About a month ago, I wrote a post about the fact that the lead singer of the band “Kings of Leon” had been quoted as saying: “[t]hat woman in mom jeans who’d never let me date her daughter likes my music? That’s f–king not cool.” My post was a letter addressed to the singer, Caleb Followill, explaining my belief that a real artist is trying to express something, and that the success of that gesture, not the relative “coolness” of the audience is the significant benchmark. I neither expected, nor received a reply from Mr. Followill.
I did, however, get numerous comments from devotees of the band, haranguing and pleading with me, in their dogged and semi-literate way, to understand context, coolness and youth, all of which had clearly escaped my gnarled clutches. After a few rounds of this, I found myself sitting at my computer, listening to Vampire Weekend and wearing Chuck Taylors, feeling that I was a complete and total fraud. It seemed that if someone came into the house and started peeling a little bit at the top of my head, the entire facade of “hip middle age” would unzip and fall away, revealing…what? A toothless crone with a cane and an AARP card tucked into her largely vacated brassiere? A retro mom with roller “set” hair and a nice tweed skirt listening to Lawrence Welk? When did I stop being as young as I feel, and start being “older,” if not actually “old?”
As a sensitive type, I am keenly aware of the perils of mutton dressed as lamb. I do some things to avoid appearing dowdy – I color my gray hair, I avoid wearing orthopedic footwear and shapeless pastel sweatsuits emblazoned with screen prints of adorable kitties – but I promise that I am not poring over Teen Vogue trying to figure out whether I would look cuter in the peasant mini or the schoolgirl kilt with my new Uggs. I do not run to iTunes to download Brittney’s latest, mostly because I don’t particularly like her music, but I do keep an eye out for new music* from several indie bands that I enjoy. I read all of the Twilight books, and I have been known to watch “Gossip Girl,” but I also read and watch far more complex offerings. I want to know about Skype, Twitter, Tumblr, sexting, and Limewire. None of this means that I secretly believe myself to be sixteen again. It means I like to know stuff, like I always did.
I also remember the need to separate from my parents (particularly my mother), and the importance of asserting that I was Young and Free and understood Gary Neuman and The Tubeway Army. I do not try to be a peer to my son or his friends; mostly I find 13-year-olds to be as repulsive as I found them when I was one of them. My interest in cutting edge culture is not about being young, it is about being alive. I am even capable of groaning audibly in a car filled with boys when that idiotic song about “Fireflies” comes on the radio, affirming to them, to my son, and to myself that I am not glomming on to their music in some desperate attempt to have a second youth, that I still have my responsible mom credentials and am not afraid to use them.
None of my choices come from some inchoate desire to be young and cool; it has been my belief, as I aged, that I was developing a good sense of who I am and what I really like, and that I was free to pick and choose from everything the world offered. Part of the “good sense” meant that I knew that I didn’t look good in clothes designed and cut for teenagers, and that it would be unattractive for me to insist on shopping at Abercrombie. (Aside from the fact that the clothes are apparently designed to fit exhibitionists who eschew solid food). I am aware that “getting down” while I am chaperoning a middle school dance would have mortifying consequences, and I limit myself to the most discreet tapping of my foot behind the concession window. I know that my Chucks make me happy, but also do nothing to lengthen my legs in boot cut jeans; I rarely wear them outside the house. I have felt free, for many years, to create playlists that include Van Morrison, Beatles and Muse, to work something trendy into an outfit, to work with a cross-generational palette when creating my daily life.
Aside from the odd creaky knee or the shock of an impending 20th high school reunion, I don’t feel old, and other people my age don’t seem old. People older than I am, from Meryl Street to Helen Mirren seem to me to be beautiful, and without a discernible season that has passed. Why do I have to slip quietly into that good night of old age, to be seen and not heard, to stop looking for anything new, and to admit that I don’t understand these newfangled songs, or the allure of a nicely looped scarf?
Yesterday, another commenter vented his spleen on my “Kings of Leon” post. His alphabetical summation of my failings concluded with this one: “[a]nd finally, ‘d)’: you’re only young once. Clearly you miss spent your spell in the younger years.” Overlooking my young critic’s inability to spell, I felt sad, and tired and old. I felt like I had only just come in from standing on the porch and yelling “hey you kids, get off of my lawn!” I felt judged, and categorized and pathetic about my most recent iTunes downloads, my long hair, and my secret desire to have a tattoo. We are “only young once,” and I, a very serious and somewhat stodgy young person, had wasted that time which I would never get back. I was now consigned to some middle-aged hell in which I ranted about hip-hop “not being music,” and had trouble programming my cell phone. It seemed that the only appropriate role for me at 47 was “seen and not heard,” accepting of cruel and short-sighted opinions if they came from a Rock Star, and essentially, culturally, dead. I might as well put on my sweater set and pearls and complain about that Elvis and his nasty dancing. (And, by the way, why did any of these people think I had bought a copy of Spin in the first place, given my total inability to understand…anything? Did they think that I was planning to request legislation mandating separate “Rock Star Bathrooms,” and required a good, current list of those prospectively banned from sharing my commode?)
Here’s the thing, though, and I think it’s a real and important thing. What bothered me most about the “mom jeans” comment was not that it was age-ist (although it was). What bothered me, and what was missed by all of Mr. Followill’s ardent supporters, was that his comment was viciously unkind in a way that I dislike in any context. Although less dramatic, it is the kind of flip, judge-y dismissal that I associate with racism, sexism, religious conflict, and anything else that divides groups of people into “us” and “them” and permits free-flowing potshots at “bad them.” I can allow youth to engage in the necessary and painful process of individuation and separation; every generation needs, in some way, to have their own revolution and to re-create the world that they will inhabit (until their own children make them redundant and take over). I cannot accept that it has to be accomplished with cheap shots and cruelty. Vitriol might more appropriately be directed at the government, at large banks, or at a troubled educational system than at middle-aged moms who seek a little happiness by listening to “new” music instead of Billy Joel.
I will not disappear. I will not apologize for my age, or my taste, or my need to speak up when I feel wronged. I am not ready to lower my standards and accept glib cruelty as “the way things are, now,” or to become an inadvertent proxy for the Repressive Older Generation. I am not ready to be old, much less dead at the age of 47.