When I was in middle school, my best friend’s dad was thrown an “Over the Hill” party. Their basement was slathered in black crepe paper and filled with gravestone balloons. His friends, colleagues, employees, and everybody’s kids all ate off black plates and drank from black cups and jauntily celebrated the impending doom of this now-40-year-old man.
It was a joke…except, it kind of wasn’t. The median retirement age at the time of the party was 62. The honored man’s life expectancy at birth was 73. His story isn’t mine to tell, but he didn’t live to see either retirement or age 73.
At the time, I’d long since noticed adults’ preoccupation with age and aging; it was the subject of countless movies and magazine articles and comic strips. It felt like every ad break during grownup TV shows featured a pitch for wrinkle cream or Grecian Formula or both. And when younger Millenials and Zoomers checked out the pop culture Boomers produced in the 80s, they not only saw it, they saw why:
The cast of Cheers looked old to me when I was a little kid, and they still look old to me now.
I turned 40 last week.
No, nobody threw me an Over the Hill party. I can’t remember the last time I heard of one actually happening. People my age are a lot closer to Tweeting nervously about first-time “adulting” tasks like applying for life insurance than they are to cashing out their policies.
In fact, I feel younger than I have in years. Taking my mental health seriously prompted me to take my physical health seriously, and as we came out of the third wave of COVID I decided to get back in shape. I helped my son get ready for high-school soccer tryouts by, well, getting in soccer shape with him and joining an adult league. My goal was to get in the best shape of my adult life by my big 4-0, and guess what? I did it:
Hashtag me at 40
Childhood itself–the very idea that there’s an age of innocence where you can grow up sheltered from the risks and responsibilities of the world outside your parents’ door–is kind of a new thing, born of wealth and infrastructure and labor rights. Many Boomers, especially white ones, were raised in brand-new suburbs and ferried in brand-new cars down brand-new highways toward brand-new public school buildings.
But the Boomers grew up very, very quickly, and millions somehow found themselves in the same kinds of deadend jobs and/or marriages as their parents. The divorce rate more than doubled from 1959 to an all-time peak in 1979. My own parents divorced in 1981.
It’s no wonder so much of the Baby Boomers’ art celebrates their own youth and coming of age. Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69,” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” all got heavy radio play when I was small.
Imagine being a five-year-old and hearing a man scream-sing over and over about how life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone while all the adults are like, “Ahh, so true, so true.”
But most parents want their kids to have a better life than they did. To have more of that precious childhood, to have a softer on-ramp to a happier life. My mom, like many others, told (and showed, and gave me to read) story after story about how I could live whatever life I wanted. That if I put my mind to it, I could grow up to be the best, truest version of myself.
I believed her.
Meanwhile, school was absolutely horrible, and I couldn’t wait to get past it and into the amazing future I imagined for myself. So any time any adult said something about high school being “the best years of [your] life,” I clocked them as someone who needed to get a life.
Which, after the break, will bring me to J.K. Rowling.
So often I see media reporters, out-of-work editors and fellow scrambling freelancers gripe about the decline of…well, everything in journalism, from fact-checking and copy editing to editors’ mentorship of writers.
All of it is alive and well at FiveThirtyEight, where I’m proud to say I’ve been writing frequently for almost five years. Their robust editorial processes and fact-checking procedures don’t let me get away with weasel words, sloppy errors, or logical faults.
But Sports Editor Sara Ziegler and the rest of the QE/CE team there don’t just fix my mistakes. They push me to make my ideas, arguments, and articles the best possible versions of themselves.
Take my new piece from yesterday, “This Green Bay Quarterback Just Played The Worst Game Of His Career.” What started as a jokey, temporary headline and an I-wonder-if-she’ll-let-me-get-away-with-this kicker turned, after Sara’s encouragement, into an article-length running gag full of Jeopardy! easter eggs:
If you have at least a passing familiarity with either Rodgers or Jeopardy! you’ll love this one. As always, I’m grateful for the opportunity to write for Sara and the rest of the team there, even if filing copy to the president of the American Copy-Editing Society will never not be terrifying.
Last week my church’s praise band finally got back together after our usual summer break–which came just three weeks after our extremely un-usual COVID hiatus. I’ve been yearning for an excuse to get back into guitar for a while, and my bandleader (and good friend) Nicole Martin gave me one.
I idly Googled to see if Gibson/Epiphone was still making the Brendon Small Thunderhorse Explorer I’d set my heart on years ago, and up came Mr. Trogly’s excellent review of a brand-new version that looks and sounds, just, freaking sweet.
As I recently discussed in these very pages, I started my writing career with an indie Detroit Lions blog whose raison d'etre was finding out why I cared so much about a sports team that sucked so hard.
Mike’s been covering the Lions as well as anybody for almost as long. Turns out, I could have just read his excellent interview with a psych professor who studies sports fandom!
I can see why Mathis-Lilley and/or Slate had such trouble headlining this piece. It’s just a lot of dead people and crime, specifically of the Southern Gothic True-Crime Podcast variety, and the way the article is structured as a Q & A between you and its author is a brilliant way to get out of the way of a real-life situation that’s just too weird for words.
Normally, a great Twitter thread that makes me think thoughts and feel feelings goes in the “Everything Awesome” section. And I did a bit about the world of Young Adult lit and my place in it in this space not too long ago.
But Jenny Nicholson‘s recent thread about the Harry Potter series spoke directly to what I was already going to write about: Getting old.
Since Rowling’s pivot to full-time transphobia, millions of longtime fans (like me) have vowed not to purchase or engage with any of the new Potterverse stuff. Millions more have just not bothered, because most of it’s not any good. Many in the kidlit bookosphere (like me) have even stopped recommending the original books–if they hadn’t already, due to all the awesome new YA & middle-grade books that do a better job of depicting the world as it could be, and kids as they are.
The Twitter Ragegagement Machine has raised the stakes, as always, so that many now loudly proclaim the whole series has always been irredeemable garbage. Though that’s not true, there are very real flaws in the texts–and a lot of them have to do with Rowling.
She was not an orphan living under the stairs (or, as I was every other weekend during my teen years, a stepchild crashing on his little brother’s futon). She was the daughter of an aerospace engineer, and named Head Girl of her secondary school in 1982. While millions of Americans were yelling “NORM!” along with the fictional barflies on Cheers, Rowling was taking a gap year in Paris before earning her BA in French and Classics at Exeter.
The heart of Harry Potter is the idea that uncommon virtue can be found in the commonest of people. But even if Rowling’s own rags-to-riches tale is true, the “rags” part didn’t start until well after she’d experienced a Proper British Upbringing, and the “riches” came so grandly that the royal orders and titles after her name are now longer than her actual name (CH OBE HonFRSE FRCPE FRSL, for the record).
Rowling’s shortcut to fantasy worldbuilding was, “Just like it works in England, but make it magic,” and readers all over the world (who missed a lot of the references, and thought she brilliantly envisioned a lot of extremely normal U.K. things) were as charmed by it as Britons were.
That included all of the adult jobs and relationships. For a woman who lived in Paris before college, worked for Amnesty International, and then moved to Portugal on a whim and whirlwindedly married and divorced a local, the grownups in her fantasy books lived awfully small, provincial lives:
By the end of the series, all the wonder and inspiration and promise of the first book–that any poor, neglected kid might be an unexpected letter or a dirty old boot away from being transported into a world of magic–wrapped back around on itself.
The children had fought the same battles their parents did against the same enemies, often alongside their parents’ old allies or with their enemies’ old schoolbooks. A work that set out to critique British ideas of aristocracy and “bad blood” and social stations ended up reinforcing that good people raise good kids and bad people raise bad kids. Most of what makes Harry Potter special, he unwittingly inherited from parents he never met. In the end, the true hero of the story is the grown man who never got over his fourth-grade crush.
In the time-skip epilogue, everyone who liked each other in middle school were now married and taking their kids to that same school, along with all of their old classmates. And all the old schoolyard alliances and rivalries were more or less as they were, despite having everyone having saved the world and/or tried to conquer it in between.
One can just imagine Arthur Weasley as the Cliff Claven of Magical London, stopping by the local for a quick pint on his way home from his government job and spending all night trying to impress everyone with dubious facts about muggle appliances. The Sam Malone might be Oliver Wood–having used the Galleons he made with his cup of coffee with Puddlesmere United to buy said pub, he’s now toweling off pint glasses under a picture of himself on the pitch and never letting anyone forget he captained Gryffindor back in his glory days.
Now, for the record: There’s nothing wrong with all this. I married my high-school sweetheart, we live in my childhood home, and our kids attend the same schools we did. By any standard, I live as traditional and provincial a life as one can in 2020s America. But if you’re still reading this, you know I’ve always read widely and dreamt big–and all the stories I cherished most kept their promises, and all of my dreams for myself came true.
I’m living the life I always wanted to lead. My wife and I have never been more in love. My kids are coming into their own as they come out of lockdown, inspiring me every day as their own worlds of possibilities open up before them. I’m a professional writer of both sports articles and fantasy stories. I have a weekly newsletter that hundreds of people subscribe to!
I’m not the most famous guy from my little town. Heck, I’m not even the most famous author. But I’m reaching for the stars while putting down roots, coaching sports and volunteering and being part of my community in ways that aren’t just good for me and my family but also feed my Writer Brain.
Meanwhile, though Rowling recently bought her childhood home, she doesn’t live there. She owns two estates in Scotland, and by all accounts is a security and privacy fanatic. She clearly spends much of her free time on the Internet, scowling at all the under-40 types who were inspired by her stories to lead big, vibrant lives of magic and wonder and empathy and acceptance. She’s still writing, but pretty much just thinly veiled polemics against whoever she’s currently maddest at.
Though she rose above her station in the most British of ways–pluck, luck, and good breeding–it feels like she’s obsessed with high-school glory days she never had (her old English teacher once described her as “not exceptional”). It’s as though she wished the world were smaller, like her magical London that only has about 42 wizards in it. It’s like she wished she’d never gotten those degrees, never gone on those adventures, just had a couple of amazing school years where it felt like she could do anything and then chose to get in line with everyone else.
As wonderful as coming of age can be, teaching kids that they’re entering an incredible new dimension of infinite possibilities and they’d better enjoy it, because after a couple years of that is decades of regretting your choices and waiting to die is, just, not it.
Obsessing over youth is something only old people do. Young people keep growing, seeking, learning and connecting–no matter their age.
I'm a poseur of a poser
I can’t believe I’ve gone on this long and am still about to write more about my writing.
Over Labor Day, one of my kids asked a “what-if” type question that immediately boiled over an idea for a YA fantasy I’d had simmering on the back burner. Early in the week, I started spitballing out the plot with my critique groups. Wednesday, Mur Lafftery dropped an episode of her writing-advice podcast titled, “How Long Have You Been Writing That Book?”
In it, she advised aspiring debut novelists who’d finished a first draft, but were stuck in revisions, and had been working on it for more than three years, to move on to the next project.
Check, check, and (just barely) check.
I know CODEX 17 really just needs a month or so of solid work to get done. But that’s been true for nearly a year. Every time I jump back into it, I run into spots where I feel like I still need to research something, or level up my craft, or…something. I believe in the story, I know I can finish it, but I might not be able to finish it right now.
Back in the spring, I wrote out an exploratory short story based in the world of a different novel idea (a YA science fiction), and it flew out of me in an hour. I’ve submitted it a few places, too. This week, I cranked out a synopsis for the new YA fantasy idea in a similar amount of time. I’m probably going to take the time to write out a few scenes of this one, too–to get the idea out and onto the page, if nothing else.
I’m not ready to say CODEX 17 is going in the trunk, but I’m also not going to sit here and tell you I worked on it this week. Stay tuned!