Ah, That Room

By Michele Willens

Michele Willens reports on theatre for NPR-owned Robinhoodradio, co-wrote “Face It: What Women Really Feel When Their Looks Change,” and is one of the essayists of the new book, “SisterWriterEaters.”

Ah, the room.

It was the subject of a book, and its Oscar-winning adaptation, about one that imprisons a young child and his tenacious mother. The biggest theatrical event in the country — a musical about our founding fathers — famously raps about the one “where it happens.” And, yes, my fellow Boomers and I find ourselves constantly debating a key question: do we prefer, metaphorically, to be the youngest or oldest person in it?

I am finding it’s about 50–50. Some I know don’t mind being the geezers as long as they are seen at go-to places. They frequent restaurants filled with packed bars, pounding music, and a palpable buzziness. On the flip side, there are those who choose their eatery based not on that week’s review, or bragging rights, but on whether they need to bone up on sign language before going. Looking around and seeing others like themselves and maybe even a tad older? Well, so be it.

I cover the world of theatre, so I make a choice on this issue several times a week. Do I attend the play in the evening, where one gets a mixed (well, sort of) audience? Or go to a matinee, where the average age, as my friend Arnold says, is ‘deceased’? I often do the latter, I think, because it fits my schedule. Or am I doing it to show off my energy level and ability to stay alert? The same happens with movies, of course. I saw an afternoon weekday showing of “Dunkirk” recently, and it’s fair to say the majority of those in the theatre seemed old enough to have participated in the real thing.

These experiences always leave me with wildly mixed emotions. While the more mature set in these theatrical rooms may snooze, misuse hearing aids, and chat as if they are in front of their television, I say “bravo!” for getting up, dressed, and out of the house.

In the workplace, of course, this is no laughing matter. While it can feel cool to be the eldest, surrounded by energetic and ambitious millenials, statistics tell us that after 65, we are not looked at kindly by the HR folks upstairs. Even those millenials, once they soak up what our experience and advice offer, eventually think we are quaintly clueless.

Even whom we choose to spend our time with plays a role here. My pal Holly announced she was, from here on, not taking any new friends over the age of 60. (She is 71) She claims it is not an attempt to feel more youthful, but to ward off inevitable pain. “I am trying to eliminate the sadness, hospital visits, and funerals in advance,” she said. She immediately becomes the oldest in many rooms, but considers it worth it.

Others prefer the flip side when it comes to choosing play-dates. We seem to have two distinct groups of friends: those in their 70s, and those twenty years younger. They occasionally conflict: My husband recently had to turn down an offer to attend a baseball game since we were going to a friend’s 50th birthday. “You know someone who’s 50?” came the envious reply.

As for physical exercise, half my acquaintances prefer spin classes and trendy gyms because, even though they are the oldest in most those rooms, they hope to keep up with the younger generations. Others stay close to their local Y where they may still be on the lower end of the age scale, show off by not using a chair, and enjoy the compliments about their (albeit relative) fitness.

Of course, this is all relative, especially when being with relatives. When I, visit my 93 year old aunt at her retirement home, I am considered a mere child. (Though I also start to pick up what can only be considered “old” traits. Where else do I order pancakes for lunch?) Would I want to live there? Probably not, but how many other places are there where you can be the youngest in the dining room in your 80s?

One of the pros of being the oldest, is the opportunity to hang in our living rooms with adult children and their friends. Though there is always pressure to remain up-to-date. Here, we divide into those who use our cultural cred to prove we know the difference between Jay-Z and Kanye, and those who still lament that “our music was better.” (Which it was) Though this one swings both ways: they may come for the free meals, and we need them to show us yet again how to use Apple TV.

I spend a good deal of time these days taking college classes, (returning after a long absence, to complete my B.A.) where I am not only the oldest in the classroom among students, but I usually exceed the professors in years. Mostly I am invisible (welcome to being a woman in her 60s anyway) — at least until they learn my husband works on “Dateline” and ask for jobs.

Maybe the best solution is to stick with folks exactly your age, which I will be doing next month at my 50th high school reunion. There, it will just be about who stayed in good shape, who was able to afford the cosmetic surgery, who was brave enough to go gray or bald. And frankly, to remember those who didn’t live long enough to even debate an issue like this. It may just prove to be the most comfortable room of all.

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michele willens writes for many publications. she lives in NYC.

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michele willens

michele willens

michele willens writes for many publications. she lives in NYC.

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