[Margaret Reid], Photographer unknown, ca. 1965. Image Number: 001-5195.

[Margaret Reid], Photographer unknown, ca. 1965. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 001-5195.

The Middle Distance 2.22.13:Age-Rage-Oholic

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Photo by Sean Cayton

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.


11 Responses to The Middle Distance 2/22/13: Age-Rage-Oholic

  1. rose enyeart says:

    Love it. Remember 60 is the new 50, or is it 49?

  2. Becky Wilson says:

    Amen, sistah!!!

  3. Tim Boddington says:

    Remember that the young write fiction. We’ve lived the real deal. Writing history, our own, in a fictional way sounds easy, but sometimes it’s just so hard. So hard.

  4. Pat Musick says:

    You nailed it, Kathryn. I’ve been going through something like this too. Thank you ~

  5. Cate Noyes Boddington says:

    It was so different in the 50’s , 60’s and 70’s… a few women stayed single and made it as writers, but for oh so many of us,it was “Peggy Sue Got Married.” We would- be novelists did what was expected of us and before we realized it we were married( without saying “obey”) and having babies (at home!) and nursing,(not bottle feeding!) and making playdo volcanos (not cupcakes!) and we were involved in our kids’ education( not just Bake Sales) and we made our husbands do an equal share and we were as rebellious as we could be given our situation and then the kids left home and we got MS, grew vegetables, got that Masters degree or worked two part-time jobs and no,maybe we never wrote that novel. But those were the choices we made, given the opportunities we had, and we’re not dead yet! We don’t need prizes or recognition, we will write when and if we want to and if I don’t well then my obit can list me as a “housewife” and I don’t think it will bother me, then, because first, I’ll be dead anyway,and second,as Tim says, I’ve LIVED my novels! Le Chaim, my dear friend!

  6. hannah says:

    The under 30 winners are brilliant. Older writers are wise.

  7. Nancy Wilsted says:

    Here’s my particular grumpus attack: parade-ahoholic. Whenever I see a parade, I’m happy to see the bands, of course, and the military veterans with their flags and their glory. I don’t object to the Range Riders astride their well groomed horses, and I’m even okay with the fez adorned if rather silly Shriners who drive the funny little clown cars. It’s all good, but why do we never honor a formation of, say, single moms, or teachers, or sanitation workers? Who decides what is to be honored or lauded? And what about women who are suffer hot flashes? Just think of how much ice it would take for their float!

  8. Dana Keys says:

    And I thought I was the only ugly, bitter, jealous one. Worse yet, in my dreams my boyfriends are in their twenties.

  9. Jana Layla says:

    We are all created equal – that’s what Jesus & the constitution say. It is possible but veeery unlikely that some 30-something is a better writer than you – they’re just younger & luckier (probably have family money, too). Plus, these young writers don’t have the political commitment and sympathy for the downtrodden that we baby boomers do, pardon my candor! It makes me feel good that the Stones are still rockin’ (except for Ron Wood. I cannot abide his young bride. Why didn’t he marry a soulful florist his own age?). I can run faster than my niece.

  10. Lynn Young says:

    Grinning. You nailed it, Kathryn. It’s fuel. Yours! Sweeter than whiskey laced STP in your gas-tank baby. Julia Cameron nailed it, too, in “The Artist’s Way”. My rough paraphrase: When you see someone did something YOU wanted to do, and feel jealousy. Great—now get to work! Divine nudges, baby!

  11. Liz Arnold says:

    I love it Kathryn! And don’t you worry. Like Ted said, we’ll be seeing you on the NY Times Best Sellers list someday soon! Your writing moves and inspires, and if you touch just one heart, then it was worth it! Love you!


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