"Would my 16-year-old self be proud of me?"
That's the question I've been asking myself lately. At 23, I finally feel far enough out of my teenage years to look back from the other end of the tunnel and see if I got anything right along the way. Most of the time, the answer is "no." At 16, I was a moody overachiever who wanted to be some combination of Morrissey and Jack Dorsey, back when both of those still seemed like good ideas.
Today, I'm neither a rock star nor a tech bro. As I type this, my guitar sits in its case leaning up against the wall, and I deleted my Twitter account last year. And yet, I can’t say for sure if my younger self would be disappointed. For all his ambition, he had no idea how he was going to achieve it. That much hasn't changed. Over the past seven years, my accomplishments feel less like the medals awarded at the end of a race, and more like strange-looking shards of glass picked up during a walk along the beach. I have a working knowledge of the New York subway system. I write well, and I'm in pretty good shape. I can cook eggs four or five different ways, depending on how you count them. Most importantly, I've made it far enough in my life to know that sometimes the things you think you want aren't worth the price you’ll pay to get them.
…like strange-looking shards of glass picked up during a walk along the beach.
Last week, some friends from college came to visit me in Brooklyn for a week. Almost two years to the day after we first met, we sat in the back of a bar on Atlantic Avenue wondering how everything and nothing can change in just over 700 days. Everyone looks the same, give or take a few new hairstyles. Yet we're all ostensibly "adults." We're all out of undergrad, into the realm of first jobs at non-profits and chain businesses, or the soul-crushing treadmill of grad school.
Throughout the conversation, as my friends remembered wasted days and inside jokes based on obscure videos they found on YouTube, I felt my mind wandering. When we think about old friends, we often talk about feeling as if no time had passed between us, as though this one, unchanging bond is the ideal friendship. But I don’t think I want that. Maybe as time sands us down, we get closer to being the people shaped by their own experiences, instead of everyone else’s forgotten history. And then maybe we’ll find there’s something deeper between ourselves and our friends, something more honest than just the result of being in the right place at the right time. Or maybe all this overthinking just makes me a bad friend.
As an emotion, I think nostalgia is pretty much useless for just about everything except for making art (See Murakami’s Norwegian Wood). Even then, it can yield mixed results (See the majority of Taylor Swift’s discography). Too much reminiscing will leave you like Aesop’s dog, fighting his reflection to win the stick in his own mouth. So why bother asking for my teenage self’s approval? We assign a sense of innocence to our teenage years, before our ignorance of the world starts shattering at an accelerating rate. If my former self would have liked the person I’ve become, it would make me more self-assured.
…16-year-old me was the last person I knew who knew what he wanted out of life.
Later that weekend, I decide to take my friends out in Williamsburg. Just like old times, we pregamed in my apt. to a haphazard playlist and set out into the cold, looking to find somewhere where we could get drunk and dance like we’d finally been allowed into the bar. As the newly-dubbed New Yorker, it was my job to be the navigator for the night. Once we surfaced from the L, I took off, with a shaky sense of direction in one hand and a Maps-displaying iPhone in the other, my friends constantly telling me to slow down. While we walked, something about my recent doubts, combined with the confusion of being in a new place with old friends, kept grabbing at my heels.
“Have I changed?” The question burst from my mouth in a little puff of steam. My friends give me blank looks.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I just feel like—I want to know if there’s anything fundamentally different about me since you guys first knew me.”
They didn’t think so. I seemed the same to them, but they couldn’t really say. Sometimes we go back to acting like our old selves when we meet up with old friends. They said they were wondering the same thing about themselves. It’s something we’re all afraid of, but we secretly hope it will overtake us when we’re not looking. Which is what sends me back to the drawing board. 16-year-old me was the last person I knew who knew what he wanted out of life.
It's hard to be an adult in 2019. When my parents were my age, they knew that a certain life trajectory was available to them: affordable schooling, a steady job, local communities of friends and family, and a housing market barely in the dawn of its predatory capabilities. Of course, it was never really that easy, and whether or not that was the path they wanted to take is another question. But in retrospect, their brand of adulthood looked something like their parents’. They had a number of mountains on which they could plant their flag and say, “See world? I’ve made it. I’m an adult.”
Friends make life easier, but life makes it hard to hold onto them.
Meanwhile, in our post-recession, post-automation, post-post-modern world, my generation finds itself obsessed with the idea of “adulting” because tiny markers of progress feel like important milestones. That might be because we were sheltered as children, or because we’re too stressed out to set our sights any higher. Either way, there’s no denying that the traditional markers of adulthood have been gone for years now, leaving us like kids alone in empty apartments, wondering if they'll ever come back home.
The day my friends left town, a button fell off my winter coat. I kept it tucked away in my pocket for a few days before I realized that I needed to do something about it. I think younger me would have seen it as a challenge. How long could I go before I absolutely needed this third button? But it’s too cold here to play that kind of game. I went to Michael’s, bought some needles and thread, and went to YouTube to learn how to sew it back on. It made me feel proud of myself in the same way that cooking does, or washing my bedsheets at regular intervals. “There,” I think to myself, “now that’s out of the way.” Until the leftovers spoil and the sheets get sweaty, and I have to start all over again.
When I think about the teenager I used to be, I don’t see some kid in the past, innocent to the ways of the world. I just see a slightly smaller reflection in the shards of a broken mirror. He doesn’t have anything I want to take. I don’t have much to give him, beyond a collection of platitudes: Everything has as much meaning as you give it. Friends make life easier, but life makes it hard to hold onto them. It’s true what they say about drinking enough water. We only make the mistakes we make because we're too foolish to know any better. As we grow older, we make the same ones, but hopefully we’re practiced enough to make them better. My teenage self probably isn’t proud of me, because the person he’s supposed to be proud of doesn’t even know what that means. I’m not worried, and I’m not angry, but I do wish he’d hurry up. I can already hear 30-year-old me calling, and he’s getting impatient.