Thursday, May 26th, 2011

The First Time a Young Man Feels Old

As I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs this spring, I’ve reached an unhappy milestone: I’m now old enough to dread learning the birthdates of professional athletes.

When I was a kid, the only pertinent piece of data about a player was his height. That Spud Webb could dunk despite being 5' 7"; that Michael Jordan was a palindromic, Greek-God-like 6’ 6"; these were the things that seemed to me worth knowing. I would no more have thought of the age of a basketball player than I would have thought of the age of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

But when I watch games now, a message flashes across my mind periodically like a Tornado Alert at the bottom of the screen: these men are barely old enough to drink.

NBA rosters, full as they are of people born in 1988, have become my personal flowers of the field, my reminders that all men shall perish. The fact that Chris Webber, who looked so heartbreakingly like a thirteen-year-old when he called that phantom timeout at Michigan, now sits behind a desk at halftime, joking with Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith like an old man on a boardwalk, is enough to make me mute the McDonald’s talking lemon ad and think.

And what I find myself thinking, most of the time, is: I’m not as young as I used to be. Twenty-eight, to my surprise, is turning out to be one of those pivot-point ages, a time for stocktaking and distance-measuring. Slumped on my couch, shaking my head at missed three-second calls, I find myself feeling like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age. The youngest players on the court, coltish and uncertain, are always eighteen; the oldest, hobbled and embarrassed-looking, are always thirty-something. And now, like a slowly cruising Chevelle, I find myself passing from the first category into the second.

Which isn’t, of course, to say that I harbor the slightest fantasy of playing basketball. You don’t have to live by your vertical leap to be haunted by the spectacle of Juwan Howard lumbering around the court at thirty-eight. Basketball careers, with their raspberry-like shelf lives, are our secret fears, as we while away our early adulthoods in New York, made actual. That you can be washed up in your twenties. That your thirties are for bitterness and decline. That by forty you become your own living ghost.

This gloomy script has all the structure of an NBA season. Instead of All-Rookie teams, we have 20 Under 40 lists and Young Director Festivals and Best New Artist awards. Instead of being cut from the playoff roster, we have the moment when you realize that you no longer get carded; or that whole regions of Internet activity are not only unfamiliar to you but unfathomable; or that you’ve never heard of the host or the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live."

The most unmistakable of these signs, for me, has been that I’ve finally come to understand, after years of seeing things indignantly from the other side, just how hard it is to take seriously people who are younger than you. A few years ago, when Jay McInerney wrote in the Times Book Review about a friend of his who insists that authors in their twenties have nothing to say, I harumphed. This felt to me, at twenty-three, abuzz with the conviction that I would soon have a home in the literary firmament, like being ushered toward the kids’ table. What transparent jealousy on the part of this unnamed friend! What narrow-minded nonsense!

And yet. I open the Book Review now and see a new novel by a twenty-three-year-old and I think: eh. I read on Pitchfork that a band of twenty-year-olds from New Jersey has made an important debut album and I think: no they haven’t.

And it’s my own twenty-year-old self that I’m thinking of. I look back at myself in college, demanding to be taken seriously as I hold forth on Middle Eastern politics or experimental film, and I think that I must have known (didn’t I?) that I was at some basic level full of it, that most of my opinions were so fresh from the store that they still had tags dangling from them. And so now, when most of my opinions have started to show signs of being tattered and ketchup-stained, I see these new young people coming along, full of their terrifying self-assurance, and I think, with desperation: They don’t mean it! They haven’t lived enough yet! Just wait!

I’m not proud of this shift in my way of thinking. I know full well that once you’ve started down the path of condescending to your earlier self, there’s no end to it. Undoubtedly I’ll look back one day on the self who wrote this essay and think, Twenty-eight years old?! You knew nothing about aging! Nothing! And whatever age I happen to be when I first have that thought (thirty-three, forty-two) I can rest assured that there will be a self who looks back on that self and thinks that he knew nothing about aging, that he was young, all things considered, and that not until you’re seventy-five can you really begin to understand. And so on and so on. I will always feel old, because I will always be the oldest that I have ever been.

But back to basketball, which I do hope eventually to be able to watch without sinking quite so deep into an autumnal funk. At that point maybe I’ll see Derrick Rose merely as a brilliant scorer, rather than as a TWENTY-TWO YEAR OLD NOT EVEN AWARE OF HOW SOON HE’LL BE EARTHBOUND. And Shaquille O’Neal will be one of the greatest centers ever to play, rather than a THIRTY-NINE YEAR-OLD REMINDER OF DEATH.

But until then, some last thoughts from this wilted cherry-blossom of a playoff season:

We are all of us subject to betrayal by our bodies, to softening, to failure to fulfill our promise. We may wake up and realize that the primes of our lives took place behind our own backs. We, who often still feel like children, may soon be watching basketball with our own children, and we will point at the coach on the sideline, the heavy man in the ill-fitting suit, and we’ll say, “He used to be a really good shooting guard! I think he was on the Sonics!” And our children will say, “Who are the Sonics?”

Ben Dolnick lives in New York. His new novel, You Know Who You Are, has gotten great reviews, despite the author's age.

24 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I got this relatively early: In my dorm sophomore year, playing a drinking game my roommates made up that involved the kickoff training program on NCAA 2003 for Playstation, while Miguel Cabrera, barely a year older than me, was batting cleanup for the eventual World Series champions. Sports suck.

I felt this moment (sportswise) the moment NFL players were getting drafted that were younger than me. It destroyed that notion I think that many people feel, that even with only extremely minimal experience in high school, and no heart, dedication, or talent to push it, that there was still a CHANCE I could go pro.

hockeymom (#143)

Oh just you wait.
It gets worse.

SeanP (#4,058)

@hockeymom no kidding. The President of the United States is only 3 years older than me.

zoom (#10,138)

Jason Kidd was drafted my junior year in High School. Looking into his ruddy visage is like a constant picking and rolling of my own mortality.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@zoom Don't do that to yourself – Jason Kidd has looked 50 for the last 20 years.

Incidentally (#6,730)

I've been in the same fantasy baseball league for the last twelve seasons. Once David Ortiz and Lance Berkman retire, so will I.

Bittersweet (#765)

How about instead of condescending to your younger self, you look back with love, pride and maybe a good share of embarrassment? Keeps away both nihilistic bitterness and idealizing nostalgia.

And you'd better not implying that Ray Allen is that heavy coach in the ill-fitting suit. In my world he stays the same – completely awesome – forever.

@Bittersweet uh I need to feel superior to everyone, including my past self

jblo (#10,442)

My current assistant was born in 2002 and my current intern is going to be born next year. Also, I'm told Gordie Howe has retired from the Whalers. But that's surely just a vicious rumor.

wb (#2,214)

When they announced the MVP this year, the first thing I thought was "Jalen Rose is still in the NBA?"

ericdeamer (#945)

Oh holy hell. Try being 38 dude.

LondonLee (#922)

Or Forty fucking Nine.

In the Premier League now there are players who are THE SONS of players I used to watch when I was a kid.

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

As long as Shaq's still in the NBA I will feel like an 8 year old.

JHenryWaugh (#212)

28? Now I feel even older.

Despite the fact that This Thing has been said many times before, I still very much enjoyed the way in which This Thing was said above.

Also, your picture is up there, Ben. And you look like A BABY!

Reich0r (#13,146)

This Guy rocks! :s

Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams .. these were guys I looked to through boyish eyes. Now I look at my beloved Cubs and realize, I've got socks older than these guys.

internet_gangsta (#6,972)

This is so good and spot on. I recently turned 25 and it feels like death to me. I was watching the game last night and thinking about the fragility of Lebron's legacy at this relatively late stage in his career, and then I remembered that we were in high school together.

Worse than watching basketball is going to concerts. Since college it's been one of my favorite things to do. But now when I go I feel like I'm surrounded by children. I start to look around for someone to tell me that I'm crazy, that my whole life remains on the horizon. But that person is already a ghost.

scrooge (#2,697)

There's an old, depressing but good book that touches on these things. Passages, by Gail Sheehy. I feel old just recommending it, because it was first published some time in the 1970s, and I was there to read it. Excellent post, laddie.

Dano57venn (#13,204)

lol @ Jason the Kid jokes…

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Looks like watching professional sports and going to concerts is bad for your mind. In my 20s and 30s I didn't do any of that — I was too busy with my own genius projects and brilliant futures which, of course, all failed, but kept me amused at the time. I think that's the way to do it. Later in life I went to some concerts but I stopped doing it because I thought I was scaring the kids.

19, 28, 41… All disconcerting in their own way….

But you are "old" when you know — I mean *really* know — that this leaky bag of water, your own body, so grievously mistreated over the years, is the unreliable vesicle in which you shall float out your remaining days. Happy Birthday!

The good news is that true compassion arrives at the same time, with the realization that everyone else is in the same boat.

saint just (#5,919)

When the announcer refers to a player two years yonger than you as a "creaky veteran"–that's turning the corner.

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