The big Turning 30 post

“Why should I know better by now when I’m old enough not to?”  Stolen Car, Beth Orton

In one sense, I don’t feel old enough to be 30. The difficulties of my late teens and early 20s deprived me of a lot of my youth. In another sense I feel about 88, being the youngest of a huge extended family, and having done my first journalism when I was only a sixth-former – both the best and worst idea you can imagine. Taking stock of life so far, I decided on a “Here’s what’s going well, here’s what could be better” approach. Here it is:

THINGS I’M GETTING GOOD AT…

  • Public speaking People pay me to do this. Enough people are paying me to do this that I’m now making it half my business. This is implausibly brilliant.
  • Cooking If I cook for you, you’re not going to die, and if you don’t mind it being vegetarian (which you shouldn’t, because vegetarian food is great) you’ll even enjoy it. I get good feedback. Strangely, the only massive disaster I’ve had is the simplest thing I’ve tried to make: my homemade pizzas looked like they’d been vomited onto a pavement.
  • Being fancied, and noticing When I was younger I thought I had more chance of getting a column in the Mail on Sunday than anyone being interested in me. In my teens, there was no-one. As a student, I only did anything with anyone because I was paralytic/tangled up about sexuality/burdened by inexperience, not because I liked them. Arguably many people’s early experiences are similarly make-do, but arguably many people are far better at doing make-do than me. Added to that, I wasted a good year of my early 20s on a bloke who flirted with me but never went beyond it and insisted it was just a game he played with all women. When I finally started to experience genuine mutual attraction it was quite a relief. The circumstances and the outcome in every instance have been rubbish (see later), but still.
  • Realising the internet isn’t the pub A lesson that come with age: Be careful naming names. Preferably don’t.
  • Talking myself out of anxiety attacks I know there’s a pattern to them. I can tell myself this, and that situations they happen before are rarely half as bad as I fear. The next, harder, stage is to stop them happening at all…
  • Not fretting enormously about (some) things that don’t really matter Like exam results. Or completely, completely futile crushes. Or Twitter fights. Or celebrity tittle-tattle (meaning not attaching profound significance to every little thing public figures say/think/do, as opposed to not appreciating their work).
  • Picking my battles My basic politics haven’t changed and won’t, unless I get knocked into a coma by a UKIP battle bus and wake up in 1973 with no empathy. The way I relate to and prioritise debates is changing. I see the wider picture more often. I don’t argue with people of any stripe who make a virtue of being abusive (it saves time if you assume anyone whose social media bio includes their political leanings, or a brag about their notoriety, is a wally ). If I refused to write or speak for anyone who’s ever done things I don’t agree with, I’d never work, so I can’t be bothered with people blogging about why they won’t write for whoever because they’re whatever either.
  • Being alive Recently my mum asked me to write a letter to her colleague’s teenage daughter, who was in mental distress, to try to help her. The reason for this is, bluntly, because I had a breakdown when I was 19 , and nearly didn’t make it to university. Mum calls it “the dark year.”  Learning that the bar for what constitutes achievement can be as low as “waking up without wanting to throw up, leaving the house, not wanting to die.” changes your perspective in so many ways. Eleven years later I can still hardly bear to hear The Final Arrears by The Mull Historical Society or Forget About Tomorrow by Feeder because they remind me of it. Similarly, it took me a while to love Donnie Darko because of some of its resonances. I’ve had some rough times since but I don’t think I’ve ever been that bad and I hope to Christ I never am again.
  • Friendships I have met great people everywhere I’ve been: School, undergrad, postgrad, even a job that was the wrong job. Social media has been a real gift since I went freelance, making me many friends, including those I would probably otherwise have assumed nothing in common with (Twitter has managed what six years of school didn’t and introduced me to a nice person from Beaconsfield….). I shan’t name-drop and embarrass both of us, but I’ve also had the privilege of seeing someone I’ve interviewed and kept in touch with become a star with a huge loyal following, and endorsements from the likes of Caitlin Moran and Sarah Millican. We chat on Twitter all the time. She’s an awesome writer and mental health spokeswoman who I’d have given the world for when I was 19. I’m very happy she exists for others now, and incredibly honoured that she reads my nonsense from the other side of the world every day.
  • The “No Contact” rule I’m not generally one for rule-based self-help, but No Contact is a good, simple one for relationships in any sense of the word which are one-sided, sporadic, and taking up lots of space in your head at the expense of more important things. You take the longest amount of time you’ve ever been out of touch with the person, double it, add a year to it, and don’t contact them for a minimum of that long. The idea is to end up feeling like you could see them and not treat it as an occasion, or feel content if you never saw them again. I’m nearing the end of my five-year No Contact bracket with someone (plus 2.5 years before of barely any), and it’s been good for me. Of course, for it to work best, you have to tell the person you’re doing it, which takes lots of courage on your part, and assumes they’ll let you have that conversation (by definition, they’re probably unreliable at communicating). And it doesn’t take away your sadness at lost time, or guarantee you won’t end up in a similar situation with someone else. But at the very least it stops you wasting any more of your life on someone who adds little to it.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO BE BETTER AT…

  • Gaining real positives from adversity I often deal with the negative by trying to find as much good in it as possible.  Several current friends/acquaintances, and most of my work for the last five years, are the indirect result of earlier difficult interactions and experiences. However, it still doesn’t seem like enough to feel I’ve compensated for the earlier experiences. And sometimes, if someone has been bad for you, everyone they know is bad for you for similar reasons…
  • Making money I am always busy, always skint, and busy worrying when I’m not busy.  Ironically, it was desperation to earn a good wage straight away and not live off my parents’ dime as so many unpaid interns in my industry do that led me to take the wrong job and having to do the very thing I set out not to. Listen to any swanky-pants presentation about women entrepreneurs or freelancers, and they’ll all say the same one thing:  “Men start their own businesses because they see opportunity. Women do it out of necessity.” My situation is exactly that. I first went freelance in early 2011. Initial successes went to my head and for a couple of months I lived life like a paid rerun of Freshers Term, before it came crashing down around my ears. Things are getting better at long last, but still not as fast/as consistently as I’d like.
  • Finding somewhere else to live/Moving house generally Speaks for itself, for anyone who knows my situation. I am of course desperately keen to leave, but simultaneously dreading moving house because I like routine and knowing where things are, and moving house is pretty much the opposite of both those things. I left home out of stubborn determination to move as far away as possible from any of my family for as long as possible. I did so, and I’m glad, but I absolutely detested packing every time I went back to visit.
  • Finding long-term therapy for anxiety  Essentially, anxiety is when your brain lies to you, or exaggerates, or reads the wrong way into things. I have had counselling but not only in lots of short bursts which have never quite got to the heart of why this happens or what I should do about it. I am currently in the midst of the nail-biting “Which Long-Term NHS Support Am I Mental Enough To Get?” game and the answer seems to be: “Not a lot.”  More news as we get it…
  • Attracting the right attention I’ve a fairly full bingo card of difficult admirers: Problematic relationships with drink (one former alcoholic, one teetotal all his life on vague grounds seemingly largely to do with mental health…) attached, married, Tory, suicidal, frozen in time from a difficult youth, AWOL. The only one I need for a full house of doom is “in trouble with the law” (the most recent ex might have been, if I’d had the energy to report him for hacking into my emails…). All were brief involvements  – some never even went beyond words or hypotheticals at all  – but they’ve all left their mark. I’m still sporadically in touch with one of them. If we were a couple, we’d probably kill each other. Because we’re not, and we can’t be, it’s easier to remember what we have in common, and forget when he comes out with things that make me want to deep-fry my own head…
  • Managing time better and procrastinating less I’m one of those people who’d rather immerse myself in one thing for ages and do it really well than do 20 things mediocrely. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to mesh well with a “have it all” society, having a job, or running a business. The word on the street is that ignoring doing your accounts in favour of things you’re better at isn’t a very good idea…
  • Remembering who’s worth my time and who isn’t I am better than I used to be at recognising and accepting when someone’s involvement is limited rather than trying to make it into something greater…but that’s relative to the seven years that I sent birthday greetings to someone who barely cared I existed, let alone remembered my birthday…
  • Travelling the world “Increase profile internationally” is going into my new business plan (with the blessing of someone who thinks it’s possible). I do a fair bit of business travel around the UK but zilch abroad. The only place where there seems to be demand for what I do internationally is New Zealand. Which is nice, but not exactly easy to arrange a work outing to, or emigrate to (emigrating to Europe gets discussed quite a lot, chez famille). Holidays not involving relatives are a completely alien concept, probably due to anxiety and money. Whenever and if ever I can afford it, I’m making a beeline for somewhere hot in November or December. Preferably the far south of Europe, Miami, Cuba or Sydney.
  • Thinking I deserve nice things My recent ex said this. Which is interesting, given his later behaviour, but anyway.  I guess the above sentence is a start.
  • Not having a teenage body…in all the wrong senses Period pain rendering me virtually immobile two days a month unless I take elephant-strength painkillers, and zits all over my chin. Come on body, I’m 30, sort it out.
  • Working out which parts of my life experience I can write about, where and for how long Ideas for features based on certain experiences gnaw away at me from time to time but I never follow through. The one time I did sell something about a particularly sore thing, to the Guardian back in 2007, it was pulled for legals. Obviously a lot depends on news pegs, which you can never predict, but at some point I need to make a decision on where I want to write about things, and how long I’m going to do it for before I’m satisfied I’ve said enough.
  • Not worrying people are dead or maimed in a forest when I don’t hear from them for two seconds This has happened since bereavement – the first clue that my friend had taken his own life was when a mutual friend pointed out his unusual Twitter-silence. I’m gradually getting it under control (as in, I don’t the Foreign Office and flight-tracker websites permanently open at my desktop every time friends and family go abroad…) but there’s room for improvement. I still check Twitter all –  the – damn  – time.
  • Actually seeing people who are an hour or less away and only ever speak to me on social media Yes we’re all busy in our own ways, but when someone in good health who lives in the South East can’t find time to meet in person for four or five years on end, one wonders why they bother to stay in touch at all.

THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO ABOUT MY 30s… 

  • Being taken more seriously My grandmother says this is the best thing about your 30s. I hope she’s right. I’ve noticed shopkeepers talk to me more nicely than they used to. I think older writers are taken more seriously too. In your 20s, unless you have some incredibly unique high-concept idea, people will just assume anything you write is autobiographical and boring (Actually, writing in any age group is often autobiographical, but you tend to meet more interesting people when you’re older).
  • Finishing my book If you asked me what I’d like more than anything – and what the most plausible really nice thing that could currently happen to me is – it’s to finish and sell my book. After struggling with it for six months, and saying “Oh do get over yourself, it’s a bloody novel, not a Conde Nast Travel piece on a war zone to no avail, I decided to do some more research and get some more feedback. This month, by lucky coincidence, I found that magical rare thing: an open-door scheme by a literary agent which accepts works-in-progress! I sent them my first 50 pages last week. Doing this has somewhat fired me up again, and I’ve set myself a new target to finish by Christmas.
  • The cheesy stuff People have written to me or approached me to tell me that what I have said or written has made a difference to their lives. It is overwhelmingly lovely to hear, and always something to aim for.
  • Settling the question of whether I’m fit to drive or not I’ve had blocks of lessons when they were affordable but there has always been a question mark around whether I should drive because of my dyspraxia. I recently found out how to go about getting a formal assessment, and as soon as it’s financially viable I will.
  • Not being expected to hold conversations with strangers in places that are impossible to hear anything in I like going to raves. I like talking to people. I do not like doing both at once.
  • Being able to watch Poirot at home on a Friday night and not care I mean not care about watching it, as opposed to not care about Fiona Allen’s attempt at an American accent in Lord Edgware Dies, which has to be seen to be believed, not in a good way…

THINGS I’M NOT LOOKING FORWARD TO ABOUT MY 30s… 

  • Socialising being utterly impossible most of the time  Chuh. Just as you lose your teen angst, social interaction goes from something compulsory to something no-one’s got time for. If I could say one thing to today’s youth, especially students anywhere the size of Durham, it’s make the bloody most of the time in your life that meeting someone an hour away for a cappuccino isn’t like trying to organise a military coup.
  • Being “too old” “This funding/mentoring/talent-search scheme is open to applicants age 18-30…” Because 30 is the point by which you’re meant not to need these things, even though all the most successful writers I know are in their early 40s and have only “made it” in recent years.
  • Being able to mentally divide a roomful of women journalists and writers into who’s married and who isn’t I’m at a gathering of well-off-looking women writers. How encouraging! No, wait! I’m at a gathering of women writers married to lawyers, IT consultants and hedge fund managers, except for me and that other nervous woman counting on her fingers and ordering tap water…
  • Ditto, women who slept their way to the top and didn’t. I never wanted to believe it happens, but a hugely successful, same-age, married media acquaintance has bragged about it fairly openly to friends. Bluntly, I’m not capable of it. I once considered getting it on with a writer I felt nothing for whatsoever just because he asked me and  it would make a good anecdote if his book did well, but I just couldn’t go through with it. When I have been with anyone well-off or influential it was for genuine reasons and their money/influence was never likely to benefit me (quite the reverse in fact: I can’t talk to half of London or half the bloody media industry because of a couple of people…)
  • The standard bollocks about ageing aimed at women I was given a lovely Clinique beauty kit for my birthday: a cleanser, toner, moisturiser, and some makeup. Then I looked in the free gift bag it came with. Three different types of anti-ageing cream. Three.  I still get acne once a month, FFS, why do I have to slap three types of anti-ageing cream over my face?
  • Being invited to those weekend “family festivals” where collections of 80s and 90s pop stars sing their one hit in a field in Gerrards Cross. Or “classic car festivals”, where the last middle-aged TV and radio presenters who haven’t been Yewtreed show off their Aston Martins. I wouldn’t mind the former if they weren’t £70 a ticket.
  • Having everyone tell me I’m doing it wrong whatever choice I make Nuff said.

I’ll leave you with this…

Rae Earl
From Rae Earl’s tumblr (sorry, I don’t know the author but if someone tells me I’ll credit…) realraeearl.tumblr.com

 

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In which being 30 starts promisingly

My much-anticipated 30th birthday was this weekend. I didn’t get around to doing a series of reflective posts in the run up (surprise). I’ll write something properly philosophical this week, but in the mean time, here are the fun bits. Yes, it was fun. After weeks of vague angsty dreams, marathoning James’s Greatest Hits – and a nasty summer cold earlier in the week which threatened to bollocks up everything – the celebrations were a blast. I thought it was better to blog the photos and highlights here than subjecting you to eight-million tweets over the weekend (and getting distracted…).

The actual birthday was Friday. A midsummer birthday is always a good bet for good weather, but after a changeable couple of weeks, the day excelled itself. Mum took me to Cliveden House, where I hadn’t been since I was little, hence didn’t know was notorious as the place where John Profumo met Christine Keeler. We embarrassed ourselves by trying to get me in with my dad’s National Trust membership, but they let us off with a warning not to do it again.

Dad who’d been asleep after his the night shift as a Samaritans volunteer (oh, the irony), joined us for dinner in London later. They treated me to Vanilla Black, just off Chancery Lane – London’s only Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant and probably the only fine dining experience I’ve ever had. Each dish featured heaps of ingredients in unimaginable flavour combinations, so I chose by which had the most ingredients I recognised and liked in isolation. I’ve discovered it’s virtually impossible to describe fine dining without being banal or tacky, so sod it, here we are: It’s like sleeping with someone new – a barrage of pleasantly-surprising sensations all hitting you at once, overloading you so that you’ve no choice but to stop thinking or caring and go with it. If/when I sell my book, I’ll go back there to celebrate for sure. After dinner, at dusk, we wandered down to the South Bank, where mum and dad argued about mum taking too many photos and I cooed over the beauty of everything as though I’d never seen it before, because it never stops being amazing and age has brought me the realisation of how bloody privileged I am to have grown up with it all on my doorstep.

The next day (after slightly panicking that I’d overstretched myself, and a calming act of kindness from dad) I took eight of my friends (mostly university friends) for a massive picnic at Kenwood House, on the edge of Hampstead Heath (I’ve blogged before about my sentimental attachments to Kenwood), then for dinner at Manna, a vegetarian restaurant in Primrose Hill. Much fun was had by all. As you’d expect, there were plans for word games at the picnic; most obviously Cards Against Humanity. In the end, though, everyone was just happy to chat, and we made our own laughs. Best excuse for being late was emphatically won by my ex-colleague, who had been to Charlotte from Ash’s birthday party the night before. Conversations took in holidays, fashion, politics, tenuous celebrity anecdotes, geek culture, and TV shows which I don’t watch but most of my friends do (at one point, there was an amusing physical dividing line between those who watch Hannibal and those who don’t. You can imagine…).  A glorious number of our jokes revolved around Twitter (Jay, aka @out_of_beta, tried to explain “Ed Balls Day” to the patient non-Twitter users, while I explained that I find it funny chiefly because on that day of that year, I slept with someone who pathologically despises Ed Balls, and most of the Labour Party…). On a similarly debauched note, the term “lady fog” was introduced to my vocabulary after a rare show of innocence on my part. You probably don’t want to Google that…

My advice for anyone anticipating a 30th (or any milestone birthday) is keep it basic. The more basic it is, the more memorable it’ll be. Unless you’re rich/famous/loud enough that 200 people who barely know you or like you will come to a big bash just because it’s swanky and you’re you, don’t have one. I invited about 15-20 people to my picnic and even though I sent invites in March, only eight could make it – a blessing in disguise, as it turned out that buying and transporting food for eight people in high summer is actually quite scary when imminent. However else you can imagine spending a special birthday, getting together 7 to 10 similarly-minded friends, and doing something relaxing wins hands down over everything. Simple as that. My weekend was pretty much everything I’ve ever pictured wanting to do on my 30th without leaving the country. Everything was as perfect and fitting as could be, and cheap to boot. It’ll now go down with my 22nd (my final year at Durham) as one of the best birthdays of my life.

Here are some of the – many – photos…

Three weeks to 30

Perhaps because of its timing (mid-summer, exam season, post-exam getaway season, and now wedding season) and my widely-scattered circle of friends, my birthday has always been a somewhat stuttered, protracted celebration. This year is no exception. I had my first 30th birthday present last week, seeing the wonderful Thea Gilmore at King’s Place. Early next week I’m going to Northumberland for a dinner and presentation at a local charity I’m a patron of, and stopping off at Durham for a day on the way to see two of my dear friends from undergrad who’ve stayed there and are now in academia. Durham-reunion convention dictates that we crash a College bar, get wrecked and have an “ironic” dance in Klute, Europe’s second-worst nightclub. This is emphatically Not Happening as I’ve arranged to spend the following morning at my old College, and at Castle nosing around in their archives as background research for parts of The Novel, before having lunch with my friends, going on to the charity dinner in the evening, and doing my presentation the next morning. I’ve been asked to make the presentation “positive” (I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to involve, but at a guess, a two-day bender and a heap of existential angst wouldn’t help…).The research isn’t vitally necessary to the novel, if I’m honest, but it’ll be useful, and help the general writing momentum. I wish it’d occurred to me to look at archives while I was a student but my reasons at the time would have made me self-conscious about appearing weird, so I only saw a few bits that people had bothered to put online. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing Hild Bede after several more layers of refurb, and seeing what Castle looks like beyond the bar. I’ve contacted Palatinate and Durham Student Theatre for similar research purposes but have yet to hear from them.

My ‘main’ get-together will be in North London on the 21st, the day after my actual birthday: a small picnic on Hampstead Heath, weather permitting, followed by dinner at a veggie restaurant in Primrose Hill. I am still not sure of numbers but I have aimed for not-too-many, not too-few, and people who know each other or are likely to get on. I’m slightly nervous about being responsible for a whole group of people’s enjoyment because I’m not a natural organiser and would prefer if someone else took care of all the admin, but, being my 30th, I felt it was important to make the effort. My amazon wishlist is here, should anyone wish to buy anything and be stuck for ideas. I’m slightly trying to reign in books due to the fact I have limited shelf space and an iPad for e-reading, so rather than buy a physical book you might prefer to buy me a gift certificate and suggest something to spend it on – either something from the list or something you’ve seen and recommend. Other than that, I like hair and beauty stuff, chocolate, posh tea, theatre tokens, and anything remotely treat-ish because I’m really bad at either remembering to treat myself or being able to afford to.  If you like me but money’s tight or buying something doesn’t quite feel appropriate, I’d be very touched if you made a small donation to a charity which is close to my heart, and let me know. The Dyspraxia Foundation, SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement Through Suicide), or a mental health charity like Samaritans or Mind, would be excellent.

Rather than doing a condensed reflective “Wah, I’m 30!” post for my birthday, which will probably end up being really banal, eighty pages long, or both, after I come back from Durham I’ll be doing a week of reflections on various different parts of life, and calling it The Turning 30 Series. Partly as a self-indulgent record, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone the same age or older relates to anything…