SO HOW OLD ARE YOU, ANYWAY?
Meditations on Age and Belonging
ADRIFT BETWEEN DECADES
things had gone differently, I would be in my early fifties now.
Instead, I am thirty-eight.
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.
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
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.
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 myselfif 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.
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
THE USES OF THE FUTURE
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.
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.
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
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.
complex and challenging music that will be; I cant wait to hear
it . . .
©2003 Danny Kodmur
Let us know what you think
of this BENT feature.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and let him know.
by Danny Kodmur
Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability
On Being (Un)Representative
Testing My Faith in Romance
No Need to Kick My Tires
Balcony Scenes with a
The Music and the Mirror
The Music and the
Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
Getting Stuck ~3/03
Cities and Closets: A Holiday Tale ~5/03