The vacation trip I’m on was planned to coincide with my birthday on the 16th, but I’m not going to tell you which one it is.
I guess vanity is the typical reason for withholding one’s age, but in truth, it’s vanity that usually makes me volunteer my age. That’s been my most effective way to fish for compliments. “Oh, no,” people say, “you can’t be that old!”
For weeks now, I’ve been sharing one particular story that made me decide to stop “being” my age. A spiritual teacher I’ve been listening to recounted a trip to the eye doctor with her husband. The doctor asked her husband’s age. “I don’t know,” he said. The doctor looked to the teacher for an answer. She shrugged: she didn’t know either. It would have been easy to figure it out, she admitted in recounting the story; they knew his birth year and the current year. But they didn’t want to experience the barrage of imposed assumptions and normative ideas about age that would be released the instant a number was introduced into the conversation. The husband’s eyes would just have to speak for themselves.
Lately, I’ve been noticing the impact of those normative ideas with a clarity reminiscent of my youth, when they were used to shut me up. “My dear child,” an uncle used to say to my argumentative 16 year-old self whenever he had no rejoinder to my point, “you’re too young to know what you’re talking about.”
Half a year ago, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for several years. He asked me how my writing was going, and I made some remark to the effect that I hoped to see some of my novels published in my lifetime. Laughing, he said, “You’ve got plenty of time.” I mentioned the birthday that was coming up. His face changed, at first to that flattering amazement I’ve so often enjoyed—”You’re kidding!” Then he assumed a more thoughtful expression, returning to the topic. “Maybe,” he said, “you don’t have so much time after all.”
Our culture is obsessed with age. It astounds me the way every name mentioned in the New York Times has an age appended, even when no other description is offered: “Joe Schmo, 32, said…” As soon as someone’s age is known, a measuring-stick pops up. One person is perceived as precocious, another as immature. We compare ourselves to others: at the same age, could we claim equal achievement? Ideas about appropriateness swarm through our minds: how large does an age difference between partners have to be before we feel discomfort? Is it different for men or for women? One person is remarkably healthy for his age, and someone else prematurely old. That dress, that music, that language, that hobby, that tone of voice is wrong for her age. How interested do we allow an older person to be in sex before it becomes inappropriate? When are we too old to dance professionally? Too old for rock’n’roll?
Last week on a listserv I belong to, someone sought to dismiss criticism of an author on the grounds that he was young (in his mid-30s), without the slightest awareness of the arbitrary condescension entailed.
I care about staying healthy, aware, flexible, lively and energetic, embracing habits I feel will assist in the realization of those aims. But from now on, I’m not going to fish for compliments using a hook baited with my age. I’m just going to say, “Still here, loving it and wanting more.” This time next year, I’ll let you know how it went.