You may feel out of touch and have sore knees, but it’s better than the alternative.
It’s clear we live in cosseted times when you note how white Australians react to turning 40. I say ‘white’, because I figure that when Indigenous Australians hit 40 they are rapt. When your community respects and reveres elders, your children are suiciding at six times the national rate and your life expectancy is the best part of a decade lower than average, making it to 40 is an unequivocal win. Us whiteys, however… Whinge, whinge, whinge. I swear we’ve forgotten what the alternative is.
I’m blaming it on the era of the kidult. We are crazily youth-obsessed. That’s why 40 hits us like a train. Until the final seconds of your 39th year it’s possible to feel in touch, carefree and quite okay with late nights, recreational drugs and being picky on Tinder. Your dial may even still be tuned to Triple J. La la la. Then in comes the big Four Oh, you’re no longer ‘in your thirties’ but staring down 50, and – BOOM! – mortality is in your face like a particularly aggressive Goal Defence. Which is a netball reference. Not that you’ll be playing netball anymore; not with those knees. Did I mention mortality?
The angst is real, but there’s no question that fretting over middle age is a modern luxury. For some context, in the 1880s male life expectancy was 47, women a shade over 50 and netball wasn’t even invented. Times change.
You know what else was a modern luxury? A bar of Imperial Leather soap. ‘Tahiti, James!’ No one under 40 has the faintest idea of what I’m referencing, because in popular culture years I am so ancient that ISIS would blow me up as a matter of principle. Forty seems to be the tipping point, when we – to borrow from Gwyneth Paltrow – begin our unconscious uncoupling from youth and relevance. Indiscernibly at first, the cultural references we take for granted start drifting away like an unmoored boat from a pier. Going, going, WTF, gone…
The other week I met Blair, a 23-year-old Canadian stand-up comic who, despite being admirable in many ways, had never heard of Kylie. Boy, did that stick a spanner in the conversational flow. Come on! Kylie! It felt surreal, but of course it’s inevitable. Kylie, no shame, has peaked. Her boat is drifting from the pier. And there I was, suddenly on the back foot, mentioning gold hotpants and saying “She’s really famous”, and this lovely young man was looking at me kindly, tolerantly, with an undercurrent of ‘whatevs’. That, my friends, is what it’s going to be like in the old people’s home.
It’s destabilising when you feel your reality wobbling. When you realise that the next generation no longer knows or cares about The Pixies, or Mae West, or Polly Waffles, or anything you consider a cultural staple. That they not only have a different favourite Dr Who to you, but they’ve not really heard of yours. “Pertwee! Grey hair! Big nose? Also played Worzel Gummidge? Scarecrow with a turnip head? He was massive.”
So it is hard to feel lucky (Kylie reference) about turning 40, when Andrew Marvell is all up in your face and ringing in your ears, viz, “At my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near”. Chilling. What was that? Andrew Marvell? Come on. ‘To His Coy Mistress’? Metaphysical poet from the 17th century? Legend. He was all over this mortality stuff. Died aged 57, presumed poisoned by his political enemies. His Wiki entry doesn’t mention it, but with poisoning an actual option within his peer group, he must have been well happy to make 40.
I’m 53 now (it’s my birthday as I write, as a coincidental fun fact), and I remember the onset of dread as my 40th approached. I see it in my friends. It’s textbook, if there’s a textbook called This is When the Shit Hits the Fan. It takes a year, give or take, to adjust to the reality that you are heading, inexorably, downstream and out to sea.
And, no, you will never again truly understand, or look quite right, in the latest fashion. You won’t ever again be completely pain/niggle free. Exercise becomes less about looking ‘hot’, and more about getting off the toilet unassisted. But when you can tear yourself away from the mirror, from fingering your ravaged complexion, it’s exhilarating to realise you’d better crack on, because time and tide wait for no man (Chaucer reference). English poet? 14th Century? Canterbury Tales? Ah, screw it…
For virtually more FSN, visit fionascottnorman.com.au or follow her on Twitter @FScottNorman.
This article first appeared in Ed#493 of The Big Issue.