Life (And Love) For the Man in His 30's

by Lang Phipps

Turning thirty was every bit the Seismic Life Event I'd hear it would be. It was daunting to even be there - how had I survived the wild years of my youth, and what had I to show for my three decades? I wondered was I mature enough. After all, thirty had always seemed the age you became an adult; if you didn't meet specs you might be assigned Peter Pan eternal-boy status. Anxious of that possibility, I spent the most somber birthday of my life preoccupied with thoughts of my old man.

At thirty, Dad was on to wife #2. He had a nine year-old son and was an associated editor of Vanity Fair in the heady days when it was the most talked-about magazine in the world. He lived in an apartment on Park Avenue and had a summer house in Southampton. People, from doorman to the tailors who made his suits, deferred to him as "Sir".

At thirty, I was an itinerant musician/painter-plasterer. I was single thank God, with no children, and my real estate holdings consisted of a rental studio apartment. My idea of deference was to be greeted by my local dry cleaner with a bow and a smile, as "Mr. Pips".

I felt a square-peg discomfort at thirty that would've been adolescent if it didn't come with an urgent sense that from now on everything was for real. The rehearsal was over; this was my life.

I realized with a chill that my parents were now old enough to be great-grandparents (I was a late baby) - I was on my own. It sank in that I could no longer be a prodigy, a wunderkind; I was probably not a literary genius. The statute of limitation on those things had run out.

For consolation I tried to remember that Carl Jung had set 45 as the ideal age to write the novel, and that Gregor Mendel hadn't discovered genetics until his forties, after bungling everything else including monkhood.

These sobering thoughts are the result of the male version of the "biological clock" that troubles the sleep of women on the cusp of 40 and beyond. Ours is a psychological clock; it is not subtle, but shakes our world with its pounding. Call it Big Ben.

Big Ben tolls to me, "These are your productive years, your earning years: make hay while the sun still shines".

An attorney I know just turned thirty and is already experiencing this "early mid-life crisis", as he puts it. He finds himself "reflecting a lot - what I've done with my life, how much money I've saved, all the women I've dated, whether I could've married any of them..."

I find myself thinking, No more time to waste, I'm not going to last forever.

Mortality, finitude, death can be read in the mirror, in my retreating hairline: I realize this defeated hair is not coming back. I see around my mouth the creases where so many smiles and grimaces have left their mark; about the eyes the crinkles left by years of laughing and squinting into the sun. I see the two deep furrows, mid brow, where so much thought and worry have left a scar.

I feel my physical limits sharply now, in lumbar pain and intolerance to dairy foods, conditions I had always associated with the very young and the very old.

My architect friend Peter is in mild denial about his own intimations of mortality. He says, "I have a sense in my 30's that I'm going to have a sense of mortality."

I tell myself, if I can't help time running, I can at least make it stand for something. Accomplishments, career fulfillment, financial security.

I have a good career now, peer recognition. Savings. It's a relief to be on track, but getting there is harrowing. You have to search your soul and decide what you're going to be now that you're grown up. It's the end of the ambivalence.

Peter remembers his 29th birthday as being, "semi-traumatic - it made me assess what I was doing professionally. I actually quit my job as an art director when it dawned on me that 30 was sort of a cementing age and if I'm an art director at 30, I'll be one when I'm 60. And if you've been undecided about a career, playing musical chairs, you damn well better be in a chair when 30 hits, or else you're a bum."

I guess it's clear by now that the thirties are the serious years for a man. Workworkwork. What about dating then, the diversion of a little romance, the intoxication of love. How about some healthy sex to recharge body and soul?

I wish it were so easy, but even love is serious now, alas.

First there's the great dating dilemma of the man-in-his-30's; do I date people my age or shop for fresher goods? I can relate to women in their thirties - we've been through a lot of the same things. But they tend to put the heat on for a commitment: Pressure. On the other hand, women in their twenties I just want to pounce on: Guilt.

Alex, the lawyer says, "I get bored dating a 20 year old no matter how beautiful she is, I mean there"s such a chasm of life experience between 20 and 30. Then again women my age are on the marriage track and I don't necessarily want to go into a relationship thinking that's the way it's going to go."

All of a sudden dating has become conflict-ridden, tricky, complicated, and it used to be fun. But if anything changes in your thirties it's the concept of "fun". Zippless encounters use to "fun", remember?

To be perfectly honest I'm like my unmarried 30+ women friends, dying to find the person who represents the-end-of-the-dating-as-we-know-it. But that means every date with an "eligible" woman is like an interview for a job you're going to be locked into for a long time. You find yourself picturing the scene some years down the line; will she age well, get fat after a couple of kids? That laugh seems charmingly quirky now but will it drive to distraction later on?

It's not easy for these encounters to be amusing, carefree, flirtatious, sexy. Dates with 22 year olds are like that, but you know the shelf-life of a relationship built on sex.

There's also the subtle stigma of being unmarried and thirty to think about. At some point, most of my recent dates must've thought, "What's wrong with this picture? He seems pretty damn eligible, but he must be defective somehow, difficult, neurotic."

None of this has soured me on dating, although I'm less frantic to do it than before. Dating's gotten to be hard work, and don't I do enough of that already? Maybe the point is everything is work once you're past thirty.

You either slow down and patiently wait for the Right One - ironically you've become a true romantic in your new level-headedness about love- or run around with as many women as you can before settling down. This doesn't look too good, a man in his thirties acting like a frat boy with a 24- hour woodie. You may appear immature or unbalanced. Or even sociopathic, as someone described one of these frisky guys; after all, he's constantly scamming women into bed with pitch-perfect promises of love and commitment.

I've turned out to be the romantic, cagey type who goes into the dating situation with a "select, don't settle" attitude and a heart that aches to be won. I'm not getting a lot of sex this way, but if it's not the right person I don't really want sex.

I can't believe I just said that.

This is what happens when you start to think with the big head for a change, not to speak of the heart. It's taken some getting used to but I like serious dating, and who knows, it may lead to serious marriage. Getting right the first time what he fumbled a couple of times would make my father proud.