Friday, March 28, 2008

Age Is Not Just A Number

I saw it again today on the Web, “Age Is Just a Number.” I guess this cliché makes some sense as a corrective to the idea that at each age you’re permitted to act a certain way and do certain things: dress like this but not like that, look like that but not like this, do this but not that, and so on. But beyond that, I think it’s dead wrong.

Aging has not, so far, been a big deal for me. My health, at 57, remains good. I’m now the oldest person in my department at work, but I think I’m virtually the only full-time worker there who isn’t on some kind of medication for physical or other ailments. I’m just now beginning to get enough gray in my hair to be noticeable, and I’m often told I look younger than my age – a trait that runs in my family, I think. When I met the mother of some of my Korean friends, she asked me how it is that I look so young. “I have no children,” I told her, and she nodded in agreement. But my parents, who did have children (four of us, heaven help them), aged gracefully too, and kept reasonably good health well into their seventies.

But even so, my body has changed and slowed down. It takes longer for cuts and other small injuries to heal. I can’t walk onto a track after a hiatus and run two miles in fourteen minutes, as I could do till I was in my 30s; I might finish one mile, but it would probably take me fourteen minutes by itself. I’ve put on weight gradually over the decades, despite moderate but obviously insufficient exercise and a non-sedentary job, and it won’t come off. I’m definitely less flexible than I used to be, and it takes more work now to try to fix that even a little. When I was in my twenties I frequently masturbated twice a day without having to strain; now it’s, erm, rather less often. (I make sure I have a few orgasms each week, partly so I won’t forget how, and partly because they’re good for prostate health.) I still have a powerful visceral reaction to the sight of attractive people, but that has little to do with the body; sexuality is primarily in the head.

Just on these points, it’s obvious to me that my age is not just a number – it’s written in my body. I try to attend to my flesh and let it, not the number of birthdays, guide me, but I don’t try to ignore its changes.

Now suppose that my brain, all memories intact, could be transplanted into a much younger body – what then? Well, those memories are important too. For me, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 is a memory, not something I read about in a book or saw on the History Channel. Ditto the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon, the assassination of John Lennon, the election of Bill Clinton. That last is worth stressing just a tad: a college senior graduating this year would have been four years old when Clinton was elected – only a little younger than I was when Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956. I remember the fact of the election, but nothing of the campaign or the issues. The 1960 elections, between Kennedy and Nixon, were the first I paid much attention to. And just think – the September 11th attacks happened over six years ago. There are children in their first year of school who were not born at the time, and children just a few years older for whom they are most blurry memories. Soon they too will be history.

Similarly, Beatlemania, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, disco, punk – all these are memories for me, and I still have most of the records I’ve bought since the 1960s. The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and so on are not what I grew up hearing on my parents’ scratched vinyl or my older brother’s CD player. I can remember when all of it didn’t yet exist. To say nothing of the fact that I was eighteen, freshly graduated from high school, when I read about the Stonewall riots in the Village Voice, a week or so after they happened.

These cultural and historical events and changes – and much more – are written in my body too. I carry them around with me, in an invisible balloon in my head. They are the sea in which my mind swims, the block of ice or amber in which I am encased. I’d be a different person if I’d been born ten years earlier, or ten years later, in ways I can’t even imagine. None of this is in any way a complaint, or a claim that I’m hermetically sealed off from people older or younger than I am. It is merely to say that age is far more than a number. In many ways it’s a quality rather than a quantity, but however you look at it, the difference it makes is real and not an illusion.