On becoming older, if not necessarily wiser

So I’m having a birthday this year. This month, to be more precise. It’s one of those decennium birthdays for which people wear sweatshirts with rhyming aphorisms, like, Lordy, Lordy, Susie’s Forty!

I’d always thought that growing older was something that happened to other people. I once had a roommate who happened to be about six years older than me. She was a wonderful woman, and some time after we parted ways, I was invited to a party to celebrate her 40th birthday. It shocked me: I had lost track, and I didn’t think anyone I knew actually turned 40. The thought that passed through my brain was something like, “How could anyone let that happen?” Like it was a personal failing. I’m terribly abashed for the foolish thirtysomething I was, especially considering that 40 is long past for my own self.

I’ve never much fudged about my age. First off, I’m a terrible liar. Secondly, the one time I tried lying about my age, I couldn’t really do it. After much deliberation, I managed to shave a single year off my age, telling a potential suitor 43 rather than 44. After four decades, what difference did a single year make? It wasn’t like I was trying to scam an AARP membership or an induction into the Gray Panthers; it wasn’t like those 365 days meant the difference between presenting him an heir to the throne or not. I simply couldn’t commit to the deception and make myself a decent 5, 10, or 20 years younger.

I once dated a fellow who refused to tell me his true age. He kept insisting he was 45, even after I’d known him several years. There were clues he was quite a bit older, and I, in my thirties, think I had this notion I was going to be a trophy girlfriend, even if it was a bowling trophy. We saw each other now and again, and eventually his age became a bone of contention. How could I take anyone seriously who couldn’t be honest about his age? He died a few years ago and through various means, I discovered that he was in his seventies. But he knew how to commit to his deception: His obituary in the local daily actually read Age: I’m not telling.

Even if I could sustain the illusion, I don’t want to go to that much work. But I am starting to understand the reluctance to state one’s age. You don’t want to be what you think that age means. You don’t want people to respond to you the way you did about your old roommate. You don’t want people to jump to certain conclusions, to sum you up in a particular number.

So far I don’t think I’m having a midlife crisis, which I probably should have had at 39 or 40, based on life-expectancy statistics. (I’ve always been a late bloomer.) A midlife crisis would be difficult to distinguish from my other crises, however, since I tend to take everything way too seriously, and I’ve always had that persistent feeling of dread, whether it’s global warming or not being able to find a parking spot at the yogurt shop.

Still, it seems like a rite of passage, so perhaps I ought to try something to mark it even if I’m not even particularly freaked out about it. Maybe I’ll have just one boob lifted. Maybe have a secret affair with one of the Jonas Brothers—so secret even he doesn’t even know about. (First, though, I’ll have to find out who the Jonas Brothers are.) Red convertibles seem to be a popular prop for the mid-century meltdown, but I’d much prefer a Hyundai Elantra with a sunroof and in a color with a good resale value.

I’m having a hard time saying that number. It’s like learning a new language, one that you didn’t expect to have to learn at this age, and yet, since you are very lucky, you must. Here’s a hint: I’m at that age where I use the word lucky in having reached it. I am nothing if not pragmatic, and I well know the alternative. I have lost family and friends, young, old, and my age, and so, yes, I’m grateful for every natal anniversary.

I’ll tell you this: Lordy Lordy, I’m Not Forty, nor am I Sixty, Sixty, Everybody Fix Tea!, which, okay, is not on a shirt or a banner that I’ve actually seen, but I’m sure scientists are still working on a rhyme for it. Fifty is…well, it’s 50 more years than I started with. Just don’t make me wear a sweatshirt that proclaims it is nifty. It seems to trivialize everything that every one of us survives and celebrates every single year. Plus, it’s just bad poetry.

So I’ll be content to remember that adage uttered by someone smarter—and probably older—than me: “Old age is always 10 years older than you are.”