[Who cares about] Before 30 lists

When you’re in your late twenties, sometimes it kind of feels like you’re on a very fast rollercoaster – you’re white-knuckled, screaming, and on a terrifying free-fall towards thirty.

At this time, you’re bombarded with lists – the before-thirty bucket list, thirty things every woman should know/own/do before she turns thirty, etc. etc. Which only makes the fall seem that much faster and more terrifying. (There was even a list out there of thirty places you should “do it” before you turn thirty, which inexplicably included the zoo, a public bus, and Radio City Music Hall. I can’t even…)

I recently came across this article: “30 Epic Places You Absolutely Must Visit Before You’re 30.” The list includes places such as Bhutan, Namibia, the Egyptian Pyramids, Antarctica, and the XS Nightclub in Las Vegas (…?).

Got that, everyone? You absolutely must visit Antarctica before you turn thirty. Otherwise don’t even bother.

Heaven forbid you leave one stone unturned, one lesson unlearned, one skill unmastered, before the clock strikes thirty and you turn into a big ol’ washed-up hag pumpkin.

It’s okay if you’re still workin’ on your night cheese!

Who cares if you haven’t traveled the entire world by age 29? Little known fact – they still stamp your passport if you’re 32.

Who cares if you’re not where you thought you’d be in your career, or if you’re starting a new one entirely? Guess what – you have a good 30 or 40 more years to work that out.

Who cares if you’re not married yet, or not quite ready to have kids? Maybe you thought you’d have a ring on your finger and a cute baby bump at 28; I did too. But if that’s not what life had in store for you, if you’re still searching, if you have your first sweet little baby at 36 instead of 26 – well, you’ll still be just as happy about it then.

Who cares if your skirt’s sometimes wrinkled and you know nothing about wine pairings and you sometimes leave dishes in the sink and burn yourself with the curling iron and eat cheese and crackers for dinner?

It’s not that I don’t think you should be intentional with your life, make goals, and strive for improvement. But thirty’s not a deadline.

Contrary to what these lists suggest, you don’t have to be done. You don’t suddenly have to be the Perfect Version of You. You can still make mistakes and have doubts. You can still feel like a hot mess from time to time. You can still have dreams and plans you’ve yet to achieve.

I think many of us, especially women, are waiting for this one magical moment where we feel like a Very Serious Adult who Has It All Together. Where we’re always poised and confident and effortlessly chic. Friends…I don’t think that day is coming. I actually sort of believe there may be women like that out there, but in the same way I believe there may be aliens out there.

You don’t have to be that woman to turn thirty. You can just be you.

I don’t know about you, but I’m [SO NOT] feeling 22

I haven’t slept through the night in about two weeks. Saturday night, for example, I slept from midnight until 3:20 a.m. By 5:54 a.m. I was making muffins. By 6:45 a.m. I was in the fetal position under an afghan watching Everybody Loves Raymond.

So I apologize in advance if this post is unreadable, because my mental faculties have severely declined. Like yesterday at the gas station, halfway through filling my tank, I realized I had chosen – not regular, not super – premium unleaded. Then very nearly cried about it.

It’s been a fun couple weeks! (I have a feeling the culprit is a big stressful change about to occur in my life, but that’s not what I want to get into — let’s keep it nice and frivolous today.)

Aside from having a hard time accomplishing basic tasks, the biggest side effect of lack of sleep has been this: I look awful. I once blogged about the many situations where I physically cannot look pretty – this needs to be added to that list.

Once upon a time, in my early twenties, I could stay up til four, consume many margaritas, and wake up the next day all bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked. Sure, my hair may have been tousled and my eyeliner smudged, but in a cute way – not in a horror movie way which is what I’m working with now.

I literally looked in the mirror yesterday and thought, “Well, this is it. I’ve lost my looks. It’s all downhill from here.” And then I tried – very slowly – to reason with my sleep-deprived mind. That doesn’t make sense, I told myself. You’re still only in your twenties. It can’t all be over. There must be an explanation for why you currently look like Kristen Stewart’s much older and even more miserable aunt.

And then it dawned on me: oh yeah, because you haven’t slept in days.

When I was 20, there was a period of months where I routinely went to sleep at 2 a.m., then hopped out of bed at 6:30, showered, did my makeup, straightened my hair, and went to work looking fresh. Sure my energy would dip in the afternoon, but it was nothing a quick brownie break couldn’t handle (which, of course, I could consume daily without gaining weight – because I was 20).

But friends, that’s all over now. Now, lack of sleep turns me into a shell of a human – and an unsightly one at that.

But, hey. To quote The Mindy Project: “You’re not 22, so what? No one is.”

And if you are 22…enjoy it. Soon you too will need a solid eight hours…and a really good moisturizer.

Domestic bliss

I used to think I was just not the domestic type. In my early twenties, “cooking” for me entailed making spaghetti. I once had to look up a recipe for scrambled eggs. True story. A recipe. For scrambled eggs.

When I was 20, I was dating an older guy and we’d often make dinner at his apartment. By which I mean he would make dinner and I would stand in the kitchen trying to look cute. I distinctly remember him asking me once to chop a bell pepper and I was like, “Uh…”

                                             ???

I mean, sure, I could figure out how to cut something with a knife, but it was kind of disturbing that the whole concept was so foreign to me. I started to become gravely concerned that I had no wifely skills.

Soon after that, I was visiting my grandma and decided it was time to learn to cook. She had a Rachel Ray “30-minute meals” cookbook, so I chose a recipe, we went to the grocery store for ingredients, and then I got to work. Suffice to say…the “30-minute” recipe took me about 90 minutes, as well as about 90 questions to my grandma, who maintained saintly patience and a look of amusement/sympathy through it all. Cooking, it seemed to me, was a lot of work for very little payoff. Besides, I loved spaghetti.

Fast forward to today…I have a drawer full of aprons. I hit up farmers’ markets on the reg. I get excited over things like pink Himalayan sea salt. I go to my parents’ house to rescue their overripe bananas and turn them into bread.

Why the drastic change of heart? It’s because I discovered the meditative properties of cooking. By my mid-twenties, I had progressed beyond boiling water, but cooking still wasn’t really my thing. But then – I suddenly found myself living in Virginia alone, miserable, with no friends, and a Trader Joe’s across the street. Recipe for success.

I remember getting home from work each day, the evening stretching endlessly before me, and little to fill it with besides reruns of How I Met Your Mother. So, I started cooking elaborate dinners for myself. It didn’t matter if it took me three times longer than the recipe stated – I had all the time in the world. And I baked – my kitchen basically turned into a confectionery, producing batches upon batches of sweets for my coworkers. Not because I liked them – I didn’t. But because it soothed me.

DSCF0061

                                         Where it all began 

Somehow, all the measuring, grating, mixing and stirring became meditative. It quieted my mind. It made me forget how miserable I was and focus only on the next step of the recipe, and the delectable end product that was my reward (of course I got kind of fat from all this, but that’s beside the point).

Yoga, meditation – that stuff’s never worked for me. But baking, and cooking – that’s where I found my zen. When I’m feeling stressed out, nine times out of ten I’ll find myself in the kitchen, whipping up some cookies or testing out a long and involved recipe. I think cooking also provides a sense of control – when everything else is going wrong, you can take some ingredients and shape them into exactly what you want them to be. It’s satisfying.

Of course, I’ve had some stumbles along the way…once I tried to make my mom’s famous raspberry cream cake for my boyfriend’s birthday – which ended with me in tears and the cake in the garbage. But, as time goes on, I get more and more sure – free to make substitutions, and go off-recipe. Experiment, make things my own. Rescue near-failures and turn them into success. As with life, things don’t always turn out. But at least with cooking, I can zone out and enjoy the process.

What I learned in grad school

Yesterday, I turned in my Master’s thesis. Woo! Now, only a measly two-page paper stands between me and being done with school forever. Whoa. Done with school forever.

For the first time since I ran screaming from the classroom on my first day of kindergarten, I am no longer a “student.” Even though I waited a few years after college to go to grad school, I always knew for sure I’d go back.

All my life, school is where I’ve found much of my identity. I never really had a “thing,” you know? School was my thing. I like it, I’m good at it, it’s comfortable for me.

And now, school is over. And I…couldn’t be happier.

I definitely anticipated a slight existential crisis to coincide with the end of my studenthood, but it just hasn’t happened. Maybe it’s just because I’m burned out, but I think I’ve had my fill. I want to see what else I can be, what else I identify with.

All the photos I could find for this post were super cliche and of, like, a long, winding road or a woman with her arms outstretched in a field. This one made me laugh.

I learned a lot in grad school, and I think it was valuable academically and professionally. But in retrospect, it was more than that. It was a much-needed chance to hit the reset button on my life. See, immediately before going back to school, I was in a job that made me miserable.

The job was a dead-end for me, opportunity-wise. The work was mind-numbing, the social environment toxic. Honestly, it was the most unhappy I have ever been. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic here; I realize I was fortunate to have had a salary, benefits, security. I know that’s no small thing.

But the reason I was so unhappy then – and, now that I think about it, the reason for most periods of unhappiness in my life – is that I just knew, down to my core, that I was being completely untrue to myself.

I accepted the job in a period of desperation and perceived lack of options, even though it was counter to everything I had hoped for myself, everything I wanted out of life. I had convinced myself (at age 24) that it was “too late” to go after my dreams. I was essentially throwing in the towel.

I often characterize that job as the one decision I truly regret. But looking back, I can’t say that’s true. Because I see now that it was kind of a “this is your life” experience. I got a glimpse into the future I was headed towards – and ran screaming in the other direction.

Grad school gave me an opportunity to step back and reevaluate, in so many ways, what I want out of life.  I don’t “have it all figured out” now, by any means. But what I have figured out is that I’m not going to give up on myself – my happiness, my chance for fulfillment – again.

Somehow, between paper-writing and article-reading, going back to school taught me that. I’m grateful for that – and now I’m ready to move on.

Learning how to live

The other night I was watching How I Met Your Mother, and it was the episode where Lily tells the group she’s pregnant (though it was a false alarm). Then future Ted’s narration says something like “Kids, when one of your friends tells you good news, you’re happy for them – for about a millisecond. Then you start thinking about your own life.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” my boyfriend commented.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it depends.”

“Sounds like a blog post,” he said.

So here we are.

Although I’m sure it depends on the person, I think most of us internally make other people’s news – good or bad – about ourselves more than we’d like to admit. However, I don’t think this points to jealousy or self-absorption – at least not necessarily.

Rather, I think we’re all constantly trying to gauge where we are and how we’re doing with this whole Life thing, especially when we’re younger. And the main frame of reference we have for this is other people. Now, I know we’re often told not to compare ourselves to others, and in many ways I think that’s good advice. You shouldn’t base your own happiness or self-worth on how you “stack up” against someone else.

But, at the same time, from the time we are born we learn literally everything from those around us. How are we able to walk, talk and function in the world? Because from infancy we see how other people do these things. And I don’t think there’s a certain age where that stops. I think we’re always trying to understand how other people do what they do, and how we feel about it, because we’re still trying to learn.

For example…my greatest fear in life is losing one of my parents, and the feeling that I won’t be able to handle it. Just as this fear was at a pinnacle, I became close with a woman who was losing her mother to a slow and painful battle with cancer. Obviously, I felt genuinely sad for her and what she was going through. At the same time, though, it made me think about myself. Here was someone living through my worst nightmare. And she was surviving, she was doing it. How was she doing it? Does that mean I’ll be able to do it? I wanted – needed – to learn from that.

Similarly, when great things happen to those we know, how we feel about it can tell us a lot. When someone I know gets an amazing travel opportunity, for instance, I feel envious. I don’t wish this great thing weren’t happening to them – I just wish it were also happening to me. In this situation, we can easily fall into petty jealousy – why do cool things always happen to them and never to me? Or, we can see what our reaction is teaching us. Maybe I feel I haven’t been doing enough to work toward some of my own dreams and realize I need to make a long-term plan to reach them.

This happens all the time. We see someone incredibly fulfilled in their career and we ask, “Am I fulfilled? How did she get there?” Someone gets pregnant or married and we wonder, “Do I want that? Am I ready?” And when tragedy befalls someone we know, our heart goes out to them – but we think, “What would I do if that happened to me?” Or “I should really appreciate what I have more.”

When I was in third grade, my teacher told the class about her daughter’s travels to Costa Rica – the rainforest and the zip-lining and the exotic birds. I highly doubt anyone else in my class remembers that ten-minute talk, but in me, a life-long dream was born. I didn’t aspire to be my teacher’s daughter, but her story opened my eyes to something I thought would make me happy in life – and many years later, it did.

It’s true, you shouldn’t directly compare yourself to anyone else. But on a broad level, we compare ourselves to everyone else– it’s how we learn what we might want out of life, who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. We’re all just learning how to live, and other people are the best teachers.

The perils of standing still

Today in Ben Folds Explains Life to Me: And if you’re paralyzed by a voice in your head/It’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead

Um, story of my life.

When it comes to major (okay, sometimes even minor) life decisions: I freeze.

Hmm, what college should I go to? I don’t know, I’ll just wait until the absolute last possible second to decide so my dad will be at FedEx overnighting my deposit at 4:50 p.m. the day before it’s due.

Should I break up with my boyfriend whom I despise? Allow me to ruminate on that for six months while we continue to date.

What should I go to grad school for? Why don’t I just ponder that for a few years before getting my Master’s in exactly what I got my Bachelor’s in?

I think I’d like to buy a new shampoo – time to read dozens of Amazon reviews and/or stand in Target for half an hour looking at labels!

Yeah…it’s fun to be me. (Seriously – no one will go to the drugstore with me.) 

I guess it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that this issue stems from perfectionism. I can’t just make decision – I must make the perfect decision. In some cases, this mindset is semi-understandable – things like where to go to college or whether to go to grad school are important. Still, they’re not actually the end of the world.

                The inside of my head

And the bigger issue is – there is rarely a perfect decision to be made. Sure, sometimes in life there’s a really clear, black-and-white, right or wrong thing to do. But the vast majority of the time, there are pros and cons. Plusses and minuses. Benefits and drawbacks.

Besides, those “wrong” decisions are usually what we learn, you know, everything from… can’t get through life without ‘em.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as there are some fairly huge life decisions looming before me. And as with people who don’t eat when they’re stressed, I resent/envy people who can make swift and confident decisions about their lives.

How much time have I wasted, not only standing in the aisles of Target (although that is significant…), but too paralyzed to make a change in my life?

Going back and forth, over-analyzing, thinking thinking thinking.

Sometimes, it’s because you know what you should do but are scared to do it. Other times, it’s because there’s no way to be sure.

Obviously, to a certain extent, thinking decisions through is a good thing – but it can also reach a level where it’s only holding you back.

Because the thing is, when you’re too afraid to make a decision – any decision – you can’t go anywhere at all. And isn’t that actually far worse than making a “wrong” decision? At least the wrong decision moves you along. No decision at all just has you treading water.

And so I think as nerve-wracking as these decisions can be…it totally is the standing still that should scare me instead.

Just tell ’em that you knew me back when

Last night, I cried in my car for approximately seven seconds. Then I stopped to focus on what’s really important in life – getting a parking spot. And there’s no crying in parallel parking, especially when it’s the only spot on your block. (If there’s one thing that can override any other emotion, it’s my burning desire for that spot.)

But for those seven seconds before I saw the parking spot – tears. And what triggered them? Why, a song, of course. I’ve blogged about how music is a time machine, but it also has an uncanny way of hitting you with a hefty sack of emotion out of nowhere, even if it’s just a fragment of a line that does it.

This is what happened to me last night. The culprit? I was listening to the new Ben Folds Five album (so so good), and there’s a line that goes like this: The brightness of air/Out walking somewhere/And when they ask you/Just tell ‘em that you knew me back when…

Doesn’t seem like much, right? I know. But for some reason the last part cuts to the core of me every time. Just tell ‘em that you knew me back when.

And it’s because, lately, I’ve realized there are very few people in my life who knew me back when.

Isn’t there just something so comforting and so important about those people who have known you forever, or the ones who knew you at a really formative time in your life?

I think the reason they’re so important is because they help us keep alive all those past versions of ourselves that are both still part of us and kind of completely gone at the same time.

Like when I hang out with a friend I met this year, she knows me as I am now, and that’s nice. But when I hang out with a friend who’s known me since eighth grade, she knows me – the totality of me, from awkward middle schooler with braces all the way up to today. We have shared memories, sure, and that’s part of it. But it’s more that we just have the kind of knowledge of who the other person is and how they got to be that way that’s hard to establish with those we meet later in life.

A few months ago, I got together with a new friend. As we sat at the bar having a beer, she said “Ok, what’s your relationship history? Go!” I liked her approach, because I knew what she was after – it was like she was saying – Quick, give me the CliffsNotes version of all your greatest loves and heartaches, so I can put into context anything you tell me about your life now. So we swapped histories, and it was good – but not the same as actually reading the book.

Growing up, I moved around a lot. To my mom and dad who are reading this – it did not traumatize me. In fact I think I got many positive things out of it. But I’ll admit, I’ve always been jealous of people who could say, “Oh us? We’ve been friends since we were in diapers/in preschool/before we were born.” I’ve never known anyone that long.

Of course, there’s always your family. But I think your parents, especially, have a unique view of you that’s both more and less accurate than other people’s. There’s something precious and special about the way they know you – witnessing, from birth, every step of your life and your development into a fully-formed person. No one will ever know you quite like they do. But at the same time, they have a certain perception of you that’s so tied to you being their child, it may be hard for them to see sometimes the totality of you as an adult. And that’s where friends or significant others are able to see you in a different, and necessary, way.

I have a theory that this is why so many people wind up going back and marrying their childhood sweethearts (and why there are so many movies about it). Because that person knows them – not just the polished-up adult version, but all the versions that came before.

(Lest it sound like I am romanticizing my own childhood sweetheart, I can assure you after his complete psychotic break with reality, this is not the case. But, I get why people do it.)

And I think one of the hardest things about certain friendships and romantic relationships ending is when that person was with you through a time of your life and a version of yourself that you really don’t want to forget. When there ceases to be anyone around who knew you then…it can feel awfully hard to hold onto.

I have an old friend I don’t talk to often, and we really have nothing in common anymore. But it’s comforting whenever I see her. When she laughs and shakes her head at something I said, or says “that’s so like you” – she knows what that means.

Relationships and, sadly, even friendships come and go. But for sure the hardest ones to let go of are the ones who knew you back when.