Edited version originally published in frankie #42 (July/Aug 2011)
Some time later this year, I’ll turn 29, which is a funny, nowhere-ish kind of age. In fact, all of the late 20s are this entirely non-remarkable, in-between phase of life: old enough to horrify teenagers, but still young enough to be envied by the elderly, who demonstrate this by groaning in an almost sexual way while touching your face.
Turning 29 also means I’m nearing 30—a milestone birthday that, for whatever reason, is enough to induce a daylight panic attack while I’m walking down the street. The novelist Zadie Smith wrote about this exact same thing recently. “On the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation, I had a panic attack,” she wrote. “Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan.”
Sweet Jesus, I know how that feels. For me, thinking about my 30th birthday can be like thinking about deep space or staring into the sun. It messes with the mind. Thirty is uncomfortably close to 40, and 40 is halfway to being 80, and then: BOOM. I’ll be dead. Everyone I know will be dead. WE WILL ALL BE DEAD. Okay, I need a paper bag. All the excess oxygen in this room is suddenly making it difficult to breathe.
It’s weird. At a certain point in our lives, birthdays aren’t just birthdays anymore. They’re self-inflicted mental ordeals, weird psychological tests and brutal exercises of intense personal cross-examination. We start asking ourselves depressing philosophical questions, like: Is this where I want to be in life? Am I happy? Do I ‘look’ my age? Would the 12-year-old version of me be proud of the 30-year-old version of me?
Let’s take a look, shall we? When I was 12, I decided that by the age of 30, I needed to have scored at least a part-role on Home & Away and won a Logie (or similar) for my acting prowess. (I know what you are thinking—and yes, I am gay.) Things didn’t turn out to plan, but I’ve now become an adult who thinks soap operas are ghastly and that the Logies are the televisual and societal equivalent of AIDS. Really, who cares what the 12-year-old version of myself would think of me? Because, to be frank, the current version of me thinks the 12-year-old version of me was an annoying little fuckwit.
At the same time, it’s understandable why we feel anxious. As we age, our lives start to cement. As kids, we all started out malleable and goo-like, and we really could have been anything. Astronauts. Firefighters. Doctors. By the time we’re 30, we’re working in jobs we didn’t even know existed as children—systems analysts; deputy sales coordinators—and we now realise all the things we’ll never be. I’m never going to play the piano. I’m never going to be an athlete. It’s becoming clearer that I mightn’t ever be a parent, and it’s entirely possible (depending on this lame Federal government) that I’ll never be a husband.
Still, there are skills I intend to pick up once I turn 30. I’ve decided I’m going to learn to surf. I want to finally master speaking Cantonese. I want to have that special adult skill where you buy a case of alcohol that doesn’t disappear within 48 hours. Turning 30 feels like an opportunity, more than anything else.
Most of my friends are a little older than me, so they’ve already turned 30. Richard celebrated with a quiet, conversational dinner party with close friends, followed by a night of raucous punk rock. Kate, a musician friend of mine, turned 30 in Calgary after supporting Tegan and Sara to a crowd of thousands. Genevieve flashed her boobs to all her dinner guests as the clock ticked over to midnight. (“DESSERT WAS SERVED,” she recalls.) But the best 30th birthday story probably goes to Ping, who spent the day swimming with elephants in northern Thailand. “Best. Birthday. Ever.” Then she added: “I almost forgot I’d turned into an old bag in the meantime.”