Age... and Age
Jerome Shea October 27, 2007 Weekend Wonk
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” (Satchel Paige)
There is a wonderful scene early in the movie Men in Black where an elderly, ordinary-looking man has been stricken violently with something. His companion immediately grabs hold of the man’s forehead and yanks his face off. We see then that the old man was just a simulacrum of a human being. Inside his brain case there sits instead a tiny alien, himself dying but still trying to work the levers (he looks like a man operating a backhoe frantically), so as to keep up the pretense—to keep up, literally, the façade.
We all have this alien in our heads.
Well, not an alien, but a copy of ourselves, a homunculus sitting behind our eyes, peering out from our eyeholes, working the (metaphorical) controls. Put another way, every one of us leads a double life. Teachers—or anyone who makes public presentations, for that matter—are keenly aware of this. Shea stands in front of his rapt class, lecturing on tropes or grammar or what-have-you. The words—big ones, I promise you—roll majestically off his tongue, coalescing into ideas that blossom before the students’ eyes. He stares into the middle distance; feigning perplexity, he scratches his head; he grimaces; he grins; he takes off his glasses and rubs his tired eyes. This is the façade, the front that each of us puts up to hide behind. This is what the students see. This is what the world sees. This is all that even your lover ever sees.
But behind that façade is the little man inside your skull. My little man, while I am pacing in front of a classroom, spends a lot of time in stark panic, planning and plotting (this is also like a radio show with a three-second tape delay), trying to conjure up yet more things to keep the façade going, to provision the public persona. “What’s the name of that damn trope I was going use as an example?” “I’ve got twenty minutes left: do I have that much stuff?” “Ah! I’ve got a wisecrack that will fit perfectly in here!” “But it’s a little risqué…should I risk it?” “Risqué…risk: I wonder if they are cognates.” On the machinery rumbles. If I am not starkly panicked, I am just slacking off, wondering what I will have for lunch, whether the longsuffering Diana had asked me to get tomato puree or tomato paste on the way home, how much I am longing for fall break, how I would like—were I single and young again—to get to know that girl in the third row better. All this as Shea’s façade yammers eloquently on.
As I said, we are all thus divided into the public me and the “real” me. I suppose that this is part of the “mind-body” problem that philosophers have been wrestling with for thousands of years.* Caught unawares, or in a fit or anger or passion, the public me and the real me almost become one. Then control reemerges and the real me scuttles back to safety somewhere behind my eyes, like a hermit crab into his shell.
What got me thinking about this was the age question that has started to worry me—or, rather, that I have started to worry, like a dog a bone. Last time I wrote mostly about the aging façade. This time I am writing about the more important person inside, the “real you.”
How old do you think you are, really? No, don’t look at your driver’s license; that’s not what I mean. Nor do I mean a rather silly test I saw recently where good habits—temperance, daily exercise—add x number of years to your potential lifetime and bad habits subtract. I mean what age do you instinctively feel that you are (especially if you never had to look in the mirror)? How old is that guy behind your eyes?
A quick survey suggests that most of us—most of us “of an age”—put ourselves somewhere between, oh, 30 and 45. I think that’s a good and courageous thing, a way to hang on. Why 30? Well, you really do want to be a grown-up, don’t you? And you do have to acknowledge that your schooling is past, that you have bills to pay, maybe a mortgage. (And do you really want to relive your adolescence?) Why 45? Well, at 45 “old age” is still comfortably far off, you are still vigorous but wisdom is finally beginning to seep in, thank goodness. Some years ago I wrote, calculating the age of the inside me,
anyway, it’s my twenties for me. Or rather, because that too might be insupportable over the long haul, it was just yesterday, so to speak, when I was in my twenties. Currently and forever, I am some other-dimensional twenties-just-yesterday age. THAT’s the ticket!
Ok, I wrote that almost 20 years ago, so I might add five years. Ok, seven. But as they say on a popular quiz show, “That’s my final answer.” Then you, smart aleck, point out that I am married to a grandmother. “’Splain that, buster,” you say.
Well…uh…um…I like older women?
How old are you?
See you next week.
*In this regard, that wonderful book from 30 years ago, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, probably deserves a good wonking. Yes, watch for it.
Correction. A reader (now I know that there’s at least one!) in Australia writes that I got a fact wrong in “H2O II.” The human body is not 97% water, a factoid that I have been carrying around all my life, probably because it seems so startling. Closer to the mark is 65% to 70%. She added helpfully that a jellyfish is probably 97% water, which explains how I feel some mornings.
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