When did you first figure out you were old? I used to have this theory that age is relative. Maybe I still do. I’m not talking about “you’re as young as you feel.” I’m talking about life transforming each of us in different ways at different times. Call it maturity, call it circumstance, but I don’t think anyone would argue that two 20-year-olds aren’t really the same age. We all know a 30-year-old second cousin who makes our neighbor’s teenager look like a responsible adult.
So who’s older? The kid who raised herself, has a house, child, husband, and full-time job at age 23, or the sheltered 30-year-old scanning temp agencies for beer money? How much does a date on a driver’s license really compare to the transforming experiences a person collects from birth on?
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been an adult all my life. I’ve been middle-aged since I was 22. At 29, I’m checking my mailbox for the inevitable AARP propaganda. By 40, who knows. I’ll probably be checking out retirement communities I can’t enter for another quarter of a century.
So what makes us feel old? If age is relative than the progression of age is more of a comparative venture than an inherent one. Age is an evaluation of lost opportunities, an observation of the younger (and older) generation’s milestones. It’s the collection of our own milestones. It’s a game of subtraction.
You didn’t feel old until the toddler you babysat got married. You didn’t feel old until you realized there are a host of infant dreams you will never be able to achieve. Friends and family boast about their 19-year-old who’s making gas money touring the country with his sub-label rock band. Try that at 39 and see what they think.
Ironically, the physical flags of aging generally come much later than the comparative ones. I just started paying attention to the Sensodyne commercials and wondering if I should switch to the more expensive line of under-eye cream. Yet, I realized four years ago I’d never be a rock star and could no longer pull off the denim mini-skirt. I’m still clinging to my cute tees and street chic hoodies, but honestly, as a mother of two, I’m flirting dangerously close with What Not to Wear. Ten years from now I can see my then fourteen-year-old son explaining to Stacie and Clinton how embarrassed he is that his mom attends his hockey games in her faux fur cardigan and tiny Decepticon graphic tee.
Like I said, it’s a game of subtraction. You reference college like you graduated a month ago. You feel old when you do the math and realize it’s been 7 years. You check your files for a receipt for something you bought recently. You feel old when you realize it’s been 3 years. You schedule events far in advance. You feel old when they actually come to pass.
Technology is a sneaky culprit as well. As if it’s not hard enough keeping track of the constant streams of upgrades that quickly become necessities, try looking back even just a few years and see how old you feel. I was recently re-watching a popular TV series from my high school and college years. The actors and actresses still looked modern by today’s standards. Their hair was right. Their cars were sleek enough. The girls even wore their knee-high boots over their skinny jeans. Everything was fine, until they pulled out their cell phones the size of my forearm. Until they answered them without caller ID. Until they needed to contact one another and didn’t use texting. It would have been a totally different show if even one character had access to a smart phone. Another show featured a character desperately trying to find a phone line to hook up her laptop modem. And now, I’m old. I forgot about the dial-up modem. I had a dial-up modem. My pre-schooler navigates an iPhone. At age 4 I was hanging on my brother’s crib pretending to be a garbage man.
So, I’m old, now what? The problem with aging isn’t just retrospective, but prospective as well. What do you do when you realize you’re aging before you’re actually old? It’s scary enough to look back on what’s already passed. It’s completely paralyzing to stand at the very edge of youth and realize you’re still young enough to pursue most opportunities if you act now. If only you knew how. It’s terrifying to face the prospect of looking back from the future and realizing you lost time you knew you had. They say youth is wasted on the young. I’m fine with that. It’s a lot scarier to be young and completely aware you’re wasting it.
My guitar instructor once gave me a chord progression to work on for the week. Of course the music-loving over-achiever in me had to arrange them into a song and add lyrics. As you can see, this anxious crossroads has been haunting me for a while.
I’m waiting for the train. I missed my bus and plane already.
I’m an hour early but I fear I’m still too late
I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I need to get there.
It’s too late to go back, but I’m paralyzed with fear that I’ll get stuck here.
So I wait, I wait to find forever
I wait, I long to be a believer
I will, I will ride into the future
If it takes me
So when did you realize you were old? Maybe you’re not. Maybe none of us are. Maybe we all are.