In a recent comic strip, a character says he can guarantee that there will never be a woman President. Why? "Because no woman will admit she's over 35." Ha, ha.
What is it about Americans and age? Twice in two weeks -- once at the railroad station in New Haven, once at a beach in New Hampshire - employees apologized for mentioning to me that a senior discount was available. I assured them that no apology was necessary; on the contrary, I was grateful. One woman seemed relieved; the other remained apologetic, saying that an earlier woman customer had been insulted to be offered a discount.
What can we conclude from these examples, other than that reaching the age of 60, or 62, or 65 is something to be ashamed of in this culture? Is that why we're offered discounts, to make up for the humiliation of age?
It's saddening to observe how self-conscious Americans over 35 are about their age. The beauty-product industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the plastic-surgery industry profess to mitigate the physical effects of aging; of course they also contribute to our anxiety about it.
It's not like this everywhere. I teach French, and one of the features of French (and many other European languages) is the distinction between the two forms of "you". My students first learn the informal "tu" form, so that they can talk with each other about their daily lives. As they progress, they learn the "vous" form so that they can show respect when they talk with people they don't know - or people who are older.
Respect for age takes other forms as well in France. While many older Frenchwomen color their hair, actors and actresses can continue to find work as they age, because French movies reflect interest in the real lives of real adults -- including those over 35. The characters deal with their children, their aging parents, their adult siblings, their friends, their spouses and lovers and former spouses and lovers and all the complexities of adult life. In many American movies like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" the older characters are reduced to cute, cartoonish codgers; aren't those seniors sweet, still looking for love at their age?
Perhaps we baby-boomers have only ourselves to blame: we certainly contributed to this conscious or unconscious bias against old age. One of the iconic slogans of the ‘60s was, "Never trust anyone over 30." Oh, careless youth! Now we Boomers know how young 30 really is -- and it really is young: now that American life expectancies are close to 90, people over 30 have lived only about a third of their lives; those of us around 60 still have a third of our lives left to live. Are we going to live all these years embarrassed by our age, or proud of our experience, wisdom, and long-range perspective?
I recently attended a memorial for my aunt Marg, who died this year at age 95. She was one of those people who managed to live in the present of every moment of every day -- working hard (she always worked full-time as she and her husband raised their three daughters) and creating fun whenever and wherever she could, right into old age: she was still volunteering at the local hospital after age 90. Later, even as she finally lost her memory to Alzheimer's, she was still able to hang on to her energetic and positive spirit.
Her example has inspired me to look at each day differently -- to try to make the most of each moment. I've often looked at the slogans on Vermont license-plates ("RDSXFAN", "SKIER") and thought about what I would choose for my old Toyota. Now I know: I'd put, "ALLONS-Y" - "Let's go there (wherever that is)." If possible, I'd add an exclamation point: ALLONS-Y! And if there are any senior discounts along the way, I'll take them, with thanks.
Maggie Cassidy is a local teacher and trainer in inquiry. The opinions in this piece are hers alone and do not represent those of any educational institution or school administration.