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06/26/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Turning 40: The Secrets You Need to Know

by Jami Attenberg

The author of the funniest, most endearing novel in years, The Middlesteins, explains the mysteries of the newly not-39.

One Magical Word Takes Care Of Squats And Ex-Boyfriends.
When we are young -- or even 32 -- we often say yes to everything because we’re worried that we won’t know what we’ll like if we don’t try it. But by 39-ish, you’ve tried it all: cigarettes, hot yoga, prescription sleep aids, at-home hair color, eyebrow threading, energy bars, acupuncture, sparkling water, tap water, Chinese language lessons, Caribbean cruises with your parents and face masks made of unidentifiable yet somehow still organic vegetable products. (I don’t care what you say; you will never convince me that’s avocado.) You know what you like -- and what you don’t.

For example: Indian food. This seems like a thing you are supposed to like because everyone else likes it. “Indian food, who doesn’t like Indian food?” I don't. I will no longer pretend to. I have found the word NO and I like it. No to the naan. No to the mango chutney. No. Here’s another thing I like to say no to: Parties where ex-boyfriends or people I don’t like will be. Why do we go to these places where we know something frustrating could potentially happen? Do you often find yourself uttering the phrase, “I feel like I should go”? You do not need to go. You are busy that night. You are busy every night, forever. Remember that. Also: You never have to do a squat again. Did someone tell you that you were going to die if you didn’t squat? They were liars. All you have to say is no.

All Your Crazy Friends Are Gone.
Take a look around. Do you remember that girl who would go out to dinner with you and forget her wallet at home every single time? You haven’t talked to her in five years. Remember that charming guy with the drug problem who used to leave you stoned messages at 3 a.m.? You haven’t seen him since the early aughts. A college friend who hates her co-workers, hates her job, hates her boyfriend, hates your spouse, hates, hates, hates. The last time you saw her was on Facebook, and that’s just fine with you. (P.S. She’s still hating.) The competitors, the strivers, the clingers -- they’re all out of your life. The drama is no longer alluring; it is merely repetitive. In your 40s, you shed those who bring you down and surround yourself with the most positive people you know.

Those Sex Rumors Are True.
I had a lot of fun in my 20s. And by “fun,” I mean sometimes I wish I could remember their names; and, sometimes, I’m glad I can’t. (Perhaps that is another essay entirely, titled "Top 9 Mistakes I Made in My 20s.") But I do not think I fully recognized what fun meant until I started having sex in my 40s. I thought it was just a fantasy being dangled in front of me, this notion of being in your prime, but it is all blessedly true. It is as if all the machinery has finally clicked into gear. I trust myself more; I know my body better; and, I don’t feel like I have to justify my sexual proclivities. If you can’t accept your desires by the time you’re 40, when will you ever?

You’re Always Right…
At least when it comes to your feelings. They’re your feelings, and there are no such things as wrong ones. Don’t second-guess them! Deciding what you do with them is the real challenge.

There’s Only One Thing You Need For Events Requiring Formal Attire -- And It’s Not Xanax.
This one’s for the single ladies: If I’m wearing heels and lipstick, and I have to sit at a large circular table with a complicated array of forks and a bunch of grinning strangers, I’m bringing a date. I don’t care if it’s a blind date, or my best friend, or my fifth-cousin-twice-removed, but someone’s coming with me, because I am not doing this bullshit alone. The buddy system we used as children should apply for life.

Opinions That You Didn’t Ask For In The First Place Aren’t Worth The Meltdown.
Your family is unavoidable. You cannot escape them or trade them in for another family. You also can’t change them… but you can change your response to them. Got a bossy family member who always knows exactly what you’re doing wrong with your life? Like that cousin who knows you look better with bangs, or that aunt who thinks leasing is way better than owning? Or a sister who really thinks you should have stayed in law school? Not everything has to turn into a battle. (And not every email has to be returned, either.) You know how to walk away silently, with your head held high... even if sometimes you're headed straight to a (very small) glass of wine.

Turning 40 Is A Relief...
If you think it’s going to be scary, it’s not. It’s an excellent time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished: the marathon you ran, the once seemingly impossible career goals you’ve met (almost) and the family you’ve built, whether with a partner or a group of friends. You’ve also finally figured out that drinking gin makes you mean and taking naps makes you nice, and that your morning commute is so much more relaxing with audio books. You are still young and fit and healthy. Your mind is sharp, and you’ve still got a long way to go.

... Except That We Are All Going To Die Someday...
I knew it all along, but I didn’t really know it until I turned 40. We are definitely on the downward slope toward death. Mortality issues kind of suck, but they force you to confront the way you want to live the rest of your life.

... Which Is Why Waiting In Line For Brunch Is Dumb.
A menu with a pretty font on it is meaningless in life if you have to wait an hour to see it. Let’s go to the store and buy some eggs; and then, you can come on over to my house and I’ll cook them for you instead. Tell me some jokes. I’ll make you some tea. We can do the crossword puzzle together. There’s no wait at my house. I promise we’ll have fun.

Jami Attenberg is the author of The Middlesteins (now out in paperback) and The Melting Season.

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