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Apodaca: The rewards and myths of reaching ‘a certain age’

The Tap Chicks enjoy practicing at Pasadena Senior Center.
The Tap Chicks enjoy practicing at Pasadena Senior Center.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When I was young I imagined there would come a time when I would be the ideal age. My life would have evolved into the optimal package of fulfillment, accomplishment, romance, adventure and comfort. I would be my best self, living my best life.

Of course I had no idea when that perfect moment would come, yet I had a vague confidence that it was not only possible but probable. It was always out there, dangling in the distance, just out of reach, enticing me onward toward this have-it-all state of gratification.

Now that I am what is euphemistically (or patronizingly) described as “a woman of a certain age,” I look back and wonder: Did I miss it? When exactly was that perfect time? Was it a figment of my youthful imagination all along? Or did it happen and I just didn’t notice because, as John Lennon sang, I was “busy making other plans”?

Or maybe none of it matters a whit.

I have to admit that there’s something liberating in the prospect of letting go of such notions. Others before me have described the feeling of reaching a certain age when they no longer cared about what other people thought of them or about trying to conform to an idealized image that social conventions dictate.

Growing older had freed them to live more authentically, they professed. Not perfectly, but more honestly and more accepting of themselves. Now I think I know what they meant.

I never was, nor will I ever be, cool. And I’m not just OK with that, I embrace it: I’m old and I’m nerdy. I sing off key, dance badly, read compulsively, watch “my shows,” repeat my favorite stories, flee in terror from bugs and rodents, cry easily, hug tightly and love deeply. Deal with it.

And that retailer that I once banned my husband from shopping at because it was a store for “little old ladies”? It’s now one of my favorites. I make no apologies for that.

But now that I’m playing on the back nine of life I also realize that there are some aspects of aging that do bother me. Not the getting old part. For that, I’m grateful because, as the saying goes, it beats the alternative.

Shrinking student numbers affect funding at Orange County public schools, threatening to harm those most at need, writes columnist Patrice Apodaca.

What gets to me are the myths and misconceptions, the quiet prejudices and callous jokes that pass as acceptable; the casual ways that older people are often devalued or dismissed outright in our youth-oriented society. Age discrimination remains rampant in workplaces, even as we have made strides in confronting and countering other forms of bigotry, and aging is too often seen as a path to irrelevance and decrepitude, rather than experience and wisdom.

We oldies endure a lot of ridicule and condescension, and the stereotypes are legion. There’s the cranky “get off my lawn” guy; the clueless, offbeat grandma, and the past-their-primers incapable of understanding technology or social media or rap music. They’re either adorable or annoying, but definitely out of touch, and every memory lapse is a sign of imminent cognitive decay.

No wonder so many of us try hard not to look our age. In Newport Beach, where I live, cosmetic surgery is as common as a day at the beach, and sculpted, spray-tanned, fitness-obsessed 70-year-olds don’t look a day over 50. It’s easy to judge, but can you really blame them for clinging to a youthful exterior, given our cultural biases?

Even many of the ways that we supposedly honor or celebrate older people can feel awkward and off base.

Take the trend of the past few years known variously as the granny chic, coastal grandma, or grandmillennial style. Picture the floppy, wide-brimmed hats, oatmeal-colored knits and flowing linen ensembles worn by Diane Keaton in nearly every movie in which she’s appeared since I don’t know when.

Nothing against Keaton — she’s a fine actor and her style is appealing — but isn’t the character of a klutzy but endearing older woman who makes self-deprecating comments about her age and takes long walks on the beach while deciding whether to give love another try getting a bit tired?

While I’m glad that films headlining mature women are getting made, do they really need to double down on lazy tropes about aging bodies and minds?

Rather than another story about an older person discovering they’re not ready to give up on life after all, I’d prefer more portrayals of confident, engaged seniors who are still contributing to the world and commanding respect, without the constant references to “old people problems.” And enough with the infantile jokes about erectile dysfunction and weak bladders.

Older folks are more than the number of trips they’ve taken around the sun. They have much to offer and a wealth of hard-earned lessons to draw from. As the poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”

The truth is I never had that perfect time in my life when I was at the top of my game and all the pieces fell neatly into place. Every stage has had its struggles and joys. Life is messy, but every bit of it is a gift, even the part with creaky joints.

Especially that part.

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