Turns out I'm an agist. Who knew? And who would have suspected? Back in my twenties, I worked for several years with programs funded by the federal Older Americans Act. On any given day, I was surrounded by men and women three times my age and older, some of them my co-workers. I learned a lot from these friends and colleagues. Or so I thought.
For one thing, I learned to take the long view. If it were not for the elders I knew, I might never have had the moxie to adopt my middle child as a single parent. That was one of the acts in my life motivated by my desire to make a life short on regret. A life I could look back on from my rocking chair, if I ever felt like sitting in one, and be relatively satisfied with.
I also learned to eschew unnecessary categories and scripts. I was lucky enough to have several opportunities to meet Maggie Kuhn, pictured here, "convener," in her word, of the Gray Panthers,
an organization which addressed age discrimination, pension rights, nursing home reform, and other issues affecting the elderly. [Maggie Kuhn Profile]
and "one of the few radical social action groups from the Vietnam War era to survive." [Maggie Kuhn Biography]
In the words of others, she has been called a "social theorist of radical gerontology."
When I encountered her, in groups large and small, she was an arresting presence, and, as my sons would say, a "kick-ass" role model. She embraced "outrageous" words and behavior in pursuit of her cause. It was from her that I discovered the chic of Goodwill shopping, the beauty that could be an old woman's, and the joy of a young companion. She boasted a nineteen-year-old boyfriend in her seventies. At my tender age at the time, I looked forward to an old age of "learning and sex until rigor mortis," in Kuhn's often-quoted vision.
"One of the things I say in my speeches is there are three things I like about being old," said Kuhn. "I can speak my mind-and I do. I'm surprised with what I can get away with-that the audience doesn't boo and hiss! Second, that I've outlived much of my opposition; and third, I can reach out to the young. Many, many old people retire from their jobs and retire from life. They have no objective, no purpose. Every one of us needs to have a goal, a passionate purpose. … It's possible to have new roles and a new value system [in old age]. The five M's are what I talk about with old people: Taking on the role of the mentor; mediator; monitor of public bodies, watching city hall, the president and the statehouse; motivator; and mobilizer. [1993 interview with Sandra Erlanger, published in Case Western Reserve University's magazine]
So my lineage is top-drawer when it comes to views on aging. But something happened on my way to maturity. I was brought up short by an editorial I happened to see in an old abandoned copy of AARP The Magazine purloined from my gym's locker room last week. It's title was "Aging's Not Optional"--duh! Something I've been experiencing as I push my late-50's hypertensive body through its paces of late. As I read through the author's description of age as "the last acceptable bias in this country" I saw myself. And I became aware that I had been engaging in "passing," a life-practice we are familiar with in the realm of race, where light-skinned African Americans have sometimes opted to present themselves as white, or to allow others to make that assumption.
I'm not passing everywhere, mind you. In yoga class, in triathlon circles, in my social justice organization, I have been happy to announce my age--but it's been made easier by the look of astonishment on the faces of those I address these bulletins to. I don't "look my age," or "act my age," whatever those things mean. But since I am my age, then the way I look and act belongs to the spectrum of my age peers.
One of the arenas in which I've "passed" is this one. I have been careful in this blog not to make clear my exact age, believing, in true agist fashion, that I would be unnecessarily pigeon-holed by admitting my age, and abandoned by readers. Mine, apparently, is that brand of agism that gives power to the chronological measure based on what I believe others believe, not what I myself believe to be its characteristics and limitations.
So, by way of coming clean, if I make it through the forest of fears that are looming now between me and my first triathlon, the number inked on the back of my calf will be the big 6-0. (Because that will be my age by December.) And this is how 59 writes, and looks, and lives.
On her 80th birthday, [Maggie] Kuhn made a vow to do something outrageous at least once a week. In her late eighties she increased it to at least once a day. "You get people's attention that way. You get energized, you can make an impact, and it's just fun," she noted. [Erlanger interview]
Who knows? Maybe I'll stop tearing up the AARP card they've been mailing to me regularly since I turned 50. Now that would be outrageous!