After years of discovery and pondering, I have come to the clear decision that my favorite age of life for me, and for everyone else, is in The Year Twenty-Six. We aren’t in the Mozart Syndrome era yet — 26 is the imperfect and unsafe conflation of beauty and minding and of destruction and dismay.

In our 26th year, two things happen: Our brains finally stop growing and our spines begin to run us asunder with stenosis and arthritis. Let’s examine each of these divine conditions for the purpose of dissection.

If we know, and we do, that the brain is finished with its growth period at the age of 26 years — what in the world are we doing with our lives in years 1-25? With this knowledge in mind, how can we allow anyone under the age of 26 even begin to think clearly, to have sex, to marry, to have children, to own a gun, to fire a gun, to know anything, to fight in a war — much less drive a car?

When I was aging into my mind in Nebraska, you could legally drink in a bar at 18 and drive a car at 16 — 15 if you had a licensed driver in the car with you. It’s a Godsend the national drinking age is now Federally mandated at 21, but that still doesn’t go far enough into maturing to allow the public consumption of alcohol — those young minds need another five years of tempering before they’re wholly formed to decide if they want to get drunk or not!

If we don’t use scientifically proven biological markers to mind us, and we instead prefer the social will of the people to guide us, I’d wager we’re doomed as a human race foundering in an organic condition we are unable to recognize or abhor. We should all be students of living until the age of 26 — stuck right in our parents’ basement or some other safe haven — while the whipping world outside whirls around us.

At least Obamacare tangentially gets this right with a wise and legal recognition of the magic birthdate:

You can stay on a parent’s plan until you turn 26

Once you’re on a parent’s plan, in most cases you can stay on it until you turn 26. (Check with the plan to be sure. Some states and plans have different rules.)

Generally, you can join a parent’s plan and stay on until you turn 26 even if you:

Get married
Have or adopt a child
Start or leave school
Live in or out of your parent’s home
Aren’t claimed as a tax dependent
Turn down an offer of job-based coverage

As the brain enters full rage and reason at 26, your spinal foundation is starting its slow, 50-year decay, and many of us are none the wiser as our spines harden and our spongy discs lose their elasticity.

“Spinal stenosis” and “arthritis of the spine” are scary terms to hear — until your orthopedist laughs at you and says the colloquial term for those medical conditions is, “common aging.” Diagnosed or not, you’re stiffening more than your upper lip after age 26.

Yes, a hardening spine is nothing new and nothing special and wholly, scientifically, expected as a normal part of growing older — but how many of us know that until the pain starts to creep? Why confront the inevitable until it presents itself for the dealing?

So, we all begin the stoop of decay into inevitable pain at age 26 and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to belay the inevitable. Some things are never meant to last, and that includes us, and our wonky spines!

It’s actually a blessed thing that just as our backs are in position to start to weaken us, our brains are finally at-the-ready to strengthen the fight into better health with built-in subdermal warnings: Don’t Jump On That!  Slow Down, You’ll Trip!  Who Do You Think You Are, A 25-Year-Old-Baby? You’re 26, Grow Up!

I’m reminded of a lesson I teach to all my undergraduate acting students — ages roughly ranging from 18-23. They are all generally sharp smart, but unworldly, and quite beautiful. In order to try to help them value the real world around them, I show them this early photograph of Johnny Cash, and I tell them who he was, and why he made a mark in the world.

Then I show them this Rolling Stone photograph of Johnny Cash — taken 50 years later, after being ravaged by illness and mourning and a hardcore career on a live stage performing every night, paralleling their hoped-for career careenings and needs — and their fertile spines but unharvested minds gasp in fear at the changes in the man, communally recognizing the terror of what might become them if they hoped to be as successful as he was across a half-century:

Finally, I hold the photographs next to each other, and tell each of them, “that’s what’s coming for you!” I warn them they’ll never be stronger or prettier or more promising than they are right now. I implore them to stop waiting for something to happen and to grab the life before them and bend it to their will.

I remind them the one thing that can never be taken from them is their education, once they had it — but how they used that priceless valuable was completely in their hands — and the responsibility for living up to the promise of themselves was waiting in the vision of their own lives standing against the ghostly world before them.

As they stare back at both photographs, I realize many of those students had never really seen such a vivid and stark “Before and After” representation of a life set before them. Sure, they knew young people and they put up with old people, but few had never so closely witnessed the same person in the same skin, but with a totally different life experience staring back at them. One knows, one is about to know.

Aging with someone defies the condemnation of time.

And there I stand before them, unwitting decaying back, but alert mind, holding out the example of Johnny Cash to them, right there in the blind facts of his faces caught on paper; knowing their tender minds were still too young to fully grasp the danger of the warning that life is really only about miscues and recoveries and that winning never lasts and rarely matters beyond the losers — but I knew with hope that their minds would one day teach them so.

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