New blogfriend Julie Leung has a birthday post on "Feeling my age," which by the end of the second paragraph has morphed into, "I feel old." As far as I can tell from her technology-dating (this is what we do instead of carbon-dating: will your fossil be excavated from the 8-Track Tape stratum?), Julie must be . . . 30. 35 at the outside.
Not that that disqualifies her from feeling old. I'll refrain from the obligatory "Oh yeah? Wait'll you're 59, honey!" because I know that "old" is relative: compared to what? When you're 3, a 5-year-old looks "old": terribly mature and tall and accomplished. I remember that when I was in college, people in their 30s looked "old" to me -- faded, creased and worn. And you know you're middle-aged when young people think you're old, and old people think you're young. What with the welter of new age-terms -- "40 is the new 30," "60 is the new 40," "Third Age," "the young old," "the old old" -- with exercise, vitamins, the craze for cosmetic surgery, and the tease of genetic surgery, the numbers are coming loose from their old meanings and moorings. More than ever before, you're only as old as you feel.
Still, 30 is the first age when you can legitimately claim to feel old, and try the word on. Elite athletes are "old" in their 30s. (Olympic gymnasts are "old" in their 20s.) The first sign I can remember that I wasn't "young young" any more was that I could no longer pull all-nighters. Life has drawn its first lines on your face, deepened your eyes, dented your idealism. (At 30, mine was still like a new car with an ugly scratch. It had had a couple of fender-benders, no major collisions yet.) The surprise is that "feeling old" doesn't feel bad. It just feels . . . different, and in some ways, actually better. You can see Julie realizing this as she contemplates passport pictures separated by a decade:
I look at the Julie who had her picture taken ten years ago. She looks younger and thinner. Compared to me today, she looks like a model: imperfections invisible. . . . This Julie looks calm and carefree and Californian. . . . Life in Cupertino is sunny and sweet so far. Yes, I can remember. I can read it in her eyes.
My new picture has a strange expression. I look startled because I was. . . . I look like I didn't comb my hair. I look like I'm about to speak my mind. I look like I tried to get my passport photo taken while my three girls were playing with toys in the ten minutes before my eye doctor appointment. I look like I've lived through battles.
I wish I still resembled the 1995 me. But that seems silly. After all, shouldn't I look like I've lived another ten years? . . . The Julie in the old passport photo had never held her brother while he was dying. That Julie had never held her baby, first inside her and then outside on her chest, in that miraculous moment of meeting someone you already know.
That captures perfectly the mix of regret, discovery, and surprised, defiant pride that is "feeling old."
This is the last year I'll have the luxury of saying, with astonishment, "I'm almost 60!" I remember my grandmother saying, "I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 16, and then I look in the mirror and say, 'Who is that old lady?'" At this age, I discover, you can feel very old and very young from one day to the next. One day it's, "Sex is so over. I'm old now, a watcher from the sidelines. It's not that I don't have any desire. It's that I don't have any hope." The next day, envy for the sex-ridden is replaced by pity, if not contempt, as I view their driven, drunken antics from the self-possessed paradise I last inhabited when I was 12.
(And a really good haircut can still restore a flash of potency, along with Joni Mitchell's prescription: "Happiness is the best facelift.")
Life is an angel you wrestle with again and again that blesses you as it cripples you.
READ MORE ON THIS SUBJECT AT ITS HOMEPAGE, TIME GOES BY.