I’m in my late sixties, too old to hold up fingers showing that I’m this many years. Besides, I don’t have sixty-plus digits or even sixty visible body parts, so using some physical yardstick is out of the question. But if truth be known, and it rarely is, it’s the “years old” preceeded by a number that I loathe saying. For me and for most of my peers, the word “old” has gone from being an adored adjective for something quaintly antique, to a slurred-over, execrable part of speech. Its arthritic allies are elderly, geriatric, senile, infirm, decrepit, over-the-hill, and worst of all, the treacly cloying “senior citizen.”
I can remember, as a child, being asked my age and quickly calculating to the exact month. “I am eleven… and a half.” Don’t forget the half, oh best beloved! The half demonstrated that I was no mere child of eleven, but one nearing twelve, a truly advanced age. When I finally did turn twelve, I answered any age questions with “twelve years old,” “years old” being an important suffix, one that conferred status.
On occasion, it is suggested that “ how old are you?” is better framed as “ how young are you?” I have tried this on for size and find it binding and unbecoming. Once I remember answering the “age” question with “ I’m ‘blank’ years young,” only to roll my eyes at my juvenility.
Like many of us who are old, I find references to physical age depressing. My hair, while showing a slight tonsure, is still abundant, healthy, and white, and white, it is said, is the new brown. What idiot said that remains a mystery, but probably the same one who said sixty is the new forty.
Thus, in keeping with my dislike of age related subjects, I have chosen to ignore the obvious in favor of the optimistic, note optimistic, not quixotic. For example, I am assured by my dermatologist that the liver spots on my hands are, in fact, large freckles. That the creases beginning to appear around my various facial features are character lines, not wrinkles. And out of vanity, I tell those who for the first time are to meet me at a restaurant or on an airport sidewalk to look for a mature man with white hair, of medium height and a generous build. I like “generous build”; it trips off the tongue with the grace befitting a man who still has an ego and illusions of youth.
What I do not say to first-timers is to look for an aging Baby Boomer. First, the designation offers nothing by which to identify a person. No one in that generation even remotely resembles a baby, and boomer is a useless designation unless you’re referring to the generational inclination to flatulence. Second, the so called Baby-Boomer generation now ranges, according to demographers, from late sixties to late forties, a gap both physically and culturally wide.
The sixties experience for those persons born at the end of the Boomer generation, included Pablum, Similac and Huggies not Kent State, Woodstock, and Viet Nam which the early Boomers endured. A forty-plus body still has tone and some promise of improvement while we sixty-plusers are somewhat inured to being occupants of the used or “previous-owner” lot.
So what is the value of a generational classification in which the classifieds are worlds apart? I’m thinking that the primary benefit is to give the Boomers of academia something to write about. Vast tomes have bubbled forth from the tortured brows of the Baby-Boomer demographers. And what do they say? That the Baby Boomer generation thinks this or that, will do this or that, has done this or that. A vacuous and pointless exercise, because it’s doomed to abstraction.
What I see when I look into my mirror is something factual and singular. A man slightly wrinkled, sagging on the edges, and boiling on the inside. Mirrors can’t see boiling. Mirrors only see the physical, so unless my eyes give me away, my mirror sees only the character lines, white hair, and generous build. It doesn’t care when I was born or what my contemporaries thought about the war in Viet Nam or even what I think.
My mirror shows me, illusions aside, that the operative word in my opening paragraph is, indeed, “old.” I naturally prefer mature or seasoned, but no matter the adjective, the only description I clearly loathe is Baby Boomer. My mirror’s only job is to reflect its version of the truth, and as with Oedipus, “How dreadful is knowledge of truth, when there is no help in truth.”
And the truth is that I am, like Lewis Carroll’s Father William, old, and my hair is very white, and not only do I wince with the occasional pain, but am becoming cranky and frequently given to dismissive quips and snide rejoinders when confronted with muzzy thinking or bigotry. Patience was never one of my virtues.
My mirror reflects only the present, but memory and imagination allow me to overlay what was onto what is. It lets me, when I wish it, remember my past dreams as I regard my present form and so to see the possibilities of my future, perhaps not as expansive as in times past, but optimistic enough to allow waking each day with plans and plots that will engrave my name into history books or lavish upon me new-found riches.
But showered, shaved and into my second mug of dark-roast Columbian, suddenly the history books seem less relevant, and post constitutional, new-found riches seem a stretch too far. Still, looking forward keeps the blood flowing and the neurons firing, and hope, while not eternal, is at least a better salve than Bengay.
As for the Baby Boomer classification, sometime in the middle fifties an eager demographer noted that the American soldiers home from WWll were reproducing like rabbits, not that they weren’t reproducing like rabbits during the war, and that there needed to be a generational title created for the progeny of this group of prolific fathers. The all-knowing internet stipulates that a reporter for the Washington Post coined the term ‘Baby Boomer’ as the generational moniker, and apparently the demographers accepted this as their best description. I don’t know whether this term also applies to the legions of Europeans and North Africans who can trace their lineage to a member of the American armed forces, but it has been dog tagged to my generation of Americans ever since.
Given the differences in age and attitudes among Baby Boomers noted above, I was also curious about the proper definition of, “generation.” Several worth considering.
- The entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time.
- The term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
- A group of individuals, most of whom are the same approximate age, having similar ideas, problems, attitudes, etc. examples: beat generation, lost generation, baby boomer.
- A single step in natural descent, as of human beings, animals or plants.
Clearly the first definition is completely out the window. The entire body of individuals living at the same time includes people ninety-nine and people nine, or one, for that matter. The second definition requires that demographers include children born in 1976 in the Baby Boomer generation, meaning that my daughter and I would be of the same generation. Inconceivable! Nothing similar or even vaguely familiar linked her view of the world and mine. Possibly we would have agreed that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but would definitely have argued this point on cloudy days.
So there you have it. In spite of the attempt of the demographers, academics, and technicians to muddy the waters, what is clear to me is that a generation is a state of mind encompassing any age and sex, not a finite period of time. Miniver Cheevy was indeed the child of another time. He belonged to another generation, and declared his generation against physical reality. So I tell my mirror that I can see what it calls truth, but can also see what it cannot, that I am more than the reflection it gives back. I am Miniver Cheevy if I wish to be.