On 22 January 1824, Lord Byron’s 36th birthday, the promiscuous, scandalous, beloved but controversial poet wrote what was to be his final poem. “On this Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.” Here, he writes:
‘’Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood!—unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.
If thou regrett’st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:—up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!
Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.
He would not write again. That spring he would die while fighting in the Greek War of Independence—not with a bang, on the battlefield as he foresaw, but with a whimper, literally bled dry at the hands of incompetent doctors. Like so many of the great Romantics, he was not meant to be old—nor, I think, did he know how.
So, here I am.
On this day, I complete my thirty-sixth year. Tomorrow is my 36th birthday, and the changes it brings are many, as I cross the halfway point between 20 and 50.
As a lifelong student working on a 4th degree, I live and work alongside students who range between their early to late twenties. My lifestyle, adventures, and experience of the world matches theirs. I play role-playing games; I go to concerts; I am out at 2 a.m. and I have been blessed with what is essentially, after a decade squandered behind the cloistered walls of misguided doctoral studies, a second run at my twenties.
The live I live has huge time demands, but is a good life and full of little rewards. In some ways, though, it’s a very self-centered life. Part of why I consider my little bit of activism important, part of why I consider my commitment to social justice of value to myself in addition to others, is because without it I am living a life that’s not only solitary but solipsistic. A casually of having friends everywhere except where you are is that they all live in the computer. A social life at the computer is hard on its own, on the back and on the spirit…and at times like this, when social media blossoms with outrage and hatred, when I spend each morning stepping over photographs of hate crimes and bodies to get to every cute cat picture or “like” from a faraway friend who’s thinking of me, it’s a life that breaks you down when you reach out to people.
My next big milestone is 40. As I approach it, I remain a law student, a struggling writer, and a somewhat successful musician—but not so successful that it pays the rent, mind you. That my music career pays its own expenses is blessing enough. I still don’t have a grownup job, drive a car, or own my own home. I don’t go to wine-tastings, and know nothing of antiquing. I can’t go to bed at 10, and don’t want to learn how.
But I am “run to fat,” as the once-gorgeous 36-year-old Byron likewise lamented—there is no male word for “curvy” or “voluptuous”—and maintaining my youthful figure and energy is harder than it used to be. I get tired, and as Leonard Cohen says, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”
Now that it comes to it, like Lord Byron, I do not know how to be old. And it is either too late to learn, or still too early.
Thankfully the medicine of bloodletting is passé . I have lots more poems in me. I will not, I hope, be dead on a battlefield by year’s end (though with things going the way they are down south, I ought not to rule it out). But I feel in my bones I am now the youngest of the old rather than the oldest of the young. At 36, with a round boyish face, I don’t look out of place among my classmates—not even those few I’m biologically old enough to have fathered. I am what many people would call “young”; I am not yet come to the midpoint of what, in our beautiful country, passes for the life expectancy of a man. And yet I am of an age where the pressures of convention weigh like a too-heavy Ring on my neck, where what I am and how I choose to live becomes more and more of an anomaly. As a student living alone on a student budget, and as a poly-identifying “free radical” with tenuous ties, at best, to any structure that looks like a conventional nuclear family, I’m just not like the people from high school who at best have settled down, and at worst have simply settled.
I am a giant geek at heart—and I do not relate well to sophisticated adults who have put away geeky things. And as I am surrounded by peers who marry, who raise their children steadily toward their troubled teen years, I am more grateful than ever for the loved ones who are growing old with me without ever growing up. The best adults sound like Neil Gaiman audiobooks: they speak to—for—like—children and adults in equal measure. And they are unabashed geeks for whatever makes them happy.
Let’s talk geeky things, shall we? Our Stories help us make sense of it all.
Like the Tenth Doctor, I feel the changes; my time has come—but “I don’t want to go.”
Like Han Solo, I haven’t matured like the rest of the cast: though we are all weatherbeaten to the soul, the storms have not transformed me so deeply, for good and for ill. Years later I remain more, not less of an idealist, not resigned to the drudgery of it all like Leia, nor soured on all existence and poisoned by his failures like Luke Skywalker. “Look, I’ll get you your money” is, in its own way, a statement of hope—an expression of ardent belief, and no small measure of will, that better days lie ahead. But I am an eternal tumbleweed—a little less lean and fierce, a little softer and grayer—but still rolling around in the same derelict hot rod, still in debt to the wrong people, still rootless, precarious, adrift.
Like Ser Jorah Mormont I’m too old for the company I keep and the exhausting, bloodying, work I do; but I have traveled many years and many miles to find a life that finally makes me happy, and this is where I belong, and now that I have found it I lament being sent away from it. I live in a form of exile, and exile is a disease.
Like Lord Byron, I am not grown tired of looking at people hungrily, though I slip well past my days of being hungered after.
Like Hoban “Wash” Washburne, I am a leaf on the wind; but really, come on now, that was more than fifteen years ago now, and maybe I’ve been dead for a long time already and should just get over it and move on.
I don’t know how to relate to the young or the old. I’m neither of those things. I look like a predator in bass-bumpy nightclubs, and like a teenage slacker at snooty cocktail parties. I don’t really belong anywhere, near as I can see it.
I suppose this is where people in their mid-life crises buy a frivolous vintage Corvette and have a series of empty whirlwind flings. But like a young man, I’m too poor to afford a Corvette; and like an old man, I’m too wise now to treat people who love me disposably.
Where does that leave me? I don’t know. Out, I suppose. It leaves me out of many things. The insufferable academic I used to be, the pedantic critical theorist that still lives within me, muttering in the indecipherable language of Humanities grantscrafting, would posit that I “occupy a liminal space” as if he were trying to get funded for this kind of navel-gazing anxiety.
On the day I complete my thirty-sixth year, I am not an academic. I do academics. I am not yet a lawyer, though I do law. I am a writer, for what that’s worth; but not really an author, though I certainly do my share of authoring. I am busy, and far from loved ones, and I am doing so much. But as I slip into a new age and a new change, I wonder if I’ve forgotten how just to be.
These must be things we old people think about, when we’re not yelling at kids to stay off our lawn or griping about how millennials killed the answering machine.
That’s all the time I’ve got for now. It’s 5:11 in the morning. I turn 36 in two hours, and should get some sleep.
My days of love are over, me no more
The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before,
In short, I must not lead the life I did do;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.
But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve pass’d your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’
—Byron, Don Juan I.216-220.