On Being Older

I did mean to update this blog quite often, but having to read roughly 600 pages per week has put a damper on that, you see. I’m taking five classes this term, and all of them with much heavier reading loads than last semester. It makes me feel quite the scholar, though, in that funny little pretentious undergraduate way. I like affecting a retro collegiate posture, with my political buttons and my blazers, lounging on my couch reading Lillian Helman or John McPhee and drinking tea.

I spent a lot of high school trying not to seem quite so nerdy. I trained myself to swear more regularly; I studied popular music and television; I made an effort to take an interest in baseball and soccer—though try as I might, I could never really get into football. I suppressed my desires to pontificate about history and read fantasy novels. Instead, I was able to channel my faux-scholarly impulses into modern American history, and a fascination with the Beats and other controversial American literature and culture that’s popular in a sort of hipster sense. I got comfortable talking about sex, and studying sexuality became not only a vehicle for answering my troubling questions about my own identity, it became a way to fill classmates and roommates and other innocent bystanders with an amused interest in the scandalous that was as close as I seemed capable of coming to popularity. I managed to be socially acceptable, but in a way that most of my attention came from people wanting answers to questions—about their math homework, their Latin translations, or even things like sex and drugs that I don’t actually know nearly as much about as I let on.

But college, now, is starting to become a synthesis of all these things. I have never been so single-mindedly radical as I feel right now, or as the past few weeks have desired me to be. And yet my nerdiness, lain dormant for the past several years, is beginning to flourish again. Living in silly faux-gothic 19th-century buildings, and having friends whose cultural literacy exceeds mine, makes me want to rekindle my Anglophilia and my youthful exuberance for military history and dead languages. It’s starting to become a challenge, too: I was looking at study-abroad programs in France and England, and thinking that it’s going to be challenging to go abroad in Europe while still majoring in modern American history, which is what I think I intend to study. I find the tea-drinking, blazer-wearing, borderline-pretentious part of me to be at times at odds with the part of me that writes and rants with anger in my voice and knows Part I of “Howl” off by heart. I can’t uphold conservatism and radicalism at the same time, nor do I want to.

But I think this is the paradox of basically any clichéd retro student, and maybe it’s why I like aspiring to this stereotype. When I was a kid I loved the boarding-school novels and movies about boys who rebelled against the status quo while wearing coat and tie. Trust me, it’s a genre—and I devoured it, perhaps for more reasons than the one I’m describing, which I needn’t go into now, but if I can effect change while being a pretentious git who knows a lot of trivia, so much the better.

And what’s more, I think this is still a way of rebelling. Because my school is still Princeton, not some idealized, Americanized, Oxbridge fantasy. Princeton in reality has a very intellectual academic layer, but its social layer at times is positively anti-intellectual. It is almost, I think, a form of rebellion to be the student who actually does the 600 pages of reading per week, and who cares, and tries to balance too many other writing commitments besides. And, nevertheless, the resurgence of my youthful posturing has not been so absolute that I don’t go to Terrace every week or two, that I don’t still devour anything that’s shocking and controversial, and that my hippie tendencies haven’t been obliterated. In fact, I think I’m more “me” than I ever was, because in college it is increasingly possible to find people who will “get” you, whatever “you” is, and you don’t have to mold yourself into something that folks will understand.

I titled this post “On Being Older” because it was my birthday yesterday. I’m 19 now, which seems so much older than 18, so much farther over the threshold into legal adulthood, so much more of a collegiate age. And while 19 means that I can drink in Canada, and buy cigarettes in New Jersey, it also means that I am continuing that oh-so-very-collegiate process of who I am, how I present, and what I want folks to take away from the concept of “Emily Rutherford.”

My self-thesis of the day about a week ago was that I’m so glad I wound up at Princeton, and not at a hippy-dippy liberal arts college, because I think it’s important in my life right now to have something to rebel against. I tend to define myself by what I’m not, by whom I am and am not aligned with, and I think the resurgent Anglophilia is as much a part of that as is all the writing and ranting. I’m still figuring out how it all goes together; what sort of person I’m going to be, really. But I guess I’ve got time. Nineteen really isn’t all that old after all.

One thought on “On Being Older

  1. I like your blog a lot. All I can say is I wish I’d known you when I was a freshman. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me for being upset by some of those same aspects of Princeton’s culture. I could tell that there was a little brutality underlying the eating club scene, and I felt culturally out of place, but I was less articulate than you are, and more scared.

    I used to think, though, “The way to Tara is via Holyhead,” which is a Joyce line that I take to mean something like “the only way to find your home is to leave it.” Sort of like your idea of defining yourself by what you’re not. It’s probably good, for some time in our lives, to live in surroundings that are at odds with who we are. And no, nineteen isn’t that old — you just try twenty! ;)

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