A boy in his driveway the other day shouts hello as I pass. He says his name is Simon, what’s mine? I say Carin and he tells me he has a Batman tee shirt. He opens his coat. I say that’s some great tee shirt and he says yeah, then tells me he’s seven. Not that I asked. He continues talking, about being seven maybe, or the tee shirt, just chattering away… all of this in only seconds; I’ve barely slowed my stride. His mum is raking leaves, smiling. And in all the chattering somewhere the boy asks… in a way he might ask a chum at school, or anyone… “How old are you?” His mother’s smile immediately turns into a nervous laugh, she puts down her rake, edges Simon toward the house and tells him that isn’t the sort of question he’s supposed to ask. Meanwhile I’ve answered by saying “Well, I’m not seven!”, as I continue on my way. Also laughing nervously.
And for the rest of my walk all I can think about is why.
Why is that not the sort of question Simon should ask? And is it only not the sort of question Simon should not ask people of certain ages? And how should Simon know which ages those are? And who decides that anyway? And doesn’t the whole way his mother reacted give off a vibe that suggests to Simon, if only subliminally, that there’s something *wrong* about certain ages and THAT’S why we don’t ask.
And if there’s something wrong with certain ages… what, exactly is that wrongness? I mean if Simon were to ask his mother Why can’t I ask? what would she say? Something about politeness probably. But why is it polite NOT to ask someone their age when you are seven and you ask everyone ? (And everyone asks you.)
Of course I was taught the same lesson as a kid. (But we’re back to the why… Is it to spare people the embarrassment of admitting they aren’t seven, or twenty-seven or thirty-seven or whatever decade + seven it suddenly becomes an embarrassment to *be*?)
North America’s twisted version of age aside, what really bothered me was my own response, that weird bit of laughter I threw out in order to make Simon’s mother feel okay about the whole thing. By laughing it off, by saying “Well, I’m not seven,” I condoned her discomfort and was party to the stupid lesson Simon was being taught.
Why didn’t I just answer the question?
Conditioning, that’s why. (And, mostly, conditioning almost always sucks.)
The thing is I happen to be a non-ageist kind of person. Even as a kid (just like Simon) I barely noticed someone’s vintage. I still can’t see how it matters. It’s their energy that registers with me. One of my favourite people to hang out with lived to be 101 and it never struck me as an unusual match.
I also have friendships where *I’m* the 101 year old.
And a few in between.
The thing is this: dullness and negativity, ego and bullshit appear at every mile marker. So do joie de vivre, curiosity, kindness, engagement with life, humour, a creative spark and the balls to be yourself. A tedious schmuck at sixty was probably a tedious schmuck at thirty.
Only with better abs.
My walk takes me on a loop and eventually I’m heading back toward Simon’s house. I resolve to tell him my age as I pass. I’ll throw it out, casually, maybe mention that I have a fondness for the colours green and orange and yellow and that I do not know how to tap dance. Not that anyone asked.
But the leaves in front of Simon’s house are raked and no one’s there.
Too bad. Because I think Simon would have found that particular line of chat quite normal. And that would have been so much better a lesson than the last.
6 thoughts on “simon says”
I accompanied an author I was promoting at the time, a woman who wrote for children, to an event at a library. It was a mixed crowd of children with their parents, very different from a school classroom she was used to speaking to where only one adult, the teacher, was present. She began her talk by saying, “Now, there are three questions kids always ask me, so let’s get them out of the way first … You’ll want to know how old I am, whether I have any kids, and how much money I make writing books.” I noticed there was a lot of nervous laughter among the parents, but the kids were thrilled this author knew exactly what was on all their minds!
I think you should have knocked on the door and had a proper conversation with this neighbour of yours, Carin! You can’t beat the innocent curiosity of a child.
Brilliant! I love that she did that. What are we all so worried about anyway?
She should have let Simon do it just the way he did. He was being sweet and innocent. No More. I once in my younger mother days with small children had a guest over to my home who had lost his legs in Vietnam. I told my children not to be afraid, he just got hurt but was the same as you and I. Well this young man came into my home and into the evening my son stood by him and all of a sudden I saw my son touching what was left of his legs, then he asked how did he get hurt. I saw the man start to cry. He said to me that most times children are afraid of him and hide behind their parents. This was the first time a child made him feel like he was ok to look at. The child was not afraid nor was he saying what I said he should do. He was just being innocent and curious like all little boys are. It was good. I was proud. Thanks Carin for the memories you helped to resurface.
What a gift your son gave that man. And you gave your son…
I love this post for so many reasons, and not just because I’m 57 (not that anyone asked). I love that you have friendships where you’re the 101-year-old. I love hearing you say that “dullness and negativity, ego and bullshit appear at every mile marker. So do joie de vivre, curiosity, kindness, engagement with life, humour, a creative spark and the balls to be yourself.”
I’ve caught myself doing the same thing – different situation, different conditioning, but same response – me trying to make an adult feel okay about teaching a child a ridiculous lesson.
You’re so right: conditioning almost always sucks. But something tells me you’ll meet Simon again in your travels and you’ll right this wrong.
Funny how this little Batman t’d lad has pretty much changed how I’ll handle this question (and a few other scenarios) from here on out. I’d like to shake his tiny hand.