Monday, July 17, 2006

Aging a Bit Painfully

Robin Uncapher just wrote an At the Back Fence column over on AAR that is so timely for me as to be kind of eerie. She discusses the role age plays on romance novels: in who buys them, in how the age of the heroine is perceived, in what is considered acceptable versus creepy...well, just go read the article because I'm not doing it justice.

But this is timely because last week I celebrated a particularly difficult birthday. I'm not ashamed to admit my age - I just turned 39 - but I am somewhat wary about admitting how difficult I found the day. I know I'm still in the prime of my life, hopefully with at least another 39 or more years to go. To call myself 'old' is as insulting and ridiculous as the size 3 supermodel calling herself fat.

Even so, I spent much of my birthday near tears. I told myself it was because my daughter was giving me fits all day, but I know the truth of it is that the idea of turning 40 scares me silly. See, 40 is the age I think of as my mother's generation. In my head - and heart - my mom is still 40 and I'm no older than 20 or less. I may have all the trappings of an adult - mortgage, kids, utility bills and a minivan in the shop - but I'm still just a kid inside.

Hitting 40 means no more delusions, though. No one thinks of a 40 year old as anything but an adult. When you hit 40, you are what you are. Your mold is cast and you've chosen your path, for the most part. When you hit 40 and make drastic changes, people give you that knowing mid-life-crisis smirk. Certainly the Stacy's Mom song applies to a mother still in her mid thirties, because moms in their forties can't be hotter than their daughters. I know that the day I turn 40 will make me no different than I was at age 39 and 364 days, but it's a line that does mean something intangible once you've crossed, however stupid and un-substantiated those stereotypes might be.

Which leads me to Robin's timely column. As I writer, I'm always contemplating the ages of my characters. And I admit - albeit shamefully - to a great deal of ageism when I go about deciding how old my heroine and hero are.

When I first began reading romance novels, I though nothing at all of those drastic age differences. An 18-year-old heroine paired with a 30-plus hero seemed only natural. Not in the least bit strange or off. Of course, I mostly read historicals then, but in my young mind, 18 was certainly mature enough to be engaging in Serious Relationships and Hot Sex. Since most of the 18-year-old guys I knew were far from sexy and mature, it made sense that an older hero step in to educate the young lass. I couldn't imagine any of my guy friends in such a sexy, dashing role.

As I've aged, not only does such a wide age gap between hero and heroine raise the Ick-factor flag (pedophilia is in no way sexy or acceptable), the idea of an 18-year-old as a mature character becomes laughable. What in the heck does a person less than two decades old know about real love and commitment and what it takes to make a life together? Sure, nubile late-teenager bodies make for pretty mental images when reading those sex scenes, but such a young girl should be attending frat parties/cotillions/boarding school, not crossing verbal swords and exchanging bodily fluids with a man old enough to be her...much older brother.

So I entered the phase in my life when the ideal age for a heroine became something in her low twenties. Young enough for all the parts to still be firm and high, yet old enough to pass the jail-bait test. Certainly people who are over 20 are no longer kids.

Except I still have some problems. Although 20, 21 and even 22 are technically not teenage years, I identify those ages with my own college years. I certainly wasn't a grown-up when I was in college, despite the fact that I could stay out all night. If you can't buy a drink in a bar legally, you certainly shouldn't be allowed to star in a romance novel.

Now, when I begin to write a heroine who is only 23 or 24, I think of where I was at that age. Just starting out in the world. Selfish and aware enough of it to know I was no where near ready to be married. In fact, I still think I married extremely young at 26, and if I had to do it all again, I think I would have postponed it a year or two (same guy, different year is all).

With years comes the wisdom of experience. And it's impossible to regain the niavete of youth, when you felt like you knew everything when you really had no clue how young and stupid you were until much later. Once upon a time, 22 seemed very adult. Now, not so much.

Which puts my heroines in their late twenties. Old enough for the shock of reality to have settled, for some heartbreak to soften the edges, and for the inkling of what relationships require to blossom. Young enough that sex is still an exciting adventure, things are still in their intended places, and good health is taken for granted.

As for how I identify with characters in novels that I read, now that I'm heading upwards in numbers myself, I admit that I avoid books that feature heroines who are older than their late thirties. I no longer can imagine myself in the romance-novel scenario, so I'm unable to accept heroines who are my age contemporaries as heroines. Kind of like reading stories that feature kids and babies. I know the reality of having children - that kids are the antithesis to romance. They wear you out. They offer a vessel in which to place a lot of that love you once could lavish only on your significant other. They make spontaneous hot monkey sex on the kitchen table completely impossible. Stories that contain a couple who can't keep their hands off each other despite the presence of a little human relation anywhere in a four block radius strike me as completely unbelievable, so I can't lose myself in the fantasy. I know the reality to well.

At my age, the likelihood I will meet a dashing ex-Navy SEAL/cowboy/millionaire shiek and he will take me away after learning that I'm a spy/repressed librarian/immediately orgasming virgin is about on par with my chances of getting struck by lightning after having bought a winning billion dollar payout lottery ticket. So I need my heroines to be young enough that such a possibility is...well, possible in order for me to lose myself in the story. To escape in it and truly enjoy it. I'd much rather put myself in her shoes, which is easy enough to do if she's a well drawn character, than wonder if I'm doing something wrong because at my age, I've never experienced such adventures.

I don't know how I'll feel when I hit 50 or 60 or 70. There's a good chance I'll look back fondly on my forties - the decade when my kids will truly become independent - and think of it as the time in my life when I was the sexiest and most alive. I'll perhaps want to read stories about 40 year-old divorcees finding love a second time around.

Now, though, I need my reading and writing to take me away from my reality. I need to come to terms with my own aging before I can come to terms with the aging of fictional characters. No, I'll never be able to lose myself in stories where the heroine is barely graduated high school. I know better now. But I'm not far enough away from my twenties and thirties to think of those ages as too young.

I won't go into how much it bothers me that I feel like some kind of dirty old woman if I dare admire the nicely sculpted torso of the college-aged guy who mows our neighbor's lawn. It's simply too depressing.


Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly when I was born; it wasn't recorded so the welfare folks "estimated" my date of birth. Celebrating it always feels a little fake. Nevertheless, I officially turned 45 last week, and for once managed to skip the whole "hooray it's my birthday" thing. A quiet dinner out and a small cake worked fine for me.

I spent my 40th birthday giving a writing workshop at an RWA Chapter meeting, and they filmed me, so that moment is preserved forever. It wasn't horribly traumatic, but trying to laugh along with the over-the-hill age jokes from the youngsters can be wearying. Just once I'd like to say, "Why, yes, I'm over the hill; now it's down the road and to the place where I get to buy farm; thanks so much for finding that amusing."

I don't mind getting older, because every stage of life comes with certain benefits, but I resent the fact that I am still obliged to be a good sport about it. The best birthday gift would be never having to celebrate it again.

Lynn M said...

I'm with you. When I was growing up, birthdays were always a very special day. You got to pick all your favorite foods to eat, felt like the queen, got cake and presents. And I loved it.

My husband, on the other hand, thinks birthdays are highly overrated. His is at the end of November and frequently falls on Thanksgiving, so I think he's used to sharing his birthday with a holiday. He cannot understand why I make such a big deal of my kids' birthdays. I try to explain that for one day, they are super special. It's their day.

But now that I'm older, I almost wish I didn't remember the day of my birth. Many times it sneaks up on me, and I'll realize my birthday is the next week. I don't like to make a big deal of it, maybe dinner out at my favorite place and a special treat for desert. But I'd just as soon ignore it all together and just know I'm about near a certain age.

StacieH4 said...

I'm 35, which is a nice age to be most of the time. I feel like I've figured my life out, found my place. I've got a good marriage (13 yrs), two great kids, and a nice house in the suburbs...I don't have the angst I had in my teens or the drive to prove myself that I had in my twenties.

But my dad died last year and that made me realize that I'm not really as comfortable as I pretend to be. Your parents aren't suppose to die until you reach your sixties at least! Now, I feel time sneaking up on me as subtly as a gatorade-toting linebacker.

As for romantic fiction, I too have a problem with the teenage heroine. I don't read historicals anymore, mostly for that reason. I am getting more comfortable with a "middle-aged" heroine who is looking for happiness the second time around, but my favorite stories are still centered around the mid-to-late twenties heroine. I guess I relate to the age group that I just left rather than the one I am heading into.

Anonymous said...

OK, so you've finished 39 laps around the sun?? Compare yourself to the 16 year old you...who do you like better? How about the college Lynn...don't you think you are a wiser person now and one who is contributing to the development of children and thus having a more significant impact on the world? You are letting your feelings about a number influence your feelings about yourself.

As far as the Stacey's Mom analogy...have you seen Elle MacPherson lately?..over 40 and super sexy...

Jean said...

I just hit 46, and it seems to be getting more challenging for me. I keep comparing myself to my mom at the same age, and I'm amazed.

At 46, my mom was dealing with her youngest child's terminal cancer. My two arthroscopic knee surgeries seem pretty tame in comparison.

Enjoy the last of your thirties. The forties can be really cool years. Enjoy them.