Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979

At thirty

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the end of youth

I’m thirty today. It was bound to happen, though for some reason I didn’t expect it so soon. For most of my twenties I knew I’d be twentysomething forever. Then, about two years ago, I saw thirty in the distance — but the procession there was stately, adagio, hardly something to look forward to but a perfectly natural state of affairs. And then the dread set in, and things started accelerating. Months seemed compressed into days. My whole life began to hurtle at the cold brick wall of June 12; judgments, fears, recapitulations forced their way into my mind and my notebook; every moment and every fraction of a moment had to be adjudged worthy or unworthy, valued or wasted, because soon my youth would be over.

But it has turned out so differently. Hitting this day, which had long loomed before me and then seemed to move in for the kill, has turned out to be far less momentous than I’d feared. On the contrary: here in New York today, with the wind blowing gently from the west and the new blue bicycles gleaming in the daylight, I feel unexpectedly calm. Part of my good mood might derive from the fact that I worked out yesterday evening and then didn’t drink at dinner; at my age, decrepit old man that I am, those behaviors make a big difference the morning after. Still, I can handle this. Thirty is not a milestone, thirty is not a cutoff point, thirty is simply the next thing that happens.

A few years ago, somewhere on Avenue C, I was whining about my career or my love life to a handsome older guy, forty-five or so, and he asked me my age. “Twenty-seven,” I responded. Which he scoffed at. Nothing counts until you’re thirty, he insisted; my whole life so far was just a practice run. That angered me (not enough to decline when he invited me home), but the anger was of a larger, more macroeconomic variety that he might have understood. Dismissing my twenties, insisting that life begins only at thirty, seemed doubly problematic, problematic in a self-contradictory fashion. On the one hand, it implied that infinite possibilities are available to all and therefore you don’t need to worry about anything; you live and will always live in a time of abundance, so sit back and relax. Which was of course manifestly untrue by this point, perhaps a few months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the start of a political and economic disaster that five years on continues to fester and metastasize. On the other hand, the perpetual adolescence entailed by the statement “Your twenties don’t count” seemed more particular, more contemporary. An earlier generation had to take their twenties seriously, preparing for careers or families, but since yours has no hope you might as well skateboard. Hell, maybe your thirties will be for skateboarding too!

I was angry, but I was overreacting. I can see that now. At the end of The Tin Drum, in a chapter called “Thirty,” Günter Grass writes that even a world war isn’t enough to give form to your twenties, and that the birthday I’m celebrating today is the day you have to get serious:

I’ve run out of words now, but still have to think over what Oskar’s going to do after his inevitable discharge from the mental institution. Marry? Stay single? Emigrate? Model? Buy a stone quarry? Gather disciples? Found a sect? These days all possibilities offered to a man of thirty must be considered, and how else but with my drum?

Just because your twenties take place against the backdrop of a gigantic, world-historical disaster (military in Oskar’s case, economic in mine) doesn’t mean that you’re marked for life. Do what you can with your twenties. And, at thirty, try a little harder.

My twenties got off to a slow start. I did well in college, I met my first boyfriend, and after graduation I bagged myself a job at an art gallery in New York. It gave me the opportunity to swan around the Upper East Side, meeting collectors and curators (not artists, though; that came later), but it was an unpleasant job with an unpleasant boss. At twenty-two I already felt I’d gone wrong, and in the way young people do I aggrandized it into a moral failure, an error that had to be compensated for before it wrecked my life. It is slightly embarrassing to see how much weight I assigned to such small problems, but at that age I didn’t know how to do anything else.

So I gave up my apartment, the last cheap apartment on Spring Street which I should have clung to like a liferaft, and I moved: first to London, then to Paris, then to London again. All for personal reasons, I supposed. Yet though I don’t think I had any conscious knowledge of it at the time, one of the impetuses for my move abroad in 2006 must have been the dishonor I felt in the nightmare era of George W. Bush. Which is not to say I wanted to escape my Americanness: I’ve never been anything but proud to be American, and in my expat years I wore my citizenship as jauntily as I could. With surprising glee I’d hop the Northern Line to buy Chipwiches and peanut butter from the expat grocery on Hampstead High Street, and whenever I passed through Grosvenor Square I’d pay homage to Franklin Roosevelt and the 9/11 memorial, John Adams’s old house, and the Saarinen embassy that marked for me the lost, glorious moment when American values came into registration with modernism. London was where I made my first Thanksgiving, a 15-person feast featuring a turkey procured with great difficulty from a hipster butcher in Barons Court. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the Jamesian assimilationists among Americans abroad, still less the strange breed of wannabe Canadians or inane “citizens of the world.” America isn’t like other countries; you can’t escape it, you don’t ever get to start again. Wherever you go America will find you. And tax you along the way.

Nevertheless, I suppose I thought (unconsciously, incompletely) that I could find a less dishonorable way of being American by going abroad, that away from home I could articulate my own Americanness out of all the right sources — Jefferson and Whitman, Sontag and Woody — and not have to take responsibility for the wrong ones, the ones whose ascent had not yet crested. For to be an American in his early twenties was not easy at that point, and it was even worse in New York, where you had to endure people who stupidly, indecently claimed that the city was exempt from America, an island off the coast of the evil empire. “Not in our name,” New Yorkers chanted during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Well, of course it was in our name. You don’t get to choose whether it’s in your name or not; that’s how nation-states work.

Deep down I think we all knew that, whatever the rhetoric. Otherwise New York would not have been such a miserable place in those midnight-in-the-republic years. The whole city was depressed, as Francine Prose insisted in an indelible article written a few months into Bush’s second term. We were caught in “a sort of robotic anomie,” and not without cause. Here is Prose in the summer of 2005, the summer I graduated from college, that goes a long way toward explaining the intertwined personal and political trials we faced:

One hallmark of the severely dysfunctional family, a symptom likely to inflict long-term damage on its members, is the insidious way in which the profoundly bizarre comes to seem not only routine but positively normal. Which, I’d suggest, describes the current state of affairs. What would we have concluded if, a mere five years ago, someone had told us that our society would demonstrate only passing outrage and no lasting curiosity about the fact that our soldiers had tortured prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba? How would we have greeted the suggestion that we might lose confidence in the electoral process, in the integrity and courage of our press, or in our own right to express our political opinions without being accused of treason? … The problem, this summer, is neither the heat nor the humidity. It’s the humiliation of finding ourselves despised by so much of the world for something so far out of our control.

So I moved. I got a graduate degree, changed careers, fell in love (twice). I built a new life. For all of 2009 I didn’t return to the United States once; I had no reason to. And I’d still be in London, actually, if it weren’t for a one-two punch of immigration calamities that turned everything upside down. First, and in truly amateurish fashion, a certain leading financial newspaper that had been set to give me a job reversed itself amid HR pressure from its new owner, a certain Anglo-Australian media company that would thereafter be exposed for committing crime on an industrial scale. Second, a new, xenophobic British government — one far, far worse than the admittedly tainted but still effective one that preceded it, and led by a prime minister whose closest adviser worked for the very same criminal Anglo-Australian media company and now looks to be headed for prison — eliminated my visa category as one of its first acts in office. (The outrageous lie, propagated by Cameron during last year’s Olympics, that London is “open to the world” elicited in me only blood-coughing disgust.) In the space of a few months, the life I had begun to establish for myself became impossible. So the movers came, shoving my entire life into four cardboard boxes, one of which would break apart somewhere in the Atlantic. I sold my bike, threw books in the trash. The most promising relationship I’d ever been in shriveled to nothing; it may have been able to survive long distance, but not so suddenly.

* * *

I was stranded in New York. My first year back, 2010, was — to trot out a phrase I would use in Britain only with an arched eyebrow — my annus horribilis. At twenty-two, when things looked rough for me in New York, I jumped; at twenty-seven, jumping seemed impossible. If it was true that nothing you do in your twenties matters, it certainly didn’t feel that way: it felt as if my whole life had been compressed into my twenties, like the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

From this distance, of course, it’s clear what I was doing wrong: I was reading far too much significance into things and, worse, cared more about the supposed significance of things than the things themselves. My unwanted return from London to New York was indeed traumatic, and I don’t mean to dismiss that with any Dr. Phil-quality bromide that we all have trials and tribulations but learn how to move forward. Yet looking back on that awful year I can see how desperate I was to give form to my bad luck, to give my individual life narrative scale. (In my defense, it wasn’t just bad luck: if more of my British friends had voted for Gordon it wouldn’t have happened.) Nothing could just be unfortunate, it had to be tragic; nothing could just be unlucky, it had to reflect the judgment of God or carry the weight of history.

I can’t pinpoint a single moment when I finally relaxed, but there’s one moment that works better than others. By 2011 I had grown so stupidly obsessed with the narrativization of my life that I wrote an email to a very important fellow in Beijing, telling him that he was my hero and I would move to China immediately if I could work for him. This fellow works in a field in which I have no experience whatsoever and, indeed, which I have no special desire to join, but I did not care; I had to live in history, had to demonstrate that my life had form like it did before my ignominious return to New York, and so I got on a plane for Beijing in the dead of winter.

Guess what, he offered to hire me. And yet walking among the gleaming towers of the Chinese capital, gazing at the traffic on the East Third Ring, I knew that I wouldn’t take the job and that I’d be headed home to New York. What changed? I suppose it simply became clear, having strayed so far (geographically, professionally) from what I knew, that I was straying to avoid engagement with what really mattered. I was hungrier for a life with external meaning than a life with internal value. The feeling of substance had come to mean more to me than substance itself. That simply could not last, even if I had to go to Beijing to see it crumble. And besides, thirty was coming eventually, and I knew that at thirty those illusions have to go.

“Il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter,” Sartre wrote in La nausée; between living one’s life or narrating it you can choose only one. And the last two years of my life, in the city where I was born and which I have slowly grown to love again, have been the finest I’ve ever known. My career hasn’t gone perfectly, but it’s gone well enough and I don’t regret the setbacks. My love life, ditto. I wish I wrote more, read more also, and I beat myself up about it more than I should. I don’t have the assurances that an earlier generation expected a thirty-year-old to have. But assurances are hard to come by today, even for those much older than me, and I don’t even know if I’d want them.

Last night, the last night of my twenties, I hopped on a bicycle and gunned around Chelsea and Midtown. It was in Paris, on a succession of rickety Vélibs, that I taught myself how to bike in traffic, and as I was weaving across town I felt more clearly than I ever had the continuity of my twenties, the links among cities and bodies and ideas that I had atomized for far too long. And maybe it’s because I was on a bike, steadily coasting around rather than rushing on a train or in a cab, but I felt too that thirty was not some gaping chasm beyond which my twenties would become irretrievable. Thirty, as it approached in those last hours, was just another signpost, and I have seen far more enduring ones than this.

In a way I am nothing but my twenties: my childhood is a mystery, college is hazy, and my thirties are less than a day old. So what did my twenties teach me, now that they’re over? Not much, it can sometimes seem, though if I got one lesson out of them, platitudinous though it may sound, it’s this: to worry much less about the metanarrative of events and decisions, to ask myself why I’m doing things rather than instantly assess them as good or bad, and to accept that there are no wrecked lives or rebuilt lives, that indeed there are no new lives at all. I have only one life, and today at least I want no other.