Act Your Age

They used to tell children incessantly to act their age. I can vaguely recall resenting this demand. Acting my age always seemed to be code for acting the age of stodgy, unadventurous, grim visaged, grindingly responsible, Puritanical, humorless elders. Surely up to a point kids should be left alone to be kids.

I admit they do have to be housebroken and socialized along the way. Conformity to the demands of the prevailing culture may be somewhat arbitrary, but no society can tolerate anarchic individualism for long. Toilet training is pretty much essential, for instance, no matter how it cramps their style. And fairly soon it becomes unacceptable to leave a large ring of food debris surrounding one’s chair after every meal. Though it may delight the family dog.

Somewhere between “Lord of the Flies” and Tiger Mom there is probably a happy medium that allows a kid’s spontaneity and invention to thrive without degenerating into license and solipsistic egomania. Soon enough they will find themselves in harness and pulling the plow through the furrows of life for the next thirty or forty years until put out to the pasture of second childhood.

But then, oddly enough, society now seems as timid about calling out the follies of age as it is lax about objecting to the indiscipline of renegade children. TV commercials for various nostrums regularly encourage doddering oldsters to suppose they can make their old bones, atrophying sinews, dimming lights or recalcitrant private parts behave as if they were 25 instead of 75. Perhaps a few Ubermenschen can achieve such miracles, but most are doomed to disappointment, terrifying side effects or crippling injury no matter how many rejuvenating pills they pop.

Few things are more disturbing than women of a certain age getting dolled up in age inappropriate cougar garb, garish hair and makeup, all potentially erotic or alluring in a thirty-year-old supermodel but, in the case of those of advanced years, grotesque and redolent of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” No one wants to hand around with “Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” especially the cameraman.

The extreme male version is a paunchy, bald, spavined gentleman with gold chain mingled with grey chest hair wearing a speedo on a jet ski. It’s possible that it was sights such as these on a Mediterranean beach, not his relations with mom and dad, which caused Oedipus to put his eyes out. When a group of these superannuated teen wannabes gather to imbibe alcoholic beverages and shimmy to disco music, one can only repeat with Kurtz – “the horror, the horror.”

Clearly, at some point infantile children really do have to act their age, but just as clearly the senior set needs to look in the mirror occasionally, as painful as such a Dorian Gray moment may be, and act their age. It may seem sad that kids have to grow up and face the bittersweet music of maturity, but time only travels in one direction, beat against the current all you want.

No one really wants their kids to be running wild, throwing tantrums and failing to learn anything as the decades roll by. It’s unseemly. Similarly, aging is no damned picnic, despite all the propaganda from AARP, the self-help industry and pharmaceutical companies to the contrary. The parts begin to fail or at least work less reliably. The mechanics may be able to med a gasket here or a valve there, to eke a few more miles out of the clunker, but sooner or later the machinery is shot. And there’s no way yet to trade in the old ride for a shiny new one. Like it or not, and no matter how much we want to avoid the final act, we are all eventually compelled to act our age.

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