A few years ago, I was at a graduation party with my husband. I'd just gotten my MFA in screenwriting, and we were celebrating with a bunch of fellow grads at a popular Palm Springs hotel where the ceremony was held. The graduating class, a group of writers of all ages and backgrounds, had grown close—a warm non-judgmental, easygoing, got-your-back group of nice people. I felt happy and safe.
My husband is a funny English party animal, who's been mistaken, over the years, for Robert Plant, the drummer from Van Halen, one of the dudes in the Police and Crocodile Dundee. (Does anyone know his real name?) Pick a rock star—any rock star of that generation—and you'll get a picture of William. Also, friends tell me I look ten years younger than I am. That combined with the current adage "Sixty is the new fifty," I'd say we are doing OK. I may no longer be a size six, but my tits don't hit my knees and I can still rock a low-cut top and jeans.
After almost 30 years of marriage, William and I finish each other's sentences, tag team telling favorite stories and laugh at each other's jokes no matter how bad they are. That night, William told an embarrassing story about me; one that I'd heard a hundred times. We staged a mock fight and everyone loved it.
Choking with laughter, a female friend said, "You guys are so cute."
Cute? I hadn't been called "cute" since high school. I parsed this sentence looking for hidden meaning. The woman who said it wasn't young—36, maybe? It sounded patronizing and condescending, like something a caregiver would say to a 93-year-old Alzheimer's patient struggling into a pair of socks.
Was she putting me down?
But I liked this woman. She was smart, funny and a feminist. So I chalked it up to the martinis and forgot all about it.
Fast-forward to a few months ago. Walking our dog one night, we ran into our 38-year-old neighbor. We chatted for a bit about this and that—I can't remember what exactly—but it must have been super cute because she suddenly smiled at us, and I swear there were tears in her eyes when she said, "You guys are so cute."
The. Exact. Same. Words.
I wanted to rip her head off. I managed a smile and we said our goodbyes.
"What the hell?" I said to William as we walked home. "Do we look 90 years old, all of a sudden?"
"I know I should have put my teeth in," he said.
"Who cares anyway?" he said.
I do. I care. I'm well aware of youth culture. After years in advertising writing to target audiences 18-34, I find myself a hair's breadth away from hitting those top numbers that will throw me into the oblivion of 64+, where my opinion is no longer wanted and my needs ignored.
But with people living longer and healthier lives, what does this mean? That we have 30 years of cultural insignificance to look forward to, punctuated daily with snarky comments from people who were, by happy accident, born a little later?
Has talking down to people over 50 become part of our DNA?
You hear it in nursing homes, the infantilizing baby talk that doctors, caregivers and family members use on the elderly. And it sucks. But doing it to people not that much older than yourself?
I commiserated with my friends and we shared stories.
There's the mâitre d' who said, "This way, young ladies" to a group of older female patrons.
The waiter who winked as he asked my daughter, "Is this your sister?"
The young salesperson who asked, "Do you have an email address?"
The hair stylist who announced on my 50th birthday, "Time to go short."
A friend's wife, 20 years younger, who said to me, "Oh, darling, let me help you with that."
The twentysomething couple on hiking to the top of a mountain, "Hey, you did really, really well."
My generation was taught to respect adults. And there were many—my aunts, uncles, teachers, my parent's friends—whom I admired, who inspired me. People I wanted to be like when I grew up. Does this even happen anymore? A life without heroes. How sad. It almost makes me feel sorry for the Gen Xers and millennials.
My friends and I plotted our revenge. "Let's start calling them 'darling, sweetheart, angel, sugar pie, sweet pea.' Let's tell them their moms would be so proud of them and compliment them on how well they're doing in soothing sing-songy voices. Let's give them unsolicited advice on sex, marriage, babies, mortgages, work, then pat them on the head with a wink and a smug smile. Let's explain things slowly and succinctly, annunciating every syllable then stop and ask them, 'Are you following all this?'"
But I have an even better idea.
Twelve years from now, when my two friends celebrate their 50th birthdays, I'll bring a cake. And after they blow out all those candles, I'll say, "You guys are so cute."
Then I'll wink and flash them a big condescending smile.