Tuesday, September 2, 2014 · 5:11 a.m.

"Where are you going, and where have you been?"

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Ariel Meadow Stallings, a blogger I've followed for years, turned me on to this fairly recent video series called "I Miss Drugs." The premise is pretty simple—the plight of the "gently aging hipster." As Stallings puts it, the series "reminds me a little bit of an update on Will Ferrell's infamous 'Maybe later we'll go to Bed Bath & Beyond' bit from 'Old School' a decade ago … except, of course, they're making jokes about Etsy and Trader Joe's." What I love about this series is that it never actually does anything other than talk about the mundanities of a domesticated life, but that whatever trite subject matter comes up—an ugly granny square pillow, a Simple Human trash can, watching Hulu—is juxtaposed with the phrase "I miss drugs" fading onto the screen at the end, as if mirroring the main character's thoughts, however subconscious.

This past week, I wrote a mass text to friends to invite them out for a couple of drinks on my birthday proper, a weeknight. "I know you are all recovering from an apparently raucous Monday night," I typed, "But don't worry—I'm old now, so getting schmmamered hurts more. It should be a pretty chill night." Sure enough, only a few people showed, most nursing their hangovers and saving their energy for the real party later in the week. I don't know that they knew just how much I meant it when I said it'd be a chill evening. I've been to quite a few birthdays lately, mostly involving bar hopping and carefully nursing a series of bourbon gingers as the birthday boy or girl plowed through all manner of drinks sent over by well-meaning friends. 

I found myself wearily thinking that I didn't really want to get plastered on my own birthday. It made me tired to imagine drinking more than a couple of glasses of wine. The actual party, I decided, should focus mainly on the cooking and eating of artisan pizzas. The decision-making process, quite reasonably, made me suspect that, in turning 26, I've crossed some kind of Rubicon of inebriation. You can see now, I'm sure, why I was so intrigued when I clicked on the first episode of "I Miss Drugs," then the second, then the third. I'm not a gently aging hipster yet, not by a long shot. But I suspect my years of drama and poor decision making are quickly slipping into history, as I spend my evenings in, contemplating things like recipes for braising kale, a recycling system I want from IKEA and if I should bother getting up to get a single bottle of pumpkin beer out of the fridge. 

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cleveland for the last of a two-year series of open mic nights at a little mom-and-pop pizza joint called Gabriel's. I didn't know this until a few months ago when I started going to this open mic tradition, but Lee University's music program is actually very well-respected and attracts a lot of talented students. Who knew there were so many opera singers running around this small Southern college town, so many guys who could out-whistle Andrew Bird? Seventy-five to 80 percent of the time, instead of inwardly groaning, I'd wonder why record labels weren't lined up with fat stacks of contracts. Where were the executives and scouts Indian leg-wrestling to sign the folks on the little plywood stage?

This open mic night was so well-beloved and supported by such a fierce crowd of loyal regulars that, for its final night, one girl I knew drove three hours from North Carolina to attend. She's the kind of girl toward whom I feel a mixture of a platonic crush and intense pangs of jealousy. She's really hip, always dressed with an elegant, semi-bohemian nonchalance. She makes chambray look like she's the only one who's thought of wearing it. She's always the smartest person in the room. She's also quietly, extremely kind and exudes a very rare combination of insecurity and warmth that is irresistible to almost everyone we mutually know. At any rate, at one point during the evening's festivities, she went to go smoke a bowl in her car. Here's how the lady crush jealousy thing works, at least for me. It's always focused on people I have at least a tiny bit in common with. It's always fueled by the possibility that, in some alternate universe, I could actually be that person. Or maybe in this universe, if I do X, Y or Z.

So when she went to smoke, I began to wonder how I ended up in my life and how she ended up in hers. Our lives aren't so dissimilar, although I don't subscribe to the same brand of hip and I'm not insanely popular in three cities and two states, and I can't remember the last time I used recreational drugs. But we're both smart writers with a fair amount of self-doubt, and we run in the same circles. I know from talking to her and following her online that we actually had pretty similar high school experiences, too, where we were smart but troubled and really worked to cultivate that mystique. If Cat Marnell had published her articles back then, we probably would have worshiped her in some misguided way for being beautiful and broken.

I can't say much more about this girl's experience than that because we're just acquaintances. I can say for myself that in high school I loved hanging out with the theater kids and the druggies and the hippies and the freaks, but I never felt accepted by them. When it came down to it, I was a very good, very boring and very insecure kid who just didn't sneak out at night, didn't have the balls to do anything illicit until senior year, and even then was too cautious to relate to "On the Road" or anything by Hunter S. Thompson. Mine was the tamest of rebellions. How could it not be? My parents didn't get angry when I dyed my hair blue. Instead, my mom helped me touch up the roots.

This is all to say that sometimes I wonder where I'd be today if I'd just had the cahones to do what I wanted to do back then instead of being scared to actually walk the walk. Sure, I'd have gotten in a lot more trouble. I would have been stupidly brave and hung out with all those interesting musicians and artists and theater kids after school. I probably would have climbed out my bedroom window to meet up with them in Coolidge Park. We would have driven around listening to Weezer. I probably would have had some hallucinatory experiences. I would have been there smoking cigarettes in some basement while they played guitar. I would have gotten grounded, which I never did in my actual life, and my parents would have had an even harder time than they did with my actual level of teenage difficulty. 

Thinking over all of this was kind of like the "Perks of Being a Wallflower" treatment of "It's a Wonderful Life." Revisionist history can be fun for a while, but the important thing isn't that I failed to give in to every temptation back then. It doesn't always seem like it, but ultimately, I think I was doing what I really wanted, or it wouldn't have been so easy to "just say no" and stay in with my comic books and mixed CDs, watching John Hughes movies with my parents. Anyway, it's way more important than anything from 10 years ago that, right now in the actual present, I do try to be brave and do all the things I really want to do. But that doesn't stop me from wondering sometimes what my older years will be like without some of the obvious excesses of youth to look back on. Even my grandmother admitted once, after a lot of good-natured badgering from the whole family, that during her college years at Duke in the prim and proper 1950s, it wasn't all mahjong and hitting the books. Apparently, she had a very nice time and drank "the purple Jesus," some kind of strange, grape-based sorority cocktail. As I slowly become my parents, who have an obsessively organized kitchen and who track more statistics on their workouts than NASA gets from Hubble, will I have my moment of "I miss drugs"?

I originally started following Stallings' blog online because I love her stories about being a young, earnest raver in the '90s and seeing how she turned her 20s into her successful, driven, still-quirky 30s. It's a mild girl crush jealousy thing past and present, with a heavy dash of unknowing mentorship. Her perspective is helpful when I start contemplating the contrast between my 20s and my teenage years. Even though she did a lot of things I used to envy ('90s rave scene, come on!), she sees it as something fun, but also sometimes negative and difficult and part of a decade of struggle. It's useful to see that someone can view her salad years not just as a wild, now-past bonanza, but also as something to get through to a mellow, satisfying present. Now, I envy her 30s more than I used to envy her 20s. Honestly, it's because I relate to them better. I may not be able to say that I miss drugs because I never really was a part of that scene. I may already be able to joke about Etsy and Trader Joe's and how I'm lusting after a DIMPA recycling system. It's OK. 

That's the thing about the people we admire, about the models we build others up to be. They're just that—only models, only rough outlines we use to measure ourselves against as we knit out our own unique story. They're also real people, with different thoughts and feelings and trajectories than one's own. Do I sometimes wonder if I didn't have enough fun in high school and college? Will I probably continue to stop and contemplate if I missed out on some fundamental part of being young? Sure. Is my experience of Simple Human's line of products deeply different from those who made more pharmaceutically oriented decisions in their younger years? Maybe. Who cares? 

It's natural to compare yourself to others. It's natural to question yourself. Who doesn't wonder sometimes if they are either too boring or still too deeply entrenched in a time of life that's passed them by, or too something else, anything else, any doubt you can name? That's called being human. It's called changing and aging. Like social media, sometimes it's useful to keep in touch with people from your past, including your previous selves. Also like social media, sometimes it's just a stupid, petty way to pass the time. It's good to check in once and a while to see, in a variation on Joyce Carol Oates, where you are going and where you have been. That story has many interpretations, but I choose to believe it's about the dangers of living too much in the present, with your past and future spilling off the sides, out of sight. If you don't give occasional thought to how you got where you are, how can you assess it? If you don't sometimes ask if you miss the drugs (or whatever your equivalent is), you just might end up having a Talking Heads moment, asking, "This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife. How did I get here?" Don't just act automatically. Don't just let your days go by. Be happy in your present. If you suspect you aren't, if you yearn for the good old days and fantasize about who you used to be, ask yourself why. It's never too late to change.

Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at emmieodea@gmail.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

Updated @ 6:24 a.m. on 10/09/12 to correct a factual error: "Where Have You Going, Where Have You Been?" was written by Joyce Carol Oates, not Flannery O'Connor.

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