How Old Is “Old Enough to Complain About Being Old”?

“One of the problems of ageing is knowing when to start complaining about being old,” writes Jenny Diski at the top of this beautiful essay at the London Review of Books.

Diski is 66, and recently received some mail from a woman who works with 85-year-olds, chiding the author for calling herself old; Diski recalls having a similar reaction when reading pieces by Bronwen Clune (39) and Molly Crabapple (30). And of course Lorde (17, h/t Emma) has that line about it feeling so crazy getting old, and you’ll probably hear eighth-graders these days lamenting the same thing; I’ve always thought that technology and habits delineate us so finely today that we’ve all got a bit of “In my day” syndrome.

I’m not about to write to Mss Clune and Crabapple telling them they’re pathetic for thinking of themselves as ageing. It’s right and proper that they should try on their older selves rather than sit in the warm but rapidly cooling bath of thinking themselves simply young. It’s decidedly irritating, but also rather tragic, when head-turning young women, not content with being what they presently are, take the time to look at you in triumph, never doubting that they are going to stay young for ever — or perhaps they think the old and the young are born that way. The only defence against them is also a kindness: silence and knowledge. Even if we don’t take the Stoics to heart and live every moment as if it were our last, we should try to mitigate the awful shock that comes later on when we can’t fail to remember that the direction we live in goes only one way.

So when can a person rightfully declare agedness? Diski suggests changes in smell (old people giving off something like “cucumbers and aged beer,” or old books, maybe), or receiving the resentment of younger generations, or the dreaded period “beyond desire,” or maybe taking a late-in-life woman lover (“sexuality dances kaleidoscopically within us, however old we are”), or the moment the doctor tells you that “you’ll have to live with it,” or maybe (most convincingly, to me) the moment where you really just accept it, that we’re all going to die. The whole piece is wonderful. [LRB]