I am often asked why, with all the trendy gyms in my Manhattan neighborhood, I chose the 92nd St. Y to lift, stretch and sweat. Very simply, I reply, there aren't many places left where I am still the youngest person in the room.
Why some of us have more difficulty transitioning from "she's so young!" to "she's cool for her age," probably goes back to our beginnings. Mine began as a coddled youngest sibling. No, I did not read Proust at 11 months, but every utterance was considered special, and as the only girl with two older brothers, anything above just being cute received surprised applause. When, at age 10, I defeated a 6-foot tall 18-year-old in an all-city tennis tournament, my beaming parents framed the newspaper photo for all to see. This was going to be fun!
My first published article was entitled "A Child of the Sixties, From Mouseketeers to McCarthy." At 21, I had seemingly summed up a tumultuous decade and suddenly, I was being interviewed everywhere as an emblem of sorts. This was going to be easy! And it was, until Joyce Maynard, at 18, wrote a famous piece in the New York Times Magazine and instantly became the counterculture cover girl. This was going to be... normal!
Hopefully, the majority of whiz kids grow into wizened souls, and learn to live with the fact that, eventually, most the people around them are going to be younger rather than older. I have recently exacerbated my own situation by returning to college to earn the degree left unfinished before 40 gap years. This is the extreme sport of confronting aging.
There I sit in Columbia University classrooms, amid 19-21 year olds, where I have caught more than a few rolling eyes -- for example, among the three assigned partners with whom I would be doing a 20-page report on Coney Island. Suffice to say, they softened when it was discovered that A. I had a car, B. I knew how to find local residents to interview, and C. I could edit.
I have, for the record, had two professors close to my age and possibly even older. While I originally had visions of our collaborating on mutual experiences, I quickly sensed the protocol among curriculum-hugging, ego-lugging traditionalists. You try interrupting a famous historian's lecture on the Port Huron Statement to share that you once gave a fundraiser for Tom Hayden.
I asked my psychologist friend, Dr. Vivian Diller, for some cheery perspective on my predicament. "By the time we reach our 60s and beyond, instead of hiding how old we are, we become increasingly proud of how well we're doing -- or looking," she said, pointing to all kinds of studies proving if we get past the midlife crises, it can be smooth and even happier sailing. "Life can become more enjoyable as you stop trying to be someone or somewhere you're not, and instead being in the moment you are."
Well, at this moment, I spend most of my time on my own studies, and below are what I consider the plusses (and possible minuses) of being the oldest in the room:
1. I am a mama again! Our own kids have left the nest, but now I have these other flocks gradually warming up to me and even occasionally asking for advice. And they don't talk back or leave old beer cans under my beds. (The negative: Do they really want another mother?)
2. I am not looking for a date! When I think back on my first round of college, I mostly remember the crushes that went nowhere and stressing over packing on the freshman pounds. Well, I got the guy, lost the weight, and the only thing I am currently stressing over is memorizing who colonized whom in Africa. (The negative: Why does my self-esteem slip even further when these boys ignore me?)
3. I knew math wouldn't matter! In a form of "Back to The Future," I smugly understand these core classes will not really affect my life. When I assure my fellow students that they will never have to be boring writers again, they seem palpably relieved. (The negative: If there is one, I can't remember it.)
4. I have tech assistance up the kazoo! Doing projects with assigned partners has allowed me to enjoy watching and, frankly, relying on their proficiency. If all goes well, I will never have to master the Google doc. (The negative: They tell me I am just like their parents.)
5. I am cool again! Just being around all this youthful energy causes me to spurt out names like Spotify and Schoolboy Q. And the students seem to appreciate the contemporary references. (The negative: That appreciation can quickly turn to bemused pity.)
I am convinced that we eventually settle into two groups: those who prefer being around younger people, and those who go the other way. My friend Robin, for example, is a fit and friendly 66 and frequents SoulCycle, dines at noisy eateries on the Lower East Side, and avoids Wednesday matinees. She insists she is not trying to fight off aging, but neither does she want to be surrounded by it. Valerie, on the other hand, seriously enjoys visiting her 102-year-old father-in-law at his assisted living facility. "I love the stories the folks there tell and I always leave feeling forever young."
The key is how to be the oldest person in the room. Steer clear of starting a sentence with, "back in my day," for example. I would suggest that women, once again, have it harder because we can no longer use the tools of engagement... yes, the stuff that got us noticed and even helped us work our way up. On the flip side, we are more adaptable, having been all things to all people for so long. Hopefully, we can still juggle even when we can't jiggle anymore.
I guess I straddle the two groups. I am sticking with my allegiance to 92Y, where I am considered a kid and where they still lament that Dean and Jerry broke up -- and at the same time, I get a kick out of sharing my experiences, my rolodex, and study notes. And how many people can use either their senior or student card to get into museums?