“It went by so fast,” my 80-something father exclaimed, when I told him my daughter would be attending college in the fall.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
In a year and a quarter, I’ll turn 60, an unimaginable age to my younger self. Sixty was when people started preparing for retirement, purchasing the necessary plaid trousers, white shoes, and extra-large belts required for golf outings or early discount dinners at the Red Lobster or Olive Garden. Sixty was when men’s pants waistlines started their upward migration from hipster-flashing underwear to above the belt, and eventually, just below the nipples. Sixty was when long-married couples shifted from having actual sex to patting one another on the arm when one said something “cute” or “stupid.” Which would happen with increasing frequency.
Of course, I was ageist when I was younger, the definition of which shifted with each new birthday that ended in a zero. Trained by the lingering hippie culture, when I was in my 20’s I thought life more or less ended at 40. Leastwise, I had no idea what happened between that murky time between middle age and senior citizen. A lot of domino playing, perhaps, or complaining about what the kids were up to. When I got to 40, I abruptly realized that I was young, virile, and still had my teeth, totally in the game. Until I reached 50, a number that sounds great when it comes to a dollar denomination or a bet during a high-stakes poker game – pronounced “fity,” of course – but isn’t as pretty when applied to a speed limit or human age. Fifty what, years?
Now, the inevitable will soon occur, the next zero birthday in a steady stream. As my grandmother, who lived into her 90s used to say about aging, “It beats the alternative.” But it’s still disorienting, as it unfolds in a society that venerates young flesh in media, advertising, and high-tech start-ups, and generally treats the over-70 crowd as good for grandkid-sitting and an impending market for incontinence diapers; one for the baby, one for me.
“I feel great,” former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, 80, told me recently, “As if I’m 40!” He looks great too. As does Roger Hillyard, founder of Farley’s, who is in his late-70s. But both complained of ageism, and a subtle lack of respect from their youngers, who have fully bought into the cult of child-adults.
It’s not that we treat the less than teenage crowd all that royally. Babies are cute and irrelevant. Toddlers and the extra-elderly are handled in the same fashion. Both take weird pride in how old they are, down to the month – two and three-quarters years-old; eighty-eight and a half, to the day! – probably because people are always asking, or wanting to ask, they’re age, though the words are emphasized differently depending on which ends of life the individual being questioned is at. “How old are you!?” “How old are you?!” For both demographics achieving that next month is extra-special, though for quite distinct reasons.
Adolescents are cutely-annoying, or just very annoying. Teenagers are scary or incomprehensible, and, anyways, they should stop obsessing over their smartphones and read a book once in a while; would it kill them?
It’s actually not so much age we venerate, as silky-smooth looks and the redemptive possibility of youth. Perky breasts, six packs, and rock-hard calves, topped with a peaches and cream complexion or just slightly stubbled, dimpled, face. When do we want it? Now and forever! The future is supposed to be bright, with a beautiful spouse, beautiful family, and fulfilling and impactful job, not almost over as we march, ever more stooped, closer and closer to death.
Which probably is the bottom line. Aging smells like doo-doo to many of us; it’s the wrinkled whiff of impending doom, of disappearance. “I can’t imagine a world without me,” sang Robert Dean. Dying young is tragic, but kind of sexy. Dying old is respected, but in the same way an oversized antique you don’t want in your home is respected. Cool that it survived this long, but it doesn’t really match the décor.
“I look at the person, not just the outer trappings,” my friend, Bob – who, single at 60, is dating his contemporaries – said, when I asked him whether he was attracted to the inevitably aging bodies he encountered. “Being old can be beautiful,” he claimed.
I want to believe him. I really do. If only because it beats the alternative.