--2 Mother Tongue: 40 O’Clock
April 25, 2017

Mother Tongue: 40 O’Clock

A birthday to phase out inefficiency like a 40-watt light bulb

January 24, 2014, 8:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst
Sylvia and I stood atop Ski Santa Fe’s magic carpet, a conveyor belt that transports beginner skiers up a gentle slope. She looked up at me, which, for a snow-suited 3-and-a-half-year-old, involves a full body twist from her ski boots up.

 “Mama, I learn a lot from you,” she said. I thought this is what she said, at least, and my heart swelled with gratitude, pride and love.

 “Oh, sweet thing, that’s so nice! Did you just say you learn a lot from me?” I asked, leaning down to nuzzle the soft section of cheek between her helmet and her running nose.

“No,” she said, pulling back. “I said, I wait a lot for you.”

 I resisted telling Sylvia how much I wait for her. Besides, time management skills are not among my areas of expertise. Mostly, this stems from the unrealistically long list of to-dos, should-dos, want-to-dos and oh-yeah-I-can-fit-that-in-toos with which I begin every day. Depending on your perspective, this is either ambitious, delusional, self-defeating and/or the definition of insanity. It means I do many things, often simultaneously, and end most days feeling like I fell short. I keep thinking I can do it all if I just become more efficient.

Efficiency is quantifiable. As the ratio of output to input, it would appear to be a fairly linear calculation I could apply to my life. Multi-tasking is not particularly linear, which may be why it is not particularly efficient. This month, the United States is phasing out the 40-watt incandescent light bulb, an inefficient relic of early electrical innovation that releases most of its energy as heat, converting less than 5 percent of the energy it requires into visible light.

 Phasing out the 40-what?! My ears are quite attuned to any mention of the number 40 right now; I turned 40 this month. I create parallels where none exist: If the 40-watt bulb is inefficient and I am inefficient, then does it follow January 2014 is phase-out time for both of us? How can I better approximate the energy efficiency of an LED bulb? Does 40 mean I’ll just stretch metaphors further and further?

 The Bloggess writes, “40 is when you still wonder what you’re going to be when you grow up, and then you remember that you are somewhat grown up, and then you laugh at the very idea of you being considered a grown up and promptly pour yourself a drink as the lights go out because you’ve forgotten to pay the electric bill again.” Yeah. All of that. Plus you misread your kids’ criticisms as compliments, which must mean that 40 is fundamentally optimistic.

Because many bloggers are of my vintage, thoughts and tips about turning 40 strafe the blogosphere. Most admit to the shock of reaching this milestone birthday and then address the greatest things about being 40. Invariably, this includes more fully coming into one’s self and having better sex, which are hopeful items, and it’s always good to leave a list feeling hopeful.

Oddly—suitably?—I received two watches for my birthday this year. One is a running watch, because I will become very fit in my 40s. The other is a nice, everyday watch to replace the pirate watch I stole from my six-year-old son, Theo.

 This new watch is analogue, as I prefer. I like the flexibility of analogue time, how a quick wrist glance makes the tick-marks between five-minute intervals helpfully approximate. Analogue wristwatches are not LED-bulb-efficient, but they still hold the possibility of efficiency because they do measure time.

Decade birthdays are digital time checks. Each likely is overrated, over-hyped, and over-agonized about; it is just another day, after all. I repeated some of my worst habits on my last day of being 39, and I did them again my first day of being 40. There was no “eureka!” moment, no (40W incandescent) light bulb over my head, no sea change in my presence in the world. Still, I do feel a small but galvanizing newness now that I’ve stepped through the anticipation and into the being of 40.

When my dad turned 40, his party featured black balloons and “Over The Hill” banners. It’s weird to look at those party pictures and be the same age as my parents and their friends are in the photographs. It does a disruptive lamination job on time; it upsets my notions of “old” and “young,” “then” and “now.” Revisiting these photos has both worried and comforted my attitudes about turning 40 myself.

But it turns out this year is also the 40th anniversary of the discovery of “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year-old female fossil whose adult self was about the size of Theo. Roughly 40 percent of her skeleton was recovered in 1974, making her our most complete specimen of an early human species. This puts time in perspective: 3.2 million years plus 40 makes 40 pretty insignificant.

So, decade birthdays are like water breaks on a long hike—every one is a hill from which you access a new view. You get to pause, look back, look forward, and consider where you are. You get a cake snack. If I tally my lack of achievements, and I do, I also have to note my gifts, accomplishments and lucky breaks; my ambitions, hopes and necessary adjustments.

Not long ago, I wished happy birthday to a friend’s mother. “I had a wonderful birthday!” she said. “I am always so glad to have my birthday, so grateful. It’s so much better than the alternative.”

From my 40th viewpoint on the Decade Mountain Range, bright spots and shadows dart around calling my attention. Terrain moves beyond judgment. It is geography. It is biography. It is a map. It is chance. It is prospect. It is information and unknowns, learning and waiting. It is innocence, ignorance and wisdom—not necessarily in that order, but generally trending that way.

At the top of this hill, gratitude seems the most appropriate emotion. I can linger a little, because my watch is analogue, and it’s forgiving like that. Still, I must turn and take a step forward because time keeps going, and it is short and long. I’m curious about what’s around that corner up there, on the trail sandwiched between my individual footsteps and those of my family, between efficiency and attentiveness, between everything I want to do and the things I can.


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