Redefining an Age

Some of what we see as real is invented. Today is not really Saturday, and the hour—plus the number we give it—are conveniences. Names for the stages of life, from “toddler” to “tween” to “middle-aged” to “octogenarian,” help classify and describe groups, but they are labels, not definitions. As we’re continually reminded, you are as old as you feel.

Or so I have always struggled to believe. Recent stomach troubles have me feeling middle-aged. At 53, I expect some indignities like bruises that come more easily and stay longer or joints that stiffen with inactivity. But I’ve kept myself up. I never have trouble identifying with the youth culture foisted on me every day. Being older seldom limits what I might do.

But then my stomach began to complain if I ate spicy food or if I ate too much or if I ate something too rich or if I ate at the wrong time. My sister, a doctor, told me I would feel much better if I avoided three things: alcohol, coffee, and chocolate. Perhaps you can imagine how disconsolate I was. Suddenly I saw aging stretching out ahead of me as a long road of sacrifices where, one by one, I’d drop all my youthful pleasures.

Having made the changes my stomach made necessary, I’m surprised to discover I was wrong.

In The NY Times Book Review this week Laura Shapiro writes about In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen, a reporter for the NYTimes. In her review, Shapiro discusses Cohen’s thoughts on the origin of middle age, describes one of the more colorful historical responses to aging described in the book—men seeking to replace their own testicles with monkey testicles in hopes of regaining their lost energy—and presents Cohen’s thesis, that aging has unjustly been made into a disease.

Cohen, apparently, is optimistic. She presents a middle-aged generation that is more productive, attractive, and mentally acute than ever. Cohen believes people in their 50s and 60s are, “Rewrite[ing] a cultural script that’s been more than 150 years in the making.”

Yet, I wonder what this redefinition means. I haven’t read the book, but if she is saying older people can do just what young people do, is she redefining middle age or pushing its frontier back? A new definition, it seems to me, should give middle age its own identity, and Shapiro suggests Cohen sees it as every generation has, in terms of how favorably it compares to youth. What is middle age itself? What attributes—pleasures and perks—are distinct to it?

I saw a picture of Sylvester Stallone’s abs recently and was equally awed and disgusted. Impressive, yes, but there’s something pathetic in our desperate efforts to see how long we can pretend to be young.

Caffeine has been my drug of choice for over 30 years, so long that I knew nothing about life without it. When I gave it up three weeks ago, I suffered headaches for a few days and then, for the next two weeks, felt lethargic and dull. I’m beginning to come around, however, and I like my life without it so much that I won’t return to it even when my stomach improves.  And it hasn’t hurt me to eat fewer sweets or drink less either. I want to convince myself I’ve awakened to a different sort of life, not a lesser one.

Perhaps I’m making a virtue of a necessity, but I’d like to find something to define this age that doesn’t derive from deprivation or decline. I’d like to feel the age I am, whatever that is, and transcend eagerness to escape it. Something must be good about 53, and, if I have sacrifices to make, perhaps they will lead me into new pleasures, new perspectives, new territory.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Hope, Identity, life, Thoughts

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