On remembering age

Posted on April 2, 2010

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It's not always true that "you're only as old as you feel."

I hate being asked how old I am — not because I’m embarrassed about my age, but because I’m embarrassed I can’t remember it. Remembering numbers is hard enough at the best of times, but age is a particularly unreliable number that refuses to stay put — quite unlike the stable numbers of history and science: 1066, 1867, 186,000 mps, 93,000,000 miles.

Age isn’t like that. It’s one thing this year, and another thing the next. It refuses to settle on any particular value, and at one point in the solar cycle it literally changes overnight.

The only way to remember one’s age is to think about it.

A lot.

That’s what we do as children. When asked, “How old are you?” we can  respond with astounding accuracy (“I’m five and five-sixth years old”).

But when we’re young, age is a series of magic numbers which, as they are attained, cause old restrictions to vanish and conjure new liberties out of thin air. Age matters, and we watch for the next milestone even as we’re breaching the one before.

We rush to put on our first pair of long pants and, not long after, wear them to our first real school dance. We study the driver’s handbook in anticipation of being old enough to take the test, and have no sooner put the keys in the ignition then we’re driving to the local pub for our first legal drink.

But after a while, the magic numbers begin to run out — or their magic becomes darker. We don’t celebrate our 30th birthday with the same gusto as our 21st. Even less so for 40. Worse yet, we begin to measure our age in decades, rather than months and years. We may tell ourselves we’re only 42, but what we’re really thinking is, “I’m in my 40s!” Each year older is another year confirming that our youthful goals (fame, fortune, at least one good stint in rehab) are not being met on schedule.

In the transition between these two phases of our life, we stop paying so much attention to our age.

Somewhere during this transition, I lost track of mine.

It just kind of slipped away. Whenever I tried answering the question, “How old are you?” I was always a year or two off — sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other. Still, it didn’t bother me too much. It may not have been ideal, but statistically speaking, I was pretty accurate, and that was good enough.

But in my late 30s, while working in my office at the ad agency,one of the Big Bosses popped in.

“Your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it?”

I thought for a moment and realised it was true.

“Yes.”

“Well, happy birthday. This is The Big Four Oh, isn’t it?”

I thought again, but was somewhat distracted by a problem I’d been working on and couldn’t seem to come up with an alternative age, so I agreed. After all — he had access to my personal file, he must be right.

Well, of course it turned out I wasn’t turning 40, I was only turning 37. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until several months later, by which time being more-or-less-40 had become a habit.

As a result, I was more-or-less-40-or-41 the following year, and more-or-less-41-or-42 the year following that, and each year thereafter I fell further and further ahead of my actual age.

So I’ve been lost in a kind of age limbo for several years now.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. The whole matter of age seldom comes up in regular life, and the rare times it threatens, I can generally prepare. When I go to important interviews, for instance, I do the mental arithmetic to figure out my age before I enter the building, and then I repeat it to myself all the way up the elevator. It’s done wonders in allowing me to greet interviewers with confidence.

“Hello, Mr. MeiDere. I’m glad you could make it.”
“I’m 57!”

Of course, it’s still a work in progress.

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