In an idle moment a couple days ago I took one of those online What age are you really? quizzes and came up with the ludicrous answer of 19. Yet, after the guffaws subsided, I wondered if there was a sense in which it wasn’t off by much – and in the wrong direction.
I have met some people who underwent radical conversion in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or later such as a former “wild child” turned ultra-conservative and a criminal/hooligan turned upright ethical watchdog. But these are the exceptions. Most people fundamentally are what they are by the time they graduate high school. On the occasions I meet old friends and acquaintances from high school or college, I am always struck by how little they have changed. Oh, they may be hard to recognize physically. They’ve gotten greyer (and/or balder) and portlier. They have life experience and (usually) some job-related or academic expertise. They’ve had to deal with serious troubles and losses. They may be married with kids – even grandchildren. Yet, as a matter of basic personality, they are the same goofballs I knew in 1970. In that regard, very few present any surprises.
I’m not one of the exceptions. I’m older, seasoned, better read, and, I hope, wiser – though the latter may be self-delusional ego-balm. The fellow looking back at me in the mirror is a stranger. Nonetheless, my own basic sense of self hasn’t altered substantially since I was 17. There were episodes in the years since then that seemed at the time to be permanently life-altering and perspective-altering, but they proved to be ephemeral digressions. I think anyone encountering me for the first time since graduation would be unsurprised by anything beyond the cosmetic.
What brought all this to mind was not just the quiz but the movie Nebraska, which I watched at home in mixed-age company. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a retiree in Billings Montana who is convinced that he has won one of those publisher’s sweepstakes and strives to take his letter to the corporate HQ in Lincoln Nebraska to collect. The letter says “You have won $1,000,000”; the small print clause beginning with “if” eludes him. Woody does not have dementia but he definitely has let age catch up with him. We get the sense, though, that even 50 or 60 years earlier he was the sort of person inclined to believe what people told him. Along the way he stops in the small town where he grew up and where most of his family still lives. His family and friends are as old as he is, of course, yet the same issues and rivalries as ever persist. I give the movie a thumbs up.
My co-watchers at first were put off by the film, not for any flaw in the in the script or production but for the frightening depiction of an age that we all (if we live so long) will attain. They warmed to the movie by midpoint – it is funny in its own way – but still were unsettled by it. I didn’t know any of them when they were 17, but it is my guess they would have reacted the same way then. The flick didn’t bother me, but perhaps that is my own failure of imagination at work: I've always found it hard enough to conceive of myself at my present age never mind two decades beyond it. That was true at 17, too; 37 was too ridiculously distant for me to consider seriously then. As for 20 years from now...well, actuarial tables offer no reason to be optimistic about being here 20 years from now. Against the harsh reality of mortality a teen state of mind is a valuable buffer. I’m in no hurry to dispose of it. However, while fitting into a state of mind is one thing, I'm afraid fitting into my old school blazer might be an insurmountable obstacle.