On Getting Older (and Balder)

When I was younger, I kept my hair pretty long.

This served two functions:

1. It allowed me to hide from the world, because no teenage boy with acne actually thinks they’re good looking, and

2. It made my head look bigger.

Which, for a comic book nerd, is kind of a big deal.

Sam Jackson explains this phenomenon in the movie Unbreakable (which is an awesome movie, despite what you think of M. Night Shyamalan). He says that super heroes in comic books always have symmetrical heads, with short hair that shows off their handsome, heroic features. Boy Scouts with heads that fit their bodies.

Super villains, on the other hand, have oddly shaped heads that do not fit their bodies.

After puberty, even Boy Scouts (I suspect) don’t feel much like heroes.

Anti-heroes, maybe, but super heroes?

As a very young child I appreciated Batman for his commitment to justice and his triumphs despite his traumatic background. As an adult (get this) I appreciate those things again.

But as a teenager? Man, I was mainly in it for the Joker.

Something about villains and their celebration of anarchy. That full-throttle embrace of the idea that you’ll never truly fit in.

Not because he did bad things. Even as a kid, I think you understand that art is a charade, that all of this is play acting, that the Joker never really kills anyone because he isn’t real.

It’s that play acting that you’re attracted to. Something so gaudy, maybe. Something so loud it deflects any introspection, any attempt at analysis. It says everything without saying anything at all. It’s why kids wear large black hoodies and curl their whole bodies up inside of them.

It says: I am a dark, scary black hole with nothing inside.

It says: Don’t look! The surface is all you need.

Something about villains and their celebration of anarchy. That full-throttle embrace of the idea that you’ll never truly fit in. Kids like monsters for the same reason, and when I was a kid, I used to illustrate comic books where the Predator came back from the dead and defeated Arnold.

It felt, strangely, like the Predator was honest, and Arnold was just full of it. Know what I’m saying, Doctor?

The point is, those things, as convoluted as they were, got my hair long. It stayed long because, maybe, those ideas had taken root on some deep level. Or maybe I just got used to the new, super villain shape of my head.

Conversations of heroes and villains aside, hair length seemed to signify something.

I am not quite like you, I guess. I’m me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably a good thing. My receding hairline is dragging me, kicking and screaming, into a world of adulthood that I’ve always sort of been terrified of. I guess I can thank my supervillain hair for it. For being a catalyst that’s forced me to come to grips with who I actually am, as an adult.

Then my hair started changing shape. It used to twist and curl and build on top of my head, giving me a sort of Octobrain-ish appearance. Those curls started to unspool. They flattened and (good Lord) started thinning.

So, eventually, I had to get it cut very short.

And boy oh boy, I can’t really explain how much it freaked me out.

Because my head is actually very small. I’m a skinny guy with a small head, and something about that realization was kind of chilling. I felt less like a cool outsider and just a really small, skinny person. Not super villain or super hero. More like hostage in a super hero film.

That was one of the first “getting older” experiences I had that didn’t feel anything like how I thought it was going to feel. I knew people started balding, but I didn’t think it felt like that. No, nothing like that at all.

Now (get this), my hair is even thinner than when I first cut it all off. People tell me I’m paranoid, but I think I’m going bald, and it’s a silly thing, but it’s become a very real preoccupation of mine. Why?

Because it literally signifies a shift in identity. It’s a bold proclamation that I am getting older.

It’s saying things, physically, that I’m not sure I’m ready to say.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably a good thing. My receding hairline is dragging me, kicking and screaming, into a world of adulthood that I’ve always sort of been terrified of. I guess I can thank my supervillain hair for it. For being a catalyst that’s forced me to come to grips with who I actually am, as an adult. What person I want to be, with or without hair. Isn’t that what super villains (or foils in general) are for? Forcing you to become the person you’re supposed to be?

So, without hair, I’ve decided a few things, the first of which is a point I already made but want to reiterate:

Getting older doesn’t feel anything at all like how you think it’s going to feel.

Which is the first sign of maturity, I suppose. Realizing that you actually didn’t always know everything. Feeling something new that you never understood, or anticipated you might feel, before.

I knew that balding men felt uncomfortable and sort of ashamed of their lack of hair, but I never felt it. I didn’t really understand it, how it made your insides feel.

I get that now. And, with that one stupid realization, I also realize there must be hundreds of things I will someday feel that I can’t imagine just yet. That’s okay. That’s what being an adult is for, I suppose.

And I guess this is what we call wisdom. Realizing how things feel, and understanding how to navigate them.

These are things you’ve always understood, but never felt. Like how suddenly bad things can happen (less trivial than hair loss, eh?). Knowing that feeling of tranquility, before it becomes disturbed by the Big Bad Awful Thing that’s going to shake up your life. And then, when the Big Bad goes away, actually appreciating that tranquility when it returns. That blasé tranquility you called boredom when you were a child.

This vantage point also allows me to look back at how I was when I was younger (or how I’ve been my whole life, I should say), and sort of judge it with clear eyes.

A lot of people tether themselves to the dreams they had when they were children, and see their lives as some sort of dreadful failure if they don’t succeed in accomplishing those dreams. I’ve certainly felt this way.

Recently, though, I’ve found myself shifting in opinion. It’s exhausting holding your accomplishments in life up to the dreams of a child. Dreams are effortless things. Lovely, but effortless.

The reality of your life, by sheer virtue of effort, is always more impressive than your dreams.

I don’t mean to suggest that dreams are bad things. I do mean to suggest that maybe we’ve got some cultural deification of youth that we should reconsider.

I am now older than Tupac ever was. Something about that terrifies me on some cosmic level.

Another thing that feels awful about getting older: you realize the movers and shakers of the pop culture you cared so deeply about when you were younger are actually younger than you are now.

Taylor Swift: younger than me.

I’m not going to turn this into a list: I’m going to start there, and then assume that most new talents who arrive (at least in popular music) are younger than Taylor Swift, and thereby younger than myself. The old pros who are around were most likely younger than I am now when they first made it big.

I am now older than Tupac ever was. Something about that terrifies me on some cosmic level.

Bruce Springsteen is older than me, but he wasn’t when he was singing “Born to Run.” I still religiously cherish the mantras, the hopes and the dreams, of people younger than myself.

Is this what culture critics constantly talk about? The generation of man-children, refusing to grow up, even as their bald spots betray them?

Or is this just an early hiccup on a long and winding road, full of potholes and divots and dead-ends, where pop culture increasingly comes to mean and less and less to my overall life?

And even as I type that, I know that’s the truth. That pop culture is some kind of holy totem for young people, because it offers some kind of articulation for how they might want to be (articulated, mostly, by people only a few years older than themselves).

There’s that slow, strange shift in the teenage years, when you trade religion in for culture.

I find myself now with neither, and losing my hair to boot.

The other thing that’s hard to articulate, or explain, is that I’m excited about all this.

Laughing maniacally, more super villain now, perhaps, than ever before.

Because I feel like my sweat, and my accomplishments, and my new dreams, are all rooted in harder stuff.

I don’t have my hair anymore (oof!) but I don’t particularly want to hide behind it anyway.

I’m going to get wrinkled, and ugly, and hopefully tough.

And the opinions I spew so effortlessly into the atmosphere might actually someday be worth something, don’tcha think?

I can be one of those authentic people.

An honest person.

Like the Predator. Before that mean Arnold dropped a log on him, and those two somehow managed to blow up the whole damn jungle.

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