40

Thursday, May 31, 2018 | 2 Comment(s)

I distinctly remember my Mother's surprise 40th birthday party. I was 7. My brother was 10. The reason the image of this particular birthday burned itself into my brain is that I felt slighted by my father. My father had not felt his sons would able to keep the secret of the looming surprise party, so we were whisked off to Hebrew School like some mundane moving part in an Ocean's 11 movie. I wasn't conscious of it at that point, but I have a propensity for grudge holding, a trait I actively work to soften daily. Forgiveness is freedom.
Dear Me, Forgive yourself for looking like this. Forgiveness is freedom.
Back at our Ocean's 11 caper, a family friend had taken my Mom out to breakfast, or coffee, or some other lame backstory that I wasn't privy to but surely could have improved upon if I had been consulted. After consuming their unimaginative beverage or food, they swung by the synagogue to pick my brother and me up before returning home. When we got home, as you might imagine, she was surprised. Verily. And so was I. And then I was angry. Super angry. Little kid Matt was a little messed up, but at least I could still enjoy a party. Which I did.

The reason I bring any of this up is that I am turning 40 this year, and it is the first time I will be turning an age I clearly (and I think I've demonstrated both depth of knowledge and clarity) remember one of my parents turning. And let me be clear - this is not that kind of existential crisis. I'm not promising that there won't be future pontification, but it will not be of the I'm that much closer to death!?!?! variety.

One of the little precious pockets in that 40th birthday memory is a talk I had with my Mom, most likely after the event itself. In the 1980's the term "Over the hill," was ubiquitous. As in, "Wow you're over the hill now lady, it's all downhill from here." And before 40 was the new 30s, which is the new 20s, you were cresting the backside of the mountain at 40. And for a woman, that meant, culturally speaking, you had to fear your expiration date. I recall either "You're over the hill!" napkins or a banner or some such ridiculousness. A solid twenty-five percent of the cards featured some sort of mountainous terrain. You get the picture.

So, when I asked my Mom how she felt about turning forty, I was surprised by her answer.

"Relieved," she said.

I was puzzled by her reply, even at 7 realizing this was not the socialized response. She continued by saying that her 30's had been filled with an assortment of negative emotions, all of which I had not previously been privy to, protected by the barrier of love my parents wrapped us in, like a body rolled into a carpet. I can't recall the exact emotions she pinpointed but the idea of feeling judged, by herself and others, was a central theme. She said that at 40 she felt she knew who she was so much better than in her 20's and 30's. She said she wouldn't go back and do her thirties again even if she was given the chance.

She said a different version of that last line, about knowing herself better, at 50, and then again at 60.

So here I am, on the precipice of the mountain, cresting the peak and looking out at the vista from whence I came. And now I have to answer the same question: How to do I feel about 40?

I'm not relieved. Perhaps that says more about the security of my present, so I'm trying not to overweigh the now just because of how relevant it feels. In doing that, I realize that "how I feel about 40" is more about future conjecture than it is about reflection. It is the existential world's version of "where do you see yourself in 10 years," and I'm not here for fortune telling, I'm here to reflect.

The more honest question, then, is how do I feel about my 30's? That's a question I have data for. It's a question I have related to. It is the set that is becoming complete. I am not as much becoming 40 as I am becoming no longer in my thirties.

And my 30's can fuck all the way off.

Look. Nothing is all bad. I got married in my thirties. My heart was opened to the love of pet companionship, specifically in the shapes of Grover and Falcor, who are undeniably positive regardless of the chaos they both create and at times represent, in my thirties. I discovered a deeper love for bourbon. I earned diplomas, congratulations, and occasional accolades. And I did a lot of writing. I regret none of the writing.

But I've lost so so much more.

I celebrated my 30th birthday on a Caribbean island with four of my best friends from college, the ones who didn't have children yet. It was epic. We revelled in the closeness that you achieve when you've all known each other for over a decade and all the secrets, stories, and memories jumble into your own language. It's as annoying to be around as it is incredible to be a part of.

A hurricane hit the island that week. We drank painkillers and yelled at the oncoming storm. We were invincible and to prove it we played a round of mini-golf on the newly destroyed course the day after the storm, strewn palm trees be damned. More than anything, that trip represented the hope and optimism we all had for our 30's. An undertaking we began together.

Play on.
This hole was bananas.
Ten years laters, this friend group is no more. A fracture that began out of a miscommunication and a moment of social exclusion, which festered in silence until it strangulated the group entirely. The truth of the matter is that while I am certainly a part of this fractured dynamic, I was ghosted with no explanation of what actions or behaviors had offended my former friends. If in fact they were offended. Not sure. That's 40 (2x20) years of friendship gone because of how uncomfortable it is to be honest with those we care about. Two of these friends spoke at my wedding. A few years later, when they got married, I was no longer part of the guest list. My firmament of friendship pulverized into powdered concrete. That's what my 30's represents.

At least I have my work!

Well, that's only half true. It is true that I have been given a gift professionally, and that is that I excel at something I love. I love teaching college students. I love being able to change lives, invest in people's futures, and be a part of the change I want to see in the world. Plenty of people never get the chance to love what they do, and that fact isn't lost on me.

But being an adjunct means a university never having to say its sorry.
Not for asking you to prepare two new class preparations for 25 to 500 students while earned a half-time salary.
Not when they ask you to do it again the next year.
Not when you come in second for a full-time position in that department.
Not when they ask you to keep teaching half-time because they know the department is hiring in the future.
Not after you get nominated by your students for a teaching award.
And especially not after they don't grant you an interview for any of the three subsequent full-time positions.

After three years, six class preparations, and over a thousand students - I got an email from Human Resources addressed to "Mr. Zimbler." It's ironic that one of the first lessons I teach my first years is how to correctly address their emails.

And what about the voices that, a few years ago, couldn't stop regaling me about how my outsized investment now were an incredible "career building opportunity" and a "bridge towards full-time employment." They are conspicuously silent. The voices that lauded my value as an educator, now hide behind form letters and equivocating email responses. After three years of inventive and engaged teaching, increasingly positive faculty reviews, and stellar student evaluations, the department doesn't believe they will have any need for my services next year. As for any explanation as for why the University finds that it is in their best interests to let go of an underpaid half-time professor doing and excellent job teaching courses most professors don't want to teach?  Silence. My professional momentum capped at the knees by the very system I dedicated myself to. That is what my 30's represent.

What would I do without my community?

Well, to that I would ask, what community? Oh, my wife and I had community here in the Happy Valley. In truth, we've had multiple. A house ago, we had a group of peers that mostly included graduate school peeps, and we celebrated holidays, birthdays, and graduate school breakdowns. I led Passover seder at a friend's house, and at the end of each summer there was a Hibatchi & Bocci cookout, which was always well attended. Real down home picturesque shit. But alas, graduate students, almost by definition, eventually move on.

Real down home picturesque shit
Not long after that, I was also adopted by the service industry and beer scene crowd. While always a bit of a clique, it was a clique formed through elbow grease and fake smiles at rude customers. Above all else service life revolved around no bullshit conversations. I got down with that. But, while it is a truth that is hard to fully admit to myself, the further you gets from actually slinging beers, the further you get from the culture that comes alive at 2am when the bars shut down, the customers are no longer right, and the adrenaline of work still courses through your exhausted body.

I've had community, but I don't anymore. What's more, for a place called the Happy Valley, I have never experienced this much middle-aged cliquey isolationist ostracism since, legitimately, middle school. I have been consistently cast off or casually dismissed by other human people without the feeling that they sensed the viciousness of their actions.

I know that if the name of humor I, occasionally, exaggerate. Therefore, in the name of accuracy, here are a few examples of my attempts to build a community around me, and the responses I've received:

A year or two ago I was having brunch with my wife when I saw a friend of mine eating alone a few tables away. At the conclusion of our meal I went over to say hi to this guy who I've known for ten years. Over the past decade we've spent countless hours drinking beers at the local bar, reveling at workplace holiday parties, and celebrating countless birthdays. Admittedly, the dynamic behind the two of us hanging out always felt a bit one-sided. I would invite him to socialize, he would invite me to group functions at his places of work.

That day at brunch I asked him if he wanted to hang out sometime? He said, as he always did, that he was "really busy at the moment." He always said this line a day or two before posting a bunch of pics to Facebook of him and an all-male group of friends off adventuring together. I replied that we should figure out some time in the future, since it'd been too long since our last hang.

He proceeded to tell me I was putting too much pressure on our friendship with these kind of demands. I calmly asked how actually seeing each other was too much pressure on a friendship, and he didn't have much of a response.

Folks. I know how this interaction reads. It's all "needy Mattititiyahu" trying to badger some guy who doesn't like him into hanging out. It's the bro-mance version of "he's just not that into you." But my point is that this was a close friend, at least at some point. He was at my bachelor party, my wedding. I have had meaningful conversations with him. And now, as this example clearly illustrates, we aren't really friends anymore. Who knows when this moment happened. But his current dismissal awakens that inner insecurity, that niggling feeling that maybe everyone who likes you, secretly actually hates you and is trying to blow you off. That feeling defines my 30's.

Three years ago when my wife and I moved over the river to a neighboring town in order to get away from living in the land of college students, we were excited by the prospect of more friends our age. In fact, through work and social engagements we know three young couples (all close with one another) that all own houses on our street. Now, I didn't expect them to come hunt us down with fruit baskets or anything, but we definitely hoped that after a few "run-in's" in town they might invite us to some of their neighborhood hangs. Not being one to be passive about creating connections, the next time I ran into one of the husband's in town I mentioned how nice it would be to get together with others in the neighborhood, to have some local community.

He responded, straight-faced and without any sense of real emotion, "Community? Ugh. We have too MUCH community."

Um. What. Did I just get "community shamed." Is he perturbed by the amount of love in his life? He actually said those words, impersonally rejecting me in my moment of vulnerability, before casually walking away as if he'd actually just said, "Donuts? Ugh. I've already eaten WAY too many."

The cumulative effect of these, and so many similar on-brand rejections, is that I am forced to second guess every one of my actions, my interactions, and my friendships. The relaxation and intellectual exhalation that used to characterize most of my close friendships has become infected and replaced with a dynamic full of self-doubt, evaluation apprehension, and rejection sensitivity. As a person who finds joy in others and is buoyed in life by my connections, my 30's has been characterized by poison in the well. A toxic dynamic leaving me to ponder my isolation alone.

My niece is 6 years old. She is a fire breathing dragon of empowerment and has no qualms asking or telling you what's on her mind. Perhaps, though I sincerely doubt it, she will inquire, during what I assume will be some sort of celebration of the my conclusion of decade number four, how I feel about turning 40.

And I'll say, "Dear sweet niece, I too am a fire breathing dragon. I too have a soul that can be restricted but not restrained. And this birthday I'm getting my fire back; I am burning for change."


2 comments:

  1. I can feel your pain as I write this comment. I have been in your shoes and the sadness is palpable. I spent a lot of time questioning what did I say/ do/ not do to create this bubble of isolation? It is a daily quest to understand why people hurt, disappoint, and ghost me when we were once so close. It’s like I never really knew them at all. Every day I remind myself that I have an amazing job, my health, and my family/friends. I am lucky to “have what I have” and “it can always be worse”, this gives me hope. Like you I would love to understand why the dynamics of our past relationships have changed so much and why we seem to have been shunned. Thank you so much for sharing your story and please know tomorrow is another day��

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    1. thanks andrea for your words. The pain is real, and I've found that the only real relief (since waiting for answers is a suckers bet) is to get to a place where you don't care about answers anymore, and simply value yourself enough to move on. It is a sad reality, but reality nonetheless.

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