The First Time a Young Man Feels Old

by Ben Dolnick

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.