Saturday, April 14, 2012

Growing Up Never Happens

When we use the phrase "coming of age", we usually mean it to apply to those tender years of transition, teen to adult.  It implies an expansion of worldview, a mastery of self, and a sense of greater maturity.  The truth is, these things happen at every age, at any stage of life.  A transition from an outmoded paradigm to a newer one requires a growth of self awareness; if you aren't doing this at every stage in life, you will definitely have emotional, mental, and social retardation.

When I was a freshman in college, I finally got around to reading Catcher in the Rye.  I was not impressed, but that's because I read it too late.  I felt Holden Caufield was a bit of a whiner.  In some ways, I could not empathize with him because I had crossed that bridge, and could not imagine thinking that way.  My worldview had expanded beyond that of Holden Caufield, and it could not go back to where it had been.  That's what coming of age means.  The newfound maturity prevents you from regressing (unless at every stage you choose regression over growth, but most people don't).

I think the term "coming of age" applies to Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell.  In this case, though, it's more of a quarter life crisis meets "growing up".  It's a memoir of a sort, an exaggerated biography of a point in the author's life that we all face as we truly mature into adults- turning thirty.  A century ago, that was almost middle-aged, and fifty years ago it was a time at which everyone was expected to be well settled and established, deep into a career or raising a household.  It was a symbolic point of what we as children considered "old".  In this decade, turning thirty seems superficially scary, because as we come out of the haze of post-graduation depression, we are left facing a lot of left over thoughts from childhood, ideas of who we would be, what we'd be doing, and what kind of life we'd be living.  Facing those childhood illusions of self can put some into a tailspin previously only seen in the midlife crisis of the forties.

Herein, the author faces her own outmoded sense of self, coming to the realization that childhood was far behind her, and the reality of her future looked little like how she imagined it.  The dream of a successful career and modern suburban family was as insubstantial as fog off the Hudson River.  Instead she finds herself at age 29 committing to a job as a secretary, unconsciously releasing the goal of being an actress.  She also learns that she has a syndrome that will make it harder for her to conceive as she ages.  On a less than conscious level, this deeply disturbs the author, as both the syndrome and career move are wholly counter to her own previous sense of self.  If she is not an actress, and she might not be a mother, who is she and where is she going from here?

In a fit of desperation (and cream-induced mania), the author takes up a quest.  It is how every culture, at one point or another, challenges the next generation- go on this quest, learn who you truly are, and come back to us as an example of how to live a life.  (Ironically, from a sociological and anthropological standpoint, we it is one thing we lack in our post-modern Western society, and I think it may be one of the reasons why so many in our society are on antidepressants.  We have not had the benefit of some challenge, some quest, to force us to define ourselves or to live fully knowing who we are.  College, to wit, is clearly not the answer).  This story takes place almost a decade ago, when blogs and podcasts were brand new, a cutting edge use of modern technology.  The author creates a blog, and at her husband's gentle urging, challenges herself to cook her way through an iconic volume of American culture- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  The quest for self is begun.

As the story moves forward, the author is very successful at stringing together anecdotes, like cranberries and popcorn at Christmas time, to dress up a somewhat spindly story of her journey to reconcile her adult self with her dreams from childhood.  I found myself not thinking of the author as a real person, though in truth there are many like her in my generation.  It seems to me she is somewhat superficially witty, lacking any true depth or introspective philosophy to guide her through life.  Our modern society prizes our materialistic attitudes, and indirectly punishes those who come to an intrinsic sense of self worth.  In response, many do not take time to reflect on their lives, and so internal (and external) conflict throws a real wrench into the works, because without intrinsic value, there is little to go forward with, as this author demonstrates. 

Don't get me wrong, the author does indeed accept a large undertaking.  Julia Child's revered tome is a culinary challenge even for those who know their way around a kitchen.  What I found inspiring was how the author went about her self-discovery.  Some take up skydiving or deep-sea fishing.  Others gamble or go on bacchanalian retreats, drowning mental questions in sensory overload.  Instead, the author seeks to find herself (however unconsciously) by mastering a necessary life skill- cooking.  It combines the sensory delights of the above, with a deeply philosophical outlook on life.  When learning to cook a new dish, you learn about the culture the dish comes from, the physical skills necessary to execute it, and the nurturing feelings that come from feeding others.  It's a good way to find yourself.

Overall, it was a good read, though much like Holden Caufield, I suspect it affected others more deeply than it affected me.  Just getting into my thirties now, I am older in many regards than the author was when she wrote this.  I got over the nebulous fear of turning thirty before I was twenty-six, but life experiences differ for all of us.  All the same, I can appreciate what the author went through to find herself.  The quest to maturity is never an easy one; if it was, maturity would be unattainable.  And once past the tipping point, we come to realize it was not age we were afraid of, but disappointing our younger selves (or in some cases, those who love us the most).  All in all, I can see why it was made into a movie, and now I can finally watch it on Netflix.

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