I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past year with people a decade or so younger than me. This turns out to be one of the consequences of going back to school in your mid-thirties, and it’s made me more conscious of age.

The other day at my summer internship*, I went with a fellow intern to talk to our supervisor about a project we’re working on for him.** This supervisor is a sixty-something civil-rights attorney who’s spent his whole career fighting energetically on behalf of very unpopular people. He’s awesome, and I can only hope I’m half as awesome when I’m his age.

One thing that makes this supervisor awesome is that he has stories for every occasion. He has a certain type of memory that I’m going to call “litigator’s memory” that gives him freakish recall of people, connections between people, and eye-popping anecdotes (the better to woo the judge and jury with, I’m sure). So my fellow intern and I look forward to our chats with him about this case. He always brings up other stuff, whether it’s war stories from decades of fighting the Man or vast oral genealogies of people and places. Today we weren’t disappointed: The supervisor spun yarn after yarn, with curlicues of career and life advice in between. And when it was clear to all of us that we were all enjoying this but it wasn’t any longer even plausibly contributing to the work of our organization, the supervisor dismissed us. “Well, boys,” he said, in a friendly way that acknowledged the fun we were having and that it was time to get back to work.

“Well, boys.”

As I walked back to my desk, the phrase stayed with me. I was suddenly the object of an avuncular, vocative ‘boys’. I’m 37 years old, having gone to law school at a later age than most. I was older than three of my professors last year (not counting my writing instructor), two of them tenured and with more children than I ever expect to have. I look young for my age, I’m told, and my younger colleagues don’t treat me like someone who’s older than many of our professors.

My internship colleague is, I think, about 24. He’s mature, intelligent, and thoughtful, but I can imagine applying to him the avuncular, vocative ‘boy’. But the appellation felt strange to me. I admit there was some pleasure: I’m one of the boys! But it also felt slightly false.

I read somewhere, some time ago, someone (a man) talking about how we all (all of us men) always think of ourselves as about 17 years old. That’s not exactly true, but there’s something to it, in my experience. I think of myself as young, when in fact I might be halfway or more through my journey through the forest of life. I think of my body as a young man’s body, able to do various physical feats without warmup or warm-down or training or stretching — even though I have collected extensive empirical evidence that this isn’t the case.

There was also something about the subject who spoke the ‘boys’. I’ve talked with this supervisor about his youth; he was young once, of course, and seems still connected with that period of his life. Yet somehow, in the “well, boys,” he was not young. In speaking to me and my fellow intern, he was describing us both as young, thereby making himself old.

I haven’t yet said “well, boys” to anyone. But I find myself playing an avuncular role more and more. Today I explained to three other interns that “typeover mode” in word processors was once strangely popular — you know, back in the mid-’80s, before you were born. I realized I was making myself older as I spoke.

And then in the evening, walking from my apartment to the falafel joint to pick up dinner, I had a moment of aging without speaking. I was dressed in the hipster-lite attire that is the perfect camouflage in my neighborhood: cut-off shorts, a white v-neck Haynes undershirt, my keys clipped to my belt loop with a carabiner, a tattoo on my right calf. I embodied the youth of today. But I was thinking about this supervisor, and how he used to be young but now says “well, boys,” and how at some point he stopped thinking of himself as young.

What if I’m not young? I thought. And it wasn’t an unpleasant thought. I’m 37 years old. I’ve been around for a while, I’ve done a bunch of shit. I’m not finished by any means, but maybe I’m not young.

Then I got superstitious. “You’re only as young as you think,” I’ve heard, which means, I think, that if I stop thinking I’m young, I’ll get old, but if I keep thinking I’m young, I’ll stay young. I ended the night with this magical thinking, aware it was magical thinking. And I woke up the next morning only slightly older than I’d been the day before.

* Does having a summer internship make me not-old, at least as long as it lasts?

** I’m not supposed to blog about my summer internship, according to the Career Office. So: The topic of this post is not my summer internship.

3 responses to ““Boys””

  1. AWB says:

    I feel it as an unfortunate effect of being in graduate school late in life. At least, in my case, the word “girl” has almost exclusively been used to deny me the right to say or do something, so I don’t flatter myself that it means I’m young, good-looking, and spry. I feel like sometimes people use it just to remind me, very gently, of my place, while seeming to self-deprecate; I am the old man with responsibilities, but you are just a sweet little fairy princess.

    And yet, I find myself using the words boys and girls to refer to fully-grown adults whom I don’t wish to be held fully morally accountable for their actions. It’s as if it’s a word handy for saying, this person may or may not be fully accountable to himself.

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    There are narratives of youth that are hard to surrender. What helps, I think (I shall reveal to you from my position of great wisdom, being six months older) is finding the compelling narratives that go with the next part of life. What I think I mean is: think about it not only as the mezza del cammin’ di nostra vita (which technically happened two years ago anyway, per Dante) but as the part of your life you had to sit through youth to get to.

    Maybe this is easy for me because I always wanted to be an adult. I wanted to drink and go to bed whenever I felt like it* and have the interesting conversations adults seemed to be having. And this all turned out to be worth wanting.

    Wait but you’re not really discussing youth vs. adulthood, per se, and I’m off on my own thing. You’re discussing early adulthood vs. the part where you settle down and foreclose some options and are sometimes avuncular and don’t always bounce back from things right away, because in that early adulthood part you have all the advantages of both. The part where you’re maybe not young…it’s harder, but it has to have some good stories in it, too. For a while, for birthdays that made me nervous because of the large numbers attached to them, I thought of literary characters that were that old, like having a Jesus Year but it was my Marschallin year or my Magda Sorel year. And they had something hard-won from their age that I liked.

    All I really resent is the permanent vacation my metabolism has taken. The rest I can find the compensation for.

    *Oh alas, that I did not know how tired I would be.

  3. Tim says:

    First off, I shall allow They Might Be Giants to summarize how I often feel when I think of aging. Hum it to yourself now and then; it’s strangely reassuring in a not-very-reassuring way.

    I have much to say on this topic. My father, who is 78 and can hardly walk around on his own (owing to a recent stroke), still thinks of himself as a young man. I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully grown up and certainly don’t feel grown up now, despite having just acquired my first pair of reading glasses (since when did 12-point type get so small?).

    And yet, and yet . . . there will come a day when it seems indecorous even to me to dress and behave the way I often do. Yesterday evening as we were heading out the door, I did a quick inventory of what I was wearing (my own version of hipster-lite): plaid shorts to just above the knee, t-shirt from a cool local eatery (with a drawing on the front that appears to be from a kids’ book), and laced Vans with ankle socks. I laughed at myself and said to Jen, “Do you think I look sufficiently boyish?” She approved. Ten years from now, I’m don’t think this will fly.

    But does there ever come a definitive moment — the very month, day, year, minute, or second — when one can say, “I am now ‘old’ and no longer ‘young'”? I just don’t know. I knew kids in my class in high school who already seemed middle-aged to me: 13 going on 37. (Not to say that 37 is inherently middle-aged, Dave; it was an old 37 they seemed.) Similarly, I know people in their 50s who seem like they’re very young.

    I’d say, keep up the magical thinking, Dave. And keep exercising to compensate for the slowing metabolism.