Monday, January 25, 2016


            According to the U.S. Census Bureau, I am now officially middle-aged. I can’t say I felt much different last Sunday when I turned 45, but the number does seem a bit daunting. A couple decades ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Staten Island Advance about living through my 20s; one of the columns talked about how old 25 felt. I think back on that and laugh.
Of course, 20 years from now I might reflect on 45 as a young milestone. But while it’s true that age is relative, it’s also true that 45 is a much more definitive marker of aging than 25 was. For instance, I am now older than every athlete on a major American pro sports team. The oldest, NHL right winger Jaromir Jagr, is more than a year younger than me. If I were running for president this year, I’d be considered a “young” candidate, but I’m still five months older than Republican Marco Rubio, and just a few weeks younger than Ted Cruz. In terms of entertainment, I’m in the Matt Damon-Ethan Hawke age range, which is not too bad. But still, I was 23 years old when Justin Bieber was born, easily making me old enough to be his parent.
So yeah, 45 is a bunch of years. But it’s still only halfway to 90, so there’s no reason to panic. Yet there are certain physical signs reminding me that middle age is beginning. The most obvious is the eyesight. When I’m reading a book with my glasses on, the words only look focused when I push the glasses down the bridge of my nose. When I’ve swallowed my pride enough, I will buy reading glasses for the times when I’m wearing contacts. After all, I’m already struggling at school when I reserve a laptop cart and need to open it with a combination lock. My students sit patiently waiting for me to open the cart, while I stare down at the lock and wait for my eyes to slowly begin identifying numbers.
There’s also the height thing. When doctors ask for my height, I proudly say that I’m 6-1, although I know that is no longer the case. The disks between my vertebrae have thinned out, and I’m shorter than I was at 22. I try to combat this with exercise, and I know that yoga would help as well. But even so, the ravages of time and gravity have had their way with my spine. When I spend hours outside shoveling like I did yesterday, my back reminds me of just how cranky it’s getting.
So yes, there are numerical and physical signs of aging. But perhaps the most glaring sign of being middle-aged is in the interactions with people younger than me, and the generation gaps that are now fully apparent. Take the popular mobile app known as Snapchat, for instance. I have had computers in my life ever since I was 12 years old. And yet, I just don’t understand the need for taking dozens of photos and short videos that get sent to friends, who can view them for just a few seconds before they disappear. It seems like an exercise in futility.
As my students prepare for class to begin, many of them stare at their phones, give a little smile, and before I know it they’ve taken a Snapchat photo, to be added to their Snapchat “story” that will be sent to their 200 closest friends later in the day. The same thing happens when I’m driving my older daughter somewhere, and she sits in the back seat posing and taking more pictures than you’d see at a Kate Upton photo shoot. She then begins playing her friends’ Snapchat stories, and I hear quick bursts of shouting or singing, and my daughter laughs at these bite-size forms of communication while I struggle to identify what her friends are even saying.
Generation gaps are as common as diminished eyesight and shrinking spines. And with this particular gap, I am reminded of a skill that I have maintained and improved after four and a half decades, but that I fear my daughter is losing all too early: the ability to pay attention. I am still more interested in placing my photos in an album than in shooting them off for a five-second viewing; I’d rather write a blog like this than fire off a tweet; and I’d prefer to read a story or book than an Instagram caption. I want to spend time with my thoughts and communication, rather than treating them like a series of buttons to be pushed. I worry that younger generations are losing the ability to take time with the interactions that help make a life richer.
There is no way to write this without sounding like an old man, even older than one who can’t read his combination lock. But I think the key to generation gaps is going beyond the recognition of them, and moving into bridging the gaps. Is there something that both generations can learn from each other – something about the Snapchat world that I don’t quite get, and something about the joy of sitting with words and thoughts that my daughter doesn’t understand yet? Were there similar elements at play for me 30 years ago, when my parents were advising me to pay attention to the world beyond Commodore 64 video games and fantasy sports statistics? It would take a degree of patience on both sides to sit, listen and learn, yet I’d be up for doing that. My daughter, who is forever closing her bedroom door behind her in true 14-year-old fashion, is a tougher one to pin down; but there’s no reason to stop trying.
Age is both relative and very real; 45 is nothing if not a reminder of that. I’ve downloaded the Snapchat app, but I can’t figure it out yet. And it’s hard to read unless I push down those glasses.