The Best Time I Turned Forty

Well! What an age we live in! And by that I mean…MIDDLE AGE!

“Middle age” is such a funny way to talk about being forty because it’s also the term employed to denote the shitty dark plague-ridden period before the light of the Renaissance dawned, a time when almost everyone died in anguish and history stopped being written because there weren’t enough people left to write it or make the paper to write it on even. And now we use the term to denote the period in your life that comes just before decrepitude and death.

But no matter! Because guess what happened?? Ok you’ll never guess:

We have a big August, because our anniversary is the 15th, my birthday is the 20th, and Gary’s is the 25th. Traditionally we have done nothing exceptional to mark this epic ten day period, and this year was shaping up to be no different. When asked what I wanted to do for my fortieth, I thought about it for a long time and then responded that I wanted Gary to sharpen our knives, and I wanted to go out to brunch. For me, this would have been spectacular enough, as despite my pickiness surrounding food and not staying out late I remain fairly easy to please in general (or maybe this is one of those false beliefs you have about yourself that no one else who knew you would ever agree was true). The idea of having sharp knives was truly delightful to me, and I’ve been wanting to go to this brunch place that’s right on the river and that everyone says has a bad menu but you can’t beat that river view.

[y’all I can’t get paragraph breaks to show up beyond this point! I don’t know why. Sorry it’s just a block of text but…maybe it’s better that way]

On the 15th, our anniversary, we began our day by running very cool middle aged married person errands, namely, we drove to another town to pick up a rug we had had cleaned. I was very excited to get the rug back and put it down and see how it looked, but instead when we got home my old man threw the rug on the floor in a pile and suddenly said “do you feel like going on a trip?” I could tell from his stupid face that he was pulling one of his surprises on me—perhaps four times in our life he has suddenly sprung a surprise trip on me out of the blue, most recently at Christmas when he told me to pack a bag and then we drove to a cabin by the sea in Maine and it was simply delightful—so I said YEAH! He told me to pack a bag. I assumed we were going to a cabin in Maine again, which sounded great to me, but when I asked him how many days I should pack for, he said SIX! That seemed like a lot (<--foreshadowing) but I accepted it. When he plans these surprise trips I must let myself go slack and pliable, and simply trust in the good instincts of my husband and in his ability to tell me what to do so that I will not be uncomfortable later (e.g. to pack my mouth guard). He also said I should pack a swimsuit. I had barely begun packing when suddenly the doorbell rang. It was our nice friends Luke and Sarah, and when they came in I could tell by their faces that they knew where we were going! This had all been pre-arranged. It turned out they were driving us somewhere, and taking the dog to boarding school. What on earth! I assumed we were going to the airport at this point, but we didn’t. Instead, we drove to the train station. While waiting for the train, Gary told me to cancel all the appointments I’d made for the coming week. This was awkward because our entire department was preparing for an epic move which was starting the very next day, and which we were all supposed to present for. Almost every member of our enormous faculty was moving offices and studios, we were taking over a whole new wing of our building, a variety of large men were coming to move like 50 pianos around, it was going to be a total disaster. Luckily, I had packed up my office and clearly labeled everything ahead of time, because I am a nerd. Still, it felt weird to just suddenly bail, and have to email our overworked staff being like “well I have to go on a fun trip, so please move all my shit for me,” but I did, and they were nice, and ultimately I brought them some presents and I just have to hope it’s okay, karmically speaking. As I’ve said, it was all out of my hands. We got on a train bound for New York. Gary told me we were going to spend six days in New York and then come home. This was the first of many times he would artfully set me up to be just slightly weirded out before revealing that what he had told me had been a lie; I enjoy going to New York, but for six days?? I find New York pretty overwhelming and, to be frank, gross, especially in August. And why had he told me to pack a swimsuit? “CONEY ISLAND??” he said in disbelief, “EVER HEARD OF IT???” Okay! I got into it! It’ll be great, we’ll get bagels! We’ll see some comedy! He had insisted that I not bring the book I wanted to bring (China Miéville’s history of the October Revolution) so I was stuck on a five hour train with no book, which annoyed me. It turned out however that even here there was method to his madness! See below God, I have to start skipping stuff or this will be a thousand pages long We stayed with our friend Jamie, hence the method/madness, because Jamie is a Fancy Book Person. Not only did she immediately bestow upon me a literally 1,000 page Richard Holmes biography of Percy Shelley that she said she’d been meaning to give me for two years and that we laughed and laughed and laughed about, because honestly, it’s bigger than the bible, and my hatred of Percy Shelley is widely known. I can’t wait to read it. But not only that, but then the next day (after Real Fuckin Brooklyn Bagels) we went to all these cool-ass bookstores and bought more books. So now in my backpack I had the aforementioned Shelley Tome (which for the rest of the trip I kept accidentally calling the “Byron Book,” which cracked my old man up because this is the same exact slip-up that reveals Bad Michael Fassbender to be malfunctioning in the most recent Alien movie, a plot point we both found very dumb, also why did Ridley Scott have Fassbender—-who is profoundly fluent in German, as we all know from his positively bravura turn in the great Inglorious Basterds--mispronounce “Richard Wagner” while emphasizing the correct pronunciation of “Das Rheingold”??? I truly want to know because this was obviously a conscious decision, clearly made by Scott and not Fassbender, and I don’t get it, like if American audiences are stupid enough to not understand the name “Richard Wagner” when correctly pronounced, why are they smart enough to not freak out with confusion at DAS FREAKIN RHEINGOLD, which, when said correctly, sounds like somebody coughing up a bunch of phlegm, God protect me but it’s the truth), a memoir by Cookie Mueller, the weird-ass book about angels Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote before My Struggle, and this cool collection of essays about life-changing musical encounters that I thought (wrongly, as it turned out) would be good material for this class I’m teaching. My commitment to actually reading the Byron Book never left me, and I continued carrying it throughout this whole adventure, despite having several opportunities to simply mail it back to myself, and even though I can now report that at no point did I read even the first page of it. Now it’s all battered and looks like it’s been heavily read. Boy I can’t wait to learn about Percy Fuckin Shelley when I finally crack it! THAT SON OF A BITCH It turned out we were not spending six days in New York; in fact the very next day we went back to the train station, and this time boarded a SLEEPER to Chicago! What next? “Chicago is where we fell in love,” my old man informed me, as though I could ever forget such a momentous experience, falling in love with my future husband sitting in Rob’s van all night in front of a punk warehouse in Chicago. He had braces and had just had massive facial reconstruction surgery and his face was all numb; I myself was sporting an extreme cold sore. Nonetheless we “made it work” (<--euphemism for frenching). As we settled into our cozy train car he said we were going to hang out with our friends Bill and Cole, because we were apparently on a tour of Landmarks Of Our Love—Bill had been influential in getting us together in the first place, back in 2002 or whenever it was, and served as Guest of Honor at our future wedding thus. Mainly what he did was simply tell each of us that the other one was interested in frenching; it is amazing what a huge service such an act can be. God bless Bill. He was also very supportive in the aftermath of us falling in love, withstanding multiple barrages of self-involved monologuing from each of us and responding with calm certainty that “everything [would be] fine.” We only found out that he was serving this purpose for both of us much later; I’d thought I was the only one talking to Bill about my Love Feelings. So we met up with those guys and saw their awesome house and their hilarious dog, and saw Bill’s new venue and cried single tears of pride, and learned about nursing from Cole who is a full on nurse, a job I am fascinated by and have a lot of reverence for, and ate tacos, and slept in their guestroom. Then got up early the next morning and went BACK to the train….only to take it to….the airport??? WHAT NEXT At the airport he revealed that we were flying to Los Angeles, which, again, is a city I somewhat famously dislike, so I was kind of like…okay…but guess what, I got into it, because I Am Game, plus my brother lives there and I always want to see him, etc. I assumed this would be where we used the swimsuits but reader I was wrong. We hung out with my brother and watched a movie about Bill Paxton becoming schizophrenic and forcing his young sons to murder people with him. My brother gave me my birthday present, which was a bunch of products you use to care for your cast-iron cookware; certainly the most middle aged present I have ever received and I thank him for it. He also gave me forty dollars. The next day my bro had to go to work, so Gary and I walked miles and miles, through all my old haunts, down to the boardwalk and pier, where we rode the ferris wheel and got novelty key chains made for our nice friends who had taken Franklin to the kennel and who kept sending us pictures of things they were doing to take care of our house in our absence, including literally mowing the lawn without being asked, and moving my fermenting pickles into the fridge, and other such things. That afternoon, he informed me we had “plans” at 6:00 and I should take a shower. He told me we were going to “an Old Hollywood murder mystery dinner” in Pasadena. Yet again I was weirded out. I don’t want to do that shit! And I KNOW my BROTHER doesn’t want to do that shit! Pasadena? Murder mystery dinner? He told me we had to change into costumes when we got there. I was like…..Jesus Christ. He kept saying “it’ll be memorable!” which was certainly true. So my brother came home from work and I asked him, suspiciously, if he knew what we were going to do. “Some murder mystery dinner thing??” he replied. So I felt it must be true. We got in the car and drove for a thousand hours but then pulled up outside just a normal house, at which point I knew probably what was actually happening, but was still extremely delighted to walk in the door to be greeted by all my LA friends yelling SURPRISE and turning on Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” and putting on a slideshow of pictures of me throughout the ages and putting a birthday hat on me and giving me a pile of presents (exfoliating scrub; “life begins at 40” card; signed YACHT band photo, etc.). I somehow IMMEDIATELY became drunk, like within 3 minutes. I still think it was because of how hard I was immediately laughing. I love my friends so much for so many reasons but one of them is how SILLY they are, how willing to play and be playful. No matter how much time has passed there is always immediate uproarious laughter and I can not get enough. I got drunk and they told me riddles that I was unable to solve even when they started putting the answer to the riddle right in the riddle itself. We stayed at Rob and Jenny’s beautiful home and in the morning (my actual birthday) we were greeted by the screaming of a red tailed hawk perched directly outside the window. RAPTOR BLESSING. Yes sister hawk, in my 40th year I will be a fierce-ass predator! I will tear the skin from a duck with my fingers!!! After coffee we went BACK to the damn TRAIN STATION and got on yet another sleeper train. WHAT NEXT This train was bound for Portland! And, we were on the train during the eclipse, which took place the next morning, and we were at 93.5% totality, which is not too shabby considering only four days previously I had not a thought in my head of seeing any part of the eclipse at all. We watched it from the observation car of the train, with a bunch of other passengers. Gary had procured eclipse glasses weeks earlier for this very purpose, so we were all set. On the observation car were two guys from the Klamath history museum who apparently get on the train at Klamath and give a guided tour of the ride, pointing out landmarks, telling historical tales, etc. One guy was the color commentator and the other guy knew all the facts. So the one guy would be like “In 1920 there was a huge fire that burned down this whole forest! How much of it burned Rob” and Rob would be like “eight million board feet of lumber.” They also did trivia and handed out candy. When the eclipse started, they went off script and just googled stuff and announced it: telling us what a solar eclipse is, how often they happen, etc., urging people to share their glasses. It was truly great. The eclipse was weird and interesting; I would have loved to be outside for it, to feel the vibes. Everything got dark and weird. We heard from friends who were in totality that they all had basically religious experiences, crying and screaming and such, which sounds so amazing but I did not have that experience, being at only 93.5%. Still, it was a cool thing to wake up to the morning after one’s fortieth birthday: the world ending In Portland everyone was out of town for the eclipse but we did get to see a few buddies (Alex, Sasha, Sarah, Josh, Jessica, Calvin, John) and eat at my favorite restaurant on all the earth. Then the next day we went TO THE AIRPORT. Gary said “this is the last destination, I promise” and he said things like “where we’re going will seem weird to you at first, but I promise it will be fun.” At this point I was prepared for anything, but once again when he led me to our gate and I saw where we were going, I was just baffled. Because it was: Anchorage, Alaska. What a random place to go! At the same time, I once again was totally game, having never been to Alaska. I immediately was like, maybe we’ll see a moose!!! But then after awhile I could tell he was lying and that he was concealing something big, so I demanded to see the boarding passes. When I looked at them, all that was written on them was the airport code—OGG—which didn’t sound like Anchorage to me, so I googled it. MAUI!!!!!!! For fully two years I have been saying I want to go on a “traditional beach vacation” and “just relax” and specifically that I would like to see Hawai’i before I die. Every time, my old man angrily says that that’s “the stupidest thing [he’s] ever heard” and that it will “never happen.” He’s been long-conning me! He planned this shit MONTHS AND MONTHS ago, and spent all this time setting airfare alerts and booking and rebooking all the trains etc., while simultaneously asking me what I wanted to do for my birthday and making it all seem boring and like he had no plans. I screamed and screamed!!! FINALLY THE SWIMSUIT WOULD BE PUT TO USE!!!!!! Please also note I still had the Byron Book in my fucking bag, now about to carry it across the sea, where, I assure you, I again failed to read even the first page of it, despite continuing to legitimately want to. MAUIIIIIIIII I never thought I’d be one of those people who is all “ooooh my life is changed” and “Maui is so spiritual” and all that, but honestly it was incredible and like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I don’t even know where to start. It’s SO beautiful, and I am someone who grew up in a notably beautiful location and wasn’t all that jazzed about it. But it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was like a cartoon of paradise. We arrived, rented a car, drove to a B&B, and went immediately to the beach. This beach was not some famous beach, it was just a random little beach clearly used mainly by locals, many of whom were tailgating there when we arrived. And yet it is also the most glorious beach you’ve ever seen in your life! The water is crystal clear, the sand is white as snow, and all along the beach there are these enormous sea turtles just sleeping, with sunbathers sprawled amongst them like no big deal. This is just a normal boring beach to these damn locals, can you imagine? I crouched by a sea turtle and looked right into its sleeping timeless face; I saw its flipper; I could have touched its back were I to be so rude. I dove in the sea. I normally do not swim in the sea due to my crippling phobia of sharks and/or being swept out to sea and drowning horribly. But somehow here it felt so good and right and fine so I just went for it. That night as I tried to sleep my husband stayed up late reading a tourist magazine aloud and prodding me (HONEY DOES THAT SOUND FUN). But in the morning it turned out this had been time well spent, because he’d found out about this crazy app that works via GPS and that you can use to guide you along the famous road to Hana, this wild narrow mountain road with 600 hairpin turns and a ton of one-lane bridges that is the only way to get from one side of the island to the other. It’s a tourist thing to do, so it’s jam-packed with jeeps and convertible mustangs, interspersed with periodic locals in beat-up trucks with surfboards sticking out of them who are just trying to get to work, one of whom (the local, not the surfboard) called my husband a “dumbfuck” and he was right to do so. Anyway there are a million cool-ass things to do and see along this road—waterfalls you can swim under, fruit stands, hikes, incredible views of the crashing sea, an old church that is the only thing that survived some epic tsunami in the 50s, etc. And even though it’s this huge tourist attraction, nothing is really marked and there’s no signage and hardly any parking along the way. So this guide app proved immensely helpful. You just drive along and periodically this guy suddenly starts talking to you: “Around the next bend, you’ll see a hole in the ground to your right. Pull up to the NEXT wide place in the shoulder, get out of the car, and walk back to the hole. It’s a lava tube! Go on in, and see some stalagmites. Don’t worry, there are NO BATS.” He also crucially tells you stuff you can skip. “Up here on the left you’ll see a bunch of people parked and walking up the hill. There’s a cool waterfall up there. But honestly, it’s not that great, and there are better ones up ahead, so if you want to, you can skip it.” IT RULED. He also tells you about Maui’s history, its indigenous myths, etc. We also felt the voice actor was sort of hateful, which we appreciated. He was so over the top, it could only have been ironic. “HEY MAN, THERE’S SOME KILLER GRINDS AT THIS TACO STAND! MAHALO!” By the end of the trip we were very irritated with him but at the same time we were just really pleased with this app consumer experience and will recommend it to all our friends. Hana is this tiny little town surrounded by crashing waves, lava rock, and palm trees. It reminded me of where I grew up—this totally bonkers natural environment, but then the kids are just at school learning math or whatever, it’s normal to them. I also enjoyed imagining the equivalent of me as a child, growing up in Hawai’i. I grew up in a ski resort but I never really liked skiing and felt forced into it and was very ungracious about it all. And in my town, skiing and snow is all anyone wants to talk about, so you have to endure these tedious detailed conversations about powder and weather conditions and bad decisions the ski company has made in deciding to groom the black diamonds etc. And you are like, Jesus Christ, I want to go home and read my Stephen Kings! Also I was (am) awkward, and wore glasses, and just generally had a hard time up there, surrounded by all my classmates who would go on to become World Cup skiiers and shit. I like to think of the equivalent kid growing up in Hana, just not that interested in surfing. Just like, holy crow, give it a rest, who cares about “the swell,” I’m trying to read this book about outer space! While growing up in the most absurdly glorious beautiful natural environment imagineable and just kind of being “over it.” What a terrible nerd! And yet I empathize passionately with this fictional child I made up in my imagination. After sleeping on friends’ floors and on trains for over a week, here we had the first and only luxury accommodations of the trip: a full on condo by the sea, with a kitchen. The bed was right in front of these huge sliding glass doors that opened directly onto the lanai which overlooked the sea; we slept with it open and all night crashing waves and sea breezes wafted over us (well, the breezes wafted over us, not the waves). In the morning we woke up and watched the sun rise from our bed, and it was my old man’s birthday! Now he too is #pushinforty, while I an now actually #livinforty. We ate a whole room full of fruit. Here is the fruit we ate: - dragon fruit: you cut this open and it’s as deeply purple as a beet, flecked with tiny black seeds. Tastes kind of like a kiwi. A purple kiwi. Turns your poop red just like beets - three different kinds of banana: red banana, apple banana, ice cream banana. I FINALLY ENJOYED BANANA. The bananas you get on the mainland are garbage, fuck them all - starfruit: like a wet pear - pineapple: amazing when fresh, we ate an entire one On the way back from Hana we additionally ate: - guava - this other thing I never heard of before and can’t remember the name of, that also tasted like a wet pear - Oh I forgot, on the way TO Hana we stopped at this coconut shack and ate an entire fresh coconut. A lady hacks it open for you and gives you a straw, and when you’re done drinking it she hacks it in half and gives you a bent butter knife that you use to scoop out the insides. When you’re done you give her back the knife and throw the husk on a huge pile on the ground. She had two dogs who slept through the whole thing. She wore her machete on a belt around her denim miniskirt, and she was barefoot. Everyone in Maui is barefoot and shirtless nonstop, clearly there are no rules regarding footwear. It was awesome - We also got PASSION FRUIT, the winner for me. We stopped at a roadside stand and this guy with huge red dredlocks had this wild array of fruit on a shitty old card table. Everyone we met in Hawai’i felt like an ex-pat, they all have these stories like “I grew up in New York, and I was a stockbroker, then one day I realized FUCK THIS and now I sell fruit on the side of the road and surf every day bro”. This guy was just hacking fruit open and giving it to us and saying things like “it’s amazing, it just grows right out of God’s beautiful earth” and we were like I KNOW RIGHT???? When I said I’d never tasted a passion fruit he cut one in half and said to “do it like an oyster shooter,” then when I started to slide it into my mouth he yelled “OH MAN HERE IT COMES!!!! IT’S GONNA BE INTENSE!” and it was. It’s like a slimy wet mass of weird jelly with huge seeds in it, and it tastes like nothing you can possibly imagine. It tastes like ketchup tastes to that girl in that young adult sci-fi book who gets herself turned around in another dimension and when she comes back to this dimension ketchup tastes so spectacular she can’t stop eating it; it was like that - More red bananas We went to a red sand beach you have to climb along a cliffside to get to, and it was wild, deep blue water and waves crashing over these rocks, and people from every nation of this great earth diving together. We went to a white sand beach where I swam without my glasses and got really pounded by waves and had sand in my hair for days. There was a golden retriver just diving like a full seal into the waves, then he’d swim out to where his man was standing and the man would hold him in his arms while the dog just looked around like nbd just a golden retriver living his best life It was funny living the beach life, the all-day-swimsuit life, because it really drove home the extent to which my old man and I are Not Beach People. I felt like every human soul in Maui was tanned, lithe, beautiful, extremely comfortable in a swimsuit, and knew how to do things like properly shake the sand out of their towel without getting it all over everything. Every beach we went to, by contrast, we were beyond the whitest shade of pale, awkward and doughy in our bathing costumes, walking hesitantly into the sea and getting knocked over by waves like a toddler while flailing and crying out in surprise. The idea of actually standing up on a surf board is utterly beyond my ken. Even sunbathing I feel I’m not very good at, I get immediately hot and burned and don’t know what to do while I’m lying there. It was so great. We went into another mode of existence and just rolled with it. At one point we went to an arboretum and we were the only people there and I washed my butt in a stream, because there was so much sand in my swimsuit from the aforementioned wave-pummeling that it was stressing me out. There were guavas and bananas just all over the ground, at one point I slipped and almost fell on a fuckin’ guava, it’s that idyllic in this place. We went to this amazing national park on Gary’s birthday and it was FREE that day for unexplained reasons, and we hiked past all these waterfalls and pools and guava trees and through a bamboo forest and we saw many birds and a great giant banyan tree and Gary recorded the clacking of the bamboo on his phone. One night we got tiki drinks and nachos and then walked over to the beach and there were all these locals watching their kids rollerskate at an outdoor roller rink, again with the waves crashing two feet away. One day we drove up to the top of Mt. Haleakala, the enormous volcano that comprises most of Maui. You go from sea level to 10,000 feet in one 40 minute drive; it was bonkers. Then you’re up far, far above the treeline, gazing down at the clouds and weather patterns that lurk infinitely far below. The air is cold and clean and completely silent; the ground is red and black rock and sand as far as you can see, and speckling the view are these immense cinder cones. You can see paths stretching into the infinite distance. We saw a great huge owl flying quietly. We hiked down into the very crater of the volcano, down and down through the silent red sands, past all these hardy alpine silver plants that only bloom once in their lifetimes. We walked along the lip of a cinder cone and stared out into the distance, to where we knew the ocean—obscured by clouds—must lie. It was so awesome. On our last night we watched the sun set over yet another white sand beach and it was declared the greatest trip ever gone upon. Then we ate pizza. The next day we flew back to Portland, saw Jae and Katy who were finally back from the eclipse, and ate tacos. Then we got on a red-eye flight to Newark, landed in Newark, took the train into Manhattan so we could buy a dozen bagels at the good bagel place, then caught another Amtrak back home at last, and were picked up at the train station by our good friend Luke, who had Franklin with him, who had literally lost ten pounds and looked like absolute hell. We all went home and slept for 20 hours. And my pickles turned out great. I still can’t believe it. I truly left so much out of this recounting and still it took a million words to impart. Ultimately we were gone for 2 weeks, and I had to at one point go to a thrift store and buy a bunch of clothes because I’d packed so weirdly (multiple pairs of pajamas, but no sweater and only two pairs of socks, e.g.). I have a nice husband. And now I’m forty and I don’t give a shit, it’s great. About to learn a whole lot about Percy Shelley. Then I had 5 days to write two syllabi and set up all these guest lectures, but who cares

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4 Responses to The Best Time I Turned Forty

  1. elise says:


  2. Kerry says:

    I have been waiting for this post FOREVER. What an amazing journey! Now that I am also #pushin40 I’m more ready than ever to give no fucks except about LIVIN LIFE AND EATIN FRUIT. You are probably the first person ever to make Hawaii sound super appealing to me. Any chance we can get Gary’s background research?!

  3. Cole says:


  4. K SOUTH says:

    I love this so much!!!

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