There is no photographic evidence to prove that I was ever 21. I have no pictures of myself at a bar, my birthday night, with a row of 21 Sambuca shots lined up in front of me. There are no polaroids of me sitting in front of a birthday cake, lit wicks extending from wax candles shaped like the numbers 2 and 1. Nope. Whatever pictures that once were are now lost or discarded, thrown away or buried deep in cardboard boxes. Because this was in 2001, and back then pictures were still a physical thing, not a file that could be passed between phones and altered, the images cropped and obscured by added letters. No, back then, our pictures could only be cropped with scissors and were practically un-memeable.
But I can remember being 21. I remember wearing lots of black and smoking lots of cigarettes, memorizing the songs on my Smiths cassette tape that I played in the car all the time and chasing after girls that wore glasses. I was just about to graduate from college with a degree in English that would surely keep me living in my parents’ house, broke and either unemployed or still working at the grocery store where I made $5.50 an hour cutting ham. I spent almost every night in a bar, drinking beer with my all-male cast of friends, and wondering what my future would look like.
It was hard to say. Impossible to imagine. At school, my academic advisor convinced me to minor in business, I guess in a vague attempt to balance out the uselessness of my English major with a minor that might possibly lead to a job. So I found myself in strange settings because of this, classes for business majors where I stuck out like a nude person in a supermarket. The rest of the class looked like they had just come from a meeting of the Young Republicans, and here I was, reeking of smoke and wearing all black like Hamlet. After classes they’d all attend the same parties, and I would go back to the grocery store to cut ham and then drink in a dive bar with the cart boys.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my business classes. I did. I truly did. I actually learned a lot from them, and some of that stuff still sticks. My favorite classes were the ones that involved advertising and how companies would attempt to get in the heads of their customers. To understand them, and then to use that understanding to better market their products. I found it fascinating. I looked at my pack of cigarettes and wondered if the Marlboro company knew me better than my parents did.
It was in those classes that I learned the term “the Just Noticeable Difference,” which has added importance today, on my 37th birthday. I’ll explain why in a second. First let me explain the term. The Just Noticeable Difference is a business saying that deals with perception. It’s the amount something can be changed in order for the difference to be noticed. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’re a candy bar company. You crunch the numbers, and you decide that your company would turn greater profits if you reduced the size of your candy bar, while still selling it for the same price. Now, the thing is, you can’t go and make it obviously smaller, because that would piss off your consumer base. So, instead, you shrink your candy bars a minute amount, a change so discreet that no one will ever realize they’re paying the same price for a smaller candy bar. No one will look twice at your candy bar and shout, “Those corporate bastards! They’re ripping me off!”
Because they won’t notice.
Or, on the flip size, say you want to increase sales by offering a larger candy bar. You don’t want to make the bar giant or anything, because then you’d lose money. So you increase the size little by little until you hit the Just Noticeable Difference, the exact point when someone sees the candy bar and exclaims, “Hey, that candy bar is definitely larger than it used to be! I’ll buy it!”
And then you don’t make it any bigger, because you’ve already created the perception you wanted to create and now, theoretically, you watch your profits increase, all the while laughing manically because you’re an evil business person.
Okay, now that I’ve explained that, let me tell you why I’m writing about it today. See, as I said before, today is my 37th birthday. And I spent some time this morning looking at myself in the mirror. As I did this, as my eyes ran over my beer belly and the hairs that have started to grow around my nipples, I suddenly thought back to those business classes and the Just Noticeable Difference.
People, I believe, are kind of like those candy bars, only age alters us, not an evil business person. We look at ourselves in the mirror and, just like that candy bar that’s been made smaller only a tiny little bit, we see no real changes. But at some point, those changes become clear. They become obvious. Our bodies, our faces, our hair, eventually all of that hits the Just Noticeable Difference. And we gaze in amazement and think, “What the hell happened to me? How did I suddenly turn into this?”
Because that’s what I thought today. That I’ve really hit my own private JND. Not really in a good way or a bad way…just a noticeable way.
If I had a picture of a younger me, I could compare them and see exactly how different I’ve become. But I don’t. All I have is this weird dude looking back at me in the mirror, like both of us are trying to recognize someone we think we’ve seen before.