My twentysomething self had the privilege of teaching my sixtysomething parents how to Skype. In this latently sociological exchange—where our social roles were unusually opaque—I wondered whose rite of passage I was witnessing: my parents’ into users of cyberspace, or mine as I became their wholly unwise mentor.
Precedent hadn’t made me too confident in their ability, though. If you were to observe my parents using their now antediluvian flip phones, I trust you’d find them doing that thing where you close and re-open it each time you have to do something new with it. I’m still amazed they’re not in half after so much unnecessary—but benign—abuse.
And their collective foray into text messaging seemed no more promising. You know—the classic entry of each letter with a single index finger? The screen so close their nose its cartilage tissue is typing? I remember receiving endearing but generally incoherent texts riddled with unintended spelling errors, failed attempts a colloquial acronyms, and chronic run-ons. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only daughter who’s ever received a five-paged text message without an iota of punctuation.
But the truth is, I was confronting something much more than my parents’ emerging technological curiosity—I was beginning to experience the personhood beyond the romantic veil of their parenthood.
I instructed them through the Skyping process with an almost foreign, didactic formality:
“Well, you’ll need a username.”
“Tell me what you see on your screen.”
“Do you see the search bar in the upper right hand corner?”
“Click add contact.”
“Do you see me online?”
They responded interrogatively and tentatively, in full Brooklynese.
“How do I do that?”
“Where should I look?”
“What do I type?”
“Do I click that?”
“Where the hell are you?”
“No mom, look at the camera.”
It’s not so intuitive, I’d imagine, for boomers to sit down and talk to a computer screen when all their life, their idea of long-distance communication has been picking up a stationary house phone or writing down thoughts with a fountain pen.
Then again, for most of my life, I had the questions, not the answers.
It was in this interesting and unexpectedly poignant exchange of roles when I realized I wasn’t as far from them as I thought I’d been during my time away in the cold, Canadian winter—I was right there with them, proceeding forward in time with my age and everything it meant for us in this new, shared, and to-be-negotiated space. Adulthood, aging—they had become the silent truths that suddenly made my parents, my peers.
But why the quarter-life Skypesis? It’s not that I had failed to acknowledge, or even frequently think about, my own aging—it’s that I’d constantly been told I wasn’t, at least not right now.
You see, twentysomethings mature but adults must age.
I’ve realized our cultural lexicon is wrong. It’s a classic language of otherizing—through which older adults’ experiences are confined and trivialized into this thing called aging from which they cannot escape, change, or grow toward new and emerging potentials. I fear it’s that kind of language— in all of its accessibility and perceived innocuousness—that propagates ageism in a subtle, but uncannily powerful way.
Aging is the human common denominator. It is not something that can be deferred dissociated from, or denied—because it simply is at all ages, all the time.
And at twenty, it’s what makes me an aging being alongside the people on the other side of my Skype conversation.