The View from the Middle

Recently I achieved a rather major milestone in life. No, I didn’t land a three-book, seven-figure, Spielberg-wants-the-movie-rights book deal. (Yeah, I wish.) Or, discover a cure for cancer, solve global warming or even create the world’s most awesome ham and cheese sandwich. (Wish, wish and wish.)

No, I turned forty.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Forty is the new twenty and eighty is the new ten and all that. Still, this seemed to be one of those momentous occasions that called for a big cupcake, a pitcher of margaritas and… er, I mean, one of those momentous occasions that called for a little reflection and soul-searching.

Also, I really needed a blog post.

So, like most lime- and confection-induced Deep Thoughts, I found myself contemplating my life as a writer. In my very early days, I wrote about such profound subjects as Fluffy the Cat and my pet guinea pig. Then, my teenage years were spent penning overly dramatic and cliche-addled poetry about brooding guys and broken hearts. By my twenties and early thirties (when I wasn’t busy cranking out newspaper articles about four-way stop signs or press releases about crab cakes), I alternated between wanting to be the next Dave Barry or Ernest Hemingway. Clearly, I had a thing for south Florida.

Then something shifted as I entered my mid- to late-thirties. I turned my attention to writing novels. But instead of producing the next Farewell to Arms, I discovered myself writing stories for kids. Now, maybe this is just called finding your voice as a writer. Yet, as I licked away the last of my big 4-0 cupcake frosting, this little fact hit me:

Middle-age is an awful lot like the middle-grades.

Seriously. Just bear with me. (And go grab yourself a cupcake or margarita. I’ll wait.)

Great. Welcome back! Okay, where was I? (I’m getting old, you know.) Right… you see, there’s just something about the middle of life that strongly parallels those in-between middle grade years. Here’s how:

You’re neither Here nor There

Remember being ten? Old enough to venture off on your own a bit. Only you can’t really go very far because you don’t have a car. Or a driver’s license for that matter. At the same time, you’ve “outgrown” your favorite Polly Pocket and Thomas the Tank Engine sets. (Even if you do still secretly love them. In a very noncommittal sort of way, of course.) Because seriously, you don’t want to be that kid. You know, the one who shows up in the fifth grade cafeteria with his crustless cheese sandwich and juice pouch stuffed in a Teletubbies lunch box. Maybe you can pull off that look when you’re sixteen. And the lunch box is your purse. And therefore ironic in a very angsty way. But at ten? Face it. You’re kind of stuck.

Yeah, welcome to middle age. You’re old enough to go wherever you want. But at the same time, you’re not quite old enough to dress in purple all the time, tell everyone exactly what you think and just be considered “eccentric.” And even though some nights you figure it would be all kinds of awesome to rock a miniskirt and dance on the tabletops, no one wants to be that crazy old person at the college pub. Face it, you’re just gonna have to groove to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch in the privacy of your own home.

Your body turns on you in strange — and often alarming — ways

Sometime around your eleventh or twelfth birthday weird things begin to happen. Your arms and legs suddenly seem too long. Your ears don’t fit your head anymore. Your teeth are way too big for your mouth (and, if you’re especially lucky, have big metal squares glued on top). Suddenly, you need to shave your armpits. And you start to smell funny. You go to bed one night thinking maybe it was all a bad dream and wake up with a giant zit. Right on the end of your nose. You begin to regret using all your big sister’s Clearasil pads as coasters for your doll tea party when you were six. You wonder if they’d still work if you got them wet.

And yes people, sometime around your fortieth birthday weird things also start to happen. Parts start shifting. Hairs begin to sprout in places you don’t need them and fall out of places you do. Once again, it looks like you need a new dryer because this one Keeps Shrinking All of Your Pants. And seriously, who invented low-rise jeans anyway? You go to bed one night thinking it was all a bad dream and wake up with three new lines across your forehead. Only to your distress, you discover the pillow didn’t leave them there. You seriously begin to regret giving your big sister that oh-so-hilarious gallon-sized tub of Oil of Olay on her fortieth birthday. You wonder if you can have it back.

Other middle-graders begin to notice — and point out — your many flaws

  • Your knees are too bony
  • You walk funny
  • You sing off-key
  • Your haircut is so 1985
  • Those skinny jeans are so last year
  • OMG, nobody says OMG anymore! Duh!
  • Please don’t stand next to me. People will think I know you.

Yes, when you’re eleven, these junior hecklers are known as your classmates.

When you’re forty, they are simply called your children.

Still, you somehow retain (or regain) your childhood sense of wonder… and hope for the future

Yes, despite everything pre-adolescence and middle-age throw at you, there’s still this — your innate belief in magic. When you are nine, sure it’s begun to occur to you that Santa probably can’t reach billions of kids in just one night. And why would some fairy want to collect baby teeth — and pay for them, anyway? Still, this doesn’t stop you from tearing open your Christmas presents with abandon and checking under your pillow for a buck. And you’re still quite sure if you wish real hard on the evening’s first star all your dreams will come true. And that trap door at Grandma’s house? That’s most certainly a secret portal to another world. A world where you are the hero.

These are just things you know deep in your heart of hearts, even if you are bound to forget them when you’re a too-cool sixteen year-old wearing black eyeliner and combat boots.

And it’s okay. Because when you’re forty, these secrets come back to you. Even though you’d long ago stopped believing, suddenly the magic becomes real again. Because now you are Santa. And the Tooth Fairy. And when you tuck your child in at night, you are sure to point out that first evening star, close your eyes and make a wish, too. Because holding those tiny hands in yours, you know deep in your heart of hearts, that wishes do come true.

And the other thing you know? That trap door… it really is a portal to another world. With a little imagination and determination you just might discover a way to:

  • Be a superhero
  • Hit a ball clear out of the park
  • Dance with that cute boy from homeroom
  • Travel back in time to run with the dinosaurs
  • Discover a cure for cancer
  • Solve global warming
  • Tell a story
  • Believe in magic
  • Find inspiration

All you have to do is open that door. Just a speck. And dare to peek inside.

So how about you? What is your inspiration? Why do you read, write or love children’s literature? Tell me in the comments below. Or just say, “Happy Birthday!” I never get tired of hearing it :-). I’ll send a virtual cupcake your way!

Jan Gangsei still pens the occasional angsty poetry, only now it’s focused on brooding toddlers and broken potty seats. And although she absolutely loves writing for children, if the Miami Herald just so happens to find itself in need of another humor columnist, she’s pretty sure she could squeeze that in, too. In fact, she’ll take any excuse to ponder the oddities of life over a cupcake and margarita.

Jan Gangsei
  1. This was so funny and true. Great post.

  2. Excellent! Now I understand why I enjoy MG books so much! Happy Birthday 🙂

  3. One of my son’s friends told me last year I looked like a grown up but thought like a middle-schooler. In retrospect I probably should’ve been insulted…but as a middle-grade writer it made me happy.

  4. I’m mildy amused at the comparison. I turned 70 last year, still like tank tops and lots of things that make people look at me a bit oddly, but I can work with it. I still garden, have a 50 x 50 plot + flower beds, built my own patio this summer and am not adverse to doing most things I did at 40. Soooo, you have much to look forward to if you eat well, excercise and not smoke. Life is good, and gets better with time. Some wines age well … some don’t. I neither look, nor act “my” age, and love it.

    I used to have a website but Yahoo took it down as it wasn’t visited often enough. I am, however, on Facebook.

  5. what a great post! i loved it!

    we can celebrate together – today is my birthday! so HaPpY BiRtHdAy to US (even if i am a little late)!

  6. Happy Birthday, Jan! And thank you for the gift of these brilliant and painful insights. You made me laugh.

  7. Cute post! I just turned 11 so I can relate to some of what you said.

  8. What a wonderful post. Happy birthday! I managed to postpone the middles until my mid-forties, on the premise that both my grandmothers made it past 90, but you are so dead-on target about what it’s like.

    I have been, recently, thinking about my love of middle-grade fiction. I “found” it again as my son hit that age, but he’s now definitely into YA and older, and I still find myself so happy when I read a good MG novel. The book I’m writing is YA, but I’m thinking about ways to make the next choices MG…as maybe that’s my true home. And I think you hit some of the reasons. There is a shelter mixed with anticipation and coming excitement, versus, maybe, being set right down in the dead-center of the tension and danger. Yes, of course, kids at that age can be in serious trouble, and there are wonderful books dealing with it. But somehow, they’re not quite into as much of the responsibility yet, the ability/necessity to have to change the WHOLE world…they can concentrate more on their corner of that world? Maybe?

    Thanks for the nudge to think about this today. 🙂

  9. You made me laugh. Thanks, and Happy Birthday!! The new twenty is hitting me next year. I think this helped. lol

  10. Happy Birthday!!! And thanks for the smile. I’m glad I can use my age as an excuse for feeling so MG 🙂 I write because I love it, but the readers are pretty great too.

  11. Happy Birthday from one 40 year old to another!

    This post is freaking brilliant! Kudos to you! I would have never made the connection, but it makes perfect sense.

    I’m inspired by everything. I pluck words out of the air. Phrases rattle around in my brain. I hear my children say things and my brain goes BOING. I see them move, and I am inspired to love. I am inspired by nature and the magic therein. I am inspired by longing, whether it be for success or acceptance. How can one NOT be inspired?


  12. I love this post! Thanks!

  13. Happy Birthday, Jan!!! I hope you have a fabulous day!

    This is such a terrific post. You compared those two age groups so great!

    I was the kid who didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t start losing interest in my dolls and toys until the summer before 7th grade. I was one of those kids who was very aware of my mortality and how the world worked. I definitely tried holding on to my childhood for as long as I could! It sure was a happy one. 🙂

    With that said, I still hang out with my inner child! I always dress my American Girl doll Molly for the appropriate season. I color a lot. Coloring is a great way for me to relax and de-stress. I suppose it brings back those happy, carefree childhood feelings! And if I had the room, I’d so build some of my Lego sets and set them out for conversation pieces. Some day when my hubby and I get a house!

  14. Love this, and boy can I relate! Maybe that’s why I love middle-grade, I can so relate to that in-between awkward stage.

  15. Classic! I never would have thought to parallel these two age groups! Excellent points–my favorite is that when you’re young, the other students snipe at you, when you’re older, it’s your own children! Hahahahohnohowhorriblehahahah!