Age is nothing but experience, and some
of us are more experienced than others.
Act your age, our parents used to tell us when we misbehaved.
They dragged out that hoary admonition probably because that was exactly what we had been doingacting our age. What they really wanted us to do was act like adults.
But now that we are adults, what does it mean to act our age?
Having just had another birthday with a zero at the end of it, Im thinking about things like that. There is nothing like another birthday with a zero at the end of it to make you a philosopher. What does it mean at 50, sayor 60 or 70(youll note some coyness here) to act your age?
One day ten years ago when my mother was a shrinking, white-haired 73, two different people mistook me for her husband. It was a delicious stroke to her vanity but a kick in the shins to me, one of those experiences that leaves you morosely metaphysical. I resolved not to go out in public with her any more.
One of the disturbing things about being, say, 60, is the thought that all your vital organs your liver, your kidneys, your heart, your prostate, if you have one, all those parts youve been counting on to keep you going are 60 too, that if you were a used car, youd hardly be worth trading in.
If youre 60, the fact that your skin is also 60 is not a surprise. Its right out there where you have to look at it; you cant help seeing it wither right along with the rest of you, cant help watching it sag like an ill-fitting suit. So far women have been more willing than men to make alterations, to take a tuck here, iron out a few wrinkles there, to overlay wilted skin with makeup, to transform shape with assorted undercover apparatus, to cover thin hair with wigs. With us men, unfortunately, what you get is what youll more likely see: sagging skin, drooping paunch, and gleaming dome, the alternative being to look like Sam Donaldson.
The poet Philip Larkin devised an unsettling means of looking at advancing age. Assume youre going to live to be 70, he said, and that each decade is a day of the week, starting with Sunday. If youve just turned 60, say, then its Friday morning. (As essayist Joseph Epstein added, it forces a new interpretation of TGIF.)
At a recent concert of our local symphony, a 24-year-old violin soloist dazzled the audience with a level of virtuosity that should not be possible to one for whom it is only Tuesday morning. If he were acting his age, hed be out trying to master the snow board, his pants bagging and his cap on backwards. For this late-in-the-week writer, it was another reminder that he will never rise to such musical heights, even if he had the aptitude, which he doesnt. Another kick in the shins.
Being a senior is a fine thing, if youre in high school. But if youre one of the late-in-the-week folks, its tinged with ambivalence. If youre willing to admit youre a senior, you can qualify for all those discounts offered by airlines, hotels, and car rental companies, assuming youre not too decrepit to travel. Youre free to shop for your groceries and go to a movie on weekday afternoons, if you dont mind hooking up with the gray crowd.
At the early stage of the process, it can actually be exhilarating to join the ranks of the highly experienced. Its easier for someone who is, say, 60, to slough off the curse of vanityto worry less about the ill-fitting skin and the thinning hair, the stain on the shirt front and the defective memory. Its certainly easier for a gray-hair who hasnt achieved wisdom yet to at least fake it. Its comforting for a late-in-the-week kind of guy to admit that he doesnt need to impress anyone anymore, that even though he hasnt climbed Everest yet, he can still make it up the stairs; that even though he hasnt won the Nobel Prize for literature, he might still turn out a good book, or maybe just a good essay.
If none of that works, we can always borrow a trick from James Thurber: Im 65, he said, but if there were 15 months in every year, Id only be 48.
TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]tscnet.com.
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