that untrustable age
6 September, 2006
I’m a few days away, and looking forward to it. For one, I always seem to be on the young side of every crowd I’m in, so changing that first number will be a small but psychologically significant change there, for both sides. More importantly, though, the decades seem to just keep improving:
THE FIRST DECADE: Sure, the first few months are rad. You live in the Eden neighborhood of Utopia. You’re the entire world and the entire world is you. Nice! But it’s got nowhere to go but down. Primarily, you get born, which is no fun for anybody involved. That leads to a whole new realm of uncomfortable states like being cold and tired and hungry and poopy, and not only can none of your caretakers really tell the difference but they also seem disturbingly unable to read your mind. As you develop, you reach “cognitive milestones,” known to you as “huge ego hits”: your mom isn’t the same person as you, other people have their own minds and wills and don’t always give you exactly what you want, if something breaks or is lost or dies it stays that way forever — stuff like that. Less existentially, the small indignities are legion. There is a long period of run-ins with the toilet, which your caretakers won’t stop hyping the awesomeness of. You’re too small for everything, height-wise (including said toilet). Sometimes your Disney Princess spoon and Disney Princess fork and Disney Princess plate and Disney Princess cup are put on the table in a haphazard configuration, which really fucks with the fabric of the universe something awful. There are silly rules everywhere you turn (you suspect they might be arbitrary or at the least ad hoc); rules like “we keep our clothes on all the time” and “we sit on our butts while we eat, and use utensils” and “we don’t roar or growl or bite the table” that make NO sense for those times when you have to be a dinosaur to eat your dinner. Yep, if you ask me, people tend to forget how frustrating it was to be a kid. Talk to one sometime–they can’t wait to be older, bigger; they barely know why, but they know they are missing out. Heaven may lay about us in our infancy, as a famous Bill once wrote, but good luck calming a hysterical child with Intimations of Immortality. Maybe you can distract them for a minute if you hit yourself in the head with a copy while making a funny face and saying “BOINNNNG!”, but after that they just keep crying (trust me on this) and you have to remedy whichever uncomfortable state they are in to make them stop.
THE SECOND DECADE: Any decade that features 8th grade, puberty, being a freshman TWICE, and arbitrarily defined maturity thresholds that vary by country, state or even municipality has a lot to answer for. Still, it’s a lot less confusing than the first one, and you are learning so fast that it makes more and more sense every day. In fact, the world starts seeming so manageable that by about halfway through the decade you have it TOTALLY figured out, which is a nice feeling while it lasts. Also nice? Your invention of sex (good idea!) as well as all the myriad forms of musical, sartorial, cosmetic, recreational, and chemical rebellion, all of which make the later teens a time that you will remember fondly even if you can’t remember them or hated every minute while it was going on. On the downside, well, again I feel I must mention puberty and all that it brings, but the area has been covered pretty well already. Socially, this is when you discover how the world works. You think it’s just how high school works, but your adult self learns otherwise, and if it develops an interest in politics or moves to DC it learns even sooner. (It’s interesting, people always think they are the victims here. Exhibit A, Molly Ringwald movies; even the cute, rich, popular girl is unhappy. Exhibit B, the Christian Right in December, who think THEY are the targets of the season’s discrimination.) You may make it through this with a shred of self-esteem, but even if you do, at some point — at the end of this or the beginning of the next decade, in my observations — the world will deliver you a smackdown, showing you that while you indeed may BE all that and a bag of chips, you have to prove it, and by the way that bag of chips is mostly air.
THE THIRD DECADE: Freshman years of high school and college get due credit for being tough reality checks, but if you ask me one’s freshman year of life (whenever it may happen, but early in this decade seems to be it for most people) is underrated for being its own brand of directionless overwhelming sucktastic. Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Why aren’t you doing it better? You had these questions before, perhaps, but now the answers start to matter, and answering them is not a smooth process. But answer them you do begin doing, and with respect to your self-control and how the world sees you, things are definitely an improvement over #2. The independence rawks, and for the first time it’s rarely questioned (when it maybe should be — US consumer debt, anyone?). Nostalgia becomes possible, and can be a lot of fun, even when it’s for the worst bits of the previous decades. (I couldn’t begin to count how many times my 20something self said “I’m so glad I’m not a teenager anymore!” Usually this was prompted by hearing some song that had soundtracked a particular period of turmoil, and feeling bemused instead of turbulent. My 2005 front-to-back relisten of Pretty Hate Machine during one crunch-time dissertation all-nighter stands out as a particularly satisfying moment.) The key change here, though, is taking on the mindset of an adult, which is disorienting. An early example: on one overly anticipated day, you experience the mindfuck/anticlimax of full US-adulthood. The day before, drinking 5 alcoholic beverages in an hour make you a pathetic example of misguided youth, but on that day it makes you so normal that NOT drinking them is the pathetic thing. As the decade wears on you discover that not only did the emperor never have any clothes (those anti-dinosaur rules? They WERE ad hoc) but that there is no emperor (that Disney Princess place setting? An early hint about just how little the universe cares about your opinion). Your parents are just people doing their best. Your teachers were pretty fricking young. etc. etc. Once you get the hang of it and start redefining your relationships to people and things, it’s exhilarating. Once you get the hang of it.
THE FOURTH DECADE: Given all the regularly scheduled upheavals in the rearview mirror, I have a rosy outlook on the upcoming decade. There will of course be individual, personalized smackdowns on the menu, but this post isn’t about those. WRT the institutionalized, culturally and biologically scheduled smackdowns, it seems that this decade may have the fewest of any before or since. Even if that’s not true, I’m starting it in a far better position than I did the previous three. Sure there will be a biological clock and sure there will be aches and pains and sure there will be more and heavier responsibilities and less and less time. On the other side of the sheet, well — I’ve heard a few rumors:
1) There is a degree of resolution of the life-direction issues of the third decade.
2) There are more orgasms. And they are better.
These have been verified by well-placed sources (and I encourage more sources to reveal themselves in comments). So who gives a damn if youth don’t trust me. Thirtysomething, here I come!
…No pun intended.