I went to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Kennedy Center’s revival of Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, mainly because Bill Pullman, one of my favorite not-quite-movie-stars, was in the cast. Recalling his witty, sharply drawn performances in The Last Seduction and Zero Effect, I took for granted that Pullman would be playing the part of the young GI newly returned from World War II, and was surprised to find that he’d been cast as the boy’s father. That’s all wrong, I thought. He’s too young to play the father of a soldier. Then Pullman started talking about himself and I started counting on my fingers, and within a few minutes it hit me that the character he was playing had to be forty-eight or forty-nine years old–my age. No sooner did I return to New York than I looked Pullman up on the Internet Movie Database, where I learned that he was born in 1953.
The perception of age is a tricky business. Most people, for instance, think I’m a good deal younger than I am, and are astonished to learn that I’ve reached the eve of my fiftieth birthday. This is partly because I have a young-looking face, but I suspect it also has a good deal to do with the fact that I never quite got around to embracing adult life: I’m a childless singleton who spends most of his nights on the town and hasn’t held a nine-to-five job for years. You might mistake me for a wastrel if I didn’t work so hard, and you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know me fairly well.
It is, I suppose, an odd life, and it doesn’t always please me. Sometimes I wish I had a job that I could put behind me at day’s end, or that I were comfortably ensconced in a nice suburban ranch house with a loving wife and a child or two. This dissatisfaction has grown more marked in recent years, though never overwhelmingly so: I know how lucky I am, and how well my catch-as-catch-can lifestyle suits my temperament. The trouble is that it isn’t nearly so well suited to the diminished energies of old age, and more and more I wonder whether I may have doomed myself to the fearful fate of Aesop’s grasshopper, who fell on lean times when he finally outlived his good luck.
Robert Frost wrote a poem warning grasshoppers to change their heedless ways:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
At least I’ve done one thing to prepare for later disregard: I have an abundance of young friends. Rereading Martin Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh the other day, I came across a remark Waugh made to an interviewer in 1953:
One makes friends up to one’s thirties, quarrels with them between 45 and 55, and makes new ones in the sixties. Between 45 and 55 is an irritable time. In middle age one thinks of the young with distaste as a poor imitation of oneself. When one is older one realises that they are quite different people and they become interesting.
That isn’t quite how I feel–for one thing, it’s been years since I last quarrelled with a friend–but I do think Waugh was right about the nature of the fascination that the young exert on the old. I first started making younger friends around the time I turned forty, and their companionship turned out to be one of the happiest things about the decade that followed. Of course a friend isn’t the same thing as a child or a spouse (or a big fat pension, for that matter). Still, I have a feeling that my young friends will do even more to brighten the next chapter of my odd, interesting life.