On Turning 40
Half down, half to go
I showed the pictures above to a close friend shortly after I took them. “How… 17,” she said, always the diplomat. A welter of social anxieties overtook me for a moment. But I’m 40 now and I let my emotional welters pass without too much concern. I paused, and then I told her, “I’m too old to worry about being mature.”
The first 20 years was damn rough. The next 20 was not easy, but I got to fight back, and sometimes I even won.
I’ve spent all 40 years living the tension between my interior self and and ever-rotating, ever-renewing cast of people and institutions wanting me to be a thing they’ve decided I would be better off as. Most often they want me to change for that most pernicious of reasons: my own good. I’ve failed to be other people’s idea of womanhood, of success, of decency, of qualified and educated. I’ve spent much of my life in technology, which made me too geeky for everyone’s “normal” friends.
But in the constant dick swinging of the tech world, I‘m not technical enough to really count. As a woman, you just about have to invent a new form of math to be able to prove you’re not a “fake geek girl.”
The litany goes on: I’ve failed to be tasteful enough, quiet enough, shy enough, or bold enough. I’ve neglected to ask for enough money. I’ve failed to make a good home. I’m not a normal female, a normal mother, a normal American. I’m not a normal partner. I’m too stressful. I don’t plan well enough, I don’t think things through. I’m not really girly enough to be sexy. I have too much sex. I’m disgusting because I talk about sex. I’m annoying because I talk about my past, about being a woman, about race and poverty. I don’t know how to party. I talk about sexism too much. I complain too much.
I think too much.
I’ve heard that one all my life.
Around my 40th birthday, a song lyric took over my mental realms, like an emotional kudzu. I dreamt it, I listened to it on repeat, I mouthed it on the subway, like a small and desperate prayer.
“And I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.”
I’ve been the subject of saving by someone or some institution since I was born, a process that has been almost universally horrible for me, even when I’ve signed on to it.
In 40 years I have found the only thing that has saved me is giving without expectation of receiving. I have only ever been saved by service, and by the service I chose to perform. But without that service, I would surely be dead.
I have never managed to build anything out of the expectations people had for me. I tried to be what people wanted me to be, the dead, alive, alienated, beloved, everyone. I tried to be the right kind of woman, mother, worker, the right Quinn. I failed terribly. When I stopped trying, I found a kind of stony peace within me that didn’t respond to evaluations of adequacy. I ended up as me, right now. Alone and in that place where you are always alone. It’s a sad place, a place of letting go, but it’s ok.
I am not good enough. I am, and that is enough.
As I became more of a public figure through the course of my life, many more people weighed in. They had opinions on me, the objective me.
Writers are objects of culture as much as creators of it. Even when we’re famous, we’re not normal celebrities. On one side, no one really cares who we have sex with, which is nice. But on the other, everyone has an opinion on this most personal of public acts. So many people know what’s wrong with your writing, and they want to share that with you, so here:
My work is too subjective. My writing is too literary. I’m repetitive. I meander. I’m too slow. I go on too long. I’m not a very good blogger. I don’t write about the right things. I’m wasting my time. I waste too much time. I don’t vacation enough. My spelling is terrible. (True.) I’m not making enough money. I should have a dayjob, and if I want, I can write in the evenings. I should have written a book by now. I should stop stressing everyone out. I should settle down. I’m too old for this. I’m not following through. I’m too emotional. I’m too sentimental. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
People often tell me I’m not being realistic. That part is true. Realistically, no broke-ass foulmouthed single mom high-school dropout who doesn’t know the first thing about career building is supposed to become a long-form literary technology journalist, which also isn’t supposed to exist.
Here’s how unrealistic I am: writers take a long bet. We are activists on the level of the human spirit, and our (rare) successes come over the course of decades or even centuries as cultures change and grow. I will be long dead before anyone can say if I succeeded. Even then, most success drowns in the wine-dark sea of culture, never to be pried apart from the internal life of the reader and the reader’s reader. This is what it is to be a writer.
For now, I am passing into middle age. I look forward to plucking my own girly neckbeard, and acquiring a chin wattle.
I expect things will hurt more, and I’m supposed to get a mammogram. I should probably dress differently, though I haven’t worked out what kind of differently. Keeping weight off will get harder. I’m more patient. I’ve seen a lot of this bullshit before. It may hurt, but I know how to manage pain now.
I’ve accumulated some enemies, but more friends. When I was young I thought I would never make enemies, but I found that you can only avoid making enemies by never standing up for anything of consequence. That was too high a price. But I make as few as I can, and respect the ones I’ve made at a distance.
When all the little voices come in, and they still do, I think: I tried changing for you, and all it ever did was bring me closer to death.
“And I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” I don’t want to anymore. I wait for the voices to pass, and they pass.
That’s the best part of being 40 — I can sit still long enough to win the staring contests with my demons.
In this second half of my life my intrinsic worth as a woman — a creature for penetration and even possibly impregnation — is fast diminishing. I may have some claim on being skilled in providing pleasure to others, I can only be desirable in so far as I look younger than I am. “It’s ok,” I keep being told, “You don’t look 40.”
“Fuck you,” I have started to say back, “It’s ok that I am 40.” No one is put off or even surprised, which tells you how often I say “Fuck you.”
In middle age I’m supposed to show my worth through a prestigious career and financial achievement. As a woman in my 40s, I don’t face criticism anymore so much as total erasure. I risk passing from being evaluated for approval or disapproval to being altogether invisible. My star from here on in can only set. As an aging woman I could have sought worth in being a mother, but I’ve already failed at being that kind of mother, just as I failed at being that kind of wife.
I will probably fail at having a good enough career or making enough money to be approved of. We can all be pretty sure that I won’t ever dress right or be thin enough. I’ll probably always be a little too weird, and too emotional. I’m pretty emotional, and I get caught up in things and lose track of time. I’m probably going to run late ‘til the day I die. With any luck, very late.
I got to my career late. Sometimes that stresses me out, but fuck it. Stress doesn’t make time flow backwards.
I have failed so many times it feels like a second home.
Friends invited me out for dinner for my 40th birthday. I told them no, I would cook. I had 12 people over for an 8 course meal I took two and a half days to prepare. Late in the evening I sat in the kitchen listening to my friends and their guests laugh and even sometimes sing and felt glorious. Quinn’s feast.We gathered on the balcony and looked over the skyline of London, so far from the fucked up fate I was meant to have, a refugee from American poverty and the American Drug War. None of them understand, and I’m grateful for that.
My friend gave me a 40 year-old scotch for my 40th that night. We cracked it, then I carried across two continents to give sips to people I love, and sometimes people I’d just met.
I live an unexpected life. I’ve slept on the streets and walked through the halls of power. I’ve couriered caviar and crack cocaine. I’ve seen a solar eclipse. I have gotten lost, sometimes for hours, looking at leaves and road cuttings. I’ve given birth. I’ve flown five thousand miles to be with a sick friend, and three thousand to watch a movie premier and make love, then made it back in time to pick up my kid from school.
I’ve peered through the fence of a Zimbawean prison, scared shitless. I’ve run through the street of Jerusalem at dawn in tears. I’ve scaled the side of a volcano with a baby strapped to me. I’ve seen the Earth curve away from me on the horizon in Arizona. I’ve looked up to realize that I’ve lost sight of the shore in the Pacific. I’ve looked down the wrong end of the a gun more than once. I’ve spent my nights with CEOs, geniuses and wanted criminals. I’ve buried friends, relatives, lovers. I have kept going when all hope was lost. I have regrets, and some of them are glorious. I have terrible grief yet to endure, passionate affairs to have, linux installs to scream at in frustration. I’m one hell of a good cook.
It’s good to be alive.