Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Dawning of the Age of 40, Part 4: Swimming 40 Lengths


This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the fourth and final essay.

On my 40th birthday, I jumped into the clear, 50 meter pool and effortlessly careened my way towards the other end. A clear sky opened up and the glowing sun warmed by back as I plowed through the water. My mind was lucid with only positive thoughts and energy as the endorphin-burst pushed me ahead. Riding on the euphoria, a decision I had waivered on for the last month, was clarified. Yes, I would register in the race to swim across Lake Taupo the following weekend. But while I had previously thought my comfort level would be limited to the 2 km swim, I suddenly knew I had the confidence, fitness, and mental strength to swim the longest distance of 4.2 km.

In preparation for the swim, I had been training a couple times a week for the past six months. As the summer rolled around, I pushed myself to swim 4-5 days a week and longer distances each time. A couple of weeks before my 40th and still doubtful of my ability to swim the long-haul, I realized I would have to try and swim a non-stop distance of at least 2 km in the pool to gauge whether I could indeed sustain myself for at least that distance. I realized my apprehension and fears of even the practice swim and the eventual lake swim race were mirrored by my anxiety of turning 40. The swim training, the imminent lake race and my approach to 40 were all looming countdowns of distance and time in my head.

A 2 km swim in a 50 meter pool is 40 lengths, and so it’s no surprise that I counted each length I swam on that practice swim as a year in my life. Sometimes I counted forward, sometimes I counted back. The first few lengths were easy enough and then I tried to transition into a pace for the next 1.5 km. I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle during most of the swim, especially as other younger, fitter swimmers came into my lane and passed me several times. There were other interruptions along the way. My arms started to ache as if heavy bricks were strapped to them. Around 36 lengths, I had to switch lanes and begrudgingly finished the last four lengths. At the completion of the swim, I felt drained, skeptical and uncertain. These fleeting feelings of doubt did not help the positive mindset I was also trying to channel for my upcoming milestone 40th.

So how did the pendulum swing from the gutted feeling of deflation I experienced during the last weeks of my 30s to the confidence, mental readiness, and inner peace I experienced on my 40th birthday? I can’t put my finger on anything that just seemed to click. Experience has shown me in recent years that it’s pointless to worry about certain things out of my own control. Things like turning 40 or being the best swimmer in the pool or lake swim. Experience has also shown me that the factors in my control usually do prepare me for big personal feats and endeavors. Just like I was uncertain about how 40 would be, the big 4.2 km swim across the lake would be an unknown, uncertain, abstract feat until I actually experienced it. All my previous 39 years had allowed me to succeed, fail, dabble, experiment, prove, sustain, and be prepared for 40. Life would continue on after 40 with more trials and tribulations, moments of joy, disappointments, contradictions and daily hubbub. Similarly, my decades of swimming, endurance building, and physical travel through countless swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and seas all over the world had proven that the 4.2 km Taupo swim I had built up to epic proportions in my head would be another “swim in the lake”. Like my decision to embrace 40, I decided the lake swim would be about the experience itself, and I would embrace and savor it as well.

Looking across Lake Taupo at the start of the long swim

Looking across Lake Taupo at the start of the long swim

A gentle, dawning glow permeated through the sunrise as I stood on the shore of Acacia Bay looking out across Lake Taupo. My companions were friendly strangers- fellow swimmers who assisted me with my wet suit and settling my nerves with pre-race chit chat. With the announcement of the start of the race, I took a step aside, away from the rush of the crowd into the lake. As I descended into the water, a calmness settled within me. Pointed towards Sandfly Hill, my focal point on the opposite side of the lake, I glided through the water like I had always done thousands of times before. There were brightly colored buoys and boats set as markers along the way, but I didn’t have any sense of how much distance I had covered. When I reached roughly the middle of the lake, I stopped. Treading water, I looked behind me to the ant-sized cars and houses on the distant shore I had started from and then to the vastness of the lake around me. Kayakers and other swimmers were roughly 30-50 meters away from me, but essentially I was all alone. Through the wispy, delicate clouds of the morning sky, the sun began to poke through, beckoning me home to the shore ahead of me. Then, for those few moments, my mind let go of my worries, anxieties, and looming responsibilities and I just decided to be. I enveloped those moments, took a deep breathe, and resubmerged my head in the water to continue my swim.


The Dawning of the Age of 40, Part 3: The Tragicomedy of the Shelved Woman


This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the third vignette.

One of the aspects I have seriously dwelled on about turning 40 is what it means to be a woman at this age. I have felt heavy hearted about posting this article, uncertain whether it could offend, strike a negative chord or be considered anti-male. In the end, I decided it would completely defeat its purpose if I felt I had to censure myself or chose my words carefully. These are my personal experiences and observations and sharing them validates the truth in them.

It was at some point in my early 20s when I developed the rude realization of the notion that women are supposed to have a shelf life and that our identity should very much be wrapped up in our looks and our appeal to the opposite sex. A series of both trivial and headline events both in the news and in my personal world awakened me to the seemingly perplexing and cruel status quo.

I was 23 in 1998 when the world sat back in its chair with a box of popcorn to be entertained by the spectacle of the Monica Lewinsky – Bill Clinton affair. During that time, I myself was an intern in offices of the German parliament. Having only one or two degrees of separation with such political heavyweights and in such a male-dominated world is not only a surreal experience, but also bewildering when you are completely new to navigating the real professional world and trying to find your own adult identity. I didn’t know how to react when hearing overtly sexual jokes told sometimes on my or other fellow female interns’ expenses about us being the “interns”, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Throughout my 20s, I continued to feel similarly perplexed and stung whenever I heard male peers and coworkers confide and lament about women trying to wield their power by flaunting their sex appeal with the latest dress accessory or by likely sleeping their way to promotions.

While I unconfidently tried to decipher my own professional identity and what that would entail as a woman, I also attempted to navigate the world of dating. It was also at 23 when a concerned male friend explained that I wouldn’t have many years to waste if I expected to marry. Sharing insight with me about the role of women and men in his own country, he calmly and matter-of-factly explained that women past 28 would be considered too old to marry. Unfazed by his warning, I thought, “Well, that’s not the world I live in and it’s not the 1950s.” Then one day when I was 26, a male family member only a few years older than myself made a passing remark about a female acquaintance of his looking pretty good for being in her late 30s. I implored him to clarify just what he meant by, “looking pretty good for her late 30s”. Like being hit by a speeding freight train, I suddenly reached that gross revelation that even within my so-called modern, progressive world, women seemed to have a shelf life. As I ventured onto online dating sites, this was reinforced to be true. How else could the countless profiles of late 30-something single men who desired women between the ages of 20 to a year younger than themselves, be explained?

While living in China during my late 30s, I witnessed the tragicomedy of the shèngnǚ (剩女), or “leftover woman”. Unmarried by her late 20s, and too educated, independent and busy to nab herself a husband, the sheng nu has been cited as a “threat to social stability” while also being the subject of both positive and negative media attention, TV shows and movies. In 2007, the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education officially proclaimed sheng nu age to be 27. Four years later, I was several years deep into sheng-nu age status and newly single at 36 when yet another male friend explained to me about the sheng nu. I felt an immediate affinity for my Chinese counterpart and even though I knew I wasn’t directly the object of the concern, rage and curiosity by the Chinese government nor my family, I began to develop the idea that my identity did not have to be interwoven with that of a man or husband (or lack thereof).

Outside of China and even in 2015, just in time for my 40th, the shelf life of a woman still exists. Women’s magazines and TV commercials targeted towards the 30-50 female demographic feature 36 year-old female celebrities modeling anti-aging and anti-wrinkle creams. So that we too can achieve such lovely, youthful looks, the magazines love to dish out to us mortals the exercise, beauty and diet regimes of famous 40-something female celebrities, who in spite of their age, look amazing! Even the celebrities themselves are not immune to the double standard of the shelf life. A few months ago, 37 year-old actor Maggie Gyllenhaal shared her dismay with having been turned down for a movie part as the love-interest of a 55 year old male costar on the grounds of being too old. A video skit featuring comedians Amy Schumer, Tina Fay, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette perhaps best portrays the absurdity of women no longer being “f*%kable” after a certain age, while their male counterparts never have to face such a time. I can’t help but feel jaded about these implied messages that women should really work hard to look amazing after 40 because otherwise, we will become invisible because clearly our looks are our most prized keepsake.

These days I'm letting go and am more comfortable in my own skin

These days I’m letting go and am finding my own self worth

The surprising irony for me is that I started to finally come into my own around 36, an age dangerously close to (or past) shelf life expiration. While it’s true I feel chuffed if someone thinks I look much younger than my actual age, I don’t miss the awkwardness of my twenties. I am now comfortable in my own skin, body and with my own sexuality. I look in the mirror and see a woman I love, for all of her different features and imperfections. This self-love and confidence also seep into other aspects of my life. For years, I struggled with proving myself capable in my various jobs. Of course I still sometimes have uncertainty about my future career path, but these days I am more confident in my abilities and contributions and seem to be taken more seriously than in my younger years.

So, today I reject the notion that I will someday be shelved and become invisible. I reject that my worth and value as a human being should be tied to my looks and ability to attract the opposite sex. Some may think because I’m 40 that my shelf life expiration date is near, but I’ll chose to ignore it and will simply determine my own terms of my value and worth.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 4: Swimming 40 Lengths

For further listening and reading:

2012 Foreign Policy article: The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies

Inside Amy Schumer’s Last F**kable Day

Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk: The Price of Shame

Robin Korth’s 2014 Blog post: My ‘naked’ truth

The Dawning of the Age of 40 Part 2: Running towards the Big Achievements’ Deadlines


This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the second vignette.

Ten years ago when I turned 30, I figured the three big achievements an adult could obtain were being well-established and successful in a career, being in a long term committed relationship, and being a homeowner. In my mind, the early 30s were also a time for me to begin to get on the right track after muddling through the novelty of adulthood in my 20s. I considered that I had a decade to figure out how to achieve those goals and that 40 would be a reasonable deadline. Understandably when a person has such lofty and perhaps unrealistic goals, the pressure starts to build up and by the time I reached my mid-30s, 40 became a dreaded and feared symbol for the possibility of not succeeding. I can sum it up that I feared I would not amount to much and accomplish anything respectable.

I like to think that I was not alone in this fear and that many of my peers may at times also struggle with feelings of inferiority. The world is becoming more and more cut-throat and competitive and every time you turn around, someone has discovered the cure to cancer, or is single-handedly solving world peace. I myself used to dread receiving the alumnae magazines from my college which would have updates of fellow former classmates’ latest life happenings and achievements. For years I shirked away from sending in news of my own life because I just didn’t think I had any worthy accomplishments to share.

Oh very young- Back in the days when I had a very skewed sense of my futureself

Oh very young
Back when I had a very abstract sense of my future self

Recently, I found a class project I completed when I was 12 back in the seventh grade in 1987. The assignment was a chronicle of my life and I reflected on my past, my present and my future. For my future, I had predicted that I would swim in the 1996 Olympics, attend Julliard for my violin playing, marry my college sweetheart, be a swim coach at the YMCA, and be the mother of a three year old- all by the age of 27! I’m afraid my 12 year old self would be disappointed to learn that I didn’t achieve any of those goals- not even 13 years past the age 27 deadline. Of course I could say my sense of future accomplishments for myself were extremely warped, but I also can’t blame my younger self for predicting such ridiculous achievements. I was only extending on what I was familiar with and good at in my life at that time. Anything else would have been too abstract. It is also understandable that my younger self assumed that I would meet my future husband and start a family by 27 because it’s what my own parents and grandparents had done. At 12, my ideals of success and normalcy were based on those previous generations.

Similarly, in my late 20s and early 30s, my ideals of success began to be based on what I witnessed peers achieving. This included friends of mine, family, those fellow college classmates who wrote to the alumnae magazines, famous peers who had achieved notoriety for whatever achievements, and even fictional peers. Every time a peer would reach an achievement, whether it was purchasing a home, publishing a book or becoming director at a company, I would reexamine my own current life standing and successes.

Perhaps some of my fellow- new 40 somethings similarly have compared themselves to peers or have been doing that their whole life. My struggle of measuring myself to others is mostly a thing of the past now. At some point in my late thirties, I began determining my own markers for success and achievement. My goal of being a homeowner was dropped after actually being a homeowner in a situation over my head. My goal of being a success in a career was exchanged for achieving fulfillment not only through work but other pursuits as well as achieving a work-life balance. I am learning that the fulfillment I get from family, friends, community and even strangers brings me happiness, as does occasional solitude. This realization that I am essentially happy has allowed me to slowly let go of my unrealistic measures of achievement based on others’ successes and continue to reflect on and reexamine my own measures of success.

Oh, and I’m happy to say that a few months ago, I finally wrote to my college’s alumnae magazine for the first time to share my life’s events.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 3: The tragicomedy of the shelved woman

For further listening, viewing and reading:

Dan Gilbert’s 2014 TED Talk: The psychology of your future self

An appropriate song for this theme: Cat Stevens’ Oh Very Young

The Dawning of the Age of 40: Four Reflections on Turning and Being 40


When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember sifting through the different c40ategories of birthday cards in a Hallmark store. Besides the usual Sweet 16 cards and so on, there were a selection of cards with messages about being “over the hill”. At that age, I couldn’t think in metaphors, so when my mother tried to explain what “over the hill” meant, I kept drawing blanks. “What do you mean your life is a hill? Your life is a hill you ride up and then it’s all downhill from a certain point??” When it was finally explained to me that the peak of the hill was middle-age around the age of 40, I tossed the notion aside because it was far too removed from my life then. At that time, 40 was the age I associated with my parents’ generation. Even 13 was abstract! As I got older, into my teens, twenties and even my thirties, 40 still remained a distant and abstract age. Then suddenly friends just a couple of years older than me entered into their 40s and there it was on my own doorstep. In the six months leading up to my 40th, I contemplated a lot about my health, my happiness, my mortality, my accomplishments, my lack of accomplishments, and other big questions.

When I finally did reach 40 in February and in the months that have followed, I have felt somewhat heavy hearted about it. When scoping out the profiles and status updates of friends on Facebook, I realized that many of my fellow turning-40 peers also experienced similar anxiety and deep reflection around the milestone age. Some of us expressed it with a little trepidation with status updates like, “Reflecting on my life on the last week of my 30s”. Others of us tried to put on brave faces with status updates like, “I’m 40 and fabulous!” or “40- here I come!” On my own status update, I proclaimed I was “Embracing 40”.

So what is it that is so significant about turning 40? I suppose turning 30 is just as significant, but something seems more weighted, graver and intense about 40. Therefore, over the next few days, I will share four different aspects, perspectives and reflections about turning and being 40 based on my own personal experiences. I hope these vignettes will simply serve as a launch pad for further discussion, thoughts, funny stories and sharing of heavy concerns. Here we go..

Part 1: Life’s halfway marker

Extending on the theme of “over the hill”, perhaps some of the anxiety about turning 40 is that it is indeed a reasonable marker for half of a lifetime. Consider that the average life expectancy in the US in 2010 was 78.74 years. In New Zealand, there is a little more of an advantage with 83 years for females and 79.3 years for males. No doubt, these ages will increase by the time my peers and I reach our 70s. On the flipside, it’s a bit jarring to read statistics about life expectancies from previous historical periods. For example, the global average life expectancy of a person born in 1950 was only 48 years young, and for 1900, it was only 31 years young!

I suppose it can be assuring that so many medical advancements have been made just within the last two generations and that people’s quality of life, access to decent diets, education, shelter and health have improved overall. Every once and a while, I stop and consider that I won the cosmic lottery for being born in this modern day and age and in a developed country with so many comforts and conveniences. Unlike people in some parts of the world or from previous generations, I haven’t had to battle life threatening illnesses, work my way in the middle of the night to outdoor primitive toilets, wait for once-a-month-only baths or showers, toil and labor over backbreaking work twelve hours a day and seven days a week, nor stop with my schooling at the age of 10. Thanks to not being dealt those unfortunate cards, my life expectancy has a very good chance of pushing at least 80.

But with the increased likelihood of living longer comes certain modern day burdens that many of our 19th and early 20th century 40-year old predecessors didn’t have to consider so deeply. Burning questions and concerns such as, “Will I live too long? Will I have enough money to last me until I die? Will I have to work until I am really old? Who will care for me?” I’m guessing that in previous centuries, these concerns were less relevant because people simply didn’t live into healthy old age and quite literally worked until the day they died (yes- I’m talking about you, person born in 1900 with an average life expectancy of 31). Also, for a long time, even in the US (and still to this day in many places all over the world), people knew they would be cared for by their families and younger generations and that they would even live together under one roof. When my grandparents were in their 40s, for example, it was assumed and common practice that their parents would eventually move in and live with them in their twilight years. Indeed my mother’s parents did have both their mothers living with them in their last years. Somewhere along the line though, that changed and elderly loved ones started to live independently or in rest home facilities. So for our parents’ generation and younger, including us 40 somethings, this is the reality of what we will likely be facing when we reach our more mature years. We grapple with saving enough for our life in the present while also trying to set aside money for the possibility of living to 2075 and even onward.

Another note on the topics of age and the later chapters in life is that we 40-somethings are now beginning to face the reality of our parents’ aging. When we were younger, we got a glimpse of what’s ahead in this realm when we witnessed our grandparents’ aging and our own parents facing the ups and downs of those years. Over the last couple of years I have had an increasing number of conversations with peers about their parents and what considerations they have for accommodating them and being closer to them. One friend has shared his hope to soon buy his dream farm home with peacocks and fruit trees and have his parents join him there. Another friend anguishes over being halfway around the world from her parents and how she may balance the current demands of her work and life in her present home with that of more substantial, meaningful times with her parents. I too struggle with such guilt sometimes and how I will be able to contribute to my parents’ happiness in their later years, just like they did for my grandparents.

Perhaps these heavy, weighty thoughts are necessary in order to come to terms with the cycle of life. And perhaps 40 isn’t any more special than 10, 20, 60 or 80. 40 itself is just another marker along life’s journey.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 2: Running for the Big Achievements’ Deadline

For further listening and reading:

Laura Carstensen’s 2011 TED Talk: Older people are happier

Dr. Atul Gawande’s documentary on PBS Frontline: Being Mortal

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End