Last summer, I spent the first days of my son’s life breastfeeding round the clock and watching Season 1 of HBO’s Girls. I was delirious with exhaustion, but it was a magical and gratifying experience, one that I now evangelically recommend to all my female friends. The TV show, obviously, not the baby.
You’d think it would be fantastically irritating to watch drunk twentysomethings crazy-dance at warehouse parties while I was lactating on the sofa in a nightgown, but it wasn’t. I identified emphatically with the girls on Girls, which returns for a second season Sunday night – the anxious one, the cool one, the perfect one, and the naked one. I was all of them. Even though, demographically speaking, I’m anything but.
I’m in my 30s, which is obvious since I’m middle-class and I have a baby (I know only one university-educated woman who reproduced young, and it startled me at the time). Still have a baby, in fact, because unlike boyfriends in your 20s, who also steal your heart and communicate their feelings in three-a.m. histrionics, babies tend to stick around.
I was more appropriately targeted, though in some ways discomfited, by that other newly released Judd Apatow joint, This is 40. Which is not to say I’m 40. (Did my voice just get really loud and squeaky there?) I am SO NOT 40. But the movie is funny. And I say that as someone who tried hard not to identify when the wife accuses her husband of hiding in the bathroom with his iPad, and then confronts him with a “Do better” list, because I don’t go in for that kind of bourgeois crap. Except I totally do.
My problem is that I want to be all the decades all the time. I want to crazy-dance at a warehouse party and then spring out of bed and bake spiced pumpkin loaf for breakfast. And I’m not alone. (Actually I’m never alone. That’s how family life works: You spend the first 30 years of your life wondering if you’ll always be alone and the next 30 wondering if you’ll ever be alone.)
The crazy-dancing/pumpkin loaf equation is what everyone I know secretly wants. We want to be young and on-the-cusp and mature and comfortably established all at the same time. Most of us are trying to do both – that’s why the paunchy Dad on your street longboards to his preschool pickup. It’s also why the barrista with the asymmetrical haircut is making her own artisanal cheese.
And yet, so much of our entertainment today, whether books, movies or TV shows, seems served up in tidy demographically specific packages.
It’s the triumph of the marketing people of course, with their viral branding and social-media buzzwhack. They are responsible for everything depressing about our culture, including (but not limited to) espresso martinis and reminders from LinkedIn. Their pernicious influence casts a creepy shadow over what Apatow, Girls’s Lena Dunham – and other talented creative folk – are actually trying to do, which is make smart, funny stories about flawed people muddling through life, not sanitized cultural products for obedient decade-somethings.
The shadow extends to books. Take the two very good ones I happen to be reading at the moment. The first is F*ck! I’m in My Twenties, a graphic novel of cutely neurotic observations about being young and confused, by U.S. author Emma Koenig. You will not be surprised to learn that Koenig is in her 20s and has a TV-development deal based on her book, which was based on a blog, which was based on her life. Because everyone knows if you’re 24 these days and don’t have a development deal based on a book based on a blog based on your life, you’re screwed.
Or at least you believe you are. Because self-doubt seems to be the big theme running through Koenig’s book, which features lots of amusing Venn diagrams and rhetorical questions in cool fonts, such as: “Am I going through puberty all over again?”; “Is everyone else actually happier than me or are they just pretending?”; “Why is our relationship so complicated? We aren’t even sleeping together!”
The other book is a comic novel called Mutton, by British author India Knight. It’s about a fortysomething divorcée with three kids living in London and looking for love. The novel manages to pose, in bright, brusque, posh-accented tones, all the same questions as does Koenig’s. Take this musing by the protagonist: “There comes a point where time starts feeling like looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and suddenly things that seemed far away are dramatically closer, and really – if I’m not going to be blissfully happy romantically speaking, I’d rather be happy domestically and pootle on, hope springing eternal. Basically I just want the lolz, even if landing the lolz is a form of midlife crisis in itself, which I suspect it might be.”
Apart from the dubious use of text slang, Knight is saying that getting older is confusing for everyone and that self-doubt exists at all ages – which is a serious bummer for those twentysomethings hoping for the sense of well-being and purpose to descend once the big development deal comes through.
But what I wonder, while vacillating between somewhere between twentysomethingness and forty-somethingness in the sticky chaos of my thirties, is: Why does every decade now have to be such an existential crisis in and of itself? Will Koenig be capping off her career with a quirky little volume called F*ck! I’m in My Nineties? Now there’s a book that deserves a development deal. Lolz, as if.