I HAVE A COLLEAGUE who has just turned 60 and who readily acknowledges that he may be a trifle oversensitive right now to remarks about people's ages. But having stated that, he proceeded to take exception to something I'd written in Wednesday's column. I had, he said, offended every reader over 65 when I described a 65-year-old police commissioner as a "poor old dear". Never mind that I usually don't seriously describe police commissioners as "poor old dears" no matter what their age, and never mind that I was using that description to make a point about condescension to a commissioner who has become famous for describing women during a sex discrimination trial as "little balls of fluff in the eyes of the Creator." As far as my colleague was concerned, I had ruined his morning, or at least a few minutes of it. I had said 65 was old.
I know exactly how he feels. The very morning he picked up his morning newspaper to discover that 65 was old, I picked up the front page of my newspaper and discovered that a 38-year-old White House lawyer was "nearly middle-aged." And I suspect my colleague took his news better than I took mine, particularly since the first time I read the description I was not wearing my contact lenses and didn't see the word "nearly." (Do not read into this an obscure acknowledgement that I am 38. I am not, but I am close enough that it is in my enlightened self-interest to make common cause with them on the question of who and when is "nearly middle-aged.")
Newsrooms are full of stories about the bright young 22-year-old reporter who is assigned to write a story about an accident victim and whose lead starts out, "An elderly 35-year-old man was struck and killed yesterday . . . ." The rest of the story is about what happens to that bright young reporter when he hands his lead into that particular newsroom's version of Lou Grant, who is sure to be between 35 and 40 and just beginning to realize that the young eyes with which he sees himself in life may not be so young anymore. Several years ago, a young reporter sitting near me described a man in his early 50s as elderly, apparently not realizing that early 50s was the age of several rather important people around here, who weren't, as far as any of us knew, shopping for old folks homes.
The point of all this, of course, is that age is in the eye of the beholder. And the longer the beholder has been around beholding things, the younger the beholdees seem. The rule also applies in reverse. When I was growing up, it was not considered proper to let you children ask questions about age, and it was considered quite improper to satisfy their curiosity in any form as to how old you, the parents, were. Thus it was that whenever I got up the courage to ask my mother how old she was, she answered first by telling me I was being impolite and then by informing me with the straightest of faces that she was 110.What she didn't know, of course, was that she could have told me just as well that she was 35. When you are 6, 35 is worse than the pits. It's the grave.
But I am far closer to 35 now than to 6 and 35 doesn't look so bad to me, in spite of the fact that I spent years believeing that dying was not much worse than turning 30. I have, in fact, come across people who are 45 and 50 and even 65 who are, believe it of not, still living what is know euphemistically as full, useful lives. My parents -- and suffice it to say they have been married 51 years -- are leading such full, useful lives that they caused considerable mischief this Thanksgiving. Instead of doing what people are supposed to do at their age, which is to sit around talking about various people's illnesses and reminiscing about the good old days and clinging to family traditions, they did quite the opposite. Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving with out traditional family reunion at their home in Arlington, they drove off to my sister's home in Michigan and spent Thanksgiving with her. That was terrific for my sister and her family who didn't have to drive to Virginia, but it left my brother and sister-in-law and their children in Massachusetts and me and my family in Virginia high and dry, as they say, without our traditional Thanksgiving family reunion at my parents home, and I can tell you, we did not take it well. Nor, might I add, did we handle well the fact that they went ahead and made this decision to go to my sister's all on their own, without consulting the rest of us to see if out feelings would be hurt and our traditions jeopardized. And while this amused my parents no end, it was something of a shock to some of us when we realized we were stuffier about traditions and more set in our ways than they were. When are they going to start acting their age.
The problem with some of this age business is the fact that people are living longer, and what was old in 1900 is middle-aged today. The average 54-year-old in 1920 was dead, while the average 54 year old now is probably having his mid-life crisis and choosing a second wife. He can expect to live another 20 years and hardly thinks of himself as elderly. Yet young people label him old and old people label him middle-aged and he labels himself young. This is all a perfectly legitimate argument for saying that age is a state of mind, and we should abandon labels altogether, and that will never hapen abandon label we must, let us not be so out of date. Sixty-five is certainly not old, and 38 is certainly nowhere near middle-aged, and while I don't know exactly where middle-age should start, I can tell you this: it gets further away every year.