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Rounding Up

For years—decades—I've rounded up my age. I'd start rounding up in the summer, between school years. At first, each new number felt strange on my tongue; eventually, I'd said the new age so often that the real number felt fake. By the time I reached my actual birthday, my former age felt like something I'd shed months ago.


For as long as I can remember wanting to make a living as a composer, I've wanted to be considered a professional at what I do. I've hidden my age unless explicitly asked for it, wanting to be judged solely by my accomplishments. I waited for an age when I'd finally be taken seriously, and in the meantime, I rounded up.


I made my birth year hard to find online. Because composers' birth years are nearly always listed in programs, I received email after email asking for mine. I always responded truthfully, but when these programs didn't show up online, I was secretly relieved.


When I was ten years old, my family moved from Maplewood, New Jersey to Chatham, a town twenty minutes away. Those seven miles were enough for Chatham's school district to have a completely different age cut-off. My birthday is in November, so I'd watch all of my new friends turn the next age, the age that was “right” for our grade, before I turned that age months later. I started high school at age 13, college at age 17, and spent three months of my senior year of college not yet 21. It seems silly now, but back then, longing for so much more than middle and high school, I ached to be just six months older. I wanted the life I thought I'd be living next year, always confident that a version of myself I'd like better was only one year away.


On a summer vacation in the Adirondacks with a friend who is just eighteen days older than me, we both added at least one year to our age, if not two, whenever anyone asked. We wanted to be seen as much more worldly and mature. Few people take 15-year-old girls seriously; no one takes a 16-year-old girl seriously, either, but we didn't know that then. We imagined how much more we'd know, how much more interesting we'd be at 16. We couldn't have known that there was no hope; we'd be ourselves forever.


Even now, turning 30, with all the gravitational pull that round number holds, it's nearly impossible not to round up. Even my friends who have never lied about their age rounded up to this one for months, and sure enough, I've been confidently saying I'm 30 practically since I turned 29. Of course, age is basically useless unless it brands you as part of a tribe: other 10-year-olds, other 8th-graders, other college juniors. At some age, we stop counting. We stop asking. We might even forget how old we are. The exact number matters less, and then not at all.


Still, 30 feels significant. As a junior in college, I read Beyond Talent, Angela Beeching's guide to forging a career in music. Guided by the book's questions about goal-setting, I defined what I hoped my life would look like in five and ten years. Under what I'd like to achieve by age 30, I wrote: I will be making a full-time living composing. I've held this number in my head for so long: When I'm 30, I will be successful.


I still teach eight students private piano and music theory lessons, though. Now that I'm here, at the birthday I've been rounding up to for a year, I'm not ready to stop teaching, nor do I want to. My income from teaching provides a more-or-less steady stream of income. The rest of it—which does come from composition, in the form of commissions or royalties—fluctuates wildly, given the season. That said, I make more now from composing than I did from my entire salary just a few years ago. If I lived in a place that was not a major city, not Los Angeles, I could survive on my composing income alone. In another town, I would have hit the arbitrary goal I set for myself ten years ago.


I do live in L.A., though, and in some sense, I've failed: I'm turning 30, and I'm not making 100% of my living from composing, although I am making it from music. But I love my students much more than I expected when I first started teaching eight years ago. I like knowing that I can afford rent, bills, groceries, quarterly taxes, car insurance, and health insurance, and still stash some money away each month in savings. I like having a Roth IRA. For a freelance musician, I'm doing fine. Trying to make a living solely from composing is an ambitious goal in general, let alone one to achieve by 30. By 30! I want to smack my 20-year-old self for setting myself up for failure, for dangling this goal over my head for ten years.


I'm making peace with the fact that I'm not going to hit that goal this year. After all these years of rounding up, trying to find an age when I'd feel like an adult, I'm finally here; I finally do. The last decade of my career has been a success, no matter how I make my living.


Looking past 30, I wonder if the next few years will hold the same pull as every other age. Will I round up to 31 or wait to claim that number until my actual birthday? Will rounding up to 40 hold the same weight? 38 has a nice ring to it; maybe I'll start rounding down instead or turn 38 twice.


Maybe not. I'd like to think I'm done rounding, period. I've never admitted to myself until now that it's lying, but it is. For half a year, every year since I was ten, I have lied about my age. Now, every next age sounds like one I'd like to be, that I'd be lucky to turn: 31, 32, 43, 55, 67, 84.... I'm not in any hurry to get there. The years already pass by too quickly.


Unlike my 20-year-old self, I don't presume to know myself in the future. I'll set new goals, but I don't dare make any more proclamations about exactly who I'll be, how much money I'll be making, or precisely what “successful and happy” will look like at any age.


My life is so different from what I predicted ten years ago. I like myself much better now than I did at 25, or 17, or 10. I'm comfortable with myself—love myself, even, with a protective fierceness I've lacked for most of my life. What have I lost by yearning for each age before it happens, by wishing half of each year away? And how silly was I, to think I could hide my age in the first place? After all, I've chosen a career where my birth year is printed on paper and handed to strangers.


That birth year is 1987, by the way. I was born on November 15, 1987, exactly a hundred years after Georgia O'Keefe. She lived to be 98, and I can only hope for a life as long as hers. Since that's ultimately not up to me, though, I'm aiming for the next best thing: a life ultimately measured—as O'Keefe's was—in creativity rather than years.

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