Celebrating the Gateway to Who I Am

“I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore”

(Rallying cry shouted by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network)

For decades, I have gifted myself with special birthday gifts. I always buy the gifts months in advance. I always enclose a special note, reminding myself of how special I am. I always wrap the gifts in extravagant, over-the-top gift wrap. And, then, I hide them. With any luck, when my birthday rolls around, I’ll remember not only the gifts that I bought myself but also where I hid them.

This year, though, I decided that one gift to myself would come a few days before my birthday and that I would share it with the world, right here in my blog.

Actually, on November 20, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. (Cards. Chocolates. A Viking Cruise. Any or all of those gifts are welcome. I used to include a 4-door Jeep as an option after the Chocolates, but these days I feel like a gladiator in the Jeep Gladiator that I drive. So I tossed in a Viking Cruise as a gift option. Just saying.)

So let me tell you about my birthday gift. I mean, after all, my life in general is so public that talking about one of this year’s gifts shouldn’t be a big deal. Right? Wrong. I had to think long and hard before deciding whether to go public.

Now, I’m betting that you’re scorching to know what my gift is. I certainly hope so. I promise you that the big reveal shall come in just another candle or two. After all, 75 candles make quite a virtual glow, and I hate to blow them out too quickly. Oh, what the hell. I’ll go ahead and blow them out. No doubt, they’ll all light up again.

All right. The candles are out, so let me get glowing with my gift before they flame up again and distract me.

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “How are you, Sweetie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Can I help you, Dearie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Did you find what you were looking for, Honey?”

Let me pause to reassure you. I do not think, not even for one nanosecond, that the people who greet me with those terms of endearment are being mean-spirited or rude. They have good intentions.

And let me pause to give you another reassurance. Greetings such as those often have strong regional ties, especially in the South. I grew up there. It’s my home. I know.

Others who grew up in the South know, too. For example, one of my students in the Virginia community college where I teach had this to say when my class and I had a rich and robust conversation recently about Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey:

“I work in a grocery store, and I greet everyone that way.”

“Even customers in their twenties or thirties?” I queried.

“Hmmm. No.”

“How about forties or fifties?” I pursued.

“Fifties, maybe. It depends on how old they look.”

So there. We have it. “Depends on how old they look.”

As for me, I was born old, and I’ve always looked old. But it wasn’t until my sixties and seventies that others started calling me Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is a regional, hard-to-break custom or not.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is well-intentioned or not.

Such greetings fall into a category of their own–side by side with Racism and Sexism. The category has a name. Ageism.

All three–Racism, Sexism, and Ageism–diminish our humanity and push us toward being “lesser-thans.”

Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey are especially diminishing in settings where the name is right there in front of the person who isn’t calling you by your name.

Here’s a perfect example. A few years ago, I had to have a CT scan at a nearby medical center. Obviously, I was feeling more than a little anxious. I needed to feel that regardless of the outcome, the person I was when I walked in would be the same person when I walked out. I needed to feel that regardless of the diagnosis, I would still be me. I needed to feel that I would still have my identity.

The diagnosis was a good one. But, sadly, during the short time that it took for the CT scan, I was called “Sweetie” two times, all the while that I was asked each time to verify my date of birth and my full name. Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The check-in specialist as well as the radiographer were looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

More recently, the same thing happened when I went to my local pharmacy for my annual flu shot, the same pharmacy where I’ve been vaccinated for the last 24 years. I know everyone who works there. They know me, too. I’ve had many of them in one or more of my classes. The pharmacy technician approached me with the syringe and band-aid mid air.

“Name and birth date, please” was followed with, “Which arm Sweetie?”

Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The technician was looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

Quite frankly, I’ve been identity-diminished and identity-robbed one time too many. And like anchorman Howard Beale in Network (1976), “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”

Here’s why I’m mad as hell. And here’s why I’m not going to take this any more.

At this point in my life–as I approach my 75th birthday–my father is dead, my mother is dead, my oldest brother is dead, many of my closest friends and colleagues are dead, and my partner is dead.

One of the few things that I have left to remind me of my humanity is my name. My name is the gateway to my identity. My name is the gateway to who I am.

Without my name, I’m just another Sweetie.

Without my name, I’m just another Dearie.

Without my name, I’m just another Honey.

So here’s my birthday gift to myself this year.

I will no longer allow others to call me Sweetie, Dearie, or Honey. I will no longer allow others to diminish my identity.

Whenever those well-intentioned terms of endearment grate my ears and pierce my being, I will rise up to the full height of my politest best, and I will do my utmost to turn those ageist moments into learning moments.

My come-back might be as simple as:

“Why, thank you, Elliot. I’d love it if you called me by my name: Brent.”

Or maybe I’ll try something like this:

“Thanks, Skyler. Do you know the most beautiful word in any language?”

“In any language? No idea. What is it?”

“A person’s name.”

“Really.”

“Yep. Isn’t that amazing. By the way. I’m Brent. Next time we meet, feel free to call me by my name.”

Now that I’ve unwrapped my gift in this blog–right here in public–I’m thinking that this might just be the best birthday gift that I’ve given myself in a long, long time. I can’t think of anything better than celebrating the gateway to who I am. Who knows. It might just be a gift that keeps on giving.

6 thoughts on “Celebrating the Gateway to Who I Am

  1. I am right there with you Brent and I will add that I absolutely can’t stand when someone says, hey young lady, how can I help you? As you said, I know (or assume) no malice is intended but I also know that I’m so far from being a young lady that this comment is especially condescending and is another example of ageism. Thanks for another great article! And happy 75th.

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  2. “A man growing old becomes a child again” (Sophocles). I wonder if the student who admitted to calling 50+ers “Sweetie” does the same for a younger age group, say <20? Perhaps this is another point of conversation for your class!

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  3. Yes! And so often we use an alternate approach, a “name” or “label” which applauds some part of the shared personal connection. Or perhaps it’s to craft a diversion-by-name which avoids the central value or potential complication of the relationship. Yes, I believe we become what we are “called,” to “be.” Thanks for the excellent reminder, Brent.

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