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How I Learned To Stop Explaining How Old Things Make Me Feel


"Get ready to feel old."

I read this on Twitter almost every day, and usually it's a good-natured reminder that something loved by many people of approximately my vintage (born in 1970) has hit a particular anniversary. Big was 25 years ago, you know. She's So Unusual was 30 years ago. Or they're comparative: When I was watching Happy Days in 1980, it was set substantially closer to the present than a show would be now about me watching Happy Days in 1980.

I do this kind of thing a lot, or I have. But I think it's time to stop.

Among other things, it's kind of problematic to complain about the powdery state of your bones when there's always somebody a year older than you are not far away. Or 10 years. Or 30. And in your showy self-deprecation, you cut them as well. (This is also known as the "I could not believe it when I ballooned to a size 12"/"I could not believe it when I realized I had $200 in credit card debt" problem.)

I also could never escape the uncomfortable feeling that while this kind of thing is an uncomplicated lark for many people, for me, it had a measure of vanity. After all, to be startled that something from 30 years ago does not feel far away is, really, to pretend to still hold the belief of a 15-year-old that 30 years is forever, that it is an immeasurable distance, which by the time you are 43, you know it is not. It is a silly pantomime of a perspective I don't genuinely hold anymore: I know now that I was wrong to assume as a teenager that by this point I would feel like a different person, obviously, like someone who couldn't possibly care about anything current, like someone who would not appreciate stupid jokes or experience lust or listen to good bands.

When you experience dissonance of any kind — in this case between what it feels like to be 30 years away from the culture of your teenager-hood and what you thought it would feel like — you can always shift either one to fit the other. For me, continuing to say "This makes me feel so old" is to pretend to still be 15, to pretend to still believe that only a broken-down person could love a movie that was 25 years old as anything other than a piece of quaint nostalgia. Thus, I must be broken-down, but really, ha ha, I'm not, because I still see time the way I did as a teenager, right?

Unless you want to get really unnecessarily real — "contemplating your mortality" real — this kind of thing is often just a dumb dance in which we pretend not to have learned what, in fact, we have learned. It is literally to pretend to be young and dumb. It is to swear allegiance to a belief in the necessity and value of eternal youth that's disproved by the everyday experience of ... you know, living in the world.

After all, it's not as if I would really rather be living as my 25-year-old self. If you ask me, I'll tell you I was a rather disastrously confused 25-year-old in many ways; when I focus on that is when I'll say things are so much better now. It's as if every vintage of myself must give way to some other one: my young self was awful, but at least it was young, while my older self is smarter, but old. How old? It's almost time for my 25th high school reunion, that's how old! I'm so old!

The truth is that all those vintages are the same in lots of ways. I am doing now largely what I was doing then: I am trying. (Verb, not adjective.) (Hopefully.) Perhaps that's the other side of complaining about feeling old because your favorite movie is old; it feels like you should understand things much better, and why don't you?

We all know about the cultural worship of youth, especially (but certainly not exclusively) for women. Craig Ferguson has talked about how shallow and unformed this can make everything seem. Obviously, there are evolutionary reasons for the desirability of vigor, I suppose, but there are no evolutionary reasons to walk around disclaiming your age by pretending you see it the way you did at 16.

It's true that time compresses as you age; it crinkles up behind you so that it seems to occupy less space. The time between me and She's So Unusual — which was so important to me, so important — is indeed much greater than it feels, but that's because if you smooth it out, it contains the imprint of so many things I hardly ever think about, but that I would never erase.

I mean, how would I choose to make myself younger without wrecking everything? Give back my soap-watching era, my MGM-musicals-obsessed era, my early rom-com-obsessed era? Give back school? Give back miserable, awful Minnesota winter mornings when my car wouldn't start? Give back the two weeks or so when I thought I might go to even more school? Or the year in New York around the corner from the deli where the guy mixed ice coffees by flipping them over vertically?

Lamenting my age, at this point, even in jest, feels ungrateful. It's sort of an insult to the integrity of my intact life, without which I would not be sitting here. You pull out any of the pieces, however much I may have hated them at the time, and the results would be unpredictable. This is where I am, this is how long it took.

This is, I realize, personal, but it is also popular-cultural, quite truly. Nostalgia is a divine thing, but for me personally, it ought to be affectionate, not an insincere apology for walking the earth so long and becoming uncool to the version of me that, at 13, believed the greatest singer in the world was Jack Wagner. (I don't think I really believed this.)

(I may have believed this.)

And so I will not do it. I will not tell you how old things make me feel, and I will not tell my nephews how much I would appreciate it if they stopped getting taller, and I will not call myself names. (I mean, I will totally call myself names, let's get serious. They just won't be "spinster" or "old lady.")

I have learned a lot since She's So Unusual.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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