Sunday, February 16, 2014

Age, acknowledgement of

The other day I came across This.

It is a photo series by artist Chuck Close, the fascinating face-blind painter of large-scale photo-realistic portraits who is known to see the human face as an intricate landscape. The two-foot Polaroids are expertly executed, as one would expect, and powerfully raw and human, as per the typical audience response, but viewing these images led me along a train of thought that has grown more acute and coherent as the days have passed. I would like to identify and expand upon it here. I'd imagine my thoughts on this topic are quite similar to those of pretty much everyone else ever, but I'm going to write them down anyway.

In my head, Oprah Winfrey is, and has always been, about 37 years old. When I first became aware of her I was about three, so she would have been 34, but as her show came on after Sesame Street I was usually too busy playing with Lego on the floor to think of her as anything other than the non-Muppet but pretty lady mom watched after she came in from a walk. I knew that the neighbourhood child-minder had to change the channel when her husband came home if Oprah or the Cosby Show were on TV, but I didn't know why. It took until I started Girl Scouts to really get my head around the idea that Ms. Winfrey was a well-respected talk show host, businesswoman, and role model for the women and girls of my era. I too respect her and am awed by the media empire she has constructed against such remarkable odds.

But that's not the point. Oprah was in her thirties when I was a child, and now she is sixty. I am twenty-nine, or thirty years and nine months younger than her. I am perfectly fine with the idea that I am twenty-nine, and am hunky-dory with the idea that I will be 30 before the year is out. I can account for all of my years and, while I'm not necessarily proud of all of them, I can acknowledge that they all contribute to who I am now, as I write this sentence. Wrote that sentence. Anyway. The fact that I have aged thirty years in the past thirty years makes perfect sense. The fact that Oprah Winfrey has done the same thing is completely incomprehensible to me.

There is much to be said for and about airbrushing. Make-up, good lighting and the Wacom tablet have all had their part in keeping Oprah looking like she did the first time I stood in front of the television and really saw her (and my mom called "you make a better door than window!" from the sofa). But there is something else. Once I started kindergarten I didn't regularly watch her show (my mom, as a nurse, has always worked bizarre enough hours that she was occasionally home when it broadcast, and we occasionally watched) and by the time I reached high school I was far too cool to watch TV with my parents (except Buffy). As of university I was too sophisticated to watch television at all, and after a few years of skipping sofa time with my house-mates in order to catch Ben on Skype before 2 a.m. GMT I realised that I didn't understand how to turn tellies on any more. I went from being out of touch as a point of arrogance to being out of touch because I can't muster the enthusiasm to catch up. I've figured out how to watch Jon Stewart on the computer. I'm satisfied.

And Oprah was on the whole time. Until she wasn't. I didn't watch her show after about 1991, but I of course remained aware of it. Oprah is part of the American cultural landscape, and one of the country's premier exports--it's difficult to not be aware of her. But I didn't see her. It was only this week, when a Buzzfeed link to the above-mentioned Vanity Fair slideshow gave me pause to look that I viewed that all-too-familiar face, and really saw her again. And I saw a little old lady.

And it scared the hell out of me.

To be fair, I saw a little old lady who is in very good shape. I saw a little old lady who is only four years older than my mom, who is decidedly not a little old lady at all (well, I have to admit she's always been petite). But I saw evidence that Oprah has aged--that while I wasn't looking, she kept going. Under the make-up, under the good lighting, under the fact that I hadn't watched her show in twenty years, every day that I've been alive has been a day for her too.

I'd imagine we all entertain a funny notion that the actual, calendar time between birth and age fifteen is quite different from the span between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, but that has nothing to do with the range between forty-five and sixty, or seventy to 100. What do I mean. I own, and still wear shoes that I've had since I was an undergrad. I still rock a few pairs of underpants from 2002. I don't think I've changed all that much, in terms of my personality, shape or even haircut since I was 20. Others may disagree, and if I stopped to think about it I would probably concede that I'm really not the same kid on a student visa to Canterbury who started this blog but overall I'm still me. I've had the same partner, and now spouse, since late 2004. I've gotten fatter, had some dental fillings and moved house eight times but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is still my favourite book. Kristen the 6 year old who started first grade after 6 weeks of kindergarten is a very different person from the 15 year old who couldn't really understand that the boy she liked was gay, but the 20 year old who became acutely aware of what reverse-culture shock felt like still doesn't feel at home in America and still thinks steel-toed boots can be cute. Years have gotten closer together, and ageing has slowed down. Undergrad still has some immediacy to me, despite the fact that I started it twelve years ago. In those twelve years the babies of several high school classmates have been born, started to talk, tie their shoelaces, understand algebra and grow hair under their arms, and in those same twelve years successful women in their 40's have endured menopause, watched their kids graduate university, downsized to a more manageable two-bedroom with a garden, turned 60 and taken early retirement. But I have I feel like I've held a level age for a while now, since I realised that I wasn't just an adult, but a fully fledged grown-up, somewhere between 23 and ten minutes ago when it dawned on me that adulthood is neither so glamorous nor so dull as I once expected.

I suppose this is the twentysomething, thirtysomething mesa, the established point that youth strives toward and dotage remembers fondly. This span that I'm going to assume lasts until the first AARP letter appears in the mailbox is a point when time doesn't seem to pass, a bubble wherein you don't feel like you're growing up or growing old. But every so often you catch a glance outside of this membrane and discover that for other people, time is passing. Your neighbours' children stop crying so much. Oprah Winfrey's laugh lines get deeper.

Grandma is still old. I think she's always been old. She's been old to me since the day I was born, though I'd imagine she didn't feel that way in 1984. I'm okay with turning 30, but weirdly 1984 doesn't feel like 30 years ago. 1970 does. Somehow I've skipped the Noughties--2014 holds the same place in my head as 2004. A few weeks ago at work I wrote the date as January 27, 1999. When I caught myself I exclaimed, "wow, how did I manage that? I was five years out!" which led my students to burst out laughing and remind me that no, 1999 was more like fifteen years ago, and maybe you should have your head examined.

It is only a matter of time, I suppose, before my parents are old. It will probably be some time after that when I'll notice, or believe it. I'd imagine I won't be eligible for retirement until I'm well into my 80's, so hopefully the age at which 'old' takes hold will keep up. I don't think Oprah is slowing down, and doubt she will any time soon. While I don't doubt that the point of Chuck Close's photo series was to force the viewer to see familiar faces honestly and clearly, I also don't think that I, her fans, or Oprah herself particularly want to see or believe the full effects of sixty years on her skin. I also doubt I'll look anywhere near as good as her when I'm the same age, though only time will tell.