We live in a culture that values youth so much it’s disturbing. 40 is the new 20. 55 is the new 35. What’s so wrong with forty? With fifty-five? And I love the quality programming that is the Real Housewives franchises, but why the hell is everyone wearing a bikini?!
I understand the vanity involved in these situations, but I really think it’s a more complex matter. Look at the actors who portray high school kids on television. Was anyone remotely that hot in your high school? I think one part of the issue that has been ignored here, is that it’s not just about what you’ve accomplished but how quickly you’ve done so. In high school, besides being super hot, you are supposed be completely capable of a mature emotional relationship. You are supposed to be able to carry on intelligent and thought-provoking conversations with your peers about world events and be an excellent driver. If you are even slightly super-natural you can also save the world as you know it by supper every evening. And your hair. It’s perfection. EVERY. DAY.
Our culture is so incredibly unrealistic it even regulates your accomplishments. “Oh you’re a great pianist? Well, that girl has been composing since she was four.” “You’re a CEO? Well, he started his own company in the 10th grade.” “You’ve written a novel? Yeah, she’s 17 and on her fourth.” “Hey, look! There’s Taylor Swift.”
I can distinctly remember being 16 years old and watching a 14 year old singing in music video on MTV and feeling a little like a failure. Here she was making millions and I’d just gotten home from basketball practice. (The song was “Get Out (Leave)” by JoJo. It may or may not still be in my iTunes.)
Growing up my father suggested I be a director. Like in Hollywood. I fell in love with the idea instantly. I enjoy bossing people around. I also enjoyed teamwork and taking an idea and turning it into a reality. All through elementary school I rolled with it: Liza the writer and director.
In the summer before 6th grade, I wrote my first screenplay. It was basically a slasher movie, but set in the woods and starring all my friends. Wes Craven seems to have borrowed heavily from it for Scream 2. I printed out copies of scripts on our old hand-me-down printer. I tore off all the perforated holed strips from the sides. I even wrote my friends names at the tops of their scripts, but we never made the movie. I never even showed it to them – because I was scared.
In Jr. High everyone started talking about careers. Doctor, lawyer, teacher. Doctor, lawyer, teacher. And I got nervous. There was no clear path to writer and director. Theater Arts and the prospect of standing center stage terrified me. To this day, I still am a completely behind-the-camera girl. So, I hid the scripts. And a few years later when I found them, I tore them up. I couldn’t stand the idea that I had already failed at something.
By the time high school started I had given up on the writer/director dream entirely. I fell in line and thought about safe careers. Careers I’d be good at. Careers that couldn’t possibly be a mistake.
In college, I majored in Chemistry with a minor in education. A safe major (well, not the way I do chemistry) and a solid minor. A career teaching and coaching loomed on the horizon with guaranteed job security and good insurance. My last semester I needed an English elective. I chose creative writing. My professor was amazing. Funny and encouraging. I made an A+ on every assignment. At the end of the term, when he handed back my last paper, he asked me where I’d been the past four years.
“The Chemistry building.”
He shook his head and asked to please keep in touch. He made me promise to keep writing. I walked out of the classroom profoundly sad. I loved writing. I loved telling stories. But I was 21 and I was graduating. It was too late.
I wrote somewhat secretly over the next few years. Embarrassed. I was good coach. A great teacher. But inside I knew I’d already failed. Because I knew what I was supposed to be doing. I eventually moved to Houston. I told people it was a career move, but really I’d started writing with a group of aspiring screenwriters. I had an entirely double life. If it were a movie I would’ve been the lamest superhero ever – teaching chemistry by day and writing until I fell asleep every night. I would write for hours on end and as the years passed I felt more and more like I’d failed.
Yes, I was good at my job. Yes, I made a difference. Yes, I got married and had a baby. That was all supposed to work. I followed all the rules. I was a “success”. And overwhelmingly unhappy. In my mind, I had built up the idea that this life was the pinnacle. I had accomplished all of my goals by thirty, because that was the plan. Don’t get too crazy. Don’t get too far outside the box, because you may not have it all done by thirty.
So, I rebelled. At 7 I knew who I was, who I wanted to be. And at 27 – I remembered. I quit my job. I took a risk. I moved to California…
…and failed horribly. My big grand gesture to the universe and it was exactly what I’d feared the most – nothing happened. I got discouraged and I quit. I came home. For the first time in my life, I went a year without writing. I started up again at 29, but I’d resigned myself to a hobbyist. I started nursing school and only wrote once a week. When I had the time. I trudged along for the next year until, thankfully, God gave me cancer.
I know what you’re thinking, but apparently, yes he did. When something truly awful happens to you, you are immediately hit with a barrage of “God-will-only-give-you-what-you-can-handle’s”. Personally, I don’t know if God thought I could handle it. I’m not a good flyer. I constantly forget people’s names and I have a completely irrational fear of roaches. My talents are also very scattered. I’m not sure God has any idea what I can handle. I think he gave me cancer to show me, failure or not, life isn’t over at thirty. Life isn’t all what it’s going to be just because you’ve reached a certain age. And just because television, movies and magazines tell me that success is having it all by thirty, doesn’t make it true.
In the last few months I’ve noticed a trend within my group of friends. There’s a distinct undertone of “Is that all there is?”. All of them are very successful career women (well maybe more than one trend), but are still unsatisfied with their positions in life. I would’t say any of them are necessarily unhappy, but all have admitted to being unfulfilled in some aspect. One has a great job but expected to be married and have a couple of children by now. Another to be more established in her community. Another is having trouble at work and it is starting to bleed over into her social life. Everyone of them intimidated by thirty.
Like so many women my age, I was looking at a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments and trying to cram them into my first thirty years. I Googled the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. I remember reading this as a kid, thinking the tortoise was the rightful loser and that “slow and steady” was the worst catchphrase ever. Everyone knew that the rabbit could’ve and should’ve won the race. But now, standing on the proverbial mountain that is thirty, I’m glad I’m not a 29-year-old-high-school-senior-vampire and given the choice – I’ll be the ‘effing turtle.