I’m getting old. I thought I was getting old ten years ago, but that was nothing compared to now. On medical forms and written surveys, I’m almost in the last age group, and at some stores I qualify for a senior citizen discount. I’ve been around a long time. Yet I can still remember when doing elaborate tricks with a yo-yo was a sign of coolness. When it took less than a minute to realize there wasn’t anything on television worth watching. When there were magazine covers that did not have Jennifer Aniston’s face on them. When people said things like, “Oh yeah? Wanna bet?” and “What’re you cracked or something?” and “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
I think back on events from my childhood, and they seem to be wavy and shrouded in fog. A lot of my memories are in black and white, and the sound is garbled, as though I’m listening to them through the wrong end of a megaphone. The very fact that I know what a megaphone is frightens me the most.
These reactions are magnified by the fact that I’m not experiencing any physical problems, although now that I’ve said that, I’m sure an attack of rheumatism can’t be far off. It’s already been a decade since I compained to my doctor about a chronic pain in my knee, as well as frequency of urination, and his response socked me in the stomach. Not a literal sock, but an emotional punch that was equally jolting.
“Well, you’re middle-aged, you know.”
There was no expression in his voice or on his face. It was a simple, flat statement, delivered with the same tone you’d use to tell someone their library card has expired. But he might as well have said I was halfway to death. Adding to the negative imagery, the term middle-aged always makes me think of the Middle Ages. I picture castles and dungeons and horses wearing bedspreads, and me with a metal mixing bowl on my head with feathers sticking out of it, lumbering around in a suit of armor and silently cursing my own bladder in Latin. Was this unexpected label supposed to make me feel better? I may have been imagining it, but the doctor looked as if he were waiting for me to express gratitude for the information, the way you would thank someone who just told you that your headlights were on.
Are you old enough to remember when you’d see a car with its lights on in a parking lot and you’d open the door and turn them off? Those were the days when people at least had a conversation before they pulled out guns and started shooting each other. Then car alarms became common, and you didn’t dare violate someone’s vehicle. But that sense of communal protectiveness lingered for a while. When you heard an alarm suddenly blaring in the neighborhood, you raced to the window and looked up and down the street, one hand reaching for a blunt object and the other grabbing the phone to call the police. It was both thrilling and infuriating: A car was being stolen! Things have changed. Now when I hear an alarm I think, “Who’s the idiot who accidentally pressed the panic button on his keyless remote?” If the sound goes on for more than ten seconds, I check to make sure I’m not the idiot. It never occurs to me that a car is really being stolen, or that I should call the police.
Back then, calling anyone required you to be inside your house, so whatever was going on had to be happening nearby. Phones were black and clunky and sat on a table and weighed eighty pounds. If you dropped one, you worried about breaking your toe, not the phone. And it had a rotary dial with fingerholes, so if you chose a wrong digit you had to start all over; there was no way to dial quickly. If it really were an emergency, you could call the operator and say, “Get me the police!” and I guess she would connect you. I don’t know. I was too scared to talk to the operator, let alone a policeman.
Talking was risky in general. I would often ask an innocent question and people would answer in some brusque or dismissive way that left me feeling like a broken shoelace. I’d ask, “Do you know what time it is?” and they’d say, “Same time as yesterday, only a day later.” They had these snappy comebacks all prepared, and were just waiting for me to walk into the trap. “Same time as yesterday,” I’d think. “Yes, but what time is it?” Too late. They were already gone.
Or I’d try my own snappy comeback, but the other person would look at me with disdain and say, “That is so funny I forgot to laugh.” This, also, would leave me confused. Did they think it was funny, or not? If someone came into school on Monday morning with noticeably shorter hair than they had on Friday afternoon, someone would stupidly ask, “Did you get a haircut?” The reply was always the same: “No, I got them all cut.” I understood this bit of sarcasm the very first time I heard it, and never made the error again of asking someone if they got a haircut. Many years later, I did ask a total stranger when her baby was due, but that was a completely different kind of mistake.
Once in a while, my older brother or a cousin would wrestle me to the ground, twist my arm, and order me to say “Uncle.” I learned through painful experimentation that “Hey, cut it out” and “Get off me, you fink” did not produce the desired result. Even yelling “You’re breaking my arm!” did no good. But saying “Uncle” got them to relent. I was never given an adequate explanation for this, and eventually stopped wondering about it. Boys in particular often justified their reprehensible behavior by saying, “It’s a free country.” And if you called them a name or tried to insult them, they usually shot back with, “Takes one to know one.” It took me years to unravel that saying. I should have said that to my doctor when he called me middle-aged. I could have at least tried a snappy comeback. Something like, “Oh yeah? Wanna bet?” or “I’m the same age as yesterday, only a day older.” No, you know what I really should’ve done? I should’ve wrestled him to the floor, twisted his arm, and made him say “Uncle.” But I was feeling a twinge in my knee. It was probably my rheumatism acting up. Plus, my bladder was about to explode.