A few years ago, I went back to my college for a class reunion. I met up with some friends at our hotel, did a couple of tequila shots at the hotel bar, and headed to the cocktail mixer for the class of 1983. All the alumni mixers were held in separate rooms at a nearby conference center. As my friends and I walked down the long hallway, I peered into each party, conducting a visual assessment of which was likely ours. When I spotted what looked like a group of our peers, I put on a big smile and headed in the door—only to be grabbed on the shoulder by my friend.
“That’s the class of ‘98, dumbass,” he said with a snicker.
In marketing, there’s a rule that older people see themselves as 10 years younger than they are, so you choose advertising images accordingly. In my case, apparently, the magic number was 15. This disconnect between our actual age and our “felt” age might account for the odd, self-effacing brand of humor that surrounds ageing. It always comes as a surprise to learn we have stumbled over the garden wall from youth into midlife; and in our more generous moods, we joke about our loss of perspective. Kurt Vonnegut quipped that “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The joke isn’t so much that our classmates are running the country—though, having lived in a fraternity, I find that fact alarming—it’s that the realization catches us so unawares. Over and over again.
Growth Spurts and Lost Perspective
I’ve come to believe that whatever instinct dupes us into seeing ourselves as younger than we are also sets us up for sudden and uncomfortable revelations as the reality of midlife becomes undeniable. Those are the moments when, for example, the preponderance of gray hair finally convinces you that yes, you are nearly 60, no matter how recent that epic “bong-a-thon” in college feels. These moments make ageing feel unsubtle, almost jagged in its trajectory. Seen this way, life is characterized not by a steady, Zen-like acceptance of one’s advancing years, but by moments of abject terror when we realize, “Holy fuck, I have pubic hair in my ears!” My wife talks about going through “growth spurts” when we age, as if there are periods when the wrinkles accumulate more rapidly than others. I believe those are just the moments when our perspective and our reality become better aligned and we see who we have become—rather than who we were.
I don’t know. I’m not convinced it’s such a bad thing to embrace the delusion that we’re younger than we are. What would have been so wrong to blend in with the class of ‘98, have a few drinks, and wax nostalgic about Limp Bizkit, Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy? Instead, my asshole friend, like the cosmic joker himself, had to yank me out of my revery and re-acquaint me with reality.
Still, I was feeling it for a minute, with that big, bold smile and my class of ‘98 swagger.