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Party to Say, 'It's a Wonderful Midlife'

For many, turning 40 is the time to celebrate in a major way

July 24, 2002|SUSAN GREGG GILMORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Admitting you're 40 years old, according to an anonymous Hallmark greeting card philosopher, takes courage, confidence, a positive attitude and at least five or six years to accomplish. Maybe it was once that way. But more and more, this midlife milestone is a great excuse for a party.

My 40th birthday bash took on a nature theme: 16 virgin campers pitching their tents by a quiet lake, finding more comfort in a freshly grilled salmon and a bottle of chardonnay than in their never-before-used Eddie Bauer equipment.

During the past year, as more of my friends have faced 40, I have bowled, boated, golfed and discoed my way through a seemingly never-ending round of celebratory soirees--the next birthday girl or boy not to be outdone by the last.

From New York to L.A., those of us bringing up the rear of the baby-boomer generation are kicking off our 41st year with more hoopla than most of our parents would have ever deemed appropriate.

Two years ago, Kent Brasloff, a New York interior designer, orchestrated a three-day birthday extravaganza in honor of his 40th. Beginning with a smallish get-together for 25 out-of-town guests at a chic Italian restaurant, the festivities culminated with a maharajah's garden-themed ball held in a palm-filled city loft. The dress code suggested the wearing of turbans and tiaras; and, according to the host, officials of the Miss America Pageant graciously supplied loaner tiaras for those without their own.

Brasloff spent six months planning and fine-tuning every detail, from the bacon-wrapped pickled watermelon rinds to the peacock feathers sprouting from the top of a three-tiered cake. He spent more than $30,000 for what he called "the most perfect three days of my life."

OK, so boomers can be a bit self-indulgent--the experts have been known to use the word "narcissistic."

"But for this generation, the 40th birthday party is definitely about things being bigger and better," said Richard Laermer, whose examination of societal trends is the subject of his recent book, "Trendspotting" (Penguin Putnam, 2002). "Many of us think of this as the last big birthday party we'll throw for ourselves," Laermer said. "It's not that we're going to die, but we just don't see ourselves doing this grand of a thing at 50 or 60 years old."

Karla Swatek, who recently hosted a 40th birthday party for her husband at their La Costa home, believes there's good reason for a party, particularly in Southern California. "I think people age better here and are younger at heart, so turning 40 is cause for celebration, not depression," said the La Jolla-based book publicist. "I'll save the depression for 50."

For her husband's party, Swatek opted for a Mardi Gras theme with Cajun cuisine, New Orleans-style cocktails and a fortuneteller. Swatek, too, has been a guest at numerous 40th shindigs, from a recent cruise to Mexico to a middle-aged prom. She admits that when it comes to planning a 40th birthday party, there is definitely a feeling of one-upmanship within her social circle--a no-holds-barred, competitive spirit likened only to the planning of a son's bar mitzvah or a daughter's wedding.

"I think my friends are looking to make a big splash," Swatek said. "After all, 40 just isn't what it used to be."

True, even in our youth-worshipping culture, 40 has taken on a new look. Sexy, vibrant, botoxed role models from Madonna to Cher have confronted these 40-something years with stomachs fully bared. And though they may have helped convince us that turning 40 is not the beginning of the end, for many of us there is still fear attached to the number and the aging process. In fact, these elaborate birthday celebrations may be a sort of catered coping mechanism.

"These big parties are actually a reflection of our fears about aging and our own mortality," said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The planning occupies our mental energy for months, and the party itself may make the day a little easier, said Whitbourne, an expert in adult psychological development. But remember, at the end of the day, you are still 40.

"There's nothing wrong with having a lavish party, but you need to go into it with your eyes wide open so you're prepared for the emotional cleanup after the guests all leave," Whitbourne said. "Forty is just a number. You are no different than you were the day before or the day after," she added.

Whitbourne also said that the September terrorist attacks continue to change many of our attitudes about mortality. Now, more people may be choosing to take something bittersweet, like turning 40, and transform it into something pleasurable, she said.

For several years, Janie and Mark Herzog casually talked about the most memorable way to celebrate Mark's recent 40th birthday. After considering their options, the Pasadena couple decided on a quiet European vacation.

But on Sept. 11, Mark, who owns a television production company, was walking through the American Airlines terminal at New York's La Guardia Airport. He looked out the terminal's window just in time to witness the attack on the World Trade Center's south tower.

"Of course, from that moment, the whole concept of us traveling together, of being so far away from our two children, made us very uncomfortable," said Janie, a publicist in the film industry. So two months before Mark's June birthday, they changed their plans and decided to have a party at home.

Now the birthday boy wanted only family, friends and fun. And when the Pasadena police showed up at midnight requesting that the music be turned down, Mark knew he'd ushered in 40 as he had hoped--memorably.

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