This Is The Day Before 40

“July 18th” read the email that appeared a couple of weeks ago at the top of my inbox, so bold-faced and full of promise.

Ah, the day before my 40th birthday, I thought; Josh must have something fun planned for My Big Middle-Aged Moment. Dinner at State Bird? A weekend in Big Sur? Ooo, a Billy Joel concert?

Back when 40 sounded as far, far away as 50, I had all sorts of plans, too. Oh, by 40 I was supposed to have been a New Yorker staff writer; a Kenyan-level marathoner; an unselfish mother. (I mean, if a mother at all, which was not so much on my “To Accomplish List” as it was on my “To Put Off Until the Last Possible Moment and My Husband Makes Me List.”)

I was supposed to be the mature adult I’d always avoided being, but by the time I actually turned 40 presumed I’d just naturally, you know, be.

But now here I am, a day away from the birthday every female dreads—despite Tom Junod’s recent backhanded ode to women even two whole years older—and I’m 0 for 3:

The New Yorker once paid me $1,200 for a short piece, but then it never ran. I haven’t run 26.2 miles since the year 2000. And as for the unselfish mother thing… weeeell, I just took a two-week solo trip to Bhutan, the other happiest place on earth, and left my two little kids at home.

Which brings me to my less, shall we say, lofty goals. You know, the stuff I just expected to have gotten around to by the dawn of my fourth decade. Like, learn to ride a bike. (Yup, pathetic, I know. 0 for 4.)

Preexisting Conditions

My husband is at the DMV taking both the written and the behind the wheel portions of his driver’s test. I am not married to a 16-year-old; rather, this is happening because my husband’s been driving our family minivan without a license for the last four years.

We had planned to go hiking and grill out with our two young daughters today. We both work full-time and the two of us rarely have a free day that aligns. But he told me over breakfast that he had to go handle this—previously, we’d both found out at a court date for a previous traffic violation that his driving privileges had actually been suspended at the time of the incident—and I just nodded and took another enormous swig of coffee, scalding my tongue. None of this surprises me anymore.

When you choose someone with a spotty past as a life partner, you become accustomed to getting strange and unwelcome things in the mail. I dread hearing the dull metal thud of the post hitting the box, the mailman on his bluetooth bickering with his girl as he hops off our stoop. Sometimes it’s a notice from the city treasurer that there’s a lien against my husband from unpaid property taxes a few years ago; other times it’s an invoice from his stunning and extremely expensive attorney, who has thus far managed to minimize his legal woes. The most devastating by far are the tearful handwritten letters from his estranged mother who is by turns livid that she hasn’t met her grandchildren and wistful to reconnect with the man whom we both adore. Every ninety days or so, we get a check from a production gig he completed months ago: enviable, exhilarating, exhausting work that takes him all over the country and is as feast-or-famine as any other job in the music industry. In the meanwhile we stretch every dollar I make at my regular-person job to make ends meet. Sometimes we fall short. The mailman brings a fair number of “final notice before service interruption” correspondence, too.

Most of my husband’s issues stem from severe financial irresponsibility and personal negligence in the years following his tenure as a young serviceman. Upon returning to civilian life in his early twenties, he had expert knowledge of Marine Corps aircrafts and had logged thousands of hours of survival and crew chief training, but had never paid a utility bill or a written a rent check. The newfound lack of structure coupled with crippling bouts of PTSD proved to be a toxic combination for him, making reentry a rocky process. As far as I can tell, for about six years, if he didn’t have money to cover a bill, he tossed it in the trashcan.

My Imaginary Friends: The Beauty YouTuber Economy

I quit my job at the end of this February to participate in a writing residency at my apartment funded by myself. After being mentally and physically numbed by my service sector job almost every day for five months, I found myself abruptly, uneasily alone and well rested. It is often these moments of emptiness in my life when unexpected manias and fetishes overtake me, some new stupid interest I can devote all my free time to. This time, it was YouTube videos of women recommending beauty products. Obviously.

My own relationship to the world of cosmetics is conflicted and idiosyncratic. I refuse to do anything to myself that I find boring or unnecessary—my body hair is usually au naturale, and I don’t own a blow dryer. I can’t think of a time when I wore a full face of makeup in the past four years. But I also spent most of the first 20 years of my life lying around reading fashion magazines, and I devote significant time once a week to painting a new design on my fingernails. I can get down with a beauty regime that is about creativity, delight, self-invention, and self-care—not one that’s about obligation.

In a way that philosophy is embodied by these YouTube “beauty junkies,” who seem genuinely interested in products for products’ sake. Beauty YouTube is a huge and powerful corner of the site—there are a legion of these self-made beauty gurus, and the top dogs like Bethany Mota and Zoella have millions of subscribers. Theirs is a highly developed YouTube genre, with their videos falling in a number of predictable categories.

15 Lesser-Known Things To Say To A Dress

1. “Can I put jeans under you?”

2. “How come I can’t be the ring bearer?”

3. “Why don’t you have any pockets?”

4. “I look like when people clothe their pets.”

5. “Of course, my legs feel pleasantly unfettered—which is really just one more cruel betrayal. Stop trying to worm your way into my heart, you silky sonofabitch. Everything about this feels forced and unnatural. But perhaps that’s the idea—maybe the secret no one tells is that you have to force yourself. Maybe I can learn to love you?”

6. “You were the wrong thing to wear to the first day of junior high.”

7. “Every shimmer, every time this al dente spaghetti strap fails to maintain its position, every restricted breath I take, hardens me against you.”

8. “Despite my love for dancing, my friends, and the entire concept and execution of the theme “Time After Time”—I don’t want to be at this prom. Well I do, just not with you. I’m sorry; I know that’s mean. I don’ t want to hurt you, but also you technically don’t have the ability to feel emotions because you’re just a piece of clothing.”

Ask a Fancy Person: First Parties, Working for Free, and What to Do When Your Gym Is Crawling with Children

Dear Fancy,

I recently started working out at a new gym at a new time (lunch time), and apparently this is when oblivious parents exercise with their children in tow. There’s a staffed day-care room for them to use, but often, there are just children wandering through the gym: an 11-year-old who messes with the rowing machine while his mom treadmills, kids that keep running away from dad on the way out, gaggles of children toddling in everyone’s way. Is this just my child-averse, selfish need to focus at the gym or should I talk to gym management?

Related: what’s your take on leaving a group exercise class early? I think it’s rude and want to tell other people to stop doing it until I’m that jerk who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time to stretch out or savasana.

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what are the infractions that really count at the gym? I know I just need to get over my issues with people who jump-rope in a minorly crowded gym, but, for example, is it worth saying something if the super sweaty guy ahead of you neglects to wipe down a machine?

-Sweaty & Steamed

Dear Sweaty,

The gym, along with public transportation and movie theatres, is among the most lawless spaces in the civilized world. Between all the grunting and the lack of sanitary procedures, it’s practically the Wild West, with Pitbull dance remixes instead of player pianos. Frankly, I’m surprised we’ve all survived this long going to them, which is why I recommend staying put in your air-conditioned living room in a maribou-trimmed bed jacket, eating bonbons. But, necessary evils, no? We’d all enjoy our time in that hellhole six percent more if everyone would adhere to four basic rules of order at Planet Swoll. I’m going to number them for ease of use. Print them out and wave them about in the faces of offenders if you like.

Ask a Fancy Person: Consignment Shops, Gendered Pronouns and Leaving the Forever 21 Zone

Dear Fancy,

I recently began working in my first Big Girl job since graduating from college three years ago, and I’m expected to wear really nice things. Add to that my boss’s casual age-ism related to wardrobe (“stop wearing that, you look like you’re in college”), and I feel self-conscious about the wardrobe Broke Self was able to keep up. But the problem is that I’m not actually paid enough to start a whole new wardrobe from scratch. So my question is this: how do I build a new, work-appropriate wardrobe without breaking the bank? And how do you budget for that kind of thing?

Sincerely, Fancy Rising

My dearest Fancy Rising,

Congrats so much on getting a Big Girl Job! That’s such an exciting move forward into adulthood, even if you aren’t yet making that corner office cash money. In my dream world, we’d all be judged by the content of our quarterly reports rather than the color of our blazers. (But then again, in that dream world, there is no Dear Fancy.) In the meantime, the best way to be valued for your ideas and work rather than superficial bullshit is to follow the rules so that you never have stained pants or sloppy email diction distracting from your awesomeness.

So how to get to there on an entry-level budget, and how much to budget for that stuff?

When You’re Unemployed

The first thing to go is the caring. You used to care so hard about everything. You cared about what other people thought of you, and you cared about your resume, and you cared about your health and your apartment and your future. But now it feels like the person who cared about those things was some other person. You didn’t realize that caring was like gasoline, that you could empty the tank and, without the positive reinforcement something like employment provides, be unable to refill it. You are all out of caring.

You have replaced caring with a new feeling. That fuck everyone feeling. Everything is horrible. Your metaphorical morphine drip keeping the pain at bay is the mantra playing on a loop inside your head: fuck everyone.

What happens is you are called into a manager’s office to discuss your “job/future” and this is the meeting in which you are let go. You think it was sort of misleading of your higher-ups to claim this meeting was about your “job/future,” which is technically true but only insofar as you no longer have either.

You take about a week to just wallow in it. Everyone you know goes to work that first Monday and you feel so alone. Then you remember: you are not alone. You have Netflix. You become one of those people who can’t believe that no one is watching Top of the Lake. True Detective is nothing compared to Top of the Lake; can no one else see this but you? People tell you they don’t have the time. You feel superior to these dead-eyed office drones. You tell yourself: it is their lives that are empty and purposeless. Your life is filled with Netflix.

$3 Million for 7 Weeks

Three weeks after my partner Randy died of metastatic cancer, I called the oncology resident who had been his on-call doctor. I remember exactly how long it took me to make that call because I was in a place of noticing how long things took, with mild interest, like: when will I feel hungry? When will the best part of every day stop being when I’m asleep?

It took me three weeks to work up to hearing Randy’s doctor’s voice on the phone and simultaneously make words in English.There was something I wanted to ask her or, more accurately, something I wanted to make her say.

“If you’d known how much time he had left,” I said, standing on our tiny back deck, looking over the early-spring woods, “would you still have given him chemo?”

What I remember is that she paused very briefly, and then she sounded choked up. That satisfied me, as if she were my enemy showing overdue weakness. “No.” she said, “Not if I’d known how long he had, no.”

“Thank you.” I said. We exchanged some version of “Nice working with you” and then hung up. I had wanted exactly what I got: an admission, maybe of having fucked up, maybe of the possibility that she’d act differently in the future. That next time she would acknowledge what she couldn’t fix. Show some respect, next time, for the monster: a rare and unbeatable cancer, the oncoming death of a still-young man.

Not long after that, the hospital called me. They were inquiring after the outstanding 10% of his bill not covered by his insurance, the first job benefits he’d ever had. That 10% of the bill for seven weeks of cancer treatment came to $300,000 and change. Randy had had a very rare cancer, a carcinoma of unknown primary origin: the original tumor had been shrunk to nothing by his immune system, but not before the cancer cells mutated and slipped into his bloodstream. So “poorly defined” cancer cells were spread throughout his body, with no point of origin, no tumor to be cut out or site to be irradiated.

In Randy’s case, by the time he was diagnosed he had cancer in his blood and in his bone marrow.

The Prom King on Instagram, 10 Years After the Party

When I was a junior in high school, I decided that I wanted to become popular. Fortuitously, my scientist parents were about to make the one wanton decision that they would ever make in their lives: leaving me home alone for a weekend, along with my little brother.

Normally ones to frown upon any vacation not spent in a tent, my parents made this special exception for Maine, a place where they could remain on their rigorous work schedule. They’d planned a quintessential rise-at-dawn, sleep-by-dusk experience: stilted breakfast conversations with strangers at inns, jaunts to folksy outlet stores, and long walks along punishing rocky coasts. Lost in their excitement, neither my mother or father seemed to realize that leaving an ungrateful teenager home alone with a car, a finished basement, and over $3,000.00 in personal savings was a formula for total disaster.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Second Wedding

Three weeks ago, two days after our wedding, my new husband Paul and I borrowed a car and drove into the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Our shared future rolled out before us, as epic and seismic as the landscape. We nestled ourselves on the bank of Boulder Creek, intoxicated with the charged intimacy of being newlyweds on a mountainside soaked with sun, and I simultaneously tried to luxuriate in this awareness of love and also shake off my awareness of the history that preceded it.

I’m newly, and ecstatically, wed to Paul, but I’m not new to being wed. When I was twenty-five, I married my college boyfriend. The wedding was gorgeous and the union brief and sad. Our divorce was finalized fifteen months later. Two and a half years after that, I married Paul.

I have always been especially predisposed to feelings of shame, but when I ended my first fledgling marriage, I felt something more acute: a sense of true ruin. While my rational self was well aware that divorce didn’t mean shame, my emotional self was resolutely masochistic. Long-term married couples seem like society’s victors, and terms like “failed marriage” intimate that choosing divorce means acquiescing to defeat and personal weakness. I worried that failure was my lasting lot, and when I started dating Paul, my happiness felt barbed and undeserved.

Having the Best-Selling Cake and Eating the Review, Too: An Interview With Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is a #1 New York Times bestselling writer whose eleventh novel All Fall Down came out yesterday. All Fall Down’s protagonist is Allison, a housewife whose respectable suburban existence conceals a growing addiction to pills. (Like Orphan Black’s excellent character who shares her name, this Allison is also funny, shockingly capable and occasionally more than slightly delusional.) I read the book straight through without putting it down once, over the course of a sunny Sunday morning, and talked to Weiner over email afterward.

Your newest protagonist is a blogger! She writes for a sex and relationships site called Ladiesroom.com, and part of her excuse for her pill habit is that specific pressure: writing all the time, publicly, about heated topics, turning everything into material, coming under heavy personal scrutiny from anonymous readers. How much did your own experience as a writer who engages online—and whose primary medium of engagement is becoming inextricable from online conversation—influence this character? Could you imagine a weird fork in the road in which you’d turned from journalism to (instead of fiction writing) blogging?

I don’t want to say Allison Weiss, c’est moi, because these days nobody gets a good Flaubert reference, but certainly a lot of the things Allison deals with are things that I have dealt with myself. Some of the grief I get for engaging with issues online—where I try to make a point about fairness and equality and the response is “you’re just jealous/you’re ugly/no one wants to sleep with you”—made its way into Allison’s story, and became one of the reasons she turned to things that helped her feel better. I remember one counselor telling me that people with addictions don’t have a problem with booze, or pot, or pills. Their problem is with feelings. They didn’t learn to cope with feelings, and the substance abuse is just a symptom of that. It’s easy to get your feelings hurt, or to get genuinely scared by the response you get online, from people who just seem to be so full of rage and lashing out at anyone, without the understanding that there’s a real person on the other side of the avatar, and they’re not just kicking a virtual dog. If you don’t have healthy—or healthy-ish—ways of handling it, it’s easy to see how a pill or a few glasses of wine could start looking very appealing.

As for blogging, I think it’s simply a matter of being born at the right time. When I finished college, in 1991 (lo, these many years ago), it was possible to learn how to be a writer by getting a job at a small newspaper, making all kinds of mistakes, and (hopefully) getting better every day. If I’d been born in 1980 or 1990, I have no doubt I would have ended up at a blog. Which might not have been a good thing. At newspapers, I was forced to wait, to actually learn to report hard news before I got to write the culture and opinion pieces that appealed to me much more. Which meant that, by the time I got to write those pieces, I knew how to do my research, how to back up a claim, and how to deal with the naysayers (at least a little bit).

I also made my mistakes at a place where not many people saw them. My first paper had a circulation of around 20,000. These days, even a young blogger can write something that takes off and goes viral and is seen by many, many more eyeballs than that. And if there’s a mistake in her piece, well, heaven help her. I remember being just flamingly jealous of my classmates who landed internships, then jobs, at national publications—but in retrospect, I’m so grateful I got to screw up, and get better, far, far from the national stage.

Interview With My Dad, Whose Parenting Guru Was Marshall McLuhan

My dad was born on Christmas and is named Noel. 

Happy early Father’s Day. What are you going to do to celebrate?

Mom and your brother have to tell me what they want to do. I’m not going to plan my own Father’s Day! I have kept my schedule open. Ideally you would be here and we would all be playing golf.

I’ve done my part to kill that dream for you. You going to play on Sunday?

Maybe Martin and I could, and Mom…

Never going to happen.

Maybe sometime in the future!

Do you think Father’s Day is stupid or do you like it?

I think it’s a good thing, just like Mother’s Day is a good thing; dads and moms do a lot of stuff for their families, and if we don’t appreciate it society will start to decay.

Is Father’s Day a thing in the Philippines, where you grew up?

We never celebrated it. But my dad was a ship captain, he was always away.

How many days out of the year?

Out of 365 days, he’d be gone 345 days. It was bad.

Did you feel like it was bad? Did you want him to be home?

Well, you just grow up not knowing anything about anything, and some people had their dads there all the time and they didn’t like it either. I thought, “This is my dad’s job,” and that was that. In retrospect it was good that he was gone. He was so autocratic—he was a ship captain from a young age, he was very used to having his way. If he’d stayed home, I’d probably have been a terrible father to you.

So I didn’t mind that he was gone, but I definitely didn’t like him when he was around. He thought his role in life was to come home and spank us for all the bad things we’d done in the last four months. I thought, “When I’m older, I’m not going to be this kind of a person.”

There’s a specific moment that’s sort of seared into the fabric of my brain, actually—I was six or something, my dad was getting an award and there was a real big do, some black-tie dinner, and we were at the presidential table. I was in black-tie, even: this big fat little kid. And I propped my elbows up on the table because I thought it was a really cool thing to do, and I knocked down a cup of water, and my dad took me to the back of the hotel and spanked me just to oblivion. My mom came and stopped him, literally to stop the bleeding, and we had to go take a picture right after, and I’m just crying and crying in it.

We had that picture framed in the house—a glossy 8×10—and I just always thought about it, maybe more when I was a teenager: when I have a family, that’s not going to happen. That’s why we always had that rule in our house. We never punished you for accidents, no matter how bad they were.