Acting My Age

The aesthetics of “being old” are detached from the reality of adulthood

Last year, I decided to take up antiquing, for no real reason at all. There was something I enjoyed about turning an old thing over in my hands and imagining what other hands might have also turned this old thing over in decades past. I got heavily into it, seeking out antique stores in my travels, and going deep-diving for old bobbleheads or ancient coins. Postcards that had been scrawled on in the early 1920s. I found a community of people on Twitter who knew antiquing well and would not only point me in the direction of shops, but tell me what to look for when on the hunt for antiques — how to tell something genuinely aged from something falsely aged. I could take a picture and tweet it at a group of people and have an answer to my question in minutes. Some of these people were older than me by decades, at least in numbers. A few were younger. But through this shared and singular interest, our ages shrunk. Our age was antiquing, in a way — the thing that connected us and made us feel not old or young, but weirdly alive.

It is true that hidden among the forest of spooling black hair that makes up my beard, there is a single gray intruder. It made its introduction about a year ago, when I was combing my beard in a mirror, almost as if I pulled evidence of my aging out of myself. It is only a single strand of hair, which makes it significantly more noticeable among the dark hair consuming the space around it. I often forget it’s there, until I don’t.

Through this shared and singular interest, our ages shrunk. Our age was antiquing, in a way

The physical aesthetics of aging are sometimes small, in this way. When we say that someone “looks older” than they are, it usually rests in these details: a wrinkle here, a patch of gray or missing hair there, a walk that seems like it has seen several years of hard work.

I mention my single gray beard hair to say that I imagine it could always be worse. Not that I imagine physically aging to be something dreadful. I largely look as I am: someone approaching my mid-30s, who has lived a life that has been sometimes boring and sometimes exhausting. I wake up in the morning with little to no pain. I can still run — albeit slower than I did 10 years ago. I can still endure the occasional night out beyond the witching hour in any time zone — although my mileage the morning after may vary. There aren’t aches and pains in the morning, or exhaustion consuming me earlier and earlier. I don’t feel old in the ways I was promised to feel old.

I suppose responsibilities are a discussion of another type of aging, though they arrive for some later than others. No matter how young my body might feel, I am being told that I am, in fact, very grown by the stack of tax forms sitting on my desk, a jump of the eyes away. In this, I am reminded of another type of aging: the type that rests on an accumulation of responsibilities.

Those of us aging now have the filter of the internet to push our aging through. We can build narratives around our aging. Jay Z, for example, created a whole album around his flawed maturity. Some of us make albums of music, and some of us archive our balance of coolness with aging in other ways. In either case, it is a careful curation. I write the narrative for myself, and the narrative becomes what I tell it to be.

From my couch, I take a photo of my expensive and fashionable Nike sneakers up on a coffee table, a large cup of warm cider next to my feet, filling a mug with an ironic saying on it, like messy bun and getting stuff done. On the television in the background of the picture is the title card from Golden Girls, a show about four women in their post-retirement years trying to squeeze the most that they can out of the fact that they are still living. I filter the photo, and post it to Instagram. It is a Friday night, and this is how I most would like to articulate my maturity. My age is either closer to me or seems further away by which direction I scroll on my feed. I can see throwback pictures of myself from my teens or early 20s, which remind me of all the ways I am not how I was. And I can see photos of things coming — new apartments, a book deal — and be reminded of what my living is reaching towards.

Lately I have found myself trying to unravel the somewhat counterintuitive idea of aging as something which grants a kind of freedom, particularly for those of an age that places them in a kind of middle ground: old enough to have real responsibilities like bills, full-time job(s), or even a mortgage, but not old enough to be seen as middle aged, when a type of settling down is seen as tradition. If there is a freedom here, it’s in the ability to cling to ideas of youth while also teasing out the comforts of what we imagine being old looks like. One friend says I’m such a grandma while putting on sweatpants at 7 p.m. and pulling several blankets over herself. I’m such an old man I joke, while digging my hand into a massive bowl of popcorn and letting stray bits of it spill all over my lap. People hear this and laugh, nodding from the shell of their own comforts.

If there is a freedom here in the middle ground of adulthood, it’s in the ability to cling to ideas of youth while also teasing out the comforts of what we imagine being old looks like

There will be a time, perhaps this week, where I will think better of whatever revelry my friends will try to coax me into, or I will give in to the revelry and find myself out at a bar inside of an hour where all I can think about is the comfort of my bed. This happens more frequently now — not just with me, but with all my friends. All of us, ranging from our late 20s to early-mid 30s, finding ways to get out of the plans we made weeks, days, or even hours ago. The times in which we hang out become earlier and earlier. Dinner plans become lunch plans, which become breakfast plans. After the concert lets out and the venue coughs our bodies out into the cool night, there are rarely after-show plans. Gone is the moment where we would cram ourselves into a booth and run our feet along some grease-slicked floor at a diner with our ears still ringing.

It is good for a brief bit of nostalgia, of course — the type of nostalgia that arrives when a person still has access to the places or things they find themselves nostalgic over. Late last summer, my pal Eve came to town, and we went to some festival where Third Eye Blind played their hits and not much else. Afterward we drove all the way across town with two of my other pals to laugh in a Waffle House booth until two in the morning, and I imagine none of us felt over 30 in that moment. That is the mercy of living in such moments, I think — to allow yourself to briefly ignore the truth that you are hurtling toward the inevitability of becoming your parents. I didn’t feel anything as I drenched a waffle in syrup, or as I slapped my open palm on the table after a joke. I didn’t feel anything until the next morning, when my alarm went off, and I stared at the ceiling, trying to remember what it was like to not have to get out of bed.

I perhaps knew I was knocking on the door of an adulthood committed largely to the pursuit of relentless comfort when I spent more on a mattress and sheets than I did on clothes. When I spent days researching the softest, most comfortable sheets to lay over my new Casper mattress last spring, I was making a firm decision: I am going to love being in bed this year. I am going to want to go to sleep. I am going to make the most of my quiet moments.

This is the truth, but not the excuse I use when I want to leave the party or not go to the party at all. I tell people, “Well, I gotta go, because I’m old.” Or I tell them “I’ve gotta stay in tonight, because I’m old.” I joke at 10 p.m. about my bedtime, and how precious it is, when what I really mean is that I am going to my couch to watch something, or play something, or read something. To bow out of plans for this reason, the vagueness of being “old,” sounds much cooler than saying plainly what I’m reaching for: I’m tired, or even worse, I’m not interested.

Age — at least in aesthetic — has less to do with a particular number and more to do with the way you see yourself reflected in the communities you’ve found

It helps, of course, that I can choose for my quiet moments to not be my quiet moments in a way that I couldn’t when I was in my late teens and even the earliest part of my early 20s. For all the ways digital technology is killing us, it’s true that even in my moments of physical isolation I have access to the company of others. Technology affords the idea of community without the requirement of leaving one’s home. It’s why watching television shows in the moment and following along with other watchers on Twitter is so satisfying — one can get the best of both worlds: a world in which you are alone, under a blanket in your sweatpants, and a world in which you are out with all of your friends, laughing at some shared joy. Connectivity allows for a shrinking of the inevitability of age. Age — at least in aesthetic — has less to do with a particular number and more to do with the way you see yourself reflected in the communities you’ve found in your social spaces, however you define them.

It’s no longer a feat to stay up past midnight if you spent so many of your younger years doing it. I am now comfortable with the fact that the best things happening after the sun sets are often within my own home. This, of course, isn’t to say that I don’t go out, or that people who are in my age range don’t go out. What I am saying is that I don’t think as many of us are clinging to our youth as we thought we would. In my 20s, I imagined my 30s as a time of awkwardly clinging to ideas of what was cool or not, being pulled slowly out of the loop of trends and hot topics, fumbling through a pop culture landscape that I no longer understood, still going to the same parties with the same people and wondering how we all got here.

Instead, I have folded into a finding of my people. We who like to go out, but only when we want to go out, and certainly not for as long as we used to go out. We who know one of the truest joys is the moment where a plan is cancelled, so much so that we may try to coax a potential hang into the cancellation of plans. We who go out for meals sometimes, but mostly scroll some food takeout apps from underneath the comfort of a blanket. I am thankful to no longer be ashamed of aging, and so I embrace it, to a somewhat extreme level, in an attempt to remove the shame I’ve felt about it in past decades. I am not dreading my 40s, because I’m spending some moments living like I imagine I’ll be living in my 80s, if I make it that long: fully in the arms of comfort, watching something loud on television with snacks spread out on a table, throwing my head back and laughing into the walls of an empty apartment, a sound sharp enough to hush the world outside, beckoning.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of ADULTHOOD. Also from this week, Rachel Giese on kid heroics, and Tiana Reid on black taboo.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was released in 2016 and was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in fall 2017 by Two Dollar Radio.