Thoughts on Growing Older

July 11, 2007 psipsina

Today is my 38th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, I want to write about growing old surrounded by the Cult of Eternal Youth.

Several months ago, my friend Ginger and I were discussing whether it is necessary to like a character in order to like the book or movie he figures in. At the time, I think we were discussing Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a book I loved, even as I found Charlotte to be unappealing and Harry to be completely spineless, without character and without pride. Despicable, both of them, but the novel was brilliant and beautiful. Yet we were both sure that sometimes it is impossible to enjoy a work if you despise the characters.

That’s when High Fidelity came up. I found the John Cusack character, Rob Gordon, completely loathsome. He was immature, incapable of a stable relationship, self-absorbed, and irresponsible. And on top of it all, he was more than 30 years old, embarked on a period of his life where most guys manage somehow to have their shit together. I couldn’t enjoy the movie, because its hero was someone I would avoid in real life.

So why did I enjoy If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem but not High Fidelity? I don’t think this is a complete answer, but it’s because Nick Hornby clearly intends for me to like Rob Gordon. I’m supposed to think it’s cute and amusing and sort of pathetic (but in an attractive way) that Rob is such a loser. Well, I didn’t find it cute – I found it repulsive. The only thing that got me through the movie was some sort of vague hope that Rob would grow up. Is that too much to ask of a guy in his thirties?

And that got me thinking about the Cult of Youth. There’s no doubt our culture worships Youth. The evidence is everywhere. Our media images are of men and women in their teens and twenties. But that’s not all. We are expected to lie, humorously, about our ages, as happened yesterday when a coworker who is my age and knows it, asked me if I was turning 29. We’re supposed to be flattered when a liquor store clerk or bartender cards us, in spite of the lines around our eyes and the generous sprinkling of gray in our hair. (Worse, there is a drugstore in my neighborhood where you can’t buy cigarettes unless a manager sells them to you.  This irritates me, because I have to wait in line behind the poor smoker while the manager drags her patootie up to the front of the store.  I’m pretty anti-smoking, but I have my limits.  But I digress.)  Calling someone “old” is an insult, and “elderly” isn’t much better. We’re supposed to refer to people over a certain age as senior citizens, which is a stupid term unless you are the Social Security Administration or have some other reason to care whether the person is a citizen, or just seniors, which calls up images of 18-year-olds graduating from high school or 22-year-olds graduating from college. We celebrate our fortieth birthdays with black balloons and sympathy cards. Middle age used to begin in the 30s, then in the 40s, and now people resist the label until the 50s. (There is some justification for this last, as we are living longer.)

The flip side of the Idolization of Youth, it seems to me, is the Admiration of Immaturity. This is the reason Nick Hornby can write a book and movie like High Fidelity and find wide acceptance of it. (I am the only person I know who hated the movie.) It would be one thing if we loved the beauty of youth so much that we are willing merely to forgive its foibles. But it seems to me that High Fidelity is evidence that we have passed into a kind of collective insanity where we glorify, rather than merely tolerating, the downside of youth. And imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, we wish to emulate all of youth, even its avoidance of commitment, lack of experience, inability to form stable relationships, and spiritual and social retardation.  Please note that these characteristics are not annoying or bad in a 21-year-old;  they are normal for that developmental stage.  In a 33-year-old, though, they speak of an arrested development that is, in the most generous term I can come up with, pitiable.

Me, I wouldn’t be 21 again for the world. I wouldn’t trade anything for my stable marriage, my financial security, my experience in business, and the wisdom gained by being knocked around a bit by the world. I think my gray hairs are kind of pretty. I like the little smile lines around my eyes, and I love the ones around RHB’s eyes. I wish I hadn’t put on so much weight, and it’s dismaying that perimenopause seems to have started so early for me, but I love being 38, and I intend to brag about it. Or, as Ginger’s mother said, It’s so nice to have birthdays! The more birthdays you have, the longer you live.

And so, as I creep ever closer to forty, here is my Manifesto on Growing Older.

  • Dear friends, don’t joke with me about being 21, or 29. You know damn well I’m not, and now you know damn well I don’t want to be.
  • Liquor store clerks everywhere, if your boss requires you to card everyone who is still breathing, I will accept that. Don’t expect me to be flattered, though. Don’t pretend you actually think I’m under 21, or even under 30. Think for a moment what that means – do you really believe that I’m some stupid 20-year-old dumb enough to try buy alcohol illegally? This is a double insult – you are pretending that I’m a child, and you are pretending that I’m stupid. Just look at my damn ID and let me get on with buying that $20 bottle of wine that no 20-year-old would dream of blowing a wad on.  If I were 20 and had $20, I’d be buying a case or two of Bud.
  • If I am not exactly Middle Aged yet, I am creeping toward it. I’m glad. Stop telling me you think I’m young. This goes for people who are a lot older than me, too.  Sure, I’m younger than you, but that does not make me a Callow Youth.  It’s insulting.  Stop it.
  • You all have a couple of decades to practice this one, so limber up – unless I complete a second four-year bachelor’s degree, I will never be a senior again. So when the grays start outnumbering the dark hairs, don’t start calling me a senior unless you want a punch in the mouth. (I will be the kind of feisty old lady that punches people in the mouth.)
  • Speaking of grays, I stopped dying my hair when I noticed a few silver threads. I think they’re cool, so don’t expect me to dye them.  And I hope someone gives me a stern talking to if I ever decide to become Old and Blonde.
  • As far as skin goes, I am delighted that my skin is thinner and drier than it used to be.  It means my acne is finally under control.  If it gives me some cute little smile lines, so be it.
  • And, to assure everyone that I am not any more well-adjusted than anyone else, I will admit to one insecurity about growing old.  It goes like this:  Dear God, please don’t let me lose my teeth before I retire!

So this is me, telling you, all of you, whoever you are, whether you are friends or family or strangers who have stumbled on my blog – Happy 38th Birthday to Psipsina!  It’s nice to be a grownup.


Entry Filed under: age, birthday, faulkner, fiction, high fidelity, immaturity, literature, marriage, maturity, movies, nick hornby, youth

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thoughts on Growing Older&hellip  | 

    […] check out my latest post on my main blog, you know, the one where I talk about all the things in my life that have nothing […]

  • 2. kathryn&hellip  | 

    A most happy birthday to you! 🙂

    The main character in High Fidelity annoyed me sometimes, but I viewed the movie as a man’s progression from immaturity to adulthood. He recognizes something’s wrong in his life, in his relationship to women. Of course, the fact his girlfriend left him precipitated this process, but at least THIS time he took notice and began self-examination. In the end he does change. So the conclusion of the movie supports the end result you’d like to see. It tells the story of an immature man growing up, and so I didn’t see it as a glorification of youth. Better late than never.

    There are assumptions underlying some of what you write that puzzle me. Of course, when speaking generally of a group or cultural tendency, sweeping statements are the norm. But here’s an example: the equation of immaturity and unstable relationships and the conclusion that this is an indicator of arrested development and is pitiable.

    I met my husband when I was 36. Prior to that I’d had a five-year relationship in my early 20s and a number of other relationships following. Until I met my husband (whom I did not marry until age 42), I had not met anyone I felt inclined to commit to, in part because the relationships were ultimately not healthy. It took me some time to identify what healthy love could be, decide what I wanted in a relationship, and to believe I deserved it. Does meeting someone and establishing a marriage in one’s 20s prove maturity? What about all those folks who marry young and divorce and repeat several more times? Or those marriages that began young and break up at 20 or 25 years because the spouses don’t feel connected anymore, or because their looming mortality catapults them into a crisis of trying to recapture youth?

    Perhaps I relate to the character because in fact my life was in flux for most of my 20s and 30s. My income was low, I struggled to make ends meet, I could not afford to attend college from 18-22 and instead graduated with my BA at 30 and a masters at 36 while working full-time in “make do” jobs. For many reasons I was a “late bloomer” — there were numerous obstacles to overcome. People comment often that I seem much younger than my age, and sometimes I do feel this. After all, I’m just now getting around to starting a family at age 44. Is this all an indicator of arrested development? Maybe. In many ways I felt over the years a sense of not having “arrived.” Is that pitiable? Sometimes I’m tempted to pity myself. Just think of what I could have accomplished in my life if only I’d… (had parents who supported my dreams, didn’t grow up with zero self-confidence because of family dynamics, been more focused in my studies, been able to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up much sooner). But this doesn’t change the past and robs me of my life now. And in fact, all that I’ve experienced contributed to my becoming an empathetic therapist. My life has value, even if it took a circuitous route toward “maturity.”

    I agree that our culture glorifies youth and despises age. I’d like to see that change. I can imagine, too, that if one feels squeezed by a cultural norm such as the worship of youth, one might feel judgment and anger toward youths at birthday time. What I’d like to see in our culture is an avoidance of both sides shouting judgment at each other and instead developing appreciation and relationship. You point out that people older than you can be condescending too. These heels-dug-in positions are ultimately unhelpful. BTW, have you come across Ronni Bennett’s blog, Time Goes By? She writes about what it’s really like to get older. Sometimes when she needs to vent she writes from the persona of “Crabby Old Lady.” You might enjoy her.

    I promise never to call you a senior anything, though. I’d like to keep my teeth for many more years too! 😉

  • 3. psipsina&hellip  | 

    Kathryn, thanks for coming by and provoking me, with your thoughtful comment, to think harder. I like people who make me think harder. I really enjoyed my first view or your blog today and plan to keep coming back.

    I don’t think we disagree, fundamentally, though we differ in the details. What I’m reacting to is this expectation that I ought to want to relive the Glory Days of My Youth, as if there’s no dignity in Middle Age. And that seems to me to be the problem with Rob Gordon and his Top Five lists – he’s stuck in the past. I myself only married last year, so I understand doing what’s right WHEN it’s right. Sometimes stasis can be useful. I can even admit that retrograde motion can be therapeutic at certain times – this is the pillar, after all, that some schools of psychotherapy are built on. But the notion that we are all always looking back on some fabled past irks me – the chief use of my past is that it is the foundation on which the present rests.

    Believe it or not, I adore teenagers, at least the ones I know well. Maybe it’s because I remember my own teens so clearly and painfully, I just don’t want to be one.

    Maybe I should give High Fidelity another shot. Maybe I was too hard on Rob because I had just broken up with my own 5-year partner, a man who was superficially nothing like Rob but exactly like him in all the ways that counted.

    I am not a Christian, and I am even more so not a fan of St. Paul, but I think he’s spot on when he says that when a child becomes a man, he puts aside his childish ways. I think that’s true even if the child grows up to be a woman!

  • 4. Anita&hellip  | 

    from a 46 year old… write on 🙂

  • 5. Houstonia&hellip  | 

    stumbled across this blog entry and loved it. 🙂

    I’m a proud 42, almost 43 year old. I’m divorcing my 29 year old husband of less than a year – almost completely due to his immaturity. Well.. it was my immaturity to agree to get married, but I digress… 2 months after we married, he decided he wanted “his freedom” and that I was keeping him a prisoner. At the point of my life where I’m happy with myself (finally), with my job, my home, my cats, my “place in life”, living with him was like handing over the wheel to a drunk driver!

    It turns out that in HIS culture (central american), after the age of 30, if you are not married, if you do not have children – you are basically “weird” or a failure. I recently had one of his relatives tell me to 1)stop thinking about going out dancing (too old) 2) stop thinking about having children (according to her, after 30 is too old), 3)stop thinking about marrying (too old) and to generally be more mature and stop living (in my opinion)!

    It’s depressing how our media promotes youth, but it’s encouraging how our culture encourages us to be individual – not condemning if we choose to not follow the patterns shown by the media. However, in my husband’s home country – they have the media promoting youth, and the society as well. For what it’s worth – over 50% of the population is UNDER the age of 30 – so that explains his desperation to get all his “living” in in the next five months.

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