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.

Wrapping My Head Around Age

Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. 

(Ascribed to the Mark Twain)

Come on now. Tell the truth. Are you aware of your age? Do you feel your age?

I know. I know. You could really nail me on that question. It’s far too vague.

I agree. But, after all, talking about age is always vague, and it’s sometimes downright uncomfortable if not painfully disquieting.

I’m guessing that you immediately thought about your chronological age.

That’s a solid and smart place to begin, but it’s only one type of age.

What about your appearance age?

Or your biological age?

Or your psychological age?

Do you have an awareness of those ages? Are they all in sync? How do you feel about those different ages when you think about yourself?

While you’re processing those thoughts–don’t think too hard or too long, though; spontaneity works as well with that question as it does with maneuvering life itself–let me toss out some other ways that we can look at or avoid our age.

Let’s start with life stages. I like a fast pace, so we’ll skip right over prebirth, birth, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and late childhood.

Let’s move right on to subsequent stages, the ones that matter most to me and this post.

You probably know them all already, but in case not, I’ll toss them out with a word associated with each stage.

Adolescence (12-20): passion. Early adulthood (20-35): enterprise. Midlife (35-50): contemplation. Mature adulthood (50-80): benevolence. Late adulthood (80+): wisdom. And death/dying: life.

In case you’re wondering–and I certainly hope that you are–I fall into the “mature adult” stage. It’s great being in a stage with 30 years to fool around with, whether I’m 50 looking toward 80 or 80 looking back at 50. And it’s great knowing that I am benevolent. (I knew that already. But reinforcement always works well.) More important, “mature adult” is far more melodious to my ears than the ageist “Sweetie” or “Dearie” that I and other mature adults suffer far too often by far too many people who should know far better.

With those life stages behind us, let’s have some linguistic fun. Let’s explore some single words for each decade of our lives.

Brace yourself. They’re dreadful words. Just dreadful, especially when they’re all hanging out in the same place together all at the same time. Any one of them makes me scratch my balding pate, trying to figure out who on earth would use such words in regular talking or in regular writing. (Don’t tell anyone, but I just checked. The terms that I just dissed–and am about to diss more fully–are used in the medical field. I might have known it. But, again, don’t tell.)

I’ll start with the one coined most recently. 1991. Supercentenarian–110 years or older.

Then Centenarian–100 or more. I like that one a lot, especially since I completed an Estimated Longevity Test a few days ago. It was free. So why not? I didn’t even have to give an email address. It calculated the results right on the spot. According to the test–which, btw, seemed medically well-grounded and super scientific–I should live to be 105. Imagine that! I’ll take it, especially if it comes with good health, a sharp mind, good spirits, and faithful family and friends lifting me up. (I had to pause here to correct a plethora of typos. Glasses go hand in hand with aging and I’ve had my multi-focal lenses since midlife. OMG. I wonder whether I made typos on the Estimated Longevity Trst and that’s why ut told me that I wuld live to be 501. I’m absolutly sur thet I did knot.)

I’ll combine the next two. Nonagenarian–90s–and Octogenarian–80s. I lump them together because when people ask me my age, I sometimes tell them that I’m 88. At other times, I tell them that I’m 98. It just depends on my mood and how much I need to be pumped up. I love looking at them as they look at me. They smile. They beam. Then they declare, “My goodness, Professor Kendrick! You sure don’t look that old. And to think that you still manage to teach. How on earth do you do it?”

What an ego trip those comments give me, all because of my playful exaggeration. Of course, I still teach. Of course, I don’t look 98 or 88–well, hopefully I don’t–because I’m a Septuagenarian–70s. I exaggerate my age for a very good and highly legitimate reason. When I tell folks that I’m 74, I get puzzled looks or no comments at all. What can I say? I’ve left folks looking puzzled and speechless more than once in my life. Trust me. It never had anything to do whatsoever with my age.

Then we have Sexagenarian–60s–and Quinquagenarian–50s.

Oddly enough, the terms Quadragenarian–40s–and Tricenarian–30s–are not in common usage. Somehow that strikes me as an affront to both groups.

The same can be said of Vicenarian–20s–and Denarians–10 to 19.

All that I can say is this. Perhaps it’s not an affront after all that those terms are not in common usage for those age groups. I should know. When I was someone in those age groups, I wouldn’t have wanted to be called those things either, any more than I would want to be called a Septuagenarian now. I mean, come on. Who wants to be called something that the person doing the calling can’t even pronounce, let alone spell.

I warned you nine paragraphs ago that these terms were dreadful. Candidly, they ended up being more dreadful than I ever dreaded that they would be dreadful.

Nonetheless, I suppose those terms might come in handy from time to time to add an aere distinctionis to what, in reality, are downright insults. And we might just get away with it. Let’s see.

“He’s an old geyser” might morph into “He’s a sexagenarian geyser.” That might even be mistaken for sexy.

“She’s just an old broad” might become “She’s just an octogenarian broad.”

Truthfully, though–and I am all about truth and transparency–I’m not sure that either insult works any better, all garbed and garbled in Latin as they are.

No doubt, you’re still pondering your varying awarenesses of your various ages.

In case you’re wondering what I’m pondering–Please tell me that you are wondering. You are, right?–let me tell you that it’s not my age.

Actually, I’ve never pondered my age because I’ve never had a clear awareness of my age at any age.

I guess you might call me an Age Chameleon. (Go ahead. I’ve been called far worse.) How old I “feel”–regardless of how I slice it and dice it–changes based on those who are around me.

When I was a kid, surrounded by older folks, I felt wise beyond my years.

Now that I’ve grown up to be one of those older folks who surrounded me when I was young, I feel like one of the younger kids who surround me now that I am older. (I know what you’re thinking, and you can just stop it right now. I have not become my own grandpa.)

Let me explain. When I’m teaching traditional, right-out-of-high-school students, I feel exactly like I felt in my late teens. Independent. Not averse to risks. Extraverted. Romantic. Confident that a full lifetime lies ahead. Confident that my full head of hair will always be full. I like feeling like that. 

Sometimes–especially since I teach in a community college–I have some students who have been out of high school for a while. With them, I feel exactly like I felt in my twenties: strong bones, strong muscles, ready to run life’s marathons, and ready to make lots of moves– career or otherwise. I like feeling like that, too.

Sometimes, my students are in their thirties, and, around them, I feel just as I felt then: hitting some high notes in my career; thinking about settling down. Or maybe they’re in their forties, making me feel as I felt then: climbing toward career peaks; reaching financial security; discovering the power of progressive lenses.

Hopefully, you’re getting my point. I see myself pretty much the same age as those with whom I interact.

Dare I tell you the truth? Of course, I will. I always do. I interact with me more than I interact with anyone else in the entire world. And in those interactions, I feel just as I felt when I was 27. Unstoppable. I feel that way, that is, until I walk past a mirror. I hate mirrors because they shatter the unreality of my 27-year old self. I do not blush at all to tell you that I have considered removing all the mirrors in my home, but if I did, how on earth would I manage to comb the hair (that I have less and less of) or check to see that all the wispy strands (that I have more and more of) are in place?

But let me bring me and you back to my point before you and I both drift off to parts unknown.

I like the fact that I am an Age Chameleon. I think that it might be a blessing in disguise.

It gives me the best of all the ages. Potential. Hope. Vitality. Playfulness. Imagination. Ingenuity. Passion. Enterprise. Contemplation.

Toss in to that fantabulous mix two more things. Benevolence. Wisdom.

I don’t mind at all that I am not aware of my age and that it doesn’t matter to me.

Here’s the way I see it. As I work at wrapping my head around age, maybe–just maybe–I’ll end up wrapping my head around life.