The marker of half-a-century is less than a month away now, and I found myself the amused recipient of one of modern America’s rites of passage today.
Yes, I have received my first junk mail from AARP, trying to convince me to part with my hard-earned cash to pay for their dubious goals. Never mind that I fully expect to be working for at least another fifteen years, most likely more than that. Never mind that I keep looking at the approaching milestone and wondering where the hell all that time went because despite my various issues (and their issues, and theirs) I still feel little different than I did in my early 20s. Maybe a bit more secure in myself, but other than that I don’t exactly feel middle-aged, much less approaching old. (Yeah, I know, these days 50 isn’t old. It’s definitely well into middle-aged, though).
Which in turn reminded me that modern rites of passage kind of suck. It makes a coming of age piece set in modern times much harder, just because there really isn’t a big challenge that people can use to say that after successfully completing it you’re an adult. Instead you get a series of stuttering bits and pieces. Driving age, legal sex, legal drinking, voting age… It’s all over the place. Young adults here are apparently perfectly capable of having sex, voting, dying for their country, and starting a family… but not of drinking anything alcoholic. In other modern cultures there are equally “interesting” disjointed transitions.
What there isn’t, unless you’re fortunate enough to have the kind of family that teaches these things, is a partial shouldering of responsibility that allows someone approaching the child-to-adult transition to practice adult tasks with the supervision of someone who’s already passed the rites and knows the path.
The transition from “adult” to “elder” is even more blurred, possibly because it wasn’t until relatively recently that large numbers of adults survived into old age. There were still markers: the last child married, or failing that, an adult. Gray hair. Menopause (the sooner that finishes, the happier I’ll be. No more monthly mess). The first grandchild – which in my case will be the first of my siblings becoming a grandparent because I haven’t spawned and don’t plan to (too many genetic time bombs, plus I’d be a dreadful parent).
Of course, a big part of the reason we humans invent rites of passage is because we as a species suck at recognizing gradual transitions. We’re great with patterns, and not bad at distinguishing whether or not this is like that. But give us a slow process where over the course of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years that tiny baby becomes an adult ready to make babies of his or her own, we have as a species a definite need to find some kind of marker and say, “Here. Past this point this person is no longer a child.”
Human cultures are littered with arbitrary markers like this (they’re arbitrary because what is child and what is adult doesn’t change appreciably overnight, but our cultures insist on making it so. Same with a lot of other absolutes.) which of course give writers the opportunity to play with them.
So, Author, kindly cease sending me cultural markers that say I’m getting old. I’m bloody well not. Not where it matters.