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It is time to confess. I am an age-rage-oholic.
What’s that, you say? It’s the unreasonable creeping of heat up my spine and into my face when I see that someone young and bright and attractive has accomplished at, say, age 30, what I have coveted and dreamed about and not accomplished in my lifespan of nearly 60 years.
The symptoms are easy to identify and pernicious. In my case, the focus is literary accomplishment, specifically publication of a damn good novel by someone who looks like they just graduated college. The obsessive focus can be on anything: athletic achievement, travel to exotic places, creative and fulfilling community service. The unmistakable symptom is a flash of consuming jealousy, often punctuated by obscenities.
Here’s the way it looks in my case:
A new issue of Poets and Writers magazine appears in the mailbox. I leaf through the articles but head quickly to the back of the book where awards and announcements of prestigious publications are compiled alongside photos of the winners. On first sweep, I look for evidence of advancing age in the photos: gray hair, wrinkles, chipped teeth. It’s a psychological anesthetic, assurance that there are still geezers out there finding their place in the sun. A light aperitif, if you will. Then it’s buckle-down time and I read through the listings, matching dewy young faces with their accomplishments. Best Debut by a Young Novelist. Best Story Collection Under Thirty. It’s a shot of straight whiskey to the gut.
Where are the prizes and accolades for Best First Novel by a Writer Over Sixty? How could these impossibly young, impossibly beautiful and fashionable looking men and women know enough to write the book of a lifetime? Damn their plush educations and their bright minds and their preschoolers and their husbands who cook dinner and take the kids to school while they toil away at the computer making art.
It’s ugly. Rage fueled by reverse ageism.
Here’s another scenario. I see an ad for a novel described by someone I know to be older than 50 as “an ambitious debut novel that touches on class, race, religion, money, youth, betrayal, and regret.” Someone else has dubbed it an American classic. I don’t recognize the author’s name, Stuart Nadler. I order it from Amazon, two-day delivery, and allow myself the luscious anticipation of a good new novel to melt into. The title is Wise Men. Simple. Sturdy. Not flashy. Mature.
The book arrives and I admire its handsome cover art — a blue bay with sailboats, a couple standing next to a rounded swoosh of a car with shiny chrome fenders. The dedication is elegant: For my wife. The first pages are solid, assured. Narragansett Bay, New Haven, 1947, a young lawyer posing like one of Hoover’s G-men, smoking an Old Gold.
I love the first chapter but I’m getting twitchy. My mind wanders. I need a fix, a glimpse at the author’s photo on the back jacket flap. I flip to it and there he is. Handsome. Great hair. Warm smile. White teeth. Inexplicably young. Recipient of the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation.
A punch to the gut. Damn him and his brilliance and his Truman Capote fellowship and his accomplished life. He could be my kid. My grandkid?
What to do with this shameful jealousy, this prejudice beyond all reason? I will dedicate myself to my novel, the computer file that has languished for six months since it was last opened, that has limped along for five years, adding up to a town full of ill-associated people, barely developed, with no visible plot and hardly enough passion to warm a chilled heart. I write in the early morning, as successful writers are supposed to, for two days in a row. Three days in a row. Four days. I’m on a roll.
I shrug off the voice of defeat, the hallmark of the addict. The subterfuge of the age-rage-oholic. I will finish the book. Who cares if I’m old? Who cares if it ever gets published?
Following this morning’s lukewarm writing session, I close the novel for the day and check email. Narrative Magazine is proud to announce its 30 Below contest winners. I sneer at them briefly but keep the rage under control. Not this early in the morning.
Then I read the announcement of the Writers Digest short story competition grand prize winner. His name is John Biggs. He writes in the mornings five days a week. He started ten years ago. He’s sixty-three.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.