Volume 22: Quarter Century

Welcome to the twenty-second installment of Open Book. If it’s your first time here, click here for a little background.

Tomorrow I’ll be twenty-five years old. I’m sure it sounds silly to people older than me, but twenty-five feels big. It feels like an age where things start to matter.

I guess that’s why people talk about having a quarter-life crisis, though I think the term itself is a bit of a misnomer. If twenty-five is considered a quarter of my life, that means that I’m apparently living to 100. This feat of longevity would require some pretty immediate action on my part: Kicking my yogurt-covered pretzel habit, actually sleeping more than five hours a night, perhaps setting foot in a gym once or twice before mid-life.

A morbid life expectancy calculator tells me I’m reaching age ninety at best—which would mean that my mathematically accurate quarter-life crisis should have happened at age twenty-two and a half. WHOOPS! Maybe the real crisis is when you realize that the “quarter-life” part of it already happened.

But probably not. I really think quarter-life crises happen simply because the expectations we had for our young adult lives don’t always match up with the realities of our young adult lives. They happen when you think about how far you wanted to have traveled by this point…only to look back and realize you’ve taken, at best, one accidental stumble and three and a half baby steps away from childhood.

Where is your big house, your fancy car, your L.L.Bean Boyfriend? Why does your job suck? Why are you mired in debt, subsisting on pasta, forever settling for the $3 bottle of wine because even the Yellowtail is kind of pushing it? And—most importantly—how come you never became a multiplatinum recording artist raking in $100 million a year like Taylor Swift? Man, you fell pretty far off the rails.

Most of us remember those high expectations we had for adulthood when we were growing up. They shift over the years, of course. When I was ten or so, I wanted to grow up to be an author and have decent boobs and probably a red convertible. When I was fifteen or so…okay, so maybe they didn’t shift that much.

But when I was twenty-one, I actually wrote down some of these expectations for the future. On May 28, 2012, just after finishing my junior year of college, and for no reason whatsoever, I penned a list in my journal about things I wanted to have or have accomplished by the time I reached twenty-five.

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Apparently, Younger Caroline thought it perfectly plausible that she’d become rich by age 25 by using her arts school degree. Diamonds, suits, shoes, handbags, “enough money to live the way I want to”?! Girl, I carry around my stuff in a promotional swag backpack my boyfriend got for free during college. My fanciest outfit is from Not The Clearance Rack at Old Navy. I’m actually glad that I don’t have any of these material items checked off the list. Things like nice shoes help you look like you’ve got your shit together, but, at this point in my life, dropping $100 on footwear is more like a sign that I’m willfully ignoring my shit as it falls apart.

Younger Caroline wasn’t a total materialistic asshole, though. She put down some substantive goals, like starting a great career (working on it), having good relationships with family (check!), and not having a harmful body image (also a check—I still think the best thing about getting older is that you start giving less of shit about things like your pants size). She also knew she needed to get her sheltered self out of the country, stat. I accomplished this goal just before the twenty-five-year deadline with a trip to China that taught me some vital lessons, like How To Pee In A Hole In the Ground Without Getting It All Over Your Shoes and also How To Suck It Up When You Accidentally Order Kidneys For Dinner.

The really important item on the list, to me, is number thirteen: “To have written another book.” I know that I saved it for last because it’s the goal that scared me the most. Still does, actually. Because while the dreams of red convertibles and diamond earrings have come and gone over the years, the only constant goal of my life has been to publish writing. That’s it. I’ve written a lot over the years (yes, even a teeny tiny speck of a book), and I’ve never stopped holding myself to the dream of basically becoming J.K. Rowling.

Now, as I turn 25, I am occupied as a writer—but not as a writer of paradigm-shifting young-adult fiction. Clearly. Instead, I’m a writer of health and nutrition news for a magazine. And as so many memes will gladly tell you, the first few years of adulthood are a little rough. I’m so caught up in surviving that I have trouble finding enough time and energy to keep writing more sentences once I’m off the clock. Sometimes I feel burned out on the English language, like its rich, flexible, infinite modes of expression just freeze solid the second I sit down at a keyboard.

And now you’ll see that we’ve come full circle:

Expectation: I will pen a literary masterpiece more or less immediately upon becoming an adult. And also get some nice shoes and shit.

Reality: I articles write about nutrition because bill$. And I also have no nice shoes.

Result: My very own quarter-life crisis!!!

But I don’t think a little crisis now and again is necessarily a bad thing. Every good inspirational speech will tell you that our most terrifying, failure-prone goals are the most important ones. It’s not hard to get yourself a handbag. What’s really difficult is shaking off the self-doubt that trails your every step—every tiny, labored, step—toward becoming the person you always imagined you’d be. What really takes guts is staring down the vast, impossible distance between where you are and where you want to go, and then deciding that you will probably keep going, starry-eyed fool that you are.

I don’t know if I’ll be successful in this, but I am going to try my to use my quarter-life crisis as a motivator—to get the wheels rolling, to make myself into a woman that would impress Younger Caroline and all her wildest dreams. Even if I sound like a drunk, personified Hallmark card as I write about it. (I definitely do.)

And now that I’ve reached twenty-five, I know that my goals for the future should include a lot less dumb shit like handbags and lot more crisis-inducing stuff like book writing and self-esteem strengthening. In fact, I made myself a new list today at work while I was supposed to be doing something else. Hey: You only get to make sappy quarter-century crisis lists once in your life. Work can wait.

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That last one is vital.

I know I’m not the only weirdo out there who makes grandiose to-do lists like these. If you are a similar weirdo, I wish you good luck. Here’s to checking off every last item—except for the items we’ll inevitably find stupid in five years. Now we just have to wait and keep living and figure out what they are.