Wait, who did you say is middle-aged?

“What’s wrong?” people ask you while you’re daydreaming or gazing softly into the middle distance. No one is applying words like “moxie” or “edgy” or “gamine” to describe you anymore

By Pamela Paul

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Published: Tue 18 Oct 2022, 12:22 AM

There’s a brutal moment in youth when you go from looking up to your elders to looking somewhat down on them. Or at least seeing them with a more jaundiced eye. Maybe it happens at a party. You glance around the room and realise the gentleman you once saw as distinguished has cheerfully dipped a half-eaten chicken wing into a bowl of hummus. You see what one might politely refer to as a “not young” woman waving her arms around with a little too much gusto on the dance floor. And it hits you: They don’t realise that they’re old.

So how do you know when it’s happening to you?

There are a few signs. For me, it was contentedly listening to my favourite podcast, one in which three funny, charming and totally-with-it co-hosts — the kind of guys I’d want to hang out with, the kind of guys I’d label “cool” or “hip” or whatever they call it now — banter around and feel like a part of the gang. Then I reckoned with the fact that they are all in their 50s. Their 50s.

It’s that shift from copying the outfits of your slightly younger colleagues to realising that their fashion choices would not look at all OK on you. And then moving on to the final frontier: looking at the outfits of your much younger colleagues and really not wanting to dress like them at all. With a lurch, you recall those Harper’s Bazaar features about what to wear for each decade of your life and understand that you’ve entered the age in which wearing jewel tones is meant to be a good idea. Welcome to the long slide.

Then it starts hitting you repeatedly in the face. It’s all those little moments: waking up after a really good, long night’s sleep only to feel worse off than you did when you got into bed the night before. You don’t bounce out but instead heave yourself up to audible snaps and crackles. You learn that you can inflict a grave injury to your own body simply by reaching for the alarm clock in the wrong way. You know that when you wind up in physical therapy it will not be the result of a marathon or water skiing but because of something that happened on a sidewalk.

It’s in understanding that after a lifetime of incremental improvements to your self-care regimen, you’ve finally figured out how to make your face and hair look the best they possibly can at precisely the moment it’s all for naught. Your resting sullen face that in an earlier decade may have given off a miffed Jeanne Moreau vibe has hardened into something that more closely resembles unbridled fury. “What’s wrong?” people ask you while you’re daydreaming or gazing softly into the middle distance.

No one is applying words like “moxie” or “edgy” or “gamine” to describe you anymore.

And then, wait a minute, you are shocked: People you know and like — friends, contemporaries — are using Botox? Yes, and they have been doing so for years. Where the hell have you been?

“But I think you look the same as you did in high school,” you want to say. Then you blink hard at the photos on Facebook through your progressive-lens glasses and realise: Wait a minute. Not at all. Your people are middle-aged.

Boomers, we know, didn’t appreciate getting long in the tooth. They’re the ones who started this whole fight against Old. But as a Gen Xer, I have to assume it’s worse for us. Our entire gestalt is built around an aura of disaffected youth. There is no natural progression for that energy into middle age. I don’t see us easing into words like “seasoned” or “mature”. Millennials will no doubt take their own kind of offence to ageing when it’s their turn, but that is not our cross to bear.

For we are tired now, and some of this comes as a relief.

Nobody is waiting for you to join TikTok, and it is a blessing. You are not wanted there. You don’t have to keep up, keep up, keep-keep-keeping up. You can let some of it go. You don’t need to understand Harry Styles. You will never head off to a Super Junior concert. It’s fine to have no idea what Dua Lipa does.

You see small children in the wild and, rather than find them cute or amusing or in any way fun-seeming, you instead think, “I don’t have to do that anymore”.

Many things are no longer your problem. And plenty of well-worn excuses enable you to shrug off your oldskie ways. If you’re a woman, you can blame it all on hormones, just like a teenager. If you’re a man, you can wave it off as a midlife crisis; you’ve got lots of novels that help explain.

You realise you are getting closer to something inconceivable only a short time ago: the grandma years. When you are a grandma, you won’t even need excuses. You can behave in ways entirely inexplicable to everyone younger than yourself and it will be seen as an eccentricity. You can sidle up to strange men in line for the movies and take some of their popcorn to give to your grandchild, the way my grandma did. You can pretend to have gone entirely batty whenever it suits you. You can pretend you don’t know that you’re shouting or that you can’t hear anything anyone else says.

And you know what? It starts to feel like something to look forward to.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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