How do you define middle age? It can’t be simply being 40, the ripe age I’ve recently achieved, because I plan to be not only alive but kicking—preferably onstage—at the riper-still age of 80. Middle age is an abstract idea, and it’s begging for a happy definition. So here’s how I think of it: It’s the beginning of a decade that really counts. If I spent too much of my 20s dreaming and half of my 30s in a fog of caring for a very young child, then I’d like to spend much of my 40s doing.
There’s always been a dim buzzing sound in the background of my mind, a noise that has alerted me that time’s a wastin’ and I want to know more, to master more. As I blew out the candles on my 40th birthday cake, the buzz grew exponentially louder. It’s a bit like having a hacksaw whirring outside your living room window. It’s time to confront these skills that have begged for my attention since my 20s.
Here are some things I want to achieve in this decade of doing:
1. Figure out what the hell is going on with A Prairie Home Companion. Is Garrison Keillor pulling off history’s longest practical joke? Is he an emperor who has no clothes, or am I missing the astonishing insight and wit he seems certain he is pouring out with every radio wave? I’m going to get to the bottom of it, dammit, even if I have to listen to hundreds of barber shop quartets singing incomprehensible lyrics about Midwestern brand soap bubbles sold in the 1950s while I wash the dishes every Saturday night.
2. Watch a surreal film without crying or wandering into the other room to sort laundry, clean the house or watch grass grow. My husband makes movies. He loves movies. All sorts of them. We’ve suffered a few near breakups in the past over my, shall we say, more limited taste. (Confession: I am not a fan of Casablanca and I’m married to the man of my dreams but for the grace of the Casablanca lunch box I bought him as a peace offering after falling asleep when he showed me the film on a third date.) Anyway, he loves surreal movies and I earnestly tried to be invested as we watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie one night, but ended up shouting: “Oh my God! They went to a restaurant! Notify The New York Times!” My husband, needless to say, is long-suffering.
3. Acquire in-depth knowledge of textiles so I can shop online at The Gap. Slub, Modal, Hi/Low, Textural, Burnout…. Are they kidding me with this stuff? Peter Pan collar, bolero jacket, pleated skirt, these are terms I recognize. Slub? Seriously? I have a lot of research to do.
4. Be able to cook a meal without checking the recipe 1,368 times. Be able to sauté mushrooms without checking the recipe at all. Can I add the oregano right away? Do I wait five minutes or 10 for the onions to be “clear”? Wait, didn’t they start out clear? What is the definition of medium heat? At what temperature does olive oil turn to saturated fat? Was it one cup of lentils or two? Dammit, I just checked, how could I forget, now I’m checking the recipe again as my olive oil becomes saturated fat because the goddamned heat’s too high! In the movies, women drink red wine while they cook in kitchens with copper pots overhead. Everything simmers perfectly and never burns. I want it to be like that! Let me check the recipe again. Dammit, I need eight cups of chicken broth, not 4. Can I turn off the stove while I dash to Gristedes? Can mushrooms sit there for a bit? Crap, I was supposed to finely chop the walnuts. How many cups? Let me check the recipe again.
5. Sew. I learned to sew at 10, when I got my first pair of pointe shoes. I never progressed. My kid will be in school soon, and I so want to be the mother who can mend clothing and make Halloween costumes. My husband learned to sew with a few scraps of flannel from Michael’s one cold winter’s morning when our toddler begged for new clothes for her doll. Vengeance shall be mine, husband dear. I’m going to sew a set of play clothes for our daughter from our living room curtains by the time she’s 7. Note to self: Buy curtains. Note to self: Buy replacement curtains.
6. Learn (at least) six ways to tie a scarf. I feel strongly that middle-aged people should know how to dress themselves with a modicum of flair. I love spying on the white-haired women on the crosstown bus with Playbills in their laps. They’ve just come from Lincoln Center, just seen a show, and they are always wearing scarves. I looked into it recently. There are eight hundred thousand ways to tie a scarf. It’s true. The Montauk. The Kashmir. The Kyoto. The Dorchester. The Audrey (naturally). I am going to need illustrations and a full-length mirror if I want this decade to be a stylish one.
7. Learn how to program equipment. I cannot set the DVR, I cannot properly load the dishwasher—my husband has to redo it every time. I cannot, it seems, even set a greeting for our answering machine. (Yes, we still have a landline, what of it?) Recently the dry cleaner called to let us know that two shirts we’d dropped off had such gaping holes that they thought it better to throw them out instead of clean them. It was embarrassing. I somehow pushed a button and—whoops!—instead of deleting our shame, I set the message as our outgoing greeting. We didn’t know it for a week.
So there you are: a few skills to master in middle age. But just a few. I’ll still be dancing full-time at 50, so I can’t possibly master everything.