Thursday, September 12, 2013

How old is old?

When I was a child, my definition of old was my parents and their friends. Anyone who had kids, went to work, drove a station wagon or kept a weekly beauty parlor appointment was old. I always assumed that when you "got old," you always wore stockings, never slept late and got your hair done once a week.

I grew up with a frame of reference about age that revolved primarily around grade levels and ages of siblings. I went to the same relatively small school from seventh until twelfth grade. The caste system was strict among age groups and grade levels. For the most part, there wasn't a lot of socializing between grades other than a few dating relationships where the boy was almost always the older one of the pair. Rare was the lasting friendship that crossed the grade level boundaries.

I'm guessing this was due in part to the fact so many students had siblings at the school. It definitely wasn't cool as an older sister to have friends in your younger sister's class. This experience made me very conscious of the term "my age" growing up – that meant exactly my age within a few months and in my grade. We lost a couple of kids who were held back through the years. They no longer were "my age" – they became "younger."

This perspective worked fine in high school because I always liked distinct boundaries and definitions. Once I got to college, I quickly found the age lines blurring. I joined a sorority where my pledge class was divided equally among freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Much to my surprise, those juniors who would have seemed "old" to me by high school standards were in the same position as I was negotiating the challenges of first year sorority membership.

When I got my first college job working with adults who expected me to act like them, I adjusted my definition again. They were old to me but asked me to call them by their first names and actually assumed I was mature and competent. My college jobs made me understand that "old" people (adults) expected "young" people (me) to behave like them in the workplace. I was to look and act "old" (respectable, knowledgeable, competent), and they really didn't care I was 20 and they were 40.

In my first real world job, some of my parents' friends became work colleagues. The discomfort with calling them by their first names was later eclipsed by my extreme displeasure several years later being called "ma'am" for the first time. But I still wasn't old because I was hanging on to my definition of old that meant driving a station wagon and losing the ability to sleep late.

Marriage and acquiring an extended family further muddled my definition of old. I married at the same age my mother was when I was born, and she had been a regular on the weekly beauty parlor circuit for a number of years at that point. I still wasn't getting my hair done weekly at the beauty parlor, and I surely didn't feel old, but the lines continued to blur.

My husband's oldest brother is 12 years older than I am. The brother's oldest son, Jimmy, is twelve years younger than I am. Jimmy was in first grade when I graduated from high school…literally a lifetime of age difference. The gulf between my 28 and his 16 hadn't narrowed much when he was in our wedding 23 years ago. Today his 40 to my 52 makes him "my age-ish." My husband and I have friends younger than Jimmy is, but I still have a hard time considering him a contemporary.

One night, we met up with Jimmy and several of his friends to listen to music. I visited with one guy a good 20 minutes thinking he was "my age" based on what he looked like – a few crows feet, some grey peeking out around his temples – only to discover he was 12 years younger than I was and would have been in the first grade when I graduated from high school. This quickly halted the "do you know" conversation about mutual college friends.

Then I was introduced to another friend in the group as "Jimmy's aunt." I laughed and said "aunts are old people, I'm just Reba." I realized when he looked at me he was seeing someone "old" by his definition. He said he was looking to date a "cougar" and asked if I could introduce him to some of my friends…ouch on several levels.

Today I hear myself at work saying "I know this might sound old but…good writing skills are critical to every job…a handwritten thank you note is a necessary part of the interview process…" But I also find myself more open to the "not old" scenario of learning new skills from my younger colleagues who I have trained to call me "seasoned" rather than "old."

So for now, I've decided old will not be a number…it will be a state of mind. I have old friends who stopped learning and growing before they hit 40. I have young friends who went sky diving at 60 or had triplets at 42. The number really doesn't matter.

And possibly I need re-evaluate the beauty parlor thing. A friend told me a great story this week about her 95-year old mom who still goes to the beauty parlor once a week, and that's keeping her young. So maybe that weekly trip to the beauty parlor isn't such an "old" thing after all!

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