On aging

The week my older daughter became a teenager, the Consulate of the Principality of Monaco called to say she’d won a round-trip flight there, three nights in a four-star hotel. These things would surprise me more if I hadn’t lived with her for the last thirteen years.

This is new territory, and I’ve been dreading it for at least a year, maybe two, bordering on mid-life crisis. To be the parent of a teenager, you have to be old. It’s in the rules, I swear. Check your “youth” card at the door. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Sure, we were young when we started: two kids by the time we were in our mid twenties. In the inter-mountain West, where I grew up, that’s hardly unusual. I’m sure I have classmates from highschool whose kids are in college. My own mother turned 40 just after I’d started my freshman year. It didn’t strike me as odd: 40 seemed downright old.

It’s now been years since I started celebrating 40th birthdays with friends. Lately I receive invitations to 40th birthday parties on a biweekly basis. And I heave a sigh of relief each time because the invitations come from people who seem so young. Maybe it’s just that I have sexy friends, but it seems like something more: 40, I think, must be the new 27.

When I was 27 I lied and said I was 30. I’d been lying up in age for years. Students who were too close to my age for comfort would ask me how old I was and I’d routinely add a few, the only way I could a) seem to have authority enough to be teaching a class for which they were paying thousands of dollars, and b) pretend to be old enough (in their minds) to be married with kids, details about myself I wasn’t very good at hiding, in part because I needed babysitters.

Truth is, in my 20s I felt like I was old. Unlike many of my friends, I’d surrendered a decade of freedom and globetrotting to start a family and a career path. I put on weight (a “fatherly gut,” as one single female friend put it, not meaning to offend), grew my hair into a ponytail, cultivated a goatee. “Every time I see you you look more like a Marxist intellectual,” one of my professors said, and I guess that was the point. As many pounds as I gained, I’d taken on ten thousand times as much debt. I wondered if we’d ever surface, but by the time I actually hit 30, I’d dropped the weight, finished the degree, and started a half-time job at Harvard after a promising early run at the academic job market. Still no money, but a glimmer of hope at the end of a long tunnel.

And now, somehow, here I am, on the other side of tenure, and the daughter who was born just as we moved East for grad school seems more mature every day. She by turns amazes and aggravates me (teenagers do act like teenagers, after all), is almost as tall as we are, wears makeup, takes more time to get ready to leave the house than the rest of us put together. She listens to my music suggestions with a grain of salt, which is exactly how I take hers. She’s old enough to babysit our friends’ toddlers but too old to do it for free. She does things I couldn’t imagine having done at her age: fronts a band; aces standardized tests; deals amazingly with textbook middle-school queen bee villains. 

In a little over a month I’ll turn 37 — not a major milestone birthday for most, but a meaningful one for me. I have a picture in a photo album buried somewhere of my dad’s 36th birthday, him sitting there with a birthday cake, the 3 and 6 candles burning down before he blows them out, surrounded by his kids. (If I’m calculating right, my parents would have had 5 of their 7 kids at that point; I, the oldest, would have been 10.) Even though my dad was closer to 45 when I left home, 36 is how I perpetually imagine him, even now, listening to his voice on the other end of the phoneline, even when I see him and realize he’s in his 60s, his temples long gone grey. The idea that I’m preparing to pass that ideal, 36-year-old father in age — not to mention the fact that my kids are older than his first two were when he was my age — is enough to send me to a rest home.

Part of what sets me apart from my dad when he was my age, though, is that once I hit my mid 30s my kids were old enough to let me have a little of my life back. It started when Anna was old enough to hold down the fort while we went on our own to the neighborhood store, then out for dinner or drinks with friends, then out to a movie or a concert. For the first time in ten years, we weren’t the ones who had to tack an extra $75-$100 on top of anything we did in order to cover a sitter. Our kids could stay home alone! The realization came with a rush: Plymouth Gibsons and oysters all around! Who’s playing tonight? Meet me at the bar! Let’s dance! How could I be getting ready to parent a teenager when I still wanted to feel like one myself?

And though I’d like to think that, at 37, I still have plenty of gin Gibsons and raw bars in my future, I’m also grateful that I’m young enough to take in everything my kids might throw my way. When Anna came home from school a couple months ago, for example, full of ideas about how to win an art contest to honor Princess Grace, we tried not to hold her back, even if we didn’t want to get her hopes up. She netflixed Dial M for Murder, looked the princesss up on line, started out with rough sketches. Imagine! A free trip to Monaco for the winner!

Here’s what she turned in:

dial a for anna

One side shows Grace Kelly the black-and-white film star, the other the Technicolor princess, a “brilliant combination” of two key roles, according to the contest’s judges. Though the piece seems to imply a before-and-after narrative, it’s worth realizing that both movie star and princess are fantasy roles, the epitome of glamor. Where would you rather sit — in the star’s seat or the throne? I wonder which seems more attractive to Anna. As for me, the fact that Grace Kelly was 27 when she became Princess Grace of Monaco means that the 27/40 rule is working in my favor. I’ve got three years, after all, to figure out what’s next.

14 responses to “On aging”

  1. AW says:

    What a lovely post, what a great piece of artwork your daughter created, and what an exciting opportunity for her (and a lucky parent!). Thanks for sharing.

  2. Scotty says:

    As someone who entered countless poster contests and never won so much as an honorable mention, I was so incredibly thrilled to hear that (a) someone actually wins, and (b) that the winner is your fab daughter, who I finally had the pleasure of meeting this summer.

    Please send my congratulations — besides being chosen for the grand prize, the poster stands on its own merits as a spectacular achievement.

    As someone who has spent his entire adult life trying to avoid the “entrapments” of adult life, I am always awed by people who dive in headfirst — especially those who have done it with such style and grace. Waterman, you are one sexy son of a gun!

  3. cynthia says:

    This is a great post. Where have all the years gone? Have you done the high school renunion thing yet? That is an eye oppener. I did mine 5 years ago and I said to my husband they all got old. did twenty years really pass? Anyway great post Brian and congradullations to your daughter.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    One of your best posts yet! Maybe it’s because I didn’t have to use the dictionary this time…

    And I loved the line: Maybe it’s just that I have sexy friends, but it seems like something more: 40, I think, must be the new 27.

  5. Mike N. says:

    Bryan – The age old questions (boooo! hissss!) of closing in on 40 has recently been on my mind as well. In so many ways my life differs from that of my parents at my age, as well as my older siblings. Am I refusing to enter adulthood by dressing in slightly frayed jeans, tshirts and vans to my full time ‘proper’ job, drinking at bars, going to see bands, playing a sport meant for young, fast kids? I like to think I’m just trying to be happy with the bonus of protesting the social norms that dictate the type of life one must live at various ages. Yah, I’m being rebelious!

    But your ability to be a father of two while remaining a vibrant force on the NYC scene (..and DC…and Los Angeles…and Boston…) reminds me of a gorgeuos photo my mother has of my grandparents and two other couples in the late 1940’s or early 50’s. They’re laughing, sipping martinis at their place while my grandfather does some kind of foot-shuffling dance at their home. I can only imagine my mother being in her room rolling her eyes to the loud muffled music & laughter while at the same time thinking – “those old people aren’t so bad…”. At least I hope so.

    Now who gets to chaperone in Monaco?

  6. LP says:

    Anna’s Grace Kelly portrait is now my laptop wallpaper; I am ready to be inspired every time I boot up. As I’m turning 40 in a matter of weeks, and have just quit my job, I’m all about the inspiration right now: new decade, new location, new sensations, new best friends to add to the old best friends.

    Congratulations, Anna! And thanks to you and your whole family for inspiring us all, regularly.

  7. PB says:

    Great post Bryan, and truly beautiful picture and opportunity for your daughter.

    It is weird, having teenagers makes me feel younger. I no doubt have the (although not-in-my-mind’s-eye) grey and wrinkles, but I am reliving the coming of age story all over again. I see their identies forming and I question mine, even re-think, potentially re-invent. I find that though people and situations have dimmed, the feelings of being fifteen, the accute confusion and exhilaration of being utterly present and crazy intense, is as raw and real as yesterday. In a way I am learning as much from them as they are from me. Much like your daughter, they have a swagger and confidence that I did/ do not, yet I have the advantage of having survived (somewhat) intact. Bringing to the table our stories, the roles are leveling. The once vertical relationships are becoming more equal, more adult. It is as much a process for me as for them. At the other end, hopefully, friendship that transcends age.

  8. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Congratulations to daughter and father.
    Your 17 year head start at fatherhood fascinates me — three years the other side of 40 and with the most adorable two-year old in the world, I find my formely wide world now happily constrained by domesticity, and can’t image what life will be like when it widens again as Eleanor grows up. Thanks for a backwards glimpse of the future.

  9. hey all. thanks for such nice comments. i passed appropriate sentiments on to anna. cynthia: you have to tell us a little more about who you are and how you wound up here. marleyfan: i’m assuming your comment (after a too-long absence) means your own teenage daughter has passed the appendicitis danger barrier and is home safe? as for the rest of you: you know i love you. mike n: i love the idea that i have a presence in more than one major metropolitan area! you’re working my major fantasies and making me feel so young again! and El’s PP: it’s about time i hit some milestones first. happy to pass survival tips along if you and j want them. xo — bw

  10. Beth W says:

    Engaging post and congrats to Anna! Now she can never say “I never win anything.”

    I just heard from high school friends today that we have an official 10 year reunion this summer. So I was glad to hear that 40 is the new 27. Since I actually am 27, I had to do the math and determine that 27 is then the new 18.2. Anyone want to do a “new-21” run in four years?

  11. jeremy says:

    i concur. phenomenal drawing, fantastic post. and keep us updated on who gets to tag along to monaco… (grace kelly is still one of my biggest crushes, btw.)

  12. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Jeremy: Grace Kelly is one of my biggest crushes too — her sexiness in Rear Window caused such sexual confusion that it delayed my coming out for years.

  13. lisa t. says:

    i think this post is beautiful, you are beautiful, your daughter’s art is beautiful– and let’s hope 40 is beautiful.

  14. stephanie wells says:

    oh trust me, it’s beautiful. or, was. . .