When I started out as a journalist, which was about a zillion years ago, give or take a century, the question I always hated asking someone was how old he was. It just seemed so personal, so prying, so impertinent. I’d always apologize before I could even bring myself to ask the question.
As I say, that was a long time ago. These days, I’m different. How old are you? I ask everybody that. It’s terrible, shameless. I don’t even have an excuse, since I’m usually not writing an article. I just want to know.
“Tell me somebody’s age and where he grew up — and I already know a lot about him,” somebody told me recently. Who? I don’t know. I’ve already forgotten. Ask me tomorrow. I’ll probably remember by then. But it was somebody smart.
Ask someone’s age and you find out the music he grew up with, the presidency that shaped his early years, the politics, the wars, the economy, the culture, the fashions. Where is she in her life? Past college and early-career struggles? At a point when, most likely, she still feels invulnerable? Or have the casualties in his life — the illnesses and deaths, the physical slippages, the sheer randomness of the events and years that have passed — forced a certain kind of humility and fatalism?
Did you ever wear hot pants or leisure suits or — if you’re a male — a gold chain around your neck? A pixie cut or sideburns? Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Can you hula hoop or do the twist? Did you reallly believe the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking, or did you keep puffing so you could figure it out?
What do you remember and what formed you? Where are you in your life? That’s what I really want to know. Maybe it’s the rudest question on earth.
But there’s a certain symmetry to it: The older you are, the freer you are to ask. The older you are, the faster you forget. So you ask again and again and after a while, it doesn’t even seem rude any longer.
Tell me who you are. What could be possibly rude about wanting to know a thing like that?
(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)