I have now been forty years old for thirteen hours, if my birth certificate is to be believed. Like so many others before me, and so many more to come, what I find is that being forty is exactly like being thirty-nine, except people are more likely to make fun of your age. What this tells me is that there is a meaningful lack of good 39-year-old jokes, but really not much else. I woke up this morning the same way I always do: with a big, cleansing stretch; the metal sound of the piece of titanium in my heart echoing up my jugular vein; and a notable disquiet at the acrid taste of morning breath in my mouth. The rare pleasure of sleeping in on a beautiful day off from work was not fully appreciated.
I’ve started my day in what feels like a relatively cliché way. I took a shower, put on a blue, collared shirt; checked my work email out of habit; packed my golf clubs into the trunk of my Lexus; and proceeded to knock about on what Mark Twain has described as a “good walk spoiled.” It occurred to me on the seventh hole, after I’d shanked my tee-shot into the deep rough near some trees, that perhaps I wasn’t getting the most out of my day — that, from certain perspectives, I was locked into the archetype of forty-year-old, middle-management, white guy to an extent that would perhaps seem sad. But then after a nice recovery shot (if I do say so myself), I snapped the picture on this article on my walk to the green as I realized that this was the kind of day for which I would wait through six months of winter.
Thing is, I’m in a place where I hesitate to talk about how I feel about my life, because I’m afraid it will come off as bragging. That’s a luxury and a sense of self-worth I’ve not had for many of the 14,610 days I’ve been alive to date. What I have become is the sum in the equation of a stretch of time much of which I would prefer never to live again. As the late-spring sun warmed my shoulder and I three-putted to a double bogey, I found myself with plenty of time to take a brief stock of my life.
I don’t have a lot to say about my first decade. This is not a decade that I have much memory of now. Frankly, what I do remember I don’t necessarily like so much. I did have parents who loved me and treated me kindly. I never went hungry, or wanted beyond the normal greediness of a child. But I was lonely, and apparently charted a course from being an outgoing toddler to a quiet and often-bullied ten-year-old.
There have been pockets of my life where I had a lot of friends, but that was largely not the case in my earliest days. My family moved often, and by the time I was ten I had lived in nearly as many different places as I had years accumulated. Or at least, that’s how it seemed.
I’ve never been a particularly self-confident person. Even now, I have to force myself to believe that some of the unreasonably nice things people say to me about me might possibly be occasionally true. No one has ever been able to say to me anything meaner or less-complimentary about my writing, my personality, my work, my anything than I will say to myself. Trust me: When it comes to knocking me down a peg, you’re all amateurs.
I know, logically at least, that the voice in my head was born, shaped and rooted in the days of the early eighties. That’s not a cry for pity or an accusation, it is genuinely a function of circumstance and neuroses that set in far too early. There were good days, days when the world seemed bright and full of promise, but they weren’t the tone. They were the counter-points to the tone, and so I don’t linger long on thoughts of my life age 5 to about 15.
I appear in a version of myself that is at least familiar to me now sometime in the middle of these days. The difference between who I was in 1984 and who I was by 1989 is the difference between a cold winter’s night and a bright, flowery day. One early snowy 1986 evening a handful of days before Thanksgiving, my family moved for a final time to a cold, Southwestern Wisconsin dairy farm. The century-old house that became my home featured lights dangling from cracked ceilings on exposed wires. Having just moved from suburban Dallas, Texas, everything about it was alien and unfamiliar to me. I wasn’t able to sleep alone in my own room for almost a month.
In deep, rural Wisconsin, the dark of night in the winter is impossibly complete, both beautiful and imposing at once. In suburban Dallas, I’d grown used to the sound of cars on the nearby highway. Arc-sodium lamps turn the world amber as cicadas crackle, people splash in backyard pools, and the smell of barbecued meat wafts from all directions. Wisconsin is where I learned trees make sounds.
It would prove to be the best move of my life to date.
I grew up a farm boy, though my father knew virtually nothing about farming. To his credit, he threw himself at the effort on the afternoons, evenings and weekends between his 40-hour-a-week executive job, and the sight of my dad in a shirt and tie plowing the fields became both the laughing stock and eventually the legend of my twenty-mile wide “neighborhood.” Had we relied in any way on our farm to sustain us financially or decided to live off the land, I would be able to talk to you now about what it’s like to starve to death.
But one thing working on a farm makes you is strong. By sixteen I had sprouted to six-foot-four-inches, and I was 185 pounds of muscle and bone. I was, of course, still as soft and squishy as I’d ever been at ten on the inside, but over time the prospect of bullying me became one that did not seem to entice anyone, and I found myself with more friends at once than the sum of all previous friends. Weekends that had once been marathon games on my Apple IIc, were instead now spent in town with my gaggle of rural pals, prowling the tame streets of my 2,000 population town. I drank my first illicit beer at a party in the middle of a cornfield under an impossibly bright moon at 16 — the same night I also got far too drunk for the first time. I kissed my first girl behind a barn as lightning bugs swirled and swarmed. I played varsity football and basketball, not because I was any good but because it was part of the identity I wanted to pretend was mine.
And then I graduated, moved to Madison, went to school, got very lost, found depression and dropped out. As I rounded the clubhouse turn on twenty, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that my halcyon days were built entirely on the myth I wanted to make of myself. Outside the context of childhood, I had no idea how to be me.
1994 - 2003
By 1994 I’d been to three different schools. I had worked cutting pipes and placing ductwork. I learned to make futons and then eventually helped run the shipping department for a company that made them. I spent an awful four weeks working in an assembly plant putting the wrapping around electrical cables for minimum wage. I stuffed shirts and pants in boxes on a shipping line at the Lands End headquarters. I even briefly put in time assembling gift boxes of summer sausage and cheese to be sold at kiosks in the mall. By 1995 I was finishing out a second semester at a small school in Southern Alabama, a school to which I would not return.
Then I met my wife, and everything started to come together.
By the end of 1996, we were married. I worked in the mall, assistant-managing a Gamestop at age 23, and she worked as a graphic designer for a downtown Minneapolis newspaper. We lived in an apartment overlooking the interstate at first, but soon moved to a slightly better apartment and settled in to what would become the life I know now.
In a significant way, I left behind the artifice of an identity I’d built and then managed to dismantle into a listless lack of direction. For a second time, I was rebuilding from the ground up, settled in a city where neither of us had family, friends, contacts or any kind of support structure. Looking back, and knowing that to date I’d never managed to keep faith to a consistent direction for very long, I know why people thought this probably wouldn’t work.
I turned thirty in 2003. Three days later I graduated from the University of Minnesota. My wife was making an excellent wage running a design department for a local printer, and was pregnant with our first son.
On top of all that, I had been helping launch and run a very small, widely unknown website called Gamers With Jobs with some kid from Canada that I’d sort of known for a couple of years. Frankly, it probably wouldn’t last the year.
2004 - 2013
Too much has happened over the past ten years to catalog. It was in many ways the hardest ten years of my life. It was also arguably the best ten years of my life. It is the decade where I think I finally grew up, and it was the decade where I felt both the lowest and the highest I ever have. There were constants: the constant of my wife, the constant of my children, the constant of my dearest friends — some of whom I’ve only met in this quadrant of my story so far — the constant of the website.
I watched my oldest son grow from a small blob — surprisingly ineffective at even its own locomotion — to a boy who is on the cusp of being a teen, and who is one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever known. I had my second son, who is both the funniest person I’ve ever known and terrifyingly bright — his pre-kindergarten teachers shocked as he correctly and independently read the word “pharmacological” aloud during a recent field trip to the zoo.
There was also the heart surgery, the failed business, the long economic struggles as my wife ended her career to be a stay-at-home mom while I tried to find traction at my own career. There were bouts with depression, long stretches where I felt I might never succeed in building the life I had hoped for, and far too many times where I had no idea how to be a father or a husband in the way that I knew I should be. There was the first time I was able to go to a newsstand and find something I’d written in a magazine, and the time that I’d come to the conclusion that my days as a writer had passed — I’d intended to and nearly did end my days of writing for the site.
I bought my first house, bought my first new car, got a corporate job, three promotions and eventually a team of more than forty people of whom I am impossibly proud and secretly frightened that I might someday fail. I’ve lived the American Dream, nearly lost it, and then — on the precipice of personal ruin — managed to pick it all back up. I’ve had my heart shut down for eight hours and lived on the fickle uncertainty of a machine. I’ve spent the worst hour of my life afraid that my son had gone missing. And, now, I am standing under the early summer sun, among budding trees and a warm westerly wind, and if I have one word for where I’m at as I turn forty it is “satisfied.”
That’s not to say I’ve no ambitions or hopes for the next decade. I do. But, I can take stock and be proud. Mine will not be a life they make a movie about. It’s far from unique; no part of it isn’t something that’s happened to so many others. But in a world where it seems like optimism is a kind of rarity, I find myself thinking that my best non-marriage-or-birth-of-a-kid kind of day is likely yet to come.