The Only Way Left To Be Radical In America

I like to plan ahead, so by the time I turned 30 earlier this year, I was already preparing for old age. I have a problem with rounding up, is the thing. When I was 27, I’d read about a 39 year old who went bankrupt, or a 45 year old who had a hard time conceiving, and think, Well, I’m practically 45, so I should probably start inuring myself to the hard truths life has in store for me.

I understand that this is ridiculous. I’m not old; I’m older. And of course “old” doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. My parents are getting oldish (sorry, Mom)—enough to qualify for discounts, at least—but they also run half-marathons. My grandfather’s blog is pretty cool, even though he hasn’t updated it in a while. My dad just told me a story about crashing a party at Art Basel. Sixty is the new twenty-five!

None of that makes me feel any better; it terrifies me, in fact, because I didn’t much enjoy being twenty-five, and I don’t want to go to more parties. My daydreams of the good life involve fewer parties, actually, and not blogging, and feeling safe in my body, and never worrying about having enough money. So as long as I never get any older and figure out how to get someone to pay me, I should be fine. But instead I keep having birthdays, and my life gets more and more precarious. In my darkest moments, I think of old age as just a frailer reliving of early adulthood: a time when the world insistently reminds you how incapable you are of taking care of yourself. You know how no one takes you seriously when you’re twenty, and you have to eat ramen all the time because you’re poor? In my mind, being old will be like that, but sometimes also you’ll break your hip.

Or worse, even—old age will be the country of retribution, where everything I thought I’d gotten away with—eking by without things like, you know, a “career” or “benefits” or “financial stability”; breaking up with men who were very kind to me; preferring cats to children—will come back to haunt me. This visitation will happen in some sort of nightmare fashion that ends with me dying alone, probably in a shack, my cats nibbling on my corpse. I imagine old age as payback island, the unfun vacation home of imposter syndrome, where all those risky adventures and courageous, life-affirming decisions will come back and show themselves to have been the wrong risks, the wrong choices. You can only get away with this for so long, my future crone-face hisses. What, did you think you weren’t going to have to pay?

Which is why the best advice I received all year was actually a short piece of video art by poet/artist/general badass-about-town Stephanie Barber. In it, an oldish lady stares at the camera, blinking occasionally. She looks like she knows a secret. She’s wearing nice lipstick. It only lasts twenty-two seconds, but it feels longer—this extended, steady close-up shot of her face. Meanwhile, words flash up on the screen, one by one: THE ONLY WAY LEFT TO BE RADICAL IN AMERICA IS TO BE OLD. The woman’s face stretches into a grin. Her earrings sparkle.

I saw Stephanie at a party the other day. She’s been hanging out with older ladies recently, she told me—painters in their 70s, elderly art professors. She thinks that old is the new punk. Old is the new punk! It felt like a revelation; I’d been thinking about it wrong the whole time.

I’m not the only one who’s gotten old people wrong. While the microgenerations and niche subgroups of youth are relentlessly documented and marketed to, the old are allowed to glide by, undifferentiated. They’re allowed to be in movies and TV, but only if they’re sex-obsessed and/or filthy-mouthed—behaving like the young, in other words. “People are increasingly treated as if they’re invisible as they age,” Psychology Today frets, but aren’t they forgetting that invisibility is a superpower? Old people can be mean, or have ridiculous hair. No one’s mining their tweets to better sell them things. Who do they have to be afraid of, anyway?

And so in 2013 I vow to spend more time hanging out with weird, lonely, happy old ladies, either by reading their books (May Sarton; Dorothy Day), or inviting myself over to their houses on the pretext of being helpful. I will pay close attention to everything that Patti Smith does. I will not buy expensive retinol creams. I will live precariously for another year. I will round up not in fear, but in anticipation. Soon enough, I hope, I’ll be old and punk and invisible and broken-hipped and indestructible.



Previously in series: Don’t Stop Running


Also by this author: The Killer Crush: The Horror Of Teen Girls, From Columbiners To Beliebers


Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas. Video “To Be Old” by Stephanie Barber, used with permission.