Extemporaneously — during a casual neighborhood gathering — a friend’s twenty-year-old kid rattles off her list of no-nos: stuff you shouldn’t do to conceal your true age. On break from university, full of hermeneutic confidence, she contends that the reason such things don’t work, and what makes them embarrassing, is that every one of them represents a clear misunderstanding of youth identity.
Mind you, she’s not talking about blatant, ludicrous anachronisms — behaviors that have all but ceased to exist in a living universe. Like touching up your rouge in front of fellow diners, between servings of Crab Louis and Jello salad. Or wearing a leather jacket to speed dating. She means stuff that, barely adrift of contemporary popular culture and mores, gets deployed with intent to deceive; stuff that’s contrived, or even vaguely transgressive, though not in a good way. “If you want to seem young, like, young for your age, have the sense to not, like, make choices that specifically, like, call attention to your desperation, OK?”
Because I’m piecing this together from memory, it’s possible I’ve left a few of her examples off the list. (I hope I’ve placed her non-lexical vocables in, like, their authentic positions.) Here’s what I remember:
… toe ring … tattoo on the ankle … any tattoo in Kanji script if you, like, don’t speak Japanese fluently … the word “tat,” unless you’re on a respirator … nostril stud or, like, navel piercing … True Religion jeans … following offspring’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc … soul patch … Oakleys … thong underpants … Siri voice commands … porkpie hat … Brazilian landing-strip … greeting others with “yo” or “wuddup” … giving dap …
Initially, her indictment of the so-called Brazilian caught me by surprise. Only days later I got confirmation from my Lesser Half who had inadvertently wandered through the “clothing optional” area of a nearby beach. Sure enough, she noted — peripherally, peripherally! — that almost every woman whose age she estimated to be forty-ish or above was austerely groomed or completely shorn, while the hipster-age gals, rejecting infantilization, seemed with one or two exceptions to have regressed to the full, defiant — though possibly ironic — foliage of Courbet’s L’Origine
Anyway, since I own, do, use, say, wear none of these things, I’m feeling somewhat encouraged. Until she adds, depressingly, “But there’s a lot more of them, too. Too many to, like, count.” She pauses. “I’m not saying don’t ever do this stuff. Do what you want. But don’t go around, like, imagining that it makes you appear youthful. Just the opposite.” Even the word youthful she enunciates with drawn-out derision — as if merely to categorize such silliness were unbearable.
“So no tats, then?”
“Maybe on, like, your forehead,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Maybe the word AMBULANCE, but written backwards so it reads correctly in a mirror.”
Let’s back up for a minute, to 2009. Hanging out at that same friend’s house, I’m distractedly observing an elderly woman, the guy’s visiting aunt. She jumps up and leaves the room, headed for the kitchen to fetch coffee that none of us has expressed interest in drinking. She isn’t walking. Rather, she isn’t merely walking. What is it then? Approximately the pace of walking (nor entirely ineffectual in terms of locomotion and direction), it is something I would describe, I suppose, as pantomime. I believe she means to simulate pubescent vitality. If so, is this what she imagines pubescent vitality might look like? Her elbows are cocked, fingers clenched like the fists of a sprinter, arms pumping ferociously. Her head jostles from side to side. The legs are moving rapidly enough, tapping out a little staccato rhythm along the floor, as if she really were covering ground at high speed. Yet the stride is reduced to almost nothing — purposely diminished in scale, not really a stride at all, each footfall advancing only millimeters beyond its predecessor. Not running, in other words, but a pastiche of running. Zeno’s arrow could be expected to reach the kitchen sooner.
Eight years on, I’m revisiting that scene in my mind, a scene to which at the time I attached no particular significance. I noted its oddity, I guess, its low-level surrealism, without putting my back into an analysis or a deconstruction.
Parody, then? Spoof? Noh drama? What was this, and why was she doing it? I remember being vaguely aware of its unconscious self-debasement. But maybe it wasn’t unconscious at all. Maybe she was willing herself, against all odds, against all evidence, to come across as younger and more energetic, worthy of the attention and approval of her much younger guests. I know I’ve observed almost exactly this same behavior, these displays of mock scampering, on many other occasions. It wasn’t by any means unique to her. But my sense is that it’s always people in my friend’s aunt’s age bracket, never those who actually are pubescent.
So, yeah, I’m thinking about it again. My own age bracket is advancing, too — with a limp. Upon reflection, I can see that (like me) my fellow wrinkly, balding, half-deaf, stiff-necked, bum-kneed, nearly retired contemporaries are given to a slightly different version of — what to call it? … youthing down. And this version, being less parodic and more earnestly guileful, is arguably worse. Even when the motive is not pure deception, it’s sneaky in another way: for example, whereas “elderly” is a word I’m starting to use about myself, I do so with a degree of deliberate sarcasm. I’m baiting, fishing; probably to encourage others to shout it down as ridiculous. “Ridiculous!” they’ll protest. “You don’t look a day over …”
Only a few weeks ago I spotted a comment thread addressing this very problem as it occurs in yet an another manifestation: hep talk. Hep talk, of course, is once-trendy terminology for trendy terminology, and that’s precisely why I’m inclined briefly to revive it. I refer to the way in which the aging, the old, and the elderly copy the truncated speech rhythms of the young, and do it badly. Or just too late.
The discussion in this thread pertained to the dialectal shorthand — the hep talk — of social media, particularly as it appears in Facebook posts, where the platform itself, unlike Twitter, isn’t restrictive of style (and where in theory one has all the room one needs for vast rambling tracts of Periclean chiasmus). Self-consciously colloquial, this new sparse, flinty lingo is notable mainly for sentence fragments that contain neither first-person subjects — such as I, such as we — nor even real verbs, just lots of incomplete participles. “Losing my mind at home correcting English assignments,” another friend recently wrote on his seldom-visited timeline — in a conspicuous distortion of standard English. At first I assumed, foolishly, that he was joking, making fun of his inarticulate students. Seconds later, the truth struck. It wasn’t a gag. He was indeed aping them but without any apparent awareness of that fact. It was hep talk; he was youthing down.
Are we all doing it — this behavioral extension of Howard Giles’s Accommodation Theory? Moreover, does it produce an effect exactly opposite to what it intends? In other words, is the pretense of youthfulness, our longing for it, pretty much a dead giveaway for our having begun the inevitable spiral toward doom, oblivion, and lost car keys?
Lately, I seem to be to overcompensating, my prosaic flourishes more in keeping with an Enlightenment pamphleteer or the author of The Princess Casamassima. I suppose I’m trying to put daylight, if not twilight, between myself and my peers, by going all periodic on them. Currently, my Facebook report of an outing to the theater — a purely hypothetical outing — might go something like:
Last night, after dining at Brasserie Blanc in the company of my most dependable amanuensis, which is to say myself, I attended a fine Dury Lane production of Hamlet.
And yet in the very recent past, perhaps just months ago, that same post, reporting the very same hypothetical event, frantic in its need to convey spontaneity, at pains to show me as keeping up with the times, might have looked closer to this one:
clocked totes amaze eddy kean on the boards last nite doing his best scandi-noir melancholy mofo evs
Whereupon my right hand would have high-fived — I mean, given dap to — my left hand. Yo, dude. Take a selfie.
The fragmentary style is meant to indicate, what, a rapid thought process? You are asked to believe that I am dashing through the alleyways of a bohemian demimonde — rapaciously, wantonly, youthfully; that, finding myself amidst so many exciting or edgy experiences, I couldn’t possibly deal with something as time-sucky as an independent clause, or a comma, or one or two majuscules. Yeah, but this is multitasking, I might comfort myself, delighted if blissfully unaware that “multitasking” is itself a catchphrase from yesteryear — hep talk — that no one young within the current millennium has ever thought, let alone spoken out loud in public.
Confirming my suspicions, one contributor to that thread went on to elaborate that what we’re up to in these instances is approximating the furtive syntax and orthography of text messages (and tweets, etc) of young people, as if cranking out Facebook comments were something we would do on the fly, while running for our train and palpating our bald spot. “Leaving the subject out of a sentence,” she wrote, “is posing. It’s trying to look like you’re hurrying, associating yourself with a lifestyle that you envy about your kids.” In the next breath, she inadvertently gave away her own age by condemning — while apologizing for using — the neologism “lifestyle.” Forty-five? Forty-nine? Fifty-one? Fifty-six?
But I understand where she was going with this. The simulated cohort is usually that of ill-tempered teenagers — our daughters, Fourth-Wavers posting Instagram shots of their California rolls at the mall; our sons camped on sofas with PlayStation controllers, sitting on their necks, muttering contempt. (That’s only if they’re awake — one wonders how being in a hurry ever came to be associated with youth culture.) In the cutting-edge vernacular of the parental classes these sneering, petulant lumps of angst are known as “my best friend.” Presumably, therefore, we feel lucky — not to say blessed — to receive even so much as that fragmentary blip.
And this fusion-jazzy progressive tense that we painfully mimic means it’s all happening now. “Swooning civ cen frmz mkt 2G2BT purp basil LOL.” Well, hey RBAU cuz — or is it CZ?— there’s my very definition of rockin’ out: you’re in such a damned rush, such a sensory tumult of herbal overload, you haven’t got one spare second for typing the preposition at, let alone a whole polysyllabic and complicated technical term like civic center or farmer’s market, LOL. Somehow, though, you do have time to type out strings of gibberish so complicated as to verge on Hypertext Markup Language. (And I probably needn’t mention that LOL might as well be synonymous with ICU. Or DOA.)
“Facebook is itself an old form,” the friend’s kid asserts, briefly adopting a quaintness of diction I might have employed while discussing the 12th Century sextains of Arnaud Daniel. “Posting on Facebook is something I do in a, like, contemplative mood, relatively speaking.” For people her age — as I said, early jaded twenties — it’s not at all furtive; there’s a languor to it. “On rare occasions, in a tweet or, like, a snapchat or whatever, I might write ‘u r’ instead of ‘you are.’ These are situations when I truly am pressed for time. But Facebook? Seriously? I’ve seen you write that kind of junk on your own timeline,” she says, meaning me. “Those fake sentences that don’t have subjects? — everyone can tell that you’re, like, flopped out on your bed, with a half-drained shiraz on the floor next to you. Probably your third one.”
This harkens to other discussions I’ve been in, arguments I’ve been in, about trying to look younger than one’s age. The thing about young people is that they don’t do stuff in order to look young. They do stuff to look like each other. In a practical sense, this means differentiating themselves from, conspicuously dissociating from, their elders. But it’s about separation, distancing, part and parcel of what French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep famously called a rite of passage. As children morph into young adults, they cut controlling ties to those who have raised them. In extreme situations this would take the form of acting out, even rebellion. More conventionally it might look like variations on establishment aesthetics. The principal difference — being most expedient — will be attire that demonstrates agency: refusing to dress as their parents dress. Often this difference in attire, or in some ceremonial adornment or grooming style, will be something we might in fact associate with more distant ancestors — like a genetic trait that seems to skip generations. My generation assumed mastery of their lives while wearing baggy, flowing garments — high-waisted trousers, shoulder-padded jackets that went almost to our knees. Our children, on the other hand, are decked out — predictably — like Carnaby mods, in the tight and fitted styles reminiscent of our parents. But even if I may be overstating the effect, even if reversals of this kind and inversions of taste express no conscious or deliberate distancing motive, the young, as I say, being young, have no need of looking that way.
Meanwhile, aging comes with its own imperatives. One of these is staving off the moment at which one can no longer assimilate new trends in youth culture. We’ve all seen that “study” — in quotes because I don’t really know if it was a study so much as a dynamic observation — asserting that the average cut-off age for being able to accept new developments in popular music, the point at which one “peaks,” is thirty-four or something. And there’s a real sadness in that gasping assertion of contemporaneity by the middle-aged (itself a euphemism for old), managing to get it exactly wrong every time. If you’re a white septuagenarian hangin’ with the kids, you cite Bob Dylan — or, infuriatingly, just “Dylan” — as proof of your coolness, even if Bob himself apparently peaked on the thirtieth of August, 1965. Five years younger, your nod goes to Neil Young. Five down from that, it’s Bowie. And then The Clash, The Smiths, The White Stripes.† And so on. (I’m not precisely certain if my twenty-something source will have heard, or heard of, any of the above-named artists.) But the pathos lies not, or mainly not, in the self-annihilating specificity of such assertions; rather, it’s the mere fact of there being an assertion — of any kind — in the first place. A common motif in mainstream movies has young people discovering some CD in mom’s collection — by this point mom has died from cancer or Alzheimer’s — that inexplicably and across all barriers of anachronism speaks to inner connectedness, warm feelings, and universal collective wisdom. That CD is almost always either Graceland or some Cat Stevens piece of shit. (And must I really point out that Graceland, a record made by a [then] forty-five-year-old guy with an unconvincing comb-over, was out of style when it was new?) The whole idea is completely disconnected from reality. It’s a retroactive correction: propaganda whose intention is to show the relevance of what is in fact weary nostalgia. If you possess that CD, you’ve now owned it in three different playback formats, across five two-term presidencies and a couple of one-term ones. In the real world, your kids — or your grand kids more like — are not going to pull that talisman down from the jewel-box rack and play it, wistfully discovering some emotional link to their forebears that would otherwise have remained concealed and inscrutable. If they did, they wouldn’t make head or tail of it, and that’s assuming they’d know how to operate the playback device. (What they listen to on their own they stream; my kid, who’s twenty-six, regards even MP3 files as prehistoric.) Is Graceland a good record? Not to my ear, but if it is, that’s like saying that your great grandma’s parrot could sing “Lloyd George Knew My Father.”
The neighbor’s kid, now on a roll, amplifies on that list. “Like, no one my age has a toe ring, ugh. Wearing one — along with, like, clanky bracelets, botox face, all that shit — means you’re at least three times the age you’re trying to, like, correlate yourself with.” (Correlate is a nice touch, as is botox face, which, although I’ve never heard this phrase before, she assures me is, “like, a thing.”)
“Same with soul patches — code for white middle-aged divorced male living in gated community. The porkpie hat — baseball hats before that, and before that the beret — this means you’re sensitive about a thinning hairline. And if you’re doing any of this stuff while, like, sitting in your Porsche” — she pronounces it porch — “just forget it, because that indicates you’re, like, pretty close to flat-lining. So those other drivers on the freeway who are, like, giving you lots of room?” she uptalks, “that has nothing to do with being impressed by your expensive sports car. They’re scared. They’re scared that you’re about to have a heart attack and, like, flip your car on top of theirs and squash them.”
I’m taking this all in. A revelation, I’d say, if in truth most of it strikes me as fairly obvious. Or it does once I’ve removed my own blinders and fiddled a pair of smudgy Foster-Grant +2s into position. (Did I ever want a “porch” anyway? And isn’t my hairline too far gone to count as thinning?) Checking her WhatsApp account, she barely — yet somehow conspicuously — holds back from stating the saddest fact of all. I know that she’s thinking it, this fact, and is darkly aware that she too in years to come will ignore it or deny it or, more likely still, forget it — all the while avoiding up-lighting in hotel lobbies, and dyeing her roots, and inspecting her cellulite or her “bat wings” in store-front reflections. Holds back for its incriminating rumor of her own bleak golden years: if you’re clinging to youth — and there’s no way around this — what you’re really clinging to is the past.
* An acquaintance who read this essay in an earlier version contends that geographical location is perhaps of more importance than I have allowed; that the farther you penetrate (no pun intended) into suburbia, the farther into pudic and axillary history you plunge. While I myself live in such a community — the very kind that might be called an enclave by its own inhabitants, thinking they were speaking French, even hip French of the Left Bank, which hasn’t been hip for fifty years — I’m not normally in a … in a position to verify her anthropology. She says that even rather young women of the caucasian motoring classes (as differentiated from sophisticated urban metrosexuals with advanced degrees in semiotics) continue to hit the waxing parlor on a regular basis. In fashion terms, these suburbans may be as many as five years in arrears. So to speak.
† Is it just my imagination, or were the White Stripes marketed, right from the beginning, to a pre-aging demographic? My impression of this outfit is that they somehow gained status as critical darlings by going straight to RiteAid’s and CVS’s piped-in music platforms. I’ve now heard this duo three times, in each case while idly self-testing my blood pressure as I waited for a prescription to be filled. They are awful! I mean, were.