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Turning Forty in Pittsburgh

Jennah Ferrara, 2011

Does turning 40 this month mean anything more to me than the furrow deepening between my unstyled eyebrows and the tiny lines appearing at the corners of my mouth? When I was thirty, my 40th birthday certainly troubled me enough to pre-emptively beg a close friend known for teasing not to staple flyers reading "LORDY, LORDY, JENNAH'S FORTY on telephone poles throughout my neighborhood when the time came. But after thinking about it for a while, I've decided being 40 is still pretty young, and age itself doesn't dictate much of anything, at least not as much as it used to. And as my grandmother Katie likes to quote my late great-grandfather in saying, "Getting older beats the alternative."

Starting June 2011, I plan to amend Nancy Zionts' journey, described by Julie Percha in the April 28, 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "To celebrate her 50th, [Zionts] embarked on a year-long quest to travel across the globe and track down 50 of the world's top 'birthday-worthy' desserts."

Where Ziontz traveled from Paris to Pittsburgh to happily create an event that lengthened her celebration, I'll be staying closer to home to do the same thing. I'll spend the year experiencing and writing about 40 low-cost or free things to do around Pittsburgh--or anywhere else I can travel on the cheap. (Some of these will definitely involve sweets, of course.) I'll use some of the following links to devise a plan: Pittsburgh's magazine's 50 Fun Things Every Pittsburgher Must Do, Moon Travel Guides' Fun and Cheap: Pittsburgh on a Budget and the Nile Guide's Pittsburgh Attractions.

Only her hairdresser knows for sure....
More often than not, becoming 40 signals something meaningful. I spoke or wrote to many current or past city dwellers about their attitudes toward this culturally significant age, conducting an unscientific straw poll involving respondents of different sexes, races, classes, sexual orientations, abilities and even a different species of primate. (If finding out what a lowland gorilla wants for her birthday won't interest you in reading the rest of the article, well, I don't know what else I can tell you. She is the fan who took off Mister Rogers' shoes when she met him, too.)

Responses about 40th birthdays, including the ultimate 40th birthday party

Juliette, 44, Utica, NY: I don't like milestones in life. I try to look elsewhere for the milestones: getting my poetry published and working on my photography, things that are not measurable by placing a clock next to them. Clocks can't talk or experience or reflect, so it makes no sense to me to measure my life by them.

Jeremy, 41; Seoul, S. Korea: "Yeah I have many thoughts about being 40. But as you may not know, the Korean age system is a little bit different from that of the West or the global one. A babe grows a year older while he's in his mom's womb. So yeah, I'm 41 in Korean age system. So I've experienced being 40 earlier than you guys. I'm a common and a plain person, so I don't suffer from nothing else than other people. Not being a young person any more means suffering and discontent to me--every time I confront (!) a mirror, I see a middle-aged man with a wrinkle between his eyebrows. But as a person who [follows] Buddha's teachings, some part of me is enjoying growing older. That is a natural thing. Eventually I'm gonna die like everyone else. So yeah, I've come to like my grey hair between black ones."

GeAnita, 31; Pittsburgh, PA: "I have been blessed not to be stressed over aging. I released this societal pressure in my early 20s. It was our high-school reunion, and I was anticipating attending but had reservations because I was 21 with two children and divorced. I thought my life was an embarrassment to be hidden by the sights of old school friends?.[A dear friend] reminded me that I had traveled with the military all over the country and had two beautiful daughters, and if that was not enough to take pride in, then what would make me happy? It was the turning point in my life: I had been living my life in the shadows of a society or a thought that did not fit my life. My friend was right: I had experienced things that many of my counterparts did not. I had lived and lived according to my way of life. I was somehow set free and I have never looked back since?. I dance to the rhythm of my own song and bring my own special funk to any party. I embrace life and all of its wonders."

Yuik, 39; Tokyo, Japan: "Well, I feel aging day by day.... so no significant change or surge but rather a gradual shift .... who can stop that?"

Dana, 39; Honolulu, HI: "I do feel more beautiful than ever because I've become more accepting of what I have and who I am. It also helps that I've spent the last decade with a man who makes me feel beautiful. Now 39 was tough this past February because it felt like nothing special. 40 is a milestone of sorts and as a survivor of stuff ... I'll keep keepin' on. Now I have two more people who cheer for me ... my husband and my daughter. And since my daughter is just 6, there's a lot of life to come and many other milestones. If anything, I think turning 40 cements for me the fact that I have my own little family and that the rest of my life will be about me and them and the life we create."

Anonymous, 44, Pittsburgh: "41 gave me troubles because I was closer to 50 than I was to 30."

Kelly, 42; Harrisburg, PA: "I was dreading it, but now it's all right: all my friends are 40. My husband Bill went all out and had a surprise party, inviting my friends from high school. That made it better."

Ed, 53, Pittsburgh: "I remember dealing with my MS diagnosis when I was 40, near my birthday. I was just figuring out what I already knew."

Eric, 42; Dallas, TX: It was really no big deal. My parents came to New York, where I was living. We went out to dinner and had some cakes in an Italian bakery. There was a candle involved. No one likes getting older, but one day rarely makes that much difference."

Nina, 58; Chicago, IL: "My mother and I both started college around age 40, and it was a great decision. Now forty seems like nothing. You just wait until you're 50! Really, 50 wasn't bad at all. Sixty, I don't know yet."

When Justin, who managed a successful campaign for which I recently volunteered, told me he was 23, I said, "Oh, my God," just like some of the people who asked me the same question about my age when I was in my early 20s did. After I gave my predictable response, I had to know what he thought about turning 40. "If this world is still standing," said the former Sierra Club staff member, "then I'll have thoughts?.I'm looking at the US no longer being the hegemonic power, so I think things are really going to change."

As a student and teacher of journal writing, I remember reading George Gordon, Lord Byron's published diary, where he wrote on December 1, 1813, with more than a hint of despair, "I shall soon be six-and-twenty. Is there anything in the future that can possibly console us for not being always twenty-five?" While Lord Byron's dramatic pronouncement partly had to do with the shorter life span he was expecting, I had no such excuse for the "pre-life crisis" I had during my own 26th birthday because I was unsure where my life was heading. Jessica, 39, also of Pittsburgh, had similar feelings about her 25th for the same reasons. But since her accomplishments have exceeded her expectations since then, when it comes to being 40, she says, "Bring it on!"

This October she plans to throw her 40th birthday party in Costa Rica at a gorgeously landscaped, four-star, hot-springs resort built into the base of an active volcano that "spews pitters of lava very night." Her posse of "international travelers from each chapter of [her] life" will hike, take zip-lining adventures and "throw down and party." Unfortunately, for many reasons I can't be there, but I can't say much more than, "Wow," and, "My much-loved sloths will be hiding there behind coats of algae and munching on leaves in the trees, and I hope to get a photograph - or at the very least a leaf!"

The humor of turning 40

Because I have multiple sclerosis, a chronic illness the late father of a friend with MS termed, "an old people's disease," I've become used to my body's feeling older than is usually expected for my age: fatigued, strange, wobbly. Yet the patience and irreverent sense of humor I've cultivated as a result of my body's slowing down have contributed to my feeling younger, too. (That, and the year-round use of sunscreen/moisturizer.) So it all evens out. Well, most of the time.

This of course, does not mean I would welcome a surprise 40th birthday party featuring decorations and gags supplied by, which sells a "coffin gift set" containing a can of prune juice, HAPPY TABS and anti-aging spray all helpfully marked "Over The Hill." (My self-reflexive humor has limits when someone's trying too hard.) If that's not enough to ensure an unforgettable party, this company also sells a "40 Sucks Lollipop [that] comforts and pacifies your newly elderly friend [and] is guaranteed to make the old geezer feel like a kid again," a geezer who, I'm sure, will be delighted by a life-size, inflatable walker, cane or "portable potty." The aforementioned Kelly Anderson said she was glad she only received a "Lordy, Lordy Look Who's Forty" mug at her party and nothing else from the "over the hill" catalog.

But, really, who wouldn't mind spending their special day wearing a T shirt reading, "It took 40 years to look this good," "40 isn't usually this sexy," "Holy Crap I'm really 40!" or "40 isn't old if you're a tree"? As far as quadruple-decade appropriate presents go, sells the music of the 80s, from Rick Astley to Wham! to the aging members of Generation X. If the birthday boy or girl already boasts a full collection of '80s music, why not consider a "Fabulous at Forty" T shirt, baseball cap, beer stein, thong or BBQ apron? I knew about expecting birthday cards with snarky "you're getting older, you wrinkly, pathetic creature, you" themes, but I had no idea there was such an industry built up around post-35 birthdays!

Humor publication The Onion also weighs in here with its own brand of parody. Fictional Onion columnist Jean Teasdale of A Room of Jean's Own also "welcomed" a 40th birthday last year, a special day her "hubby Rick" sensitively chose to salute at Tacky's Tavern with a "bosoms cake," making mock of Jean and her age all the while. She enjoyed her birthday in the end, writing in her journal about all her perceived strengths, such as looking good for her age: "My long hair makes me look younger, too. I suppose you whippersnappers think I should wear it in a bun and get a blue rinse at the beauty parlor every week, but defying Father Time is my stock in trade! I'm sure my pastel-colored fleece wardrobe alone knocks at least 10 years off my appearance!") One of the running Point/Counterpoint columns shows a beaming woman starting her best years in Life Begins at Conception vs. Life Begins at Forty.

Life begins at forty

US psychologist and author Walter Pitkin, who wrote a book of the same name in 1932, popularized the now-common phrase, "Life begins at forty." Emphasizing the enhanced satisfaction gained through life experience, Pitkin asserted, "This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom." And so it is. Many 40th birthdays in the United States signal a calm reassessment of lessons learned and plans for the future.

But all that jazz about the fortieth birthday being a new beginning is clearly a twentieth-century invention, hastened by labor-saving devices, sanitation and medical breakthroughs. In 1900, life expectancies were about 47 for White women and men and about 34 for Black women and men. (Although these gaps have been steadily decreasing through the years, because of heart disease and other illnesses and inequities in health care (among other reasons), these disparities are not disappearing very soon.)

Continuing the theme of life beginning at 40, Laura Randolph wrote an empowering article for Ebony magazine in 1995, compiling a list with some friends of the 40 things every Black woman must have by the time she turns 40. The list includes "getting a spiritual foundation that gets you through a very bad night," a little black dress that makes you look ten pounds thinner, and a mammogram. While not every item on the list applies to everyone, some of the entries--such as a friend who has stood the test of time, faith, hope, a good fantasy, and a pair of silk pajamas--are more universal. (Some guys wear silk pajamas, or so I've heard.)

Speaking of pajamas, Last of the Red Hot Mamas Sophie Tucker was especially red-hot (and the cat's pajamas, too) when she sang Life Begins at Forty, a song glorifying the sensual delights inherent in aging:

In the twenties and the thirties you're just an amateur
But after you reach forty, that's when you become a connoisseur
Then it isn't grab and get it and a straight line for the door
You're not hasty, you're tasty, you enjoy things so much more
Life begins at forty
And I'm just living all over again
John Lennon sang a tune called, "Life Begins at Forty," too, which is cruelly ironic since Lennon was slain at age 40. "It was a home demo recording, and he may never have intended to have it released." a local über-Beatlemaniac told me. "It was like he was channeling Slim Whitman, singing with a twang, in an exaggerated country-western style."
They say life begins at forty
Age is just a state of mind
If all that's true
You know that I've been dead for thirty-nine
There's a TV series called Life Begins at Forty, too; and if you need to pick up a book or two as you contemplate your journey through the forties, there are quite a few to choose from. Just a few examples are Forty Things to Do When You Turn Forty: Forty Experts on the Subject of Turning Forty, by Allison Kyle Leopold; 40+ and Fabulous: Moving Forward Fierce, Focused, and Full of Life! by Sondra Wright, and The Big 40!: Are You Ready to Face . . . The Best Age Ever, by Joshua Albertson, Lockhart Steele, and Jonathan Van Gieson. With all this hoopla, no wonder so much merchandise clogs the shelves at Spencer's Gifts and the pathways of the Internet.

A tangent into primate midlife

So what was all that at the beginning about gorilla birthday gifts? The world's most famous gorilla is having a fortieth birthday this summer, too. Koko, who lives at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA, has learned 1,000 signs, frequently using 500, as a participant in an experiment Dr. Penny Patterson initiated upon the gorilla's birth to teach language to animals. Koko's birthday is on July 4th--hence, her full name, Hanabi-Ko, or "Fireworks Child" in Japanese--and more than anything she desires a baby. (Other wants include "people being nice to gorillas" and the establishment of a gorilla preserve in Maui.) I recently spoke with Lorraine Slater of the Foundation, who told me more about fulfilling one of Koko's birthday wishes.

"Koko's always been very maternal, as the situation with the kittens [her gently caressing and playing with the tiny cats] demonstrates," said Slater. "She wants her own baby to care for. We're exploring ways to make that dream come true," such as adoption and adding other females to the group, since "the ratio in the wild is more than one female to a male. It takes a village to raise a gorilla; they're very focused on the care of infants."

Koko selected her male counterpart, Ndume, by embracing and kissing his image on a TV screen during a "video dating" session. Gorillas have been stereotyped falsely as aggressive, especially the males, who are in fact being "protective" of their families rather than belligerent, said Slater. "They spend their time hanging out and taking care [of their families]. They're good role models for the rest of us."

Although Team Koko hasn't yet planned her July party, the staff "goes all out to make these celebrations challenging, entertaining and nutritious." This video shows Koko on her 37th birthday enjoying a vegan buffet.

Quotes about turning 40

Jennah Ferrara teaches creative writing part-time and is enjoying her activities with the Slow Movement/Sloth Club in more peaceful surroundings.