Turning 30: How I left my 20s with a month of discovery

There were choices, even at the coffee shop.

A latte, milky and pumped with syrup, the drink of a youth and comfort. Or, something else. An Americano, two shots of espresso and some water, bitter and acrid, the tears of the devil. A risk.

I was 30 days away from turning 30. It was supposed to mean something big, wasn't it? A milestone, a grand leap into adulthood marked by emotional revelations and dramatic turmoil. I just felt … meh.

How do you de-meh your life? Do you jump head first out of an airplane? Maybe. Or maybe there was a more effective treatment to boredom and routine, something less defibrillator and more antibiotic, a steady stream of medicine that slowly fixes whatever is wrong.

Small changes. Little things. Maybe it could start with coffee.

"I'll have an Americano," I said.

• • •

Life up to 30 was orderly. Almost too orderly.

I became a journalist at 19 and worked steadily through my 20s. I had hobbies. A relationship. A dog. A house. A career. Limbs and faculties. I wanted bigger and better things, but nothing was in disrepair. It was the fine-ness that made me uneasy.

Should I be trekking Europe? Rescuing feral cats? How was my 401(k)? Why was I so dull? Mark Twain published his first story at 30. Bill Gates was very nearly a billionaire.

And there was 30 rolling down the water slide, into the stagnant pool. I could wait for the splash, maybe call a financial advisor, ask a wise elder for advice. Or I could try new things. Once a day, maybe twice a day. Go left when I would normally go right.

Day two, a workday, I left the office and wandered along the Hillsborough River to the Tampa Museum of Art, into the gift shop, and ordered a gelato.

"What flavor?"

Chocolate, I thought.

"Pistachio."

The next few days of the experiment were gleeful. I flew a kite on the beach. Ordered Mexican Coke at a bodega. Took my first yoga class since college. Made gnocchi from scratch, which turned out like rain-soaked dog food.

At a movie theater I used an arcade claw machine. I clasped the giant metal talon around a purple rubber ducky, extracted it, then set off screaming through the glass pane. It was revelatory! It was everything I ever …

The next night I felt nothing.

The routine of trying to buck routine had set in fierce, and I just wanted sleep. My boyfriend, either a supportive partner or a wicked puppet master, started Googling for ideas. He found a TED Talk, those little nuggets of Internet enlightenment, from a guy who also tried new things for 30 days.

"You should watch 30 TED Talks in a row tonight," he said. It was almost 11 p.m. I cracked open a soda and started.

There was a self-portrait artist who purposefully faded into his backgrounds. John Legend singing a pretty song. A psychologist discussing why 30 is not the new 20, that female fertility peaks at age 28 (dear God).

And TED linked to something from writer David Foster Wallace. A few years before taking his own life, he delivered a college graduation speech.

"There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches," he said. "One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration."

He described standing in a checkout line at the store, the "soul-killing muzak," the "tired, hurried people" and the "cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left."

"Petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is going to come in," he said. "Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me."

• • •

If the 20s were for navel-gazing, maybe the 30s were for growing.

I did not have it all figured out. I wasn't married. I had babysat exactly once, never changed a diaper. I was not very organized. I could stand to be more charitable, to stick things out, to care less about appearances.

I went to work the next day without makeup. I felt exposed, extremely uncomfortable, and kind of free.

I donated blood.

I paid for the stranger behind me at Starbucks (black coffee, bear claw). My heart raced. What would he think of me? Was I creepy? I sped away before we could lock eyes.

I made my dad a birthday cake, embarrassed I had never done this before. For anyone.

While my friends sat on couches and stools, I climbed inside the decorative bathtub at the Mandarin Hide bar in St. Petersburg and raised a toast. I spun my first vinyl record. Vienna, by Billy Joel. Slow down, you crazy child, you're so ambitious for a juvenile.

I sold something on eBay. Put every last topping on my ice cream. Bought art off the wall of a hair salon. Ate rock candy. Watched Funny Face. Used a novelty Breathalyzer machine in a bar (don't want to talk about it). Changed a baby's diaper (don't want to talk about it).

Two days to go. I ran from my house in Dunedin down the Pinellas Trail to the marina. On the pier I saw an old man with socks hiked up his calves, and a young man with pants slung low. We were all together, standing over something vast and indefinite with arbitrary numbers branding us.

Thirty didn't mean anything, not really. Thirty could be 20 or 40 or 57, and the challenge of life remains the same. Awareness, purpose, realizing what's good and what needs to change. Being curious and unafraid, content and cautious. To make the best choices we can.

The final night, I attempted more TED talks. I got through five by midnight.

As I lay on the pillow turning 30, a biologist was talking through the iPhone about flies. The fly, a seemingly simple creature, can taste with its wings, sense body rotation with gyroscopes and correct direction with amazing speed and flexibility.

Something most people found annoying was actually kind of amazing.

— shayes@tampabay.com

Turning 30: How I left my 20s with a month of discovery 07/04/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 4, 2013 1:00pm]

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