Last Sunday's Doonesbury strip made an impression on me. Mike Doonesbury and Bernie are reflecting on aging, and Mike says that the worst thing about it is being invisible, because a waitress didn't look at him. Bernie points out that she probably wouldn't have noticed either of them when they were young. "At least there was a prayer!" Mike expostulates. Bernie doesn't think so; I think he's right.
Losing visibility as we age is a common complaint, and it seems to be worse for women than for men. The reason this comic strip got my attention is that as an older gay man who'd never been hot, I'd fully expected to become invisible myself. This expectation didn't bother me all that much, since I'd never felt visible before, so I wasn't facing much of a change. A few years ago, however, it dawned on me that it hadn't happened. If anything, I felt more visible. People of both sexes and all ages noticed me, were friendly, smiled at me on the street. I'd already noticed that Americans seemed to have become friendlier since September 11, 2001, but I'd still expected to vanish from most people's radar as I moved into my fifties.
It was a truth universally acknowledged when I made my debut in the gay male community that an older gay man -- anyone over, say, twenty-five -- might as well stop thinking about sex unless he wanted to pay for it. I continued hearing this until I was well into middle age, and if I don't hear gay men saying it now, it's probably because I don't spend much time around gay men these days. I'm not particularly concerned with sexual visibility in this post, though it's clear that sexual visibility is mostly what Mike Doonesbury and the female writers I've read on this subject are talking about. As Bernie says to Mike, it's only because the waitress was hot that he noticed her not noticing him. When I was in my mid-twenties, I knew a gay man about twenty years my senior who spent much of his time complaining that no one wants you when you're old and gay; I soon found out that he was making out more than I was. I also noticed that he was pretty aggressive in his pursuit of attractive younger men, much more so than I have ever dared to be. (The combination of low self-esteem and general social homophobia made me assume that taking any sexual initiative toward another male was a recipe for disastrous, shaming rejection. I've gotten over a lot of that, but I still am not as grabby as this man was. But it's why I'm derisive when some straight men assume that gay men -- let alone straight women -- don't have any anxieties or insecurities about their desirability.)
So, as I got older, I anticipated with the day when I would be Too Old to get laid. I'm sixty-four now, and it still hasn't arrived. Since my personal style, social as well as sexual, has always been to let somebody else make the first move, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that there are still people who will make that first move. One reason I've stuck with this style is that, for me, it has worked. That has always surprised me, because I can be truculent, combative, and cynical; I have a Bitchy Resting Face that age and gravity haven't ameliorated, and I've been told that many people find me intimidating. But I've learned that at least as many people find me approachable, and I've even come to believe it.
That's not the same thing as believing I'm entitled to be approached. I don't have to be liked by everybody, just by enough people -- and I suspect that "enough people" for me is a smaller number than "enough people" for many others. I think that's what Mike Doonesbury and people like him are complaining about. Since nobody, no matter how hot, really is liked by everybody, I speculate that they're upset because this or that specific person -- a hot waitress at Applebee's, say -- didn't immediately slip them her phone number; then, like a kid, they immediately generalize "one person" to "everybody in the whole world," and "one hot person didn't desire me" to "everybody in the world hates me!" to "nobody is interested in older people, I might as well just die right now!"
I've learned from experience, and as I've gotten older I've learned to take more initiative: to smile at strangers, to offer conversation, to notice people. Again, one requirement of doing so is recognizing that when someone doesn't pick up the thread, I should let them be. I have a horror of becoming like the garrulous (but no doubt lonely) older man I once saw monopolizing the attention of a clerk (young, male) in a record store with endless technical discussion of this or that recording. It's one reason I have this blog, where I can hold forth endlessly if I want, and no one is obliged to listen if they don't want to. But it's certainly very satisfying to have found that I can give attention as well as receive it, and the world has become a lot more comfortable for me as a result.
I'm writing this not to boast, though lately I've been feeling all over again just how lucky I am and have felt a need to talk or write about it. The next thought I have is why other people, people surely more attractive and socially competent than I've ever been, don't have similar experiences; or why, if they do have similar experiences, why they don't recognize them and prefer to wallow in self-pity. Take Mike Doonesbury, fictional comics character though he is: he's had two attractive wives, one of whom he's still with. Though he's fictional, he certainly has real-life counterparts. There's no reason why people should have an accurate self-image or an accurate accounting of how other people interact with them. It might even be that some people get satisfaction of a kind from seeing themselves as invisible, excluded, shunned when they aren't. But it makes me wonder, and not for the first time, how many of people's problems are of their own invention.