By J. Corbett Holmes
Incensed, my friend David stopped his diatribe, took a sip of wine, then finished with, “Please … just, don’t call me sir.”
But we are at that stage in our lives where a 25-year-old, in the name of being polite, might address us as such, I thought. After all, we’re in our 50s now.
But, because I’m in my 50s, I kept the thought to myself. I’ve seen enough to know that everyone ages differently and most harbor distain for at least a few of the attributes that come with aging. For some of my peers, it’s a midlife crisis.
The evening was the perfect temperature; relief from summer had finally arrived. The desert breeze was blowing with just the right verve, the full moon luminous over our outdoor table at Birba — as if God were holding a chandelier above. At 53 it is the kind of social situation I adore.
As is standard with David, I was enjoying mind-expanding conversation with my old friend — the superb meal and bottle of wine successfully fueling our banter. And when I refer to my friend as “old,” I mean to say we have known each other for a few decades; even with diminishing vision, I still see him as young.
David is a tall and very handsome 55-year-old man with salt-and-pepper hair, an athletic body and a gregarious personality. We began our friendship nearly 25 ago while out walking our dogs on the streets of West Hollywood. Within the past year, each of us has moved from our homes in the colorful gay hamlet of WeHo — only to return for the occasional eye exam or teeth cleaning. Both of us couldn’t be happier with the choice; repeatedly gushing over our perspective moves whenever we gather.
And it was in sharing our elation over minimal returns to WeHo, that, to his disdain, David encountered (from a younger gay man) his middle-age moniker: sir.
“I really love living in Silverlake,” David continued. “It’s nice not to feel invisible, and when I go out, no one calls me sir.”
But after my dinner with David, his agitation got me to thinking about aging and how we view it: respect or recoil? And I began to wonder if I was aging properly.
A few weeks later, while watching TV, I stumbled upon a PBS series called “Rethinking Happiness,” hosted by social physiologist and professor Dan Gilbert. Within the program were interviews and scientific studies to discover what makes us happy. What I learned (based on a study) is that happiness is contagious, it spreads through our social networks like a virus. Thus our happiness depends on our social connections.
And, according to Gilbert, “As people age, their social networks get smaller and smaller — which suggests that the older we get, the unhappier we should become. But evidence suggests it’s usually the other way around.”
However, what came next was life-altering: Gilbert interviews Stanford University physiologist Laura Carstensen about her study regarding aging and happiness.
“As we get older, we are increasingly clear about what our strengths and weaknesses are; who cares about us and who doesn’t,” Carstensen said. “So we’re able to mold our worlds better.”
Based on her study of participants aged 18 to 94, people become increasingly positive as they grow older (as long as they aren’t suffering from physical pain or debilitating illness). From Carstensen’s study I also learned that “Seventy-year-olds were experiencing fewer negative emotions than 40-year-olds and 40-year-olds were experiencing less negative emotions than 20-year-olds.”
“As we age, people are better at experiencing the moment. Thus, older people alter their social behavior; it’s the silver lining of getting old.”
But here’s the kicker:
“Happiness is derived from youth, power, attractiveness, health, things that decline with age. Yet older people, who are clearly suffering the loss of those things are experiencing life emotionally, better than ever.”
Such a paradox. Who knew?
At my (middle) age, I can still remember when fashion bible Harper’s Bazaar created a landmark editorial splash with its “Fabulous over Forty” issue. But that was decades ago. Since then I’ve lived through a million trendy variations on the reclassification of age: 40 is the new 30, 30 is the new 20, and on and on. And now that I’m in my “new 40s,” admittedly I’m not loving the map of crawling laugh lines, the perky freckles that have morphed to sun damage or the emerging body hair — once upon my head now returning home as a coverlet for my back. Still, what has come in tandem, is a new, potent self-awareness and an improved understanding of my place in the world.
However, now armed with such age-defying findings, perhaps those of us on the other side of 50 (our “new 40s”) might serve as an example to the next generation on how to take advantage of less stress and how to experience more happiness — well before they grow to be men of a “sir-tain” age. But, I suppose before one can do that, one must evolve to a place where “sir” can be seen as, well, big.
But, to think big about “sir,” I suppose — especially from a mid-life vantage point — one must ask: are you a person who views life in terms of beginnings or endings, hellos or goodbyes? Is the glass half-empty or half-full? And, is it filled with a finely aged wine or an aftertaste of what was once deemed full-bodied?
When it comes to “sir-tain” situations — a sexually charged order or just simply good manners — do you see your sir with love or regret? …
…“But how do you thank someone
Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try …
… To sir, with love.”
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