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Three Score and Ten


“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

Ah, youth and age and the awkward in-between. Most of us, the lucky ones (“consider the alternative,” runs the joke), will reach a ripe age.* I have been thinking about age lately, now that I am 65 and counting. I don’t mean that I am getting morbid about it, just that I am curious about the way we view ourselves and others, and the way others view us. I am curious about people who appear “ageless” and those who, as the odometer metaphor has it, “have a lot of miles on them.”

Last weekend at the self-service car wash, the only other customer was a fellow Miata driver. Naturally we congratulated each other on our shrewd judgment and our good taste. Then, because we all tend to pigeonhole other people by their appearance—cute girl, gangbanger, hippie—without any thought at all the label “old guy” popped into my mind. Well, he WAS old, with thinning gray hair, a paunch, and a slight stoop. I was happy that his sporty Miata would enhance his twilight years. I pegged him at somewhere between 65 and 70.

And then it hit me, this facile judgment: if I saw him as an “old guy,” how did he see me? Well, the idea that he would see ME as an “old guy” was…I won’t say laughable, but somewhere close to it. I really think that most of us don’t see ourselves as old, as aging, until our eighties, maybe, when we can kid ourselves no longer. I think that with my beard trimmed and my hair cut I might pass for late fifties. Definitely late fifties with the beard shaved off, but I like the patriarchal whiteness of it. Clearly I am conflicted. I want the respect that is supposed to accrue to age, but I don’t want to look like an old fogy. I want to have my beard and eat it too, as it were.

What silly animals we are. When we are young we want to look older; when we are old we want to look younger. Perhaps Jack Benny was right, splitting the difference at 39.

Vanity of course has something to do with it. I would like to think that I still look fit, that a woman might give me a second glance, that younger people won’t treat me with a well intentioned but humiliating deference. But the dream of youth gets harder to support as the years roll on, as type gets smaller and people refuse to speak up clearly, as, like so many men in their sixties, you lose your prostate (how careless!). These internal changes have to suggest external changes as well. And an honest close look in the mirror will show the deepening wrinkles, the crepey skin, the lank muscles (“NOT ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille!”).

Some people look older than their years, some much younger. Often it is just a matter of genetics. If your father looked youthful into his seventies, you probably will too. If he had droopy bags under his eyes at sixty, there isn’t much (save plastic surgery, a topic for another wonk) that you can do about those bags, either: you too will look like a basset hound. But I think we all have a suspicion that had we just lived a little more prudently, a little more wisely, we wouldn’t now have to advertise our prodigality. At worst, we sense a moral justice in the way we have turned out in our advanced decades. I call this the Dorian Gray syndrome.

Remember him? He is the handsome protagonist (“hero” is not apt) in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) who backs into a kind of Faustian bargain. He will never age in appearance. Rather, the portrait that has been painted of him (and hidden away) will suffer that instead. This allows him to lead a life of world-class debauchery. Sure enough, with every transgression, every treachery, every cruelty, the portrait becomes more and more hideous. But justice does get done. In a final revulsion, he stabs the repellent portrait, the testimony to his sins. Immediately the painted likeness regains its original beauty, while he himself turns so hideous and deformed and withered in the final moment of his life that it is only when “[the servants] had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.”

Wow. Let that be a lesson to us all, eh? What we sow, so shall we reap. And that, in turn, reminds me of the Grim Reaper, because this concern with the appearance of aging is at bottom a concern with aging itself, which in turn…. You see where this is going, now don’t you? Time’s arrow will inevitably bring us down to the dust. Bummer.

But at least we will age no more.

See you next week.

*Most of us can expect to live into our seventies, at least—a slight gain over the past couple of thousand years. I say “slight” gain because a statement like “In Caesar’s time, the average life expectancy was about 35” has led some people to surmise, for example, that Christ, crucified at 33, was in his dotage anyway. The key is in the word “average,” which the horrendous number of children who did not survive childhood pulled way down. In Caesar’s time, and before, if you made it into your twenties you had a good chance of making it at least into your sixties. Gorgias the sophist, 5th century B.C., lived to be 107!



Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is shea@macinstruct.com.


 
                          





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