“Being in your 20s is like riding a galloping unicorn, drunk, through some magical forest brimming with fairies and gypsies and sprites. Everything glows and pops and hurts.”

“I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck/with a pink carnation and a pick-up truck/but I knew I was out of luck/the day the music died.” – Don McLean, “American Pie”

My 20s, which on some level I felt would last forever, died in April, and uneventfully so.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, mainly because I was too busy working, like the well-behaved 30-something I am. But now that I’ve quit that job — as sports editor at a local paper — I’ve had time to reflect on what it truly means to be three decades old. 

Three decades old. Christ, that’s hard to fathom. Not so long ago, I was a spry chap of 22, getting drunk every Thursday night at a bar in Richmond, Virginia, called Starlight which offered $2 rail liquor drinks.

Eight years later, I’m living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I max out at two drinks per sitting, mostly craft beers consumed in front of the TV while watching reruns of “Seinfeld” or “New Girl.” I’ll occasionally wander outside to water our blueberry bush.

Those Thursdays at Starlight had a special appeal for awhile. They allowed me to have “fun” while recovering from the most unhealthy relationship of my life. I’d go out with a couple of close friends and we’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning stupidly trying to pick up girls in a crowded, muggy bar. We succeeded a few times, but mostly we ended up hammered and alone — usually too hammered to register that we were alone, for better or worse.

It’s hard to imagine that I once had the stamina for such shenanigans. Nowadays, I’m buzzed after one Lagunitas, and I rarely go out at all, much less past 10 p.m. The thought of milling around at a club until 2 in the morning makes me want to crawl into a sleeping bag. And being shoulder-to-shoulder with so many strangers would now probably give me a panic attack, or at least an acute headache.

“It’s hard to imagine that I once had the stamina for such shenanigans. Nowadays, I’m buzzed after one Lagunitas, and I rarely go out at all, much less past 10 p.m. The thought of milling around at a club until 2 in the morning makes me want to crawl into a sleeping bag.”

My 30th birthday is a sign of the times for Millenials. My generation is no longer the default “young” generation. Some of us are well into our 30s, and a large swath of Gen Zers are moving into replace us in the ranks of the 20-somethings. They’re like us, but not entirely. There’s a definite difference between a 34-year old and a 21-year old, though it’s a less significant gap than previous generations.

Either way, it’s high time for Gen Zers to break into early adulthood and make some hard mistakes before they’re old and weary, like us cranky Millenials.

That’s the way it goes though, right? We do as much dumb stuff as possible before 25 or 30. We drink and hook up and make mistakes, so when we reach the three-decade plateau, we have no regrets, or at least a minimal amount of them.

Our likes and dislikes change as we progress through our 20s. New things become important, old preferences fade away. Our lives narrow in some ways, expand in others. If we’re lucky, we trim the fat and become more in tune with who we are as individuals.

Trimming the fat means different things to different people, of course. For some, it means cutting out (or at least cutting back) on drinking. For others, it means letting go of friends who no longer serve them. For others still, it means a change of scenery, or fleeing a soul-crushing job. Our 20s are our first act in adulthood: they establish who we are and what we like, setting the stage for the rest of the show. 

My first act was wracked with anxiety and missteps, as many first acts are. I’m not necessarily proud of the way I once behaved, but I stand by what I went through, because those struggles taught me a lot of hard lessons about who I am and who I am not. They were fat-trimming sessions.

“My first act was racked with anxiety and missteps, as many first acts are. I’m not necessarily proud of the way I once behaved, but I stand by what I went through, because those struggles taught me a lot of hard lessons about who I am and who I am not. They were fat-trimming sessions.”

There was the paralyzing awkwardness of college: the being in a new place and not fitting in, the leaving the room in the middle of class to avoid having to give a speech in front of everyone. There was Prozac and drinking, sometimes simultaneously.

There was the insufferable first job: mine was at a windowless online appliance parts store which consisted of me taping packages for eight hours a day. A monkey could have done what I did, perhaps more efficiently. I put on 20 pounds and stopped caring about much of anything.

Then there was the destructive relationship. I think everyone who aspires to become fully themselves later in life needs to experience at least one downright awful relationship. I think most people would benefit from spending some time with a partner who’s totally wrong for them. Preferably, there will be that long, drawn-out, melodramatic cycle of breaking up and getting back together (ala a Taylor Swift song) until, one day, the thing dies for the betterment of both parties.

A ruinous relationship serves as a model for what a healthy relationship is not. Experiencing, first-hand, the antithesis of happiness allows us to better identify (and appreciate) true joy when it enters our lives.

Perhaps that’s the most meaningful gift our 20s can give us: a truer definition of happiness. We search for it in bars at 2 a.m. We desperately hope it’s housed within a partner that’s utterly wrong for us. We tell ourselves it resides in places it is not until, one day, we give up the ghost, and in doing so, better clarify our vision. By 30, hopefully we have at least a few things figured out.

That’s not to say that we should have everything in line by the time we reach the three-decade plateau (again, Christ). There seems to be a general consensus among 30-somethings that we’ve somehow discovered an elemental truth about life, that we’re as world-weary as we’re ever going to be. That’s patently ridiculous, of course. Thirty years on this rock does not a wiseman make — there’s too much life yet to be experienced.

“There seems to be a general consensus among 30-somethings olds that we’ve somehow discovered an elemental truth about life, that we’re as world-weary as we’re ever going to be. That’s patently ridiculous, of course. Thirty years on this rock does not a wiseman make — there’s too much life yet to be experienced.”

After all, 30-year olds are still somewhat on the upswing. While aches and pains may be creeping up on us, health issues generally aren’t on our radar. We’re still marketable in the workplace. Our paths have yet to be decided, for the most part, and our entire lives remain ahead of us. Maybe not our entire lives, but the majority of our lives, at least. There’s still room to wiggle around, figure things out. 

But maybe us 30-somethings shouldn’t wiggle around for too long. I once read somewhere that a fool at 40 is a fool for life, so that leaves me exactly a decade to further trim the fat and avoid cementing my status as an everlasting fool. 

A fool I’ve been, for sure. And all the better.

While this essay has focused a lot on the darker aspects of being a 20-something, I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a “young person,” through all the confusion and dead ends. Being in your 20s is like riding a galloping unicorn, drunk, through some magical forest brimming with fairies and gypsies and sprites. Everything glows and pops and hurts.

By the time 30 rolls around, you’re an average adult on an average horse that’s walking slowly through an empty meadow. It’s not as exciting or painful, but the view is better, and a greater sense of calm has settled in your gut. The sun is descending toward the horizon as you begin to smile.

“By the time 30 rolls around, you’re an average adult on an average horse that’s walking slowly through an empty meadow. It’s not as exciting or painful, but the view is better, and a greater sense of calm has settled in your gut. The sun is descending toward the horizon as you begin to smile.”

So RIP, 20s. And goodbye unicorn. You were turbulent and frustrating and enlightening. I enjoyed you, I hated you, I’ll recall you fondly, but I won’t miss you. I much prefer watering a blueberry bush to getting brownout drunk in a club off cheap liquor.

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