Wasted on the Young

You’ve all seen them: “Share”s on Facebook of a photograph of some old piece of junk, with a “‘Like’ and ‘Share’ if you know what this is!!” exhortation beneath. Skate keys, those little plastic inserts for 45 rpm records, an 8-track tape cartridge. I even saw, the other day, a rotary-dial phone – c’mon, guys, that’s a gimme.

I have to say, I find these things puzzling. Not because I don’t know what they are – most people with any historical knowledge of pop culture can identify them – but because they seem to be a sort of gathering place where people brag about the fact that they are old. There is an undertone of resentment, as well: “All those stupid pictures the kids put up on the Interwebs? Well, here’s one for OLD FOLKS LIKE ME! Hah! Take that, hipster kiddies!”

These things are shared on Facebook by people I went to high school with. I turned 48 last week. Am I old? And even if I am…what is the benefit of belonging to the I Know What A Skate Key Looks Like club?

We are a youth-oriented culture. Television, movies, even books are tailored for the 18-35 crowd (often 18-35 year old men, but not exclusively). I’m more than ten years out of the demographic. Maybe I’m only just starting to notice because the bulk of those ten years were spent being awake half the night with a child, and I was too tired to pay attention to the rest of the world. But I knew it when I was young, as well: Youth is the focus. Youth gets the attention. Youth gets the adulation.

You know what? Being young…kind of sucked.

Every individual has a different story, of course; but I think most of us didn’t spend a lot of time thinking “Yay! We’re young! Everybody’s focused on us!” Most of us were doing just what we do when we’re not young anymore: trying to support ourselves (and sometimes our families), figuring out what hopes and dreams are really worth our time, struggling with ways to change the world around us the way we would like to see it changed. Or trying to find love, save relationships, raise children…all the things my peers and I are still doing at 48.

The thing about being young is that you’re trying to do all this when you’re young. Turning 18 doesn’t give you instant magic insight into your life. The day you turn 18 is just like the day before, when you were 17; you just have more legal rights. You are the same person. In my case I was insecure, self-conscious, disingenuous about finances, entirely naive about boys – in other words, I was still an adolescent.

I stayed that way a long time. A few months ago I had a chance to see my college graduation photograph, and I was struck by how young I looked. I was almost 22 years old, but I did not look like a grown woman. I was not a grown woman, but there I was, with a job and an apartment, living life without a net.

I had no idea what I was doing. I made a lot of mistakes. I blew up my finances more than once. I made bad, bad mistakes around men. I stumbled into a lucrative career, but I had no real ambition. And writing…writing was this thing that I did, that someday, when I magically had the time, I was going to do seriously.

And the media. The lovely media, explaining to me in every way possible how I was inadequate: insufficiently attractive, insufficiently successful, insufficiently acquisitive. I wasn’t buying enough stuff, or I was buying the wrong stuff. Or – wait! That thing you bought yesterday? Garbage. You need THIS thing. All packaged around sex and sexuality, yet another can of worms for pretty much every person on the planet. I’ve known a few people who fit into our cultural stereotypes of perfect beauty, and not one of them has believed it of themselves. The media quite neatly makes every one of us, no matter what our strengths and weaknesses, feel inadequate.

This doesn’t end when you become officially old. But you’re not targeted by quite so much anymore. (There’s a whole separate set of expectations, often around being invisible; but for whatever reason, I care so much less about expectations than I did when I was young.)

It’s possible most of the change is internal. At some point, you do figure out which of your dreams are worth fighting for. You do figure out what your career does – or does not – mean to you. You do figure out how to allocate the hours in your day toward the most important things. You fail a lot, too – and you figure out how to learn from that, and move forward, and handle it better the next time.

The most significant lesson I have learned sounds simple when I write it down: In order to get stuff done, you have to do stuff. Wishing, hoping, waiting for the universe to shift on its axis – none of these things produce results. At some point, I realized that if I wanted to get in shape, I was going to have to actually put time into exercise. If I wanted to write a book, I was going to have to sit down and write it. My brain, used to a lifetime of excuses and inertia, strongly resisted my efforts to actually start steering my life, instead of just following it wherever it drifted.

My life is a work in progress. I hope it will always be a work in progress, until the day I die. I hope I never stop wishing and hoping and dreaming and doing. I might wish I’d stop making mistakes, but I’ve always been a realist.

Yesterday my daughter asked me what age I would be if I could choose. I told her I would be the age I am. When she asked me why, I said “Because I’m happy.” I told her I’d enjoyed every age I’d ever been (a bit of a fib; but she’s only eight, and she’ll have different experiences than I did), and I was having fun now, so why would I ever go back?

I don’t Share those photographs of skate keys and telephones. This is not because I am embarrassed to be old enough to identify them; it’s because I don’t share the need to stick my hand up and say “Take that, you upstarts!” I am happy to let the kids have the Internet memes, along with the advertising and the cultural coercion.

And you know? A lot of those kids are pretty cool. They come up with interesting stuff. They make good movies, and fun television shows, and write fabulous books. They make my life richer. I am glad they are there, and that they are young, and that there will be more of them as I get older, stimulating my imagination, and making me work harder to achieve my own goals.

What it comes down to is this: Age is an artificial division. 18-35 means nothing when you start talking about individuals. I know what a skate key is; I also love my iPad. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and I can write HTML5 code. Remembering some obsolete (and often drastically inferior) bits of stuff doesn’t make me old. Remembering it fondly doesn’t make me old. Clinging to it blindly, setting myself apart from anything new and different – that would make me old. I may get there someday – but now, at 48? No way.

(I do hate cell phones, though; but in fairness, I hated that damn rotary phone, too.)

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