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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
I'm 31. Thirty-one years, one month, and 27 days at the time of this printing, to be exact. So that's about a year and change since I crossed over into the dreaded black hole that many consider bona fide adulthood.

In their new book Facing 30, co-authors Lauren Dockett and Kristin Beck explore this "life stage" transition and, specifically, its effect on women of the current generation.

I was able to secure a copy of their book just days prior to my Man Who Came to Dinner date with Lauren and Kristin. I was fairly confident of my ability to get through the book's 160 pages in time, however, and to that end took up transitory residence in several local coffeehouses. My only distraction was the fear that someone I knew (or didn't know, for that matter) would spot my nose buried behind a cover that screams Facing 30 above a photograph of a delicate-looking model, who appears to be whispering: "Oh ... having trouble dealing, are we?"

I reminded myself of the free meal on the other end and decided to suck it up.

The book is a great big literary hug for all women heading for, or retreating from, their big day. It's insightful, well-researched, and filled with a surprising amount of humor. Chicken soup for the so-old.

As I read I was, naturally, comparing my own relationship with 30 to those of the women chronicled in the book. The feminine experience of passing into the great three-oh, I gathered, seems to be significantly more significant -- if not downright life-shattering.

I honestly don't recall how I spent my 30th birthday. And I certainly don't remember having any real emotional crisis surrounding the event. Perhaps I'm in denial; postponing the trauma until it's too late do anything about my poor wretched self. Or maybe I'm just a man -- fortuitously imbued with a temporary advantage in this particular event on the gender Olympics score card.

In the end I decided to leave it to the experts, and headed across the bridge for a consultation with the authors themselves.

Dinner was at Kristin's house, a spacious apartment above a vacant store in Oakland's Little Ethiopia. Lauren greeted me at the door and, as we made our way up the long stairwell, informed me that they'd invited a few of their friends to join us.

Friends are good.
Upstairs I met Kristin, wearing an authentic, grease-stained short-order cook's apron. I was also introduced to Catharine and Carole, the surprise guests and, not coincidentally, two of the women whose pre-30 stories are told throughout the book.

Settling into my seat at a great old wooden table with a glass of French white wine, I was suddenly overcome by a mild panic attack as I assessed the situation: I was Barry. And I was with four Facing 30 women. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into?

Oblivious to my personal crisis, all four women began speaking to each other at the same time. I attempted to follow the conversation for several minutes, developing a case of tennis-match head. Moments later, all talking ceased and all eyes came to rest on me.

Kristin began the official discussion with the story of how she and Lauren approached their then-soon-to-be publisher with the idea for Facing 30. "It just completely freaked him out. 'Thirty was such a horrible, stressful time,' he said. He went off for 20 minutes."

"Well," explained Catharine, "the last generation was even more freaked out because they were the ones who coined 'Don't trust anyone over 30.' "

Carole agreed. "At least now we can face it ass out."
"Exactly," said Kristin. She turned back to Carole. "What's that?"
"You know," explained Carole to four blank faces. "Ass out."
I volunteered, "Oh, it's like a baboon reference."
This actually appeared to make sense to everyone.
"I get it," exclaimed Kristin. "You mean the anus flower."
Yes. I suppose I did.
We all laughed and enjoyed a series of jokes about monkey butt.

"But I don't think it's the monkey with the anus flower," said Catharine. Turning to me she asked, "Do you know which animal actually has the anus flower?"

"Well," I offered, "I have a friend with an anus flower. But that's more about personal hygiene."

Having calibrated the tone for the evening at the highest common denominator, Kristin rewarded us with a plate of sliced local bread and a wedge of Mont Briac cheese, an especially creamy bluish brie.

In a feeble attempt to shift the conversation to higher ground I introduced some of my observations about the book. "In case you haven't noticed," I began, "I'm male."

"Are you really?" gasped Carole.
"That's so weird," said Kristin. "I knew there was something different about you."

I continued with my thought about how a great deal of the book was equally applicable to me as a man facing 30. "I think the feminist issues and the motherhood issues are huge, but otherwise I'd say most of the book was highly relevant to me."

"So it's all pretty much about you," joked Kristin.
"Hey," I said defensively, "wasn't that your intention, to donate yourselves to the readers?"

"Right," nodded Kristin. "And this dinner ... really ... is about -- Barry. And how Barry feels about dinner."

Everyone had a good laugh at my expense while I wondered: How did they figure me out so quickly?

"Now," I continued, "if you guys could just say things that would make my column more interesting ...."

We all laughed. Point: Levine.
Kristin asked Catharine to toss the salad of mixed field greens with the citrus dressing she'd prepared earlier.

I informed Kristin that although she was dining with the Man Who Came to Dinner, she could actually employ the infamous "off the record," if necessary.

"Is that legal?" asked Catharine.
Before I could answer, Kristin, assuming a semisquat position and a deep truck driver's voice, shuffled across the floor and bellowed, "Well then ... off the record ... my ass is killin' me!"

I turned back to answer Catharine's question, "No. No, it's not legal."
The phone rang, causing Kristin to drop her character for a moment. Her husband and baby were scheduled to call from "their first dinner out without Mommy."

As she returned I asked her how old her baby was.
Taking a second to remember she said, "He's 33."
"The baby," I repeated. "The real baby."

"Oh, I thought you said man. He's 4 months. The baby is 4 months old." Then, playing off her own mistake, she repeated, "My baby is 33 years old."

She invoked a new deep throaty voice and added, "But I say: Come to Momma, honey. Come on, baby. You know you want the breast."

"This is off the record," interjected one of her friends.
"I think you should let her go," I advised. "This is what sells books."
Kristin continued, "You want the breast. You know you do, you little shit."

Amid our hysterics her three friends tried to call out, "Off the record. Off the record."

I made one more attempt to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand, with a question about how the two authors collaborated on the writing of their book.

Lauren explained their tag-team process of chapter-sharing. "There was a lot of: 'Kristin, I can't think. Think for me.' And she would jump in and write a few paragraphs for me. Or me for her."

Meanwhile Kristin served the main course: a pan-fried petrale sole with white wine, capers, and onions. In addition she'd prepared mixed wild rice and Carole's Sichuan beans recipe with sesame oil, garlic, and chile flakes.

Carole summed up the secret of her friends' book's success: "They're just brilliant."

"Also," added Kristin, "we're really smart."
"That's on the record?" I asked.
"Mm-hm," she nodded.

Over the next hour or so the conversation covered topics like: male PMS, bogus biorhythms, mobile crack units, fart lighting, circle jerks, ardent feminism, the suburbs, and the number of people who pick their nose at a stoplight (six out of 10) -- all keenly viewed from a Facing 30 perspective, of course.

My favorite anecdote was Kristin's tale of her extremely smooth, mid-book-writing pregnancy. The only time she threw up, she explained, was because of the Throw Up Lady:

"Throw Up Lady -- she lives in this neighborhood and she throws up on the street. I was taking my morning constitutional walk and I saw a pile on the sidewalk. I had my coping skills about me, the way I always do, which is just to say: 'I didn't see it. It wasn't barf. It's OK.' Then I got to the end of the street and ralphed all over the sidewalk."

"Did you face out or away from the traffic?" someone asked.
"I just let it rip," Kristin boasted. "I stood on the sidewalk and the traffic was going by me and I said: 'You know what I'm doing? I'm barfing. It's 10 a.m. And you're likin' it.' "

"And you know what happened?" she continued. "The barf lady walked by me."
There's a new ralph in town.
"Now," asked Lauren, "was she barfing past you?"
"No," answered Kristin. "But I know her work."

With the Throw Up Lady signaling the end of the main course we returned to some serious conversation.

"It is so easy to be focused on your present situation," I said. "So easy to feel like 30 is some huge number. But when you're talking to 60-year-olds it's like, 'Take your time. Except for the biological clock, except for the need to procreate, 30's not that big of a deal. Especially when life is being extended and the quality of life improved. There's no reason to rush yourself.' "

"Still, culturally though," said Lauren, "there's always this image of the single woman past 30. That remains part of our culture even for our generation."

"I think that's something that is ripe for change," I suggested. "You said in the beginning of the book that the crisis hits because we haven't updated our expectations of 30 since we were little. But I think we're still in a position to update what we think about 30 because we have to start to put it into the context of what we think about 40. And suddenly 30's not going to be 30 anymore. It's not what it used to be."

"That's what we warned women about," said Kristin. "That if they don't deal with this stuff now they actually might encounter a more rugged crisis at 40 than they otherwise would."

"It's easy enough to get sucked into the now and panic," I proposed. "But a person should also be able to step outside and realize: There's 40 and 50 and 60 yet to come. And they're not tragedies."

Kristin was off to the side secretly preparing a big homemade chocolate cake: Carole was turning 30 in less than a week.

The cake arrived ablaze with a full 30 candles and an iced inscription: "Happy 30th." We sang Happy Birthday, "to Carole and all of us."

Carole suggested that we each make a wish and blow out the candles together, "in the true spirit of the book."

Of course I can't reveal my wish. Except maybe to say: It has something to do with all of us. And 40.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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