When a 32-year-old man tells a 39-year-old woman that he is old
I often forget that I am 39.9 years old. I may go a few hours without looking in the mirror, and feel all young and cute and thin and then I go to the washroom and — bam! Grey hair, wrinkles, rosacea, and a strange neck ‘change’ that happened overnight. I see my stomach, the official first home for my kids, and then I see some weird stuff happening with the skin above my cleavage and I immediately picture myself in a long-term care facility.
When I speak with the younger people in my office, I often catch myself referring to things only a 39-year-old will understand: a 13-hour techno party for Y2K; binge-watching 6 Feet Under three times while unemployed in the early aughts, fun-fur vests. These younger people are always so polite, nodding heads and making eye contact and probably thinking about how lucky they are to live in a time when one doesn’t have to camp out in front of a payphone in the middle of downtown Orlando because someone lost the hand-written directions to a friend’s timeshare condo.
My general thoughts on aging are: it’s cool! It’s fine! Totally okay. I like to assume I get along with the younger folk (save for forcing my eloquent soliloquies on them) and as for anyone older than me, I politely avoid reminding them how old they are, even if it means resisting the urge to point at a bottle of Witeout while asking, “what IS this?”
I have become more conscious of age as a potential source of shame since deciding to just up and switch careers at the slightly ripe age of 38. I was the oldest person in a web development bootcamp by at least 10 years, which is quite an awful feeling that I highly recommend you never try sometime.
This self-consciousness escalated after attending a presentation at a trendy startup, designed to help junior web developers find their footing in the field. When the main presenter began his presentation, I was instantly captivated. He was funny, showing a picture of a dorky 12-year old boy sitting in front of a monitor bigger than my car. He ‘seemed’ to be about my age, casually dropping references about Toronto in the 90s and early 2000s.
My presenter — let’s call him Hal — started making subtle references about his age.
“I remember coding when HTML 2.0 was a thing!”
“I went to raves when they were just called “parties”!”
“I was a DJ before I became a web developer!”
And then Hal, out of the blue, casually dropped how old he actually was. It was awkward, because nobody asked him.
“I am SO old. I am an old man! Guys, I’m THIRTY-TWO.”
Hal probably had a shitty morning. Hal most likely forgot to go to the ATM before dropping into his local cash-only coffee place. Hal may have had a boring pre-lunch meeting with the VP of marketing in which there wasn’t even a single almond croissant in the room. Hal most likely designed his own baby racoon emoji but Dave from software beat him to it and Hal was sad.
I often say to my son that people “make bad choices” instead of “that dude is bad.” When Hal sat down to create a powerpoint for a group of employment-hungry web developers, he made some bad choices. I suppose he assumed one of two things might happen as a result of his ageist humblebrags:
1) the younger-than-hims would marvel at his youthful glow (maybe we can look that awesome too when we are elderly?) and line up enthusiastically to touch his arm;
2) the older-than-hims, like myself, would be shocked at his accomplishments (so many things in so little time! amazing!) before finishing with some gawking: “Are you for real shut up you aren’t even old!”
Hal feels great, but it’s a cheap type of greatness. Hal chose to describe his accomplishments — and there is nothing wrong with that —but he did so while performing an effusive “I’m so old” dance around the room. Would he have performed this dance after considering the possibility that there were people in the audience who were older than 32? Has Hal ever met anyone older than 32, and if so, did he gallantly carry them up the stairs or insist on putting them to bed at 7:45pm?
I wonder how actual aged, disabled, or sick people might feel knowing he referred to his seemingly healthy 32-year-old body as “old.” I had many questions for Hal, but he didn’t allot any time for questions.
Hal moved on to more pressing issues.
He finished his powerpoint with some non-work related photos of himself: Hal at the beach, Hal on a plane, Hal eating a bowl of pho. His final photo had contact info — Linkedin, email, Twitter — pasted over a black and white photo of him and his girlfriend sitting on opposite ends of an impossibly long sofa at home, both staring intently into individual laptops.
“Just me and my girlfriend working from home.”
The audience gasped. Someone near me muttered that is so fucking cool.
As I left the room, the former teacher in me wondered what happened to make Hal such a vulnerable and sad person. I wanted to gently grab his arm and whisper, it’s going to be okay. And as all self-doubting, nearly-middle-aged female web developers are prone to do, I immediately questioned my own reactions: Why didn’t I think his weird couch portrait was cool? Who actually took that photo? Why did it make me feel like barfing or sticking my hand on a hot barbeque?
I went home to my husband and two kids: our tiny brown couch was covered in crackers from their afternoon snack; a milk stain had been festering on the carpet since breakfast. My left hip hurt from an emerging flare-up of the ankylosing spondilitis that has haunted me for 10 years, and the carpel tunnel in my right forearm had furiously kicked in.
But at least I’m not 32.