As much as we would like to believe otherwise, a lot of how we define ourselves comes from others. If strangers regularly run screaming in the opposite direction when they see you, it would be a fair assumption that you might be a candidate to play the monster in a horror movie.
And when a 20-something interviewing you for a job leans across the table, pats your arm and says, “Tell me your life goals, dear,” you can excuse yourself and leave because she thinks you are too old to handle the work.
From the cradle, we are taught that old is bad. Through images and language in books, magazines, television, movies and behavior of others, we learn that the aged are at best tolerated or made the object of derision and bad jokes - and, at worst, denied employment and even the opportunity to spend money.
So we pay attention and make note when others begin to classify us as no longer young.
The first time it was made evident to me, I was in my early thirties. Walking home from the subway, I crossed the street behind two boys about 12 or 13 playing catch. As the one facing me threw the ball to his friend who was running backwards to catch it, he yelled, “Watch out for the lady behind you.”
I can remember the shock. No one had ever referred to me before as anything but “girl,” although it was a different era. The incident occurred in the 1970s when it was still okay to call even a 60-year-old “girl” and before many newspapers began, improbably, referring to teenagers as “…the 16-year-old woman who lives in The Bronx…”
At home that evening, I carefully checked my appearance in the mirror, but mostly I forgot about my age until, in 1996 and in my mid-fifties, I looked around during a staff meeting at cbsnews.com and noticed I was the oldest kid in the room. By decades.
When one of the youngest learned I had been at Woodstock in 1969, her eyes widened in a wow effect and she reacted as though I had watched Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. To be fair, she was more interested in a first-hand account of a legendary rock-and-roll gathering than pointing out my age, but for my part, I was startled to realize that I was recalling an event that had taken place before she and some of my other colleagues were born – a sure indication no one would ever again think of me as young.
If it were as acceptable to be old as it is to be young, no one would ever say, “You’re only as old as you feel” or, with faux shock at the number of candles on their birthday cake, “I don’t feel 50” or 60 or 65. It makes me nuts when I hear those statements because whatever you feel at a given age is what it feels like to be that age. To say otherwise is to tacitly agree with the cultural consensus that to be old is to be a lesser being.
I suspect what people really mean when they say those things is, “Where has the time gone?” Sixty years sounds like a long time – actually, it is a long time - but without much effort - and especially if we close our eyes for a moment - we can recall our tenth birthday or first kiss or other special event as clearly as if it were yesterday.
The tagline of this blog is “what it’s really like to get older.” It is unlikely I would have created Time Goes By if that were easy to know. It is not easy because we live in a time and place which demands that we hide our age by any means possible until it is impossible, and until we reach that point, we try to fool not only everyone else about our age, but ourselves as well.
Still, we note the changes as they occur, we notice when others begin to treat us differently and in time, we come to acknowledge that we are no longer part of the youngest or even younger generations. And if we are not unduly taken in by the youth and beauty police - age becomes an happy and enjoyable place to be.
So which brave readers among you will tell the rest of us what it was that made you realize, the first time, that you were growing older?