The Matter of Age

If you're like me, when you hear about someone doing something you want to do, notching an accomplishment you dream of notching, you think about age.

Your age.

Then their age.

Then your age again.

And you also wonder if you, at your age, are hopeless. If you're like me, there is a steadfast part of you that knows that you are not, but there is also a quivering, insecure part that is always thinking that maybe you really are just as (or, God forbid, even more) pathetic than you fear; that you really do have nothing to say, nothing to contribute, and nothing to offer the world but sad envy of those that have more to offer the world than just sad envy. This part of you is so consistently quivery and insecure that it rivals the confident part of you in its steadfastness.

I just turned 33 and, like I have done around other birthdays, I wondered. This year, though, I wondered and I looked- I did a little superficial research on folks that popped into my mind: some that I admire, some that I know (I didn't have to do research on them, I guess), and some that lease a little space in my head for whatever reason. I ran a cursory check, leaning heavily on Wikipedia, on what they were doing when they were my age or thereabouts, or about how old they were when they did some of the stuff for which I admire them.

David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer and once-living proof that God loves the English language, was at my age busy wrapping up Infinite Jest, his chef d'oeuvre and a dizzyingly complex and compassionate novel. Of course, one assumes that he didn't just dash off his nearly 1100-page doorstopper that year; the man was hard at work on what is a true work of genius during his late twenties. If you've read it, you get it. If you haven't, just think of how much work it would be to mindlessly type 1100 pages of nonsense. I mean, a lot people haven't even read 1100 pages since leaving school. DFW was 35 when he received a MacArthur Fellowship, and 46 when he hanged himself.

Tom Waits, who I consider to be (perhaps) the greatest songwriter ever, could not possbily have growled out the weary wisdom of Closing Time or painted the vibrant and dismal dreams of Small Change before age 35, could he have? He could have, and he did. Small Change, Waits's gravelly, lewd and lurid masterpiece, was done two or three years before he hit 30; Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night, and Nighthawks at the Diner years before that. Bob Dylan's youthful creations are the stuff of legend, but a lot of those early tunes are dreamy and vague enough to be something that you, frankly, could picture coming from one in his early twenties. But "Invitation to the Blues"... at 27 or so? This is stuff so artful and painfully real that it makes Waits seem more medium than musician.

I've always assumed, since I learned the song at least, that Nashville hitmaker Phil Vassar wrote the smash "My Next Thirty Years" on his thirtieth birthday, which he may have, but he was 36 when Tim McGraw took it to number one. McGraw's first number one, "Don't Take the Girl," came the month he (McGraw, not Vassar) turned 27.

Cormac McCarthy was 32 when he published The Orchard Keeper, his first novel. At that same age, Sarah Palin was elected to the city council of now world-famous Wasilla, AK.

David Cross was well on his way to making mainstream comedy look even dumber with his and Bob Odenkirk's too-beautiful-to-live Mr. Show, which started when he was 31. Roger Federer at 28 had won 16 of tennis's Grand Slam tournaments, each of the four at least once. In fact, anything Federer has done, he has done by 28. My brother Andy was almost 33 when he completed his first (and, um, last) Iron-distance triathlon. My sister-in-law Diane was just 30, and her uncooperative ankles were 96.

If procrastination and lack of focus are the Nazi gunners on the Omaha Beach of your creative life, then think of Steven Pressfield's The War of Art as your BAR, your Colt 1911 sidearm, and your pack of Luckies. Pressfield slugged it out as a screenwriter through his thirties and forties, and was over fifty when he published The Legend of Bagger Vance, his first novel. He was nearly 60 when he bestowed The War of Art on us.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, the NY Times mergers and acquisitions writer who wrote Too Big to Fail and looks like he's 26? That guy is like 33.

I remember reading at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam that Vincent did not even decide to fully dedicate himself to being an artist until age thirty. I was approaching that age at the time, and I found that heartening. He painted The Potato Eaters, widely considered to be his first great work, at 32.

Oprah was given (or earned) "The Oprah Winfrey Show" at 32, and soon had Phil Donahue on the run. Quite an accomplishment. That was the same age, approximately, at which George W. Bush accomplished a DUI at Kennebunkport.

That girl from California that attempted to sail around the world solo? Well, she's only sixteen, but she flopped big time. Reinhold Messner didn't flop, though, when he summited (which is not a real verb, BTW) Mount Everest WITHOUT SUPPLEMENTAL OXYGEN at age 34. This may just be the most impressive feat by anyone, ever. He basically hiked to the cruising altitude of your average commercial airliner, just breathing whatever God left up there. To put this in perspective, just think about how you feel after walking up some stairs. Like up 2 flights of stairs. Wow, right?

If you're like me, you know you haven't climbed your Everest. You know you haven't written your Infinite Jest, or painted your Starry Night. But how about your Potato Eaters? Have you finished that yet?

Have you even started?