Age is one of our most quantifiable features, yet we experience it subjectively. Rather than measuring it from birth, we tend to think about our age relative to anchors in our lives. Like for many of you, one of my anchors is college.
I’ve never been without a college campus. Even when I was little, my father would bring me with him to his office on Saturdays and spring breaks. He was a professor at Northwestern, and while he worked I’d type on his old-fashioned typewriter and draw pictures of his cluttered office. As we ate our lunches at the student union, I’d watch the undergraduates with their books and their smooth faces. I admired them: grown but not yet old, wise but not yet boring.
When I eventually became an undergrad at Northwestern, I discovered that I was neither grown nor wise. My fellow students didn’t seem wise either, although they did seem happier than me. At the same student union of my youth, I studied or hurried through my lunch without confidence or company. I hated the drunken parties, the social judgments, the girls who wore makeup and dressed like models and the boys who gawked at them. I was drowning in students, the same kind I’d once admired.
After Northwestern I went to MIT and spent five years getting my PhD. Again, the undergrads were everywhere, but I was happier now, not drowning. They seemed adorably young. I watched them in the classes I TA’ed, smiling when their heads nodded or when they flirted across their desks. Students on campus still handed me fliers for undergraduate activities, but I was pleased to say, “I’m a grad student, but thanks.”
Now I’m a postdoc at UCLA, and the undergrads have begun to seem less cute. I notice the swaggering frat boys with their drooping designer jeans and the girls in their evaporating outfits and heels so high they walk like ostriches. And I’ve noticed something else: no one hands me fliers anymore. Students hand them out to five kids in front of me, wait until I pass, then go back to handing them out. I watch – they don’t even ready a flier when they see me at a distance, despite my enormous backpack and my t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I wonder what sad, sagging feature is giving me away. Little bastards. I’d be great in their community service club.
I know it’s ridiculous to expect to look twenty-two forever. I’ll turn twenty-nine in a month, which is one regifted calendar away from thirty. The truth is I’m not sad about looking older than those kids. I’m just confused, because I’ve never been able to see myself as either young or old when I look in the mirror. My classmates have always seemed ageless to me too, all the way through Velcro shoes and braces and commencement gowns. I’ve recently reconnected online with friends I haven’t seen since high school. I look at their posted photos and, despite the ten years that have passed and all the living and childbearing they’ve done, they look the same to me. Not thirty or twenty or ten. Just them, like my reflection is just me.
Don’t think I’m blind or in denial – I can see the coming wrinkles when I look for them in the mirror. I have two faint lines on my neck, the kind that come from bending my head to read. I’ve named the deeper one PhD and the fainter one Novel. I like them there. I’ve earned them.
I’m at that point now, that blessed place where I know myself and like me. I prefer comfortable shoes to heels and twenty-nine candles to nineteen. Those kids can keep their fliers. I’m happy with Novel and PhD.