Last summer I turned 42 years old. On the morning of my birthday, my then-boyfriend asked me what I was doing when I was 21, half that age. I said, “Baking quiches, dropping acid, and chasing boys.” I imagined this retort as a tweet—short and to the point. I’d managed to get my life at that time down to 39 characters, and it was mostly accurate.
At 21 years old, I was obsessed with Molly Katzen’s Moosewood cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I was going to a state school in upstate New York, not far from the home of the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, which had always seemed to me a cultural mecca in a vast state of industrial depression and blight. Ithaca was the home of my favorite thrift shop, Zoo Zoos, and a lot of cute hippie musicians I dreamed of fucking. The cookbook was steeped in that same sexy, vintage, hippie musician lore. I imagined myself cooking for one of those musicians. I could be his “old lady” for a recipe or two. Many of my activities then were overlaid with a fantasy plot line, worthy of an episode of Laverne and Shirley or Three’s Company. I was rarely just doing something; I was doing that thing while imagining I was in the TV sitcom version of it. As a child, I’d made it through my sometimes chore of washing the dishes by pretending I was in a Dawn dish soap ad.
My favorite pages in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest offered a basic crust and quiche recipe on one page and on the facing page a list of choices for fillings—cheeses, veggies, and meats (if you must). It was my favorite type of recipe, more about endless iterations and the idea of a food more than its reality. That year, I regularly turned out a ham and cheese quiche, brown gazpacho, and rocky oatmeal bread that my roommates and I ate with lying gusto to prove to ourselves that because we could cook–we were adults.
I was also dropping a fair amount of acid. I did it as one might perform a colonic or go on a silent yoga retreat. Results varied. Once, I watched in fascination as the words I spoke come out of my mouth as giant, puffy, rainbow cartoons. It’s a clear message to me to this day: You think words are beautiful and fun. Another time, I hallucinated a wall catching fire while one friend squeezed syrup into another friend’s mouth because she’d forgotten to take her insulin shot and was having a diabetic fit. The wall, it turned out was not on fire, and our friend did not die, but I understood that action was better than just sitting and staring. Still, often when I was tripping, I stared at myself in the mirror. I found this profoundly comforting. Aside from a bit of narcissism in this act, I was mostly desperate to see myself. Not knowing who I was, I looked for clues. Tripping made it okay for me to slow down and stare at myself in the mirror. For these rare moments, I was free of self-judgment. I liked myself when I was tripping, and I was oddly calm unlike in my non-tripping life when I was stressed about boys, my family, school, and money.
Between cooking, classes, and dropping acid, I chased boys. I started long-term relationships from one night stands, I followed a classmate home on the bus and played dumb when he noticed me, and I drunk-dialed a semi-famous rock star from my home town because I’d heard from a friend he was into me. I’d been shamed out of masturbating to Mighty Mouse when I was six and I didn’t really get the hang of having orgasms again until I was 20. It was at that time that I met a graduate student who knew what a clitoris was and relieved me from the elaborate performance of faking it that I thought was my fate. With a lot of catching up to do, I experienced my desire as a time bomb—explosive, ready, and manic.
Around the time I was turning 42, Tom Junod, published the now much-lampooned “In Praise of the 42-Year-Old Woman” in Esquire. He began in this depressing way:
Let’s face it: There used to be something tragic about even the most beautiful forty-two-year-old woman. With half her life still ahead of her, she was deemed to be at the end of something—namely, everything society valued in her, other than her success as a mother. If she remained sexual, she was either predatory or desperate; if she remained beautiful, what gave her beauty force was the fact of its fading. And if she remained alone…well, then God help her.
According to Junod, 42 was once the end of sexuality for women. All we 42-year-old-women had left to do was keep on being devoted moms. If we were gross enough to try to get laid, then it was predatory or desperate, and if were still pretty it was only in that vintage way. The rest of the piece is a catalog of which 42-year-old-celebrity women are fuckable (all!) and the great news that at least feminism has made middle-age women worthy of the male gaze. The response was swift and hilarious. My favorite came from Tracy Moore at Jezebel who wrote:
Why, used to be, a woman at the age of 42 could hardly be glanced at, much less taken to bed and ravaged shame-free in broad daylight. No longer. Esquire has sent word across all channels that 42-year-old women have been removed from the Do Not Bang list and are no longer off-limits to respectable men. In other news, FIRE SALE AT CHICO’S.
I remembered Junod’s piece a couple of months later when I bought, Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Penguin Books, 2014). I’ve been looking for models—female characters that aren’t punished or compromised by their sexuality, who are parents with desires, and who aren’t necessarily on the hunt for a husband or a great love. I’ve been looking for artists and writers who defy conventional plot devices and narrative structures, and who aren’t trying to tell us that life is anything more than a series of events, some large and some small, some painful and some joyful.
Lena is 38-year-old mother of two teenage girls and lives in Brooklyn where she works as a freelance illustrator. At 18, she emigrated from Russia to the U.S., and much of the novel is about her grappling with that original clash of cultures (Soviet deprivation and Glasnost opening up next to American abundance and the taint of late capitalism). On the first page, we see a sleeping Lena lying in front of the “Department of State” building in St. Petersburg, Russia. She’s been invited back to Russia for a book tour. Lena admits, “My sexual awakening was entirely the fault of the U.S. state department” (3). The book follows Lena as she learns how to use OkCupid, negotiates a tortured decades-long romantic connection with her first love Alik, and eventually falls in love with a totally emotionally present yet completely unattainable man she calls “the Orphan.” Sex with “the Orphan” is transformative, and over black and white drawings with a watercolor-esque wash of the two characters in bed, Lena confesses, “My inhibitions and long-established boundaries fell away. I no longer had any use for my escape routes…and there I was suddenly without my exoskeleton, but totally alive” (254).
I was drawn to Lena’s sloughing off of her exoskeleton, her desire to be totally alive, and Ulinich’s skill at creating such a complex character. Lena—to steal from my favorite psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott–is a “good-enough mother” who is not consumed by her role as caregiver. She’s an artist and a teacher who is ambivalent at times about how those two jobs intersect. She has one-night-stands, awkward pity sex, draws during the day, drops off and picks up her daughters from school, meets regularly with her friends Eloise and Yvonne, visits Occupy Wall Street, and shops for school clothes. Eventually, she is nearly undone by the Orphan, but at the center of the book is the journey of becoming her own person. Not a daughter. Not a mother. Not a wife. Not even a girlfriend.
I saw some of myself in Lena, her joy at discovering sex reminded me of my early manic search for a sexual connection at 21 and now again at 42. Once I’d healed a little from my separation from my ex, I made tests for myself. I learned for the first time in my life how to go to a bar and have a drink alone. I danced with strange men and got lost in the heat of a dance floor. I cut my hair short and reveled in freedom I felt when passing as a young man or a butch woman. I set up an OkCupid account and referred to the site with my friend Stephanie as “the man store.” And I, like many newly single middle-aged women and men I’ve spoken to, marveled at the ease of internet dating, the way you could actually know something about a person before that first awkward meeting. It was so much different than dating in my late twenties when I felt bound by geography and graduate school and my deep desire to get married and have a child.
My friend Yukie recently suggested I read The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis. Using poetry, case studies, and the language of psychotherapists like Freud, Jung, Rohm, and Winnicott, Hollis argues:
The midlife crisis, which I prefer to call the Middle Passage, presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our lives and to ask the sometimes frightening, always liberating question: ‘Who am I apart from my history and the roles I’ve played?’ The Middle Passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality” (7).
Hollis does not sugarcoat the pain of going through the middle passage, and he admits that many of us never do. It’s a time of broken things—parents die, marriages end, children become teenagers and eventually move away, and careers reveal themselves to be failures.
I’m grateful for Ulinich’s Lena and Hollis’ terminology, and I’ll continue to search for novels that chart the middle passage in new and surprising ways. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s relevatory My Struggle comes to mind here, as does Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo, and Jenny Offil’s amazing, fragmented novel, Department of Speculation. The middle passage is about wanting to know who we are separate from the roles our parents and our marriages created for us. Forty-two, for me, is about this hard looking, this sloughing off of roles, staring in the mirror without the acid-induced overlay. I see my ex going through the same struggle, and many of my friends as well. We are trying to forge new relationships that are not built on fear and co-dependence. Now it’s about autonomy. The ability to love someone and let them be, and to work hard at messy, improvisational communication.
The middle passage is about having your own story—living it and, lately for me, trying to write it down. Writing for me, no matter what the genre, has always been a way to manifest difficult feelings, unknown or less-seen landscapes, and people and characters who are messy, absent, or silent.
I don’t cook the way I did when I was 21. I’m not trying to prove anything or impress my friends. There are a couple of dishes I make really well that my daughter enjoys—a roast chicken, brownies from scratch, and my mother’s strawberry rhubarb pie. After, I clean up the kitchen and sit down to write.