Unable to Look Youth in the Eye

“Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life.”

-Robert Southey, The Doctor

“Thirty-five is when you finally get your head together and your body starts falling apart.”

-Caryn Leschen

On Tuesday, we escaped the boxes and drove the 50 minutes to my daughter’s flute lesson. As a result of an argument I was having with our new GPS, we drove through Wellesley on the way back home.

We were stopped at a light when I noticed a young man walking up to the corner and stopping, waiting for the light to change to cross the street. Something about this young man held my attention. He was wearing long shorts and a fitted t-shirt. His dark-blonde pony tail hung to the very top of his back and his eyes were obscured by dark sunglasses. He slightly resembled an office mate I used to have back during my time “working for The Man” (“The Man” in this case being a very kind gentleman named Willie who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina). But it wasn’t really any of that that kept me looking at him.

I looked at his destination across the street. Wellesley College. And it dawned on me: this guy was a young guy. He was, like, twenty. Maybe even younger.

For the first time ever, looking at someone of that age range I felt a distinct separation between this person and myself, entirely based on the fact that one of us will be carded if we go to buy alcohol and it won’t be me.

It was not a comfortable feeling.

Since then, I’ve been shy about talking to people in their early 20’s, and I keep having interactions with them. The locksmith who came to re-key the locks in our home. The salesperson at the office supply store who helped me find a coupler for two phone cords and signed me up for the store rewards program. I find that I can’t maintain eye contact with these young men. I feel shy around them. It’s not the kind of shy that happens when I find the person I’m with attractive, although I do see the beauty in these young men. They’re unlined, unwrinkled, un-greyed, guileless in a way that leaves me feeling exposed.

Up until Tuesday, I think I always thought of myself as, you know, sort of in my 20’s. I was within that general range, at least in my mind. I still feel in many ways just as green as I felt when I was in my early 20’s. Sometimes even more so. But watching these young men I think I realized that they are just as close to my daughter’s age as they are to mine. (A freshman in college is closer to my daughter’s age than he is to mine.) It somehow places me in the “adult” category in a way I’ve never felt before.

When I look at these young men, I can’t meet their eyes. They can, I imagine, clearly see that I’m not near their age and the fact that I so recently counted myself as part of their age cohort leaves me feeling fraudulent. And kind of silly.

I recognize that these young men are likely not thinking about me at all, which just heightens the feeling of silliness. When I see them from afar, I want to watch them in their youth. In fact, I find I can’t stop looking at them. I want to admire their beauty. But close up, I just feel antiquated. I’m the old model, still in fairly good shape, but looking just a little dated next to the newer, sleeker design. Looking into their eyes is like looking into the past and realizing it’s gone for good.

Is it really time to sit at the grown-up table now? Is it time to set aside my own goals and focus instead on paying my mortgage and getting three bids before hiring an electrician and helping my children and their generation meet their goals? It can’t be, right? I’ve still got a few good miles left on me, don’t I?

Is 35 (well, 35 in December) too young to have a mid-life crisis?

Age is opportunity no less,
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Morituri Salutamus

8 comments

  1. Lea · August 24, 2011

    I think the 35-40 period must be rough for women. If my husband thought anything about it, he never said. But now, at 37, realizing I’m almost 40… well, that sucks. I don’t like it. Because I am obviously still young, hip, cool, the outsider/Goth/rebel with the whole world to take over! Right? Right! lol And I work with people in their 20s frequently, so I understand somewhat your reaction to them. But my discomfort with the interaction is they’re thinking I’m old, and I am SO NOT!!!

    Like

  2. Tucker Bradford · August 7, 2011

    Interesting topic. I never had any hangups with age when I was younger. I had 50 year old (close) friends, and “kid” friends and enjoyed hanging out with my grandparents friends too. I think that this may have liberated me somewhat from feeling an age barrier now. Now I’m in my mid thirties and don’t feel at all awkward having 20something friends.

    I’m not sure how this can help, but I do know that there are 20somethings that “notice” and are interested in developing friendships with 30somes and older, and then there are those who are not. I don’t think its silly to want to be around the energy and enthusiasm so common in younger people, nor do I think we need to dress or act “our age”. Age is just a number.

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    • CJ · August 7, 2011

      I’ve always been friends with people older than me (I was in a writing group when I was 22 in which the next youngest person was 54). I still feel comfortable around the older people, but the younger ones have me feeling, well, like I described in the post. I’m not sure I have anything in common with this younger group of people. Maybe if I had a smart phone, I’d feel more connected to the younger set. Or maybe I just need to start another writing group and recruit some recent college grads.

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      • Tucker Bradford · August 8, 2011

        Meeting people, of any age, that you have automatic common ground with, is tough once you leave college. It’s probably not so much about age. Compound that with the fact that you are introverted by nature and you have the situation you’ve described here.

        For us, living in a marina helps establish common ground. Since we’ve been here we’ve made pretty darn great friends with a couple of 20s age sailors and also with a couple of 60s aged ones. I might not have just walked up to them on the street, in a store, or even chatted them up if they were in a line with me, but on the docks, I know what they’re into, and I know how to open a conversation; “Damn it’s blowin’ today!” 😉

        I feel like what you describe in your post may be a result of some of the weird alienation that comes with being a parent. I think you could write about 10 posts about that topic! 🙂

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  3. jackie · August 7, 2011

    they say 30 is the new 50 (in regards to the midlife crisis) – i had a minor one at 30, quit my job and all. but yes, we still have lots of miles left; difference is, now we’re using them more wisely, so to speak. and don’t ever stop sitting at the (proverbial) kiddie table!

    this in-between-age feeling is awkward, i agree. not a kid anymore, but good heavens we can’t really be lumped in with all the adults, can we?

    adorable picture of you. aside from hair color, R looks so much like you. btw how old was she starting on flute lessons?

    Like

    • CJ · August 7, 2011

      Thanks, Jackie! Yes, R and I do bear some resemblance, which is a comfort; when she was a baby, people would actually ask me if she was adopted. I would love to adopt a child, but it’s odd to be asked if my own biological child is related to me or not.

      She started flute at 4.5 years old. She started asking to play the trumpet when she was 3, but I explained there were no trumpet teachers for that age. Then she learned I’d played the flute and wanted to play that. I told her to wait until she was 4 and if she still wanted to, we’d find her a teacher. The morning of her 4th birthday, she asked, “So, when do I start flute lessons?” We found a great flute teacher and then waited a few months until my son was born and I’d recovered a touch, and she’s been taking lessons ever since.

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  4. Melanie Meadors · August 6, 2011

    I think it’s normal for us to go through something like this at around 34-35-ish. Suddenly, I woke up and I was no longer a college student (I hadn’t been for many years, but it still SEEMED like I was, for some reason), with my whole life ahead of me, that could do no wrong… And it kind of scared me. If I wasn’t the twenty year old, what was I? I still feel weird. I’ve realized I’m too old to “play with the kids,” but the grown ups seem so… grown up. I feel like I am not in their ranks yet. It’s just a strange feeling. And I’ve felt that torn feeling, where, especially as a homeschooler, so much of my life is about my family. But there are also MY goals, the things that I wanted to do with my life, almost all of which have not been accomplished… it’s so hard to figure out my role sometimes! But I think that is normal for women in their mid thirties, at least for some of us. I was glad to hear from a couple of much older women who I kind of look to as mentors say that they went through something like that as well. I try hard to keep a clear vision of who I am and what I want in my mind, and that helps a lot. I try to think about who I AM, and not so much about who I am SUPPOSED to be, or what I SHOULD be doing (ex., having a career or whatever everyone else is doing).

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    • CJ · August 7, 2011

      I think the “Well then what am I?” question is a lot of what’s getting me. It’s a comfort to hear that other women are doing the same thing. Maybe another part of it is the goals piece, as you suggest. When I was 20, I had my whole life ahead of me and I was going to do so many things. Now all of my very promising writing is in the closet and I’m typing away on a semi-anonymous blog rather than publishing novels and short stories. I think I’ve been excusing myself by lumping myself with the “kids”; it’s disturbing to realize I can’t logically do that anymore without seeming like one of those “older” women dressing like a teenager.

      Like

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