Appropriately enough, the first time I wondered if I had gotten old happened because of MTV, an institution that is barely younger than I am. On the night and early morning in question, I entered the scene feeling drunk and joyful, connected with the world from the backseat of my roommate’s truck as it wound into the sticks and to an acquaintance’s place.
I followed two of my roommates through a blacked out garage and into a living room that was only blacked out mentally. While some cool mom hovered around them, a spatter of clearly underage kids splayed on a couch, blankly watching some Jackass-aping prank show on MTV2 featuring hosts who were trying waaaay too hard to act coked out and cool for the camera. The surge of loathing I felt for the show and its audience was about equal in strength to the frightening question that popped into my head shortly afterwards. Was I into such stupid crap when I was that age? The answer is, of course, yes ‒ though I’ve since discovered and loved the MTV self-satire that permeates my beloved Beavis and Butt-head.
Unfortunately, that first question led to another uncomfortable one: had I been a stupid teenager?
This moment in the cool mom’s living room was the first time I remember feeling smarter than another person for no other reason than age, which likely makes it the first time I remember identifying with the people who thought I was an idiot when I was a programmed teen rebel consumer. That’s kind of a scary moment. It can lead to zealous, born again past-disowning and delusions of present-tense brilliance. Gee, I was such a moron back then, but I’m a goddamn Socrates now!
We say these disclaimers in ignorance of the possibility that the versions of us ten years from now could look back and laugh about the so-called stupid people we are right now.
There’s a weird contradiction in this, being that people tend to venerate the past and anticipate the future at the expense of their present tenses. Man, being sixteen years old was awesome! Holy crap, I can’t wait until the new Frank Sinatra album comes out and I’m old enough to buy beer! And yet when the future becomes the now, the anticipation tends not to yield equal parts fulfillment. If time travel were possible, we’d probably be just as disappointed with a tangible past. We tend to like living theoretically, but don’t we like to bitch about the actual process of existing.
Back to the cool kids and my old man dilemma. I reacted to that moment of elderly paranoia well, deciding that the question of me being a stupid teenager was one of degrees, not absolutes. Sure, I wasn’t as wise as I am now, but it’s not as though I’m complacently fully formed today. In any event, my age fears became irrelevant when a group of us left the couch kids and cool mom to wander into the neighboring rock quarry and hurl ourselves from the tops of pebble mountains. Very childish. Very fun.
Still, this lingering worry that I had in fact gotten old stayed with me for months afterwards, further inflamed due to my living in the dining room of a house without a scrap of privacy and five roommates in their mid-20s. Half of those people were in a band which practiced often and took the rest of us along whether we wanted to go or not. Also, most of my roommates’ musical tastes weren’t like mine. Again, I didn’t have an enclosed room of my own to filter that out.
What ended up happening was that I spent that year flat broke and doing little more than lying around that dining room, getting pissed at the noise of the band and the songs played ad nauseum in between those live practices. And I began to feel very old. It felt as though I’d have been more okay with loud noise and contrasting tastes if I was younger. The phrase “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” swam through my head like a sanctimonious goldfish that year.
Those thoughts, of course, were bullshit. Since moving into a place of my own and building up my own little sanctuary, I’ve been able to put everything into its proper theoretical, past-tense perspective. The answer I’ve come up with to that second, uncomfortable question is this: if I am truly old, then I’ve always been old. I’ve always needed privacy and space like a sanctimonious goldfish needs purified water. I’ve always needed the ability to filter other people out. And I’ve never liked the styles of music that my roommates were into, and it’s not as though they didn’t exist when I was a teenager. Hell, I’ve always been annoyed by teenagers, even ‒ especially! ‒ when I was one.
In contrast, I’m pretty okay with getting older. Aging has to me been a process of getting over unimportant shit and getting better at being myself. I used to idealize the irresponsible life I had when I was sixteen; now I’d be hard pressed to take that life back for anything. Worrying about fitting in? Being horribly damaged by real and desired romance? Waking up at 6:30 in the morning, five days a week? The hell with that.
When I actually do become an old man, I’m going to be amazing. Unless I’m not.
Two additional points bear mentioning. The first is that last weekend I went back to my old place, hung out with my old roommates, and enjoyed a night full of loud music and drunken frivolity. I had a great time. The ability to leave and not have to clean up, combined with the ability to afford to drink, both helped immensely.
The second thing is this: every time I tell somebody that I’m in my early thirties, they act incredibly surprised. Apparently people think that I’m five. Which I am.
Growing up and growing old are two different things.