When I turned twenty, I was under the impression that life was going to be a party for the next ten years. I was sorely mistaken. You see… I was warned about a couple things: my metabolism will decrease, I’ll get fatter, academic work will get harder, I’ll have to pay taxes; but there are a lot of things no one warned me about.
So I have written this list, projecting my personal experiences onto my fellow twenty-something friends and colleagues who are themselves possibly struggling with the same things I struggle with in this deeply confusing decade we call our twenties.
1. Twenties are the new teens.
People in their thirties often tell me that the thirties are the new twenties, so what does that make us? Well, unfortunately, as if we didn’t already suffer enough in the confusing and disorienting teenage years, we have to do it all over again. The sad truth of our generation is that we often move home, and while I haven’t yet moved home, I’ve visited home enough to know the only difference between being around your parents as a teen and being around them as an adult is, as an adult, they can’t tell you to do your homework because you probably don’t have any.
We are just as rebellious, angsty, emotional, and unstable as we were back then, but throughout college we were far enough away it didn’t matter. This isn’t unique to being in the twenties – I compel every post-thirty adult who reads this to consider: what would life be like living with your parents? It would probably send you straight back in time to loitering at the local Seven Eleven just to escape the folks and their 9pm bedtimes.
“Girlie, where you going?”
“Don’t take that tone with me young lady! You’re not going out with that Johnson boy again! He’s trouble!”
“Mom! He’s my husband! I love him!”
“I won’t have it! I’ve been talking to Jimmy Lewis’s mother, and she thinks you two would make an adorable pair. He’s a retired lawyer, you know. Good genes.”
“You never listen to me, Mom!”
But, since people past the age of thirty don’t live with their parents (the shame eventually drives them out of the attic), this peculiar age-family dynamic rests on the shoulders of twenty-something boomerangs.
2. I still don’t know what it’s like to be an adult.
I remember once waking up at 6:30am to drive a friend to LAX. It was still dark, the streets were empty, and there was a certain amount of peace in the air. It was an hour I had rarely seen since my high school days, and even though I was dead tired, there was a certain amount of satisfaction in waking up before the world.
Then it became 7:00 and I was stuck in rush hour going 5 to 10 miles per hour on a freeway crammed with the morning commuters. Who the hell are these people, and what are they doing up before 10:00?! It was window into a confusing world I had never experienced – that of getting drive thru Starbucks on the way to work, being home by 5:30pm to eat dinner and then falling asleep after the evening news – and as I got back home from the airport at 8:00am, I tucked myself in bed realizing that as long as I eat dinner at 10pm and fall asleep around 2:30am every morning after doing my midnight grocery shopping with the drunkards and insomniacs, I will never know what it’s like to be an adult.
This is also true as long as I fill out a 1040EZ for my tax returns, but that’s probably connected to my sleep schedule. And don’t even talk to me about 401Ks or the Stock Market, whatever that is. A “bond” is a connection between two people, or at the very least the last name of James.
3. I don’t belong in a socially distinct or recognized demographic.
As my twenties go on, I realize that I truly am not an adult (see above). In fact, I’m pretty sure adulthood is entirely a lie, but eventually people get comfortable with calling themselves adults and group themselves into a mass of people that have TV shows about their problems and ads for their migraine pills. As long as I don’t have a “career” and my knees still work, I’m not sure I can call myself an adult.
But then, I can’t call myself a kid either. I can’t hang out with teenagers and converse about not-yet-shattered hopes and dreams (at least not without the police showing up). I can’t even call myself a college student – I’m not about to do a keg stand and hook up with some vomit-mouthed coed who still drives home on the weekends to do laundry.
But in popular media, nothing exists between adulthood and college. Sexy shows about young people are almost exclusively about high school (Glee, Popular, Roswell, Dawson’s Creek) or at the very latest college (Felicity, American Pie 2, Animal House), and then it jumps straight into sexy young professionals (Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Entourage) and that’s just a stone’s throw away from the established but uncomfortable adult (Friends, Sex and the City) and before you know it, you’re at Matlock.
What do we, the non-professional post-college good-for-nothing twenties have? Futurama? Is Philip J. Fry the torch-bearer for my people?
4. Relationships actually result in marriage sometimes.
A year ago, I was 23. I had married friends, but none of them went through the process of marriage during our friendship. Then, sometime between then and now, my first friend got engaged. I was thrilled. I’ve always wanted my friends to get married. It was about time.
But seriously, six months and daily engagement notices later, I’ve decided: you guys can stop getting married now. It’s not that I’m not happy for you – I am very happy for you. But, as awful as this sounds, I also enjoy the intrigue of future ambiguity. You see, I’m selfish, and I like being able to say, “So, meet anyone special lately?” But I can’t say that when you’re married. It’s more like, “So, did you… meet your wife lately?” It’s like a mystery novel whose ending has been revealed. It was fun while it lasted, and I enjoyed the twist, but now what? Part II: Babies? I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.
I admit, this is selfish of me. It’s not about me, it’s about you. But no, I’m making it about me because this entry is about me projecting onto everyone I feel like might be similar to me. So I have to be honest about my feelings, and they are as follows:
If you’ve read my writings for a while, you can probably figure out I do a lot of pining, and a lot of my identity is based on the idea of missed connections, unrequited longing, or the need to overcome a lack of courage to pursue a dream that is probably best left out of reality. I see this akin to the ideals of a nineteenth century romantic, and I compose music accordingly. For me, it’s an element of psyche that contributes to my art.
But here’s the thing: in high school, when two people were dating, I could always say, “When they split up…” and that idea would somehow bring peace to my irreconcilable pain of being unable to pursue the woman of my dreams, whoever she might’ve been at the time, even if I knew damn well I was never going to do anything about it anyway if she were single. Then college happened, and I could still say, “When they split up…” and it might take one, two, or three years, but it was bound to happen eventually. After all, you can’t stay together forever unless you get married…
…and now they’re getting married, and I realize now that the caveat of time no longer applies. We’re growing up. Things last forever now. The pool of eligible ladies is shrinking permanently.
5. I am physically incapable of staying up all night.
Yes, I realize I’ve already confessed I stay up until 2:30am and sleep until the double digits. But that’s simply my schedule. It’s no more or less sleep than someone who has a 9pm to 5am schedule.
But God forbid I stay up until 3:30am. Eventually I’ll fall asleep standing up if I have to. Once upon a time, I would have a paper due the next morning, and with a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey, I was good to go until 6 or 7am to turn it in by 9. Now, if I’m writing a paper last minute, I get to about 4am and say, “Shit. Well, I guess it’s gonna be late.” And then I pass out on the floor.
That goes for parties too. I have a 1:00am self-imposed curfew. Take that, college!
6. I have forgotten everything I ever learned in high school.
I mean everything. Even people’s names. Calculus? Don’t know. Physics? What’s that? Great Gatsby? Read it once, someone dies. How to cite sources? Ask the internet. Gilded Age? Something about wacky facial hair on rich men. Algebra? YES! Oh wait… that was junior high.
I’m not kidding. Everything is gone. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with old friends that go something like this:
Me: “Hey, you remember that one guy who had the skateboarding accident sophomore year?”
Me: “Damn. He was in like all of my classes for all four years.”
Him: “What’s his name?”
Me: “I have no idea! That’s what I’m trying to figure out!”
Him: “… do you remember anything else about him?”
Me: “Uh… he lived in Los Altos Hills… gave a speech at graduation… blond hair, green eyes, about 6’1” 170 pounds. Always wore blue hats. Dated that brown-haired chick. Went to UC Davis to study history. I think he had a sister two years older…”
Him: “Oh… I think it was… was it …Dustin? Justin? Crustin?”
7. Not only am I dumber than I used to be, I’m also more retarded.
Maybe the first clause is due to this principle: “The more things you know to exist, the dumber you feel,” but that doesn’t help me feel any less retarded. And I don’t mean that in an offensive-slur kind of way. Literally, I feel like I’m mentally handicapped, at least compared to how I used to be. Let’s take language as an example:
When I had just turned 20, I took a class in Lithuanian, a notoriously difficult and obscure language. There were four people in my class, and one of them was a benevolent middle-aged man who tragically stumbled through lessons day in and day out. This would happen:
Teacher – “’Pusryčiauti’ means ‘to eat breakfast.’ How do you say, ‘to eat breakfast’?”
Man – “P… p… pa… pra…”
Teacher – “…..”
Man – “It starts with a P, right?”
I felt for the man, but I didn’t understand his problem, because frankly it couldn’t have been easier for me.
Teacher – “Anybody else?”
Me – “’Pusryčiauti.’ Aš pusryčiavau bendrabutyje. Aš valgau jogurtą.”
Teacher – “Labai gerai, Džefai.”
Fast forward. I’m in my fifth year of Polish. Every damn week for the past five years, I have the same conversation:
“Pani Profesor, jak się mówi ‘to receive’?”
“Shit. That’s right.”
(I actually had to look that up just now)
Just as frequently, this happens:
“Pani Profesor, jak się mówi ‘achievement’?”
“Ośśś… oś… …..”
Now, I understand learning a language is a skill that gets worse over time, but even in my beloved music classes, I have a similar problem. I’ll be sitting in electronic music lecture and this will happen:
TA – “Once you assign the mod wheel to the parameter like this… you can adjust it like so.”
Me – “Wait, how do you assign the which to the who wha?”
TA – “Like this.”
Me – “Wait, sorry, one more time. I was thinking about milk just now.”
TA – “You were thinking about …milk? …what about milk?”
Me – “You know… just… about milk.”
And that’s the most disturbing thing: I’ve gotten to the point where my abstract thoughts drown out things that are actually happening, but my abstract thoughts aren’t even doing anything. It’s not like I would be thinking about drinking milk. I’d just be thinking… about milk.
8. Life becomes more tragic.
I had a conversation with a 62 year-old friend over the internet once. It went something like this:
Me – “Man, I’m bummed.”
Him – “Why?”
Me – “Everyone I know is getting married.”
Him – “It could be worse. Everyone I know is dying.”
This is a sad one, folks. It seems obvious that, as I get older, more people that I have known perish. This is the natural progression of life, and I’m thankful that I haven’t been exposed to the tragedy of loss as much as most, even those significantly younger than me. But I can feel it coming, and that feeling of dread – dread for the ambiguous future – is an awful feeling. In times of paranoia, I’m often afraid to answer my mom’s calls, because I’m afraid she’ll be reporting bad news.
But this is just a part of getting older. It’s natural, and it needs to be accepted, or else I’ll have to be locked up in the loony bin by the time I’m thirty.
It’s not just about life and death though. The twenties seem to be the years when dreams are made or dreams are shattered. We enter with such high expectations for our lives, and we are put through a trial period of emotional highs and lows that result in a self we’re not sure we even recognize. This is when people get arrested for drug use or DUI. This is when people move back home and live in the attic playing WoW. This is when people we know who enlisted in the military lose life or limb.
But again, for the sake of sanity, it’s something we need to get used to, or we won’t be able to appreciate the great joys that also await us.
9. Life has greater joys.
In high school, it’s a great joy to receive an A on a paper. In college, it’s a great joy to meet the girl of your dreams and drunkenly hook up in the fraternity bathroom. But those are mere pennies compared to the joy of finally being old enough to value your family, or the great joy of raising a snot-nosed child, or even the great joy of traveling the world without having a chaperone or an itinerary that consists exclusively of discotheques.
Yes, life has more tragedies, but the stakes are higher. Life has greater joys too. As we get older, we can buy better things and experience the joy of ownership. We can experience the joy of independence – being able to get in the car and just drive wherever the hell we feel like it.
Finally, for the first time, our lives have seemingly complex meaning. The work we do isn’t busy work, but rather other people depend on it. The twenty-something med student can experience the joy of changing a patient’s life. The twenty-something musician’s music will be heard and enjoyed by someone who isn’t his mother. This is where the seed of greatness begins.
8+9. You stop giving a shit about things you used to give a shit about.
I remember when I graduated college and had my big, empty adult life ahead of me with no direction or purpose. I had to ask myself heavy existential questions: why am I here? What am I doing? What’s the meaning of all this? For the most part these questions went unanswered, and merely resulted in several romantic nights between me and my bottle of gin. Frankly, there is no answer to these questions, and for the most part it’s best not to ask them.
But I was asking them, and it had an immediate social consequence: I no longer gave a damn about the petty problems of yesteryear. I’d ask my younger friends how they’re doing, and they’d say, “Horrible. I have a huge midterm tomorrow and I haven’t studied,” and I’d have to catch myself from responding, “Oh, that’s cool. Be glad that your sense of self-worth can still be defined by the letter grade on a test you’ll immediately forget about.” Or sometimes they’d come up to me and say, “I’m upset. My roommate had a boy over last night,” and I’d want to say, “Really? Wow. Welcome to not being sixteen anymore.”
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I’ve become apathetic to your joys and sorrows. It’s just that my dictionary of joys and sorrows have increased beyond college problems, and what would have once evoked my greatest pity is now just annoying. And, for those of you still working away at that bachelor degree, you too will find this out soon enough: tests come and go, but existential crises are here to stay.
10. You’re still changing.
I was fairly certain when I was a teenager that by the time I turned twenty, my identity would be set in stone. That didn’t happen. I look at myself today, and I’m a different man-boy than I was one year ago. Next year, I will look at myself again and surely I will again be different.
And thus is the beauty of the lonely twenties: it is a decade devoted purely to the molding of oneself into a better human being. So why am I wasting it on the internet?
(edit 2/18/12 – I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to WordPress for choosing my entry to be on Freshly Pressed. It is an honor, and I thank each and every one of you who took the time to read this entry; your words of encouragement mean a lot to me [and I do plan on getting around to responding to the comments] and for those of you who decide to come back, I hope my future entries will make as much an impact as this one did. For those of you who are yourselves trying to develop readership – keep at it and don’t give up on writing, because pleasant things may happen when you least expect it.)