Increasingly, I’ve noticed a new condition among certain friends. Many of them seem humorless, world-weary, whiny. At first I had a hard time diagnosing the problem. Were they clinically depressed? Coming down with an energy-zapping virus?
Only while attending an Oscar party where half the guests failed to identify the red carpet stars ("Bridesmaids? Never heard of it.”) did it hit me: A freakish number of my peers were suffering from something I’ve decided to call early onset oldness. In friendship, this can be even more divisive than opinions about how to solve the Social Security crisis.
I’m not talking about physical decline, from which no human being escapes. Early onset oldness goes beyond demanding 6 o’clock reservations in silent, blindingly bright restaurants and a sudden affinity for shoes so sensible you could drive a tractor in them. It’s reflected in the choices we make, the subjects we discuss and the megawatts of vigor we bring to tasks at hand.
An alarming part of express-aging reveals itself in attitude. As some of my friends’ strides have slowed, so has their curiosity about the world. I see inertia congealing like a 1959 Jell-O mold, with get-up-and-go that’s got up and gone.
Whenever I’m with certain friends exactly my own age, I suffer through a conversational loop that rarely strays from kids, grandchildren, health histrionics and future retirement to sunbelt locations that breed lassitude, and wonder if early onset oldness sufferers feel that because they’re approaching or have passed a milestone birthday, they are court-ordered to kick it down a notch?
Some pals were ancient at 25. When the rest of us were dancing at high-decibel clubs, they were kvetching about the shocking decline of the hospitality industry as they repeatedly asked the waitress to change their table "away from those damn speakers." Others have only recently manifested symptoms of early onset oldness, though they seem to have no awareness of how geriatric they've become.
My own mother was intelligent, well read and funny, but because she was sedentary and timid, she always seemed matronly to me, even though she was only in her 20s when I was born. Over the years, she grew discontent and unhappy with her lot in life, and that seemed to age her even more.
Partly in fear of morphing into miserable, I’ve strived to be Not-Mom. I try to zip it about personal health issues and make no attempt to follow what is deemed to be an age-appropriate script. This is just as well, because the rules for being middle-aged, like the tax code, are always changing.
I know, however, what gets me juiced: cramming as much as possible into every day and fraternizing with people with contagious energy. It’s a psychological aphrodisiac to be around people my age or older who are excited about new pursuits.
In my own family, I have several great examples. There’s my sister-in-law, who’s jazzed by tap dancing; my sister, who blogs about socially responsible investing, and our “retired” older brother, who’s reinvented himself as an adjunct professor on sustainable city planning. I'm also thinking about my brother-in-law the hotshot lawyer, who is staging a show of his photography, and his wife, who is traveling to Rwanda to do volunteer farming.
For some friends, passions come packaged in new jobs or launching businesses. Others are reactivating dormant pursuits: taking voice lessons and joining choruses or setting up easels with a goal of exhibiting paintings in galleries.
My own next-phase has revolved around writing: three published novels and now my first nonfiction book plus teaching the craft of writing. I’ve also started practicing Pilates, and have become a born-again home entertainer. So far.
Getting old is inevitable. Acting young is a choice.