The Column of Disquiet – I Taught Myself How to Grow Old

 

I was probably two or three years old at this point, and it was during the time that my family had relocated, for a short period, maybe, like, a year or so, to just outside of Detroit. I don’t have a ton of very clear memories from this part of my early life—just a few fragmented moments completely out of context that I am able to recall for some reason, and old photographs that are still stuck to the pages of photo albums in my mother’s home— I do not remember the pictures being taken.

halloween 85

In my Easter basket that year, when I was two or three, was a stuffed purple bear—Cubbi. Cubbi Gummi—a plush version of one of the characters from the Disney cartoon “Adventures of The Gummi Bears.”1 Out of all the stuffed animals I possessed at this time, and out of all the stuffed animals I would continue to acquire through a large portion of my childhood, I am not certain why I became so attached to Cubbi, but I did.

I took him literally everywhere with me.

I was born outside of Chicago, and after the year we spent in Michigan, in returning to Illinois, my parents opted to build a house in a new development. While the house was being built, we lived in an apartment just a few streets away.

One evening, we walked over to where the frame of the house had been constructed to see how things were coming along. I had taken Cubbi with on our walk, and in my haste—I was probably around four years old—I set him down somewhere at the site and left him behind, not realizing it until after we traveled back the few blocks to our apartment.

I was inconsolable, and my father drove the short distance to retrieve Cubbi, returning him to me.

* * *

Maybe a month or so ago on Twitter, I started seeing a lot of jokes that began with “By the time you’re 35….” Because the internet—specifically internet humor—moves so quickly now, the collective ‘internet’ has probably moved on to something else. However, at the time I started seeing these, I was not certain of the context, but these jokes caught my attention, mostly because many of them were very funny, but also because they are relevant—I am on the cusp of turning 35.

After conducting a small amount of research, it turns out these jokes are responses to a Marketwatch piece that ran at the beginning of the year.

Entitled “Money Milestones: This is how your finances should look in your 30s,” the article, in a somewhat ambiguous and lazy way, features a quote from Fidelity Investments2, a group that makes the audacious claim that by the time you are 35, you should have ‘twice your salary’ saved for retirement.

Some of the responses I’d come across were lighthearted or, at the very least, were meant to be good-natured in their sense of humor, like, “By the time you’re 35, you should have saved at least half of your sandwich for lunchtime instead of noming it at 10 a.m.

Some of them were a little less good-natured, though funny never the less, and hit pretty close to home, like, “By the time you’re 35, you should have enough debt that you’ll never pay it off.”

Some of them are stark realizations, like, “Seeing all those ‘By the time you’re 35’ posts and reflecting that if you turn 35 this year you, were 18 on 9/11 and your adult life has been one of watching the world slide increasingly into hell and opportunities to build something for yourself become increasingly scarce.”

And some of them aren’t even realizations—they’re just stark, like, “By the time you’re 35, you should be dead.”

* * *

If you were to ask me now, so many years later, I couldn’t even tell you why it started.

Shortly after receiving Cubbi for Easter, when we were still living in Michigan, my mother snipped the Fischer Price tag from his bottom—stitched into a seam where two pieces of bright, fuzzy purple fabric met. It was probably around this time that I developed not so much a nervous tic, but a habit, of rubbing my thumb on this seam, and the area surrounding it, in a repetitive motion3.

Rubbing his tushie,” is what I called it back then.

In I guess what you could call an alarmingly short amount of time, I had done this enough to start to wear away the layer of bright, fuzzy purple fabric, revealing the rougher to the touch, though, somehow, still comforting and appealing white fabric backing underneath, that I would still continue to rub in a repetitive motion.

I continued to do this enough that I began wearing holes in that white fabric backing, causing Cubbi’s stuffing to begin coming out in small clumps.

Once the holes started forming, my mother would have to commandeer Cubbi and try to stitch him up as best she could, using pink or purple thread to close up his tushie. When she’d repair him, I’d say that he was ‘having surgery.’

* * *

Up until around a year ago, I hadn’t given very much thought to the concept of retiring. Even with working all of the various places I had worked in my first twelve years in the ‘adult world,’ or whatever, with some of those jobs offering benefits like 401ks, Simple IRAs, or Roth IRAs—none of those are things I really understood—like, wasn’t the ‘IRA’ bad?

And does a ‘Roth IRA’ have anything at all to do with actor Tim Roth?

You can see how seriously I took these matters, and over time, I was aware that some amount of funds had accrued in these various accounts, and I was also aware that nothing was being done that money—it was never invested, and I hadn’t been contributing to them in years.

I’d hear people talk about retiring, or saving for retirement, and I’d think about how that seemed so far away—like, it wasn’t something I needed to concern myself with right now.

Or, I’d think about how that seemed important, or at the very least, wise, and maybe it’s something I should start thinking about at some point.

Or, I’d resign myself to the fact that I’d never retire; like, it just wouldn’t be an option, and I would just drop dead at whatever job I happened to be doing at that time.

Through work, I began occasionally meeting with the financial advisor who manages the employee Simple IRAs. I explained to him that I knew absolutely nothing about investing, or retirement funds, and he patiently and kindly explained to me how all of it works, even going so far as to assist in the transfer and consolidation of funds from three very old, unmanaged accounts offered from previous places of employments, to a new account that he is also overseeing.

When we meet to discuss my portfolios, he says things to me about how there is good diversification in my investments, and I have to restrain myself from asking him if he’s familiar with the “Chappelle’s Show” skit about Wu-Tang Financial.

* * *

Over time, of course, Cubbi would become more and more tattered—barely being held together, but when he was still mostly whole, my mother would occasionally need to wash him—tossing him in the washing machine on the gentle cycle, then letting him air dry. Waiting for the stuffing and purple fabric to dry took what seemed like forever.

His eyes, once black ovals printed onto white pieces of plastic pressed into his head, began to fade early on. For a while, we tried using an adhesive backed, plain white paper that my father would bring home from work—‘sticky paper’ is what I called it as a child. We would carefully draw out new eyes, coloring them in with black marker, cut them out and press them on.

The blue fabric of his hat, too, would eventually begin to tatter and tear—now held together in strange bunches by my awkward attempts at stitching up the holes in it.

When I was a kid, Cubbi, more or less, played the Hobbes to my Calvin. There was a point when I demanded that we celebrate his birthday—though, since he was an Easter gift, and since I was very young and had no real understanding of how Easter was on a different day every year, I think we picked an arbitrary day in the spring, and for a few years, Cubbi was on the receiving end of a present. Usually something small, like a comic book—something that I could use too.

When my parents made the decision to raise me Catholic4, Cubbi was included in my evening prayers. “God bless Mom, God bless Dad, God bless Cubbi, and God bless me,” I would say, in a near whisper, kneeling at the side of my bed, my hands clasped together tightly, hoping that I hadn’t been a disappointment to God for that day.

There was no point, at any age, when anyone implied I was getting to be too old to be lugging around an increasingly tattered stuffed bear; there was no time when somebody told me that I was simply getting to be too old to be sleeping with a stuffed animal as some kind of security blanket.

I believe that maybe when I turned 13, I tried going without Cubbi—a decision I came to on my own. I placed him on one of my bookshelves, along with all the other stuffed animals I still had at this point. This maybe lasted two nights before I conceded.

* * *

I recently found a photograph5 taken in 1988—in it, I am five years old, posing with my mother and father. I am uncertain of

Krein family, 1988

the context of the photo—the camera’s flash washes out what’s happening in the background, but we appear to be at some kind of banquet hall. I can make out long tables covered with disposable tablecloths and uncomfortable folding chairs crammed in a line along either side.

My father hasn’t lost all of his hair yet, and this was before he started growing a beard. He wears a light blue polo shirt and blue shorts that, in retrospect, ride a little higher than they comfortably should. He has his arm around my mother’s shoulder—her hair is permed, and her eyeglasses are gigantic. I stand in front of them both, a backpack strap slung across my small body; I have a bowl cut and a mischievous, curious smile.

All three of us wear adhesive name tags, implying we are at a gathering of some kind.

If I am five years old in this photograph, it means that, in it, my parents are roughly as old as I am now.

It’s an interesting concept—thinking about something like that. I stop short of saying that it’s ‘dangerous’ to do this, but once you begin to unpack how time, place, and mortality work, and you grasp that you are, at this point, the same age that your parents were at one time, for example, in a photograph—it becomes almost too easy to get lost in dissecting what, for lack of a better phrase, can be called your own mythology.

I didn’t arrive at this realization about time, place, and mortality on my own, however.

For ease, I usually refer to Chicago-based singer and songwriter Joe Goodkin as my ‘internet friend6.’ In 2015 and 2017, he released a series of three EPs7 that explored the ideas of life, loss, and love—aptly titling them, respectively, the Record of Life, the Record of Loss, and the Record of Love. On the Record of Life, he has a song entitled “As Old as I am Now”—a song that reflects on both a childhood memory of riding the train every weekend with his father, as well as a rumination on a photo of his mother and younger sister.

The song itself was written when Goodkin was 36; now 40, he told me that he ‘intellectually’ started thinking about this when he was the age they were when he was born—which, as it turns out, is roughly the same age my parents were when I was born: 30 years old.

Once he began working on the song, Goodkin said the thing that struck him most about this concept and way of thinking was admiration.

Looking at them in those pictures, in their mid-30s, with me and my sister as kids, thinking about the fact that I (at the same age now) struggle with life, the universe, and everything—and they must have too,” he said. “And, they were able to guide my sister and me with (in my memory) a steady hand, while mostly likely being as uncertain about things as I am now.

* * *

There were times that I, albeit mostly temporarily, went without Cubbi. I was an often sickly child, and my mother would slather my chest and back with Vicks Vaporub—the menthol smell so potent and awful, Cubbi would have to be placed elsewhere until I was not as sickly, so as not to absorb the smell.

It went the same for trips to the apartment my father moved into in the spring of 1995, after he and my mother divorced. Incredibly cramped, he, for some reason, opted to purchase a number of Glade Plug-In air fresheners, loading them with ‘Tropic Mist’ cartridges. The scent, one of the most repulsive smells I have ever come across, would cling to my hair and clothes—and it stuck to Cubbi as well, until I wised up and started leaving him at my mother’s.

In the early stages of our courtship, before my wife and I were married and were simply living together, Cubbi was relegated to either a dresser drawer, or the shelf in my closet—only making an appearance if something had drastically upset me. In the last three years or so, Cubbi has, however, become more of a constant again—leading one to believe that I am usually drastically upset about something, and need to tightly clutch onto a tattered, faded, purple bear as I drift to sleep.

Maybe two years ago, my wife wanted to try and make Cubbi less tattered—she was growing weary of finding large clumps of what stuffing he had left in him on the bedroom floor in the morning, and saw him as a head, arms, and little legs, all precariously held together by a few decaying strands of purple fabric, wrapped up in a faded yellow and red striped shirt. She braved the elements of going to the fabric store, and purchased pieces of a purple cloth, as well as stuffed animal filling, and tried to rebuild him. In doing so, she covered up the few, dilapidated pieces left of his poor tushie.

While much plumper and better held together than he had been for years, it didn’t take very long at all for me to begin working away at the original fabric at the top of his legs—already mildly frayed and worn, I began wearing down the purple fuzz, to reveal the white backing, and then eventually, creating more holes and tears.

* * *

By age 35, you should have been able to, both figuratively and literally, put away the tattered remains of a stuffed animal you’ve had for nearly your entire life—putting it back in a dresser drawer or on a shelf in the closet, as opposed to clutching onto it for dear life every evening.

But does putting that away mean you have to put away parts of yourself that are much larger? And what if it’s not that you can’t put it away—but, rather, you simply don’t want to?

Financial experts claim that by the time you’re 35, you should have double your salary saved for retirement, suggesting that you should have been thinking about the future the entire time you were living in the past.

But what if you hadn’t thought about the future at all?

Or, if you did, it was a fleeting idea that gave you tremendous anxiety? What if you have less than half of what is recommended put away and invested? Does that mean you are fucked? What if you presume you’ll drop dead while de-icing the broccoli at the co-op, or keel over while cleaning out a litter pan and wiping down kennels at the animal shelter?

What if you are certain you’ll collapse at your keyboard while writing a verbose personal essay or album review that only, like, ten people on the internet are going to read?

What if you are surprised you’ve even made it this far—to 35?

There’s some kind of unspoken, though implied, idea that by the time you’re 35, you are supposed to ‘have things figured out.’ That by 35, you should have a family—a spouse and children; that you should have stayed at the same job long enough that you’ve received raises and promotions and additional vacation time—a job that is more of a ‘career’ than anything else; that you dress appropriately for your age.

That by 35, you are responsible, and that you see yourself as some kind of ‘adult.’

But what if you never really view yourself as an ‘adult,’ despite your age, and you have strong hesitations in doing so? What if, even though both of your bosses are younger than you, at work when something you are unable to take care of on your own comes up, you say you need to go and ‘tell an adult?’

What if you’re bad with money—you always have been and probably always will be, because that limited edition boxed set vinyl reissue seems like a better use of your finances than planning for the future?

What if your closet is full of t-shirts that you, at one time, organized by color—many of them are emblazoned with band logos, others with animal welfare organizations?

What if your résumé is longer than it should be—sprawling out through missteps that you lasted two years at before moving on to something else? What if you’ve never really been on a career track? What if, at 35, you are perfectly happy wearing a name tag, punching a clock, doing your job, and then leaving when your shift is over—doing something that rarely, if ever, follows you home?

By age 35, you are supposed to have double your salary saved for retirement, implying that you were thinking about the future while living out the past. And in not having that kind of money built up already, it would imply that you were so focused on living in the moment—but what if you weren’t doing that? What if you were barely living at all, and not even really an active participant in much of your own life—just watching it from a safe distance, crippled by anxiety and debilitating depression?

* * *

My parents were once as old as I am now. My father8 worked for the Thermos Company as an engineer; at the time, my mother stayed at home, going back to work a few years later. Five years ago, when I turned 30, I received an email from my father, wishing me a happy birthday. He said that 30 was an age that meant a lot to him, because it was how old he was when I was born.

I can recall that turning 309 was difficult for me—partially because I felt old, but if I felt old then, how am I supposed to feel now? And how am I going to feel in five years from now? I think it was mostly difficult because I was forced to grapple with myself and where I was, and what I had done, or accomplished, or whatever, upon arriving at a ‘milestone age.’

My parents were once as old as I am now, and I think about what my internet friend Joe Goodkin said about looking at photos of his own childhood, when his parents were in their mid-30s—that they, more than likely, were as uncertain about things as he is (and as I am) but they—his parents, my parents, parents, in general, I suppose, project an image of having it all figured out, or at least figured out enough to responsibly raise a child.

Nobody is going to teach you how to grow old. It’s something that you eventually figure out on your own—maybe there’s some kind of specific moment where you don’t have it all figured out, but you have a better understanding of yourself—who you were, who you are, and who you are capable of still growing into. Maybe it’s when you are on the cusp of hitting 3,500 words in an overly verbose, possibly heavy handed, and now self-aware personal essay that is, without a doubt, buckling under the weight of its own ambition.

Maybe it’s when you are able to reconcile your dreams or aspirations—things you may have, at one point, given up on, or simply written yourself off—try to juxtapose those with your tangible successes, no matter how small, in an effort to find some small solaces in having accomplished something, albeit on different terms that you, in turn, have to make your own.

 

 

1– “Adventure’s of The Gummi Bears” aired from 1985 until, surprisingly, 1991; known for its iconic and infectious theme song, the show’s Wikipedia entry describes the series and its characters better than I could articulate in a footnote.

2– So, I guess the real issue I have with this, aside from the ludicrous idea that someone who is 35 should have that much money saved up for retirement, is that, from writing for the newspaper for two years, I learned that you can’t really quote an organization, you need to quote a person. This article quotes the organization as a whole, not a person working for Fidelity Investment. It just seems like kind of lazy and problematic writing to me. 

3– In thinking about this habit, and how it’s something that I’ve been doing for most of my life, I’ve realized that this is maybe why I have found such comfort in giving pats to animals—like rabbits, or cats; that there’s something transcendental, or at the very least, relaxing, about this repetitive motion against a smooth, fuzzy surface.

4– I have stated this before, and it seems worth noting again that bringing up a child within a religion—specifically Catholicism—is an absolutely horrible thing to do.

5– This photograph was among those sent to me by my father’s sister—my aunt, as mentioned in a previous Column of Disquiet—“What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Mental Health.”

6– Joe Goodkin and I, as of this moment, have yet to meet in person, unfortunately. I was introduced to him in early 2015, when I interviewed him, via email, for a piece in the Northfield News—he was coming to town to play two shows at the colleges here, performing “Joe’s Odyssey,” a ‘folk opera,’ modern musical retelling of The Odyssey. I told him that I wrote music reviews on the side, and when it was completed, he mailed me a copy of Record of Life to review.

7– I cannot stress how great these EPs are. Please check them out as you are able.

8– My father, who you may recall from a previous Column of Disquiet—“There’s A Monster at The End of This Essay.”

9- On the days before and after my 30th birthday, I slowly tinkered away at this piece, from the very early days of Anhedonic Headphones. Aside from the stuff I wrote that was more reflective about specific artists/albums that impacted me in the past, this was one of the first really personal things I wrote. Parts of it I wrote on the floor of the living room while my wife watched 13 Going on 30, asking me if I was ‘Thirty, Flirty, and Thriving.’

 

 

Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the SouthernMinn Scene magazine for roughly three years. He occasionally contributes to Bearded Gentlemen Music, and his writing has appeared in River Valley Woman and The Wagazine. He regularly tweets about feeling old: @KevEFly.

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