SO HOW OLD ARE YOU, ANYWAY?

Meditations on Age and Belonging

 

ONE: ADRIFT BETWEEN DECADES

If things had gone differently, I would be in my early fifties now. Instead, I am thirty-eight.

My parents came of age in the Forties, but did not end up marrying and having children until the mid-Sixties. As a result, I grew up hearing about the Depression and World War Two not as history but as immediate events. All the time I was growing up, there were 78rpm records stacked in the garage, Big Band music playing on the stereo, and Rodgers and Hammerstein albums tucked away lovingly in a well-used cabinet. I grew up steeped in the culture of the previous generation, and I liked it.

As a child, I devoured books about Broadway and Hollywood, early American history, about baseball and the Olympics. For me, the past was not a hiding place or a refuge, at least not consciously. It was instead a familiar destination. I think my comfort level was bolstered by intensive contact with adults, and reduced contact with other children outside of school. Before long I became known as a child who was interested in what adults had to say, and who was a credible, occasionally unstoppable partner in adult conversations.

I realize now that I was unconsciously using adult contact to mask my isolation from my peers, and I was also feeding well-intentioned stereotypes about disability. After all, as long as I could get people to focus on my brain and my mouth, they wouldn't talk about my body. Or maybe they could just grunt, as if to say, "Well, yeah, your body is screwy, kid, but ignore that. Your brain's gonna be your ticket to the future."

So I sat in my room, hour after hour, absorbing history and music, making my aunt buy me a collection of Groucho Marx letters as a Hanukah gift. I thought I was headed down a path to social and cultural ease, since the adults around me loved hearing me talk about Groucho and FDR. Once I started going to regular school however, I found out that my act played well with the teachers, but was lost on my fellow students.

After all, this was the Seventies. Girls were into John Travolta and Shaun Cassidy, and boys were into sports, skateboards, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin. I was in my own parallel universe culturally, and even though I was beginning to realize I wouldn't be alone there for long, I still resented my isolation. Inexplicably, my sister bridged the culture gap effortlessly. There seemed no contradiction between her collaboration with me on vaudeville-style shows for relatives and the Andy Gibb poster on her bedroom wall. Nevertheless, I felt more welcomed by adults than by my own kind, and more at home still with my books. I even wrote a story for school about my fondest dream: to be locked overnight in a huge library. Such scholarly aspirations endeared me to the grownups, but made no sense to kids other than my sister.

I suspected some component of attention from adults was motivated by my disability, whether fueled by compassion, pity, or admiration for my strength and pluckiness. Usually I didn't mind, but sometimes the oddest things would set me off. For example, an elderly woman who lived down the street heard that I was interested in old Hollywood, and she let my father know that I would be welcome to visit her and chat awhile.

This very kind offer unfortunately coincided with an attack of frustration and rebellion from me. My father was pushing me to see this woman, so I pushed back. An eighty-year-old wanted to spend time with me when what I wanted was to be accepted by more ten-year-olds, so I fought my father, and I never went to visit the nice lady who lived on the corner.

Now, of course, I could kick myself—if I could kick myself. Because I was stubborn and stupid and confused about how to handle adult attention, I missed out on a chance to meet and befriend a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, a former colleague of Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and so many of the other stars I was so curious about. Maybe I thought that going to visit an old lady would permanently mark me as unfit company for anyone under forty. I often wonder what I might have learned from her if I had not been so afraid, so buffeted by insecurities. I wanted to love the past yet still stay anchored in the present, but I had no idea how. I thought school would teach me.

TWO: FINDING THE RIGHT PEOPLE

All through childhood and adolescence, I was in therapy. It didn't work, not only because I spent all my time analyzing my situation instead of changing, but also because I treated my therapists as surrogate friends at best, at worst as an audience. I'm sure they could see I was hurting, and overcompensating like mad, but none of them wanted to be harsh with me, even if I might have benefited from it. Instead, they were encouraging, especially when the subject of social life came up.

They each told me how hard growing up was for everybody, but especially for smart kids or kids who were different. They reassured me in much the same language, exhorting me to ride out the rough times of junior high so I could be around during high school, when I might actually find a peer group that welcomed and appreciated me. I have written about high school in a previous BENT column, and while I found a sort of peer group there, it was rarely a comfortable one. Sure enough, during high school, therapists told me that college would be when social life would feel better, if I could just hold on.

I'd like to be cynical and snotty and say they were wrong again, but they weren't. College was a magical time for me, an environment in which I found not just one but multiple peer groups to suit my burgeoning interests. Miraculously, I also found that I could delve deeply and joyously into the past without cutting myself off from current pop culture. This could lead to odd juxtapositions, like when "Karma Chameleon" and "The Sorrow and the Pity" took root in my brain simultaneously; yet sometimes there was harmony, as when the reissuing of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" led not to obsessive Hollywood-saturated discussions but to a real-life double date, a Danny social milestone not seen before or since.

Knowing that I could be a history geek and still be fun was encouraging; knowing that I could talk comfortably with elderly history professors as well as my fellow students was even better. So I decided to go off to graduate school, hoping my balancing act would continue. It did, for a while, anyway, but then life got complicated.

As a graduate student who lived in dorms alongside students of all levels and ages, I found my chronological peer group expanding at both ends. Sometimes my dorm mates could be as much as ten years my junior, while my fellow graduate students were sometimes decades my senior. This was not a problem, until I came out. I quickly discovered that in gay male environments, I was a magnet for older men. Maybe they thought mine was an interesting saga worth exploring, or maybe it was the chronology problem surfacing again.

See, many of the people my age and younger who came out in the late Eighties and early Nineties ended up exploring their sexuality by going to bars and dance clubs, places where Erasure and Taylor Dayne and Dee-Lite provided the soundtrack. In contrast, here I was, only an occasional and awkwardly spectral presence on the dancing scene, with my encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes, my love for Thirties and Forties music, my worship of Judy Garland and Barbara Cook.

Each time I mentioned such cultural interests, it was like putting a sign around my neck that only men over forty could read. It seemed to say, "Hi! This kid may be twenty-two, but he speaks your language. Go talk to him!" As these older men began seeking me out, I was, concurrently, feeling alienated from the younger men around me, and old buttons got pushed. Once again, attention from "adults," now awkwardly part of my peer group, was accentuating my isolation from those I considered my real and preferred peers. The older men who were showing interest in me had no clue what was going on in my head, and I regret that they often paid the price for it.

But something in their kindness and in my insecurity made it easier for me to reject them. While I could sense that guys my own age and younger were not comfortable with my disability, older men seemed to take it much more in stride. Trouble was, they seemed to take it in stride in the wrong ways, at least to my hypersensitive social antennae. Older men had the maturity to see my disability as just something that happens in life rather than a permanent badge of weirdness, but too often I felt like they were trying to take care of me. Maybe they just sensed my sadness and isolation and were trying to make up for it, or maybe my youth and disability pushed some of their paternal or avuncular buttons. In any case, I rebelled. I was mean. I was thoughtless and dismissive. I can say now that I didn't want to be taken care of, indeed that I much preferred to confound people's expectations by doing the caretaking myself, but that's no excuse. I was not open to them, and just as with the lady down the street, I am sure I missed out on something special.

It's no coincidence that around this time, I was also rebelling against the discipline of graduate school. Coming out and being physically independent for the first time gave me just the excuse I needed to launch what was essentially a second undergraduate life. I did plays, worked in student government, spent tons of time trying to meet people and go on dates, doing anything that would keep me from confronting the reality of graduate school. I was realizing that while studying history as an undergrad had been recreation for me, doing a dissertation was hard work, emotionally, physically, logistically, and I didn't think I could do it.

Writing a dissertation required focus and a level of commitment to the past I wasn't sure I wanted to make. I was already worried that extended time in academia was damaging my capacity to communicate with anyone outside its walls, and I was terrified of being engulfed by my research. If I let that happen, my brain would no longer be the ticket to the future, the escape hatch from a noncompliant body. It would be my nightmare engine. I would be locked in a library again, but it would not be a boyhood fantasy, just a deeply isolating and depressing exercise in futility.

So it was that seven years ago, I left graduate school, abandoning the certainty of history and of a viable career path. Doing so forced me to confront what it means to be an adult and to be a success. I don't know if my answers are final, but I'll share them with you anyway.

THREE: THE USES OF THE FUTURE

I was in my late twenties when my long slide out of academia began. Since then, my life has been in a holding pattern, with a good deal of progress, even more stasis, and a lingering sense of uncertainty. Somehow I think that my internal biological clock started slowing down at the same time, as if my body began hibernating along with my momentum and my aspirations. True, my hair is grayer, but I still think of myself as someone in his twenties. Admitting I have aged, recognizing that I am pushing forty (of all things), would mean facing up to the loss and sense of self-betrayal that comes from years of being stuck.

I think that's part of why I keep gravitating toward younger people. When I was younger, people older than me represented a past I didn't want to be chained to. Now, people my own age and older represent a dynamic present and a bright future that I am not sure I measure up to. When I seek out younger people to be around or even to date, it's not necessarily for all of the same reasons guys my age chase them. It's not just that young people keep me young and make me feel attractive. It's more than that.

Many of my college classmates have a relationship track record, secure careers, spouses, mortgages, and children. While we may share a common past, our present experiences are different. In some ways, I inhabit a completely different universe than does a gay 23-year-old recent college graduate, yet I think our anxieties about family, independence, and the future are similar. We are wrestling with beginnings, and the fear that those beginnings might not happen the way we hope, if indeed they happen at all.

When I strike up an actual or virtual conversation with someone much younger than I am, he doesn't know a damn thing about me except some basic facts and the gaping chasm of our age difference. From that standpoint, he would have every right to laugh at my assertion that we might have a lot in common, or to deride it as a clumsy and creepy attempt to glom on to him for exploitive purposes. If this happens, and my intentions are misconstrued, my feelings are hurt, and I start to get indignant. But then I stop, and I remember. Each time I am insulted or frozen out by some younger guy I am trying to meet, I figure it is my karmic payback for every time I was rude to some middle-aged fellow who only wanted to discuss Judy Garland or Noel Coward with me.

And if my intentions aren't being entirely misconstrued? I do find myself romantically and sexually attracted to much younger guys, but those are unavoidable consequences of remaining part of a university community and of getting acquainted with intelligent, stimulating, and attractive younger people. Thankfully, I am not so heedless in pursuit of youth that I disdain my chronological peers; I socialize happily with men my age, as long as doing so doesn't accentuate our differences. A guy who's got a thriving career, several long-term relationships behind him, and a solid personal infrastructure may not feel he has much in common with a paradoxical beginner like me, and I may feel far too insecure about myself to be comfortable around him.

As for guys older than me, it's strange. Just as my age feels frozen at around twenty-seven, my late father's age feels frozen at fifty-something. So even though I know rationally that I am creeping there gradually myself, I still think of a guy in his fifties as being part of my father's generation and therefore not as someone I'd necessarily feel comfortable socializing with or dating. Something similar has happened to my mother. Though now in her seventies I think she still sees herself as middle-aged, hovering somewhere around fifty. The tip-off? Hearing her refer to "old people," clearly those in a different generation and category, regardless of their chronological proximity to her.

A gay man in his fifties is not part of my parents' generation. In fact, he is an exact peer of the Danny that could have been born in 1951. The 1965 Danny is still struggling with the implications of such an alternate reality. I don't necessarily expect this awareness to have a immediate and decisive effect on my social life, but it does give me a lot to think about. Which of several pasts do I seek out and embrace? Which vision of the future can and will spur me forward? I'm not sure, but I know there will need to be room on the soundtrack of that future for both Judy Garland and Annie Lennox, Stephen Sondheim and Frank Sinatra as well as Elvis Costello, Ronnie Gilbert, and Holly Near.

What complex and challenging music that will be; I cant wait to hear it . . .

 

©2003 Danny Kodmur

 

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Let us know what you think of this BENT feature.

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DANNY KODMUR resides, writes, and tries to figure out his life in the Bay Area. He feels pretty young still, and hopes you don't feel decades older after reading this column. Write to him at dkodmur@comcast.net and let him know.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets: A Holiday Tale ~5/03

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2003