Sunday, November 28, 2010

Act Your Age

One of the largest changes I’ve seen as an adult, as compared to the lives of my parents, is the concept of prolonged adolescence. My Dad fought on the tail end of World War II with his older brothers. They all came home in their mid-to-late 20s, and either immediately settled down, or took steps to settle down: free college on the G.I. bill, marriage, the first few kids of my generation. These guys had lived through the Depression, remembered what it was like to be hungry all the time, to want to work, but have no work available. They got thrown into the ass end of a war that the country was dragged into. I’d wager their sense of pragmatism and “reality” was equal in their 20s to what I feel now as an American male in his 40s.

In my 20s, I felt like a teenager. In some ways, I still feel like a teenager now. Part of that is this illusory belief that we somehow never age, despite our bodies telling us otherwise. You feel one way inside, but look another. People treat you as you look. You could put me in a room with a guy my exact look and age, dress me in a suit and tie, put him in hipster garb (big dumb glasses, ill-fitting ironic t-shirt, vest, pipe jeans, scarf, Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops, duck hair), watch people interact with us, and they’ll treat both of us differently. Especially if we’re sitting in an office.

I wrote earlier about that brick-wall experience of realizing I could no longer wear clothes ironically, which was a good thing. As a teenage kid and young adult, I’d wear bowling and air-conditioning company shirts with someone’s name emblazoned the left breast. Military gear. The concept was I found this stuff cool and funny: I would never actually be on a bowling team or named “Gus” and installing air conditioners. The day came when I realized, if wear these shirts, people are going to think that’s my name and what I do, because I look like I could be that person, as opposed to the under-fed, smirking, teenage-looking waif who sported such garb for a kick.

I recently saw this 2008 interview with Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a much-maligned band due to the 2004 documentary Dig! which presented Anton as a brilliant musician, but raving nutcase who would always be at odds with his bandmates due to his ego and mentality. I thought he got a raw deal with that documentary – take snippets of the worst moments of anyone’s life over a few-year period and you can make that person look like a complete asshole. I have about a dozen BJM tracks on the iPod, all good stuff, found a lot of their songs too derivative of mid-60s British rock, but every now and then, they’d really click. In this interview I watched, Anton was roughly 41 years old.

And there’s the rub for me. I gather that being a musician, particularly an indie-rock musician, you’re cast into a world of post-college graduates, people who are always in their mid-to-late 20s, at loose ends, trust-fund kids dressing like bums, guys with rich parents starting small rock clubs in hip parts of town, college town people who never want to let go of that loose college-town vibe. That way of life seemed endless at the time. Didn’t have a lot of money. Didn’t care. The body appears not to be aging. Can still eat anything I want. Some friends have freaked out and got married/had kids/got way into long-houred corporate jobs. But most feeling their way around, still going out to see bands well into their early hours or morning despite having work the next day. Seeing bands implying standing for four hours in a packed club, getting drunk with a gang of people before or after.

When does it end? For me, I’d say a few years ago, early 40s, I just stopped going to see bands in clubs. Very rarely in theaters or arenas, as the price gouging has been terrible. The concept of being packed sardine-like into a small club for 3-5 hours, sitting through 45-minute sets for two bands I’m not there to see … by the time my band comes on, I’m so physically uncomfortable, stiff from being wedged in, just not enjoying myself, and then contemplating a late-night subway train ride, which is always a drag … man, I just got tired of it. Whatever transcendence was generated by the music was negated by the physical experience of being crammed in, and then trying to get home afterwards.

But it’s not about music or even physical appearance. Watching that interview with Newcombe, I couldn’t help but feel the guy was perpetually frozen at the emotional age of about 23 or 24. He’s not the only one. I’ve met a lot of people like this, who want to be that age forever in that sense of always teetering on the verge of adulthood, but still grasping the essence of what it means to be a teenager. The guy could have a few kids. A mortgage. More adult responsibilities than I do. But the overwhelming desire is still there to present himself as someone who is 24 years old forever. Hip in ways a teenager will not get, a college kid can hint at, and a 28-year-old will catch glimpses of in his rear view mirror as everything in his life shifts gears into full adulthood.

You see it in movie stars, too, the unbearable urge to have the hair always longish and full, but never gray, the face relatively unwrinkled, body in perfect condition. The average person doesn’t seem to grasp that for a 45-year-old, this implies, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars spent on plastic surgery, hair colorings and dental implants, and more than likely personal chefs and trainers to conduct two-hour per day workouts, liposuction for those pesky body areas that will never come around despite advanced exercise techniques. There are very few people my age who look naturally like they’re in their mid-20s. And, as noted above, more than the look, the perception that this person is timeless, unattached to thoughts of impending physical decline, unaffected by deaths of parents and friends, everything in his life running smoothly, in perfect working order, like a machine that will never break down and never require any maintenance.

That’s 24, or at least how I remember it, the well-meaning illusion that your life, and you, will always be this loose and care-free. You have no reason not to believe that at 24. Look at you: you’ve hardly aged a day physically from the age of 18 onward. This could go on for a very long time, you think, I’ll be one of those people who are mistaken for someone a decade or two younger, get carded routinely in bars and clubs, a flip of the hair: no, really, I’m 34!

In a short story, I once described that feeling as looking out over the ocean on a summer’s day and not seeing the end, just that distant line on the horizon where the sky meets the water. I was in my late 20s when I wrote that story and must have been thinking about that line, and realizing there was no line, that if you got in a boat and kept traveling, sooner or later, there would be an end. Life is getting in that boat and taking the ride instead of looking over that distance and mistakenly believing it went on forever.

I'm not sure why I find myself vaguely annoyed by the “24 Forever” contingent. Jealousy? That’s probably part of it. Most of the people I pigeonhole with that vibe are clinging to creative ways of life, playing in bands, or married to a responsible, working spouse who serves as caretaker to the illusion. I don’t know anyone professionally ensconced in that way of life, although look around, these people exist. We’re trained to worship them, and all I can think, these days, is what the fuck is wrong with these people? It’s unnatural to live this way, the constant youth obsession, the refusal to accept the reality of your own aging process. I think a large part of the refusal to age emotionally has to do with responsibility, of any sort, to present that illusion of weightlessness. Married? Kids? Mortgage? Whatever, man, let’s do mushrooms and have a bullshit session on the local golf course, late at night, splayed out on the 15th green and gazing up at the stars. That sort of looseness gets a lot harder to pull off when you have to get up at 6:30 and do your thing for money. Or have kids who might see you stoned and pretending you’re a lot younger than you are. We’ve all tried – the war to live that illusion forever tends to get lost in our 30s, with a few minor battles won along the way.

I guess the issue is I used to imagine my adult life being that way forever. That’s how I envisioned a writer’s life being, that sort of eternal freedom, getting up whenever, pulling off all sorts of crazy stunts and adventures while the rest of the world punched a clock, and getting paid well to do it. God bless anyone who can pull that off, but it ain’t me. Even if I was writing full time and living off it, I can see, from having people in my life who do this, it ain’t easy, and not that open, limitless field with a clear path I once envisioned. It’s a lot of financial issues, periods of little or no money coming in, unwelcome down time. The dream in high school was doing something with your life that would be exactly what you wanted to do and never having to answer to anyone. Very few people live this way. The kids I remember most wanting to live this way, the wild ones, the ones who flunked out or were never around, most got roped into working-class lives more regimented and dull than anything they could have imagined in high school. You want that sort of freedom, you have to work at it from an early age, be very good at something creative, and get some very lucky breaks along the way. You just don’t cop an attitude and be granted that sort of limitless freedom. Most of the poor bastards on suspension in the rubber room never seemed to understand this.

And these days, I don’t even think I want that limitless freedom. Whatever does or doesn’t pan out in my life, I’ve come to realize there are certain things I’m in control of: my health, my sanity, my sense of well being. If I have control of these things, whatever else happens, life is good. I think you’ll find a lot of “successful” people make themselves that way because they lack some or all of these things. So we long for that sense of security they put forth in their images. If you could strip away the image, I think you’d see what those people are really worth. Some would be no different – some would be a mess. I don’t envy anyone who has to impress upon me how powerful/happy/secure they are. If they are, it goes without saying.

And I think that’s the heart of the issue: my inability to accept someone who refuses to move past an age, past a way of looking at the world, that is all possibilities and no hard choices. That attitude is perfect at a time in our lives, balanced between teenager and adult, wanting the best of both worlds without forfeiting too much to either side. But when I catch vestiges of it in people in their 40s, much less their 30s? Man, I had that shit beat out of me a long time ago! By life. By myself. By reality. By things that happened. By things that didn’t happen. I changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But I changed. That’s what happens as you get older. Things change. You change. You move forward, even when it’s down dead ends and in the wrong direction. Time doesn’t stand still. Neither should any of us. A wax museum of eternal youth is no place I want to be ... and seemingly what our entire culture is geared towards.

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