Friday, June 04, 2010

Life Ends at 40

This week, the New Yorker announced its list of 20 fiction writers to watch. Half of them were women and a fair number hail from outside the U.S. None of them were under 40.

That's right, here we go again with an oh-so-original 20 under 40 list.

I was so annoyed by yet another publication's insistence on 40 as the demarcation line for success that I scarcely noticed, or cared, who made the New Yorker's role call. (I do recall Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, who happen to be married, so, phew, marital meltdown averted.) Apparently, I wasn't the only one offended. Ward Six provided a quick rejoinder: 10 over 80 rewarding writers who've been "kicking a** for longer than we've been alive." To which I say, it's about time.

I find 20 under 40 offensive for a number of reasons. True confession time: I'm no longer eligible to make the cut. I find this difficult to comprehend, and practically choke whenever I'm forced to give my age. I have no idea how I got here. A friend of mine recently turned the big 4-0, which was semi-traumatic for her. That's not even the hard part, I warned her. The hard part is that once you get over that hump, and make peace with it, the years keep turning. And it wouldn't be so bad--truly, I'm happier and in a far better place than I was in my 20s--if our entire society weren't conspiring to constantly remind me that my life is over. Or at least not worth recognizing.

In reviews, or comments on reviews, of "Sex and the City 2," I saw these stunning 4 over 40 actresses referred to as "crones" (definition: an old woman, hag). I've read suggestions that no one over 40 be allowed to work on "American Idol," as if the age of the show's producers is the sole reason behind theme nights like Songs from the Cinema. FYI: I've got Modest Mouse and MGMT on my iPod and would kill to ban Pink Floyd from radio airplay.

This ageism strikes me as schizophrenic. On the one hand, our culture is fixated on precocity and the youthful phenom. I was going to offer Mozart as an example, but that would date me, so how about Justin Bieber as a reference point. Or those 8-year-old gold-medal Chinese gymnasts. Or the toddler in Thailand who smokes cigarettes. On the other hand, we're living longer and, at least in the U.S., we're being expected to work longer, well into our 70s, when, if you're a woman, you're also expected to still be "hot"(for those of us who weren't hot to begin with, we just get to feel bad about ourselves for a few extra decades). Talk about mixed messages: We're told 50 is the new 30, but if that were the case, why no 50-year-olds on the 20 under 40 list?

"Golden Girl" actress Rue McClanahan died yesterday. She was 76, which, as my friend Lori pointed out, means she was 51 years old when she took on the role for which she's best remembered. Fifty-one. Playing a golden girl. Can you imagine that today? Thinking someone that age is ready for the old folks' home, when they're more likely to have a kid in elementary school.

I'm no fan of the Baby Boomers and their narcissism and the way they're going to bleed my Social Security dry, but they have made huge inroads in the way we think, not necessarily about aging--nobody really likes it--but about what we're capable of as we age. I was at a wedding last weekend where the groom was 50 and the bride was in her mid-40s, her first marriage. These two are just getting started, at an age when my own parents were walking my older sister down the aisle. But the media, with its lists, seems to not have caught up with this shift in the way people are living their lives.

Plenty of us are angling for second acts, myself included. And that's the other thing that irks me about the New Yorker piece. One of the things I love about writing is that it's not gymnastics--there's no biological component that lends an advantage to youth over age and experience. I'm constantly cheered by the fact that some authors produce their best work late in life. Case in point: Jose Saramago. Nobel Prize winner. You might have heard of him. I'm currently reading the latest brilliant novel by 67-year-old Peter Carey, who's likely to contend for a record third Booker prize. There's one to watch.

I know, the point of these lists is to shed light on up and comers. But does that mean no one over 40 can still be on the upswing? That we have nothing new or original to add to our public discourse? That late bloomers are less deserving of praise than quick starters? (BTW: Where will Bieber be in 20 years? Or 2?) At least 10 over 80 gives me something to aim for. By the time I get there, 80 will be the new 40. And I still won't make the New Yorker list.


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