Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Iconography of Middle Age

At every stage of her life, mom took her cues from society on what she should be. We were raised on Dr. Spock. She followed her neighbour in to a lifetime of bird watching. As we grew, however, she swiftly floundered, and aged. Though our world understands and defines what a grandma is to be, there are few examples to follow for middle age.

Which got me thinking to the icons we use as a society to guide us through the phases of our lives. Few are as extreme as my mother, but I think it is no accident that the "crisis" happens at mid-life. Consider the images we are given from the media. We have our babies; so many cute and bubbly babies. Then the "terrible twos". When we hit the elementary years, Disney has provided us the fat kid, the genius, the jock, the bully, the popular schemer, the pretty girl, or if the child is very lucky, the protagonist with angst. Heaven help the child who does not fit a stereotype. That child is slotted in to "weird".

These images, or icons, are a kind of visual short-hand which help us swiftly categorize people and fit them in to a world view. Icons are comforting because they follow a pattern, are predictable. Icons are easy on the eye and the mind. Think Currier and Ives, and Thomas Kinkade.

Teen movies, college movies, and chick flicks follow. Singleness is a temporarily wild condition quickly remedied by marriage.

What icons are left for the adults? There's the parent, funky uncle, exciting career in emergency services, lawyer, law enforcement, media relations executive, and suburbanite.

Then we have grandma and grandpa. Freedom at 55. Golf, travel, buy a hog, and play with the grandchildren. Why are the images always of fit, pink-cheeked and silver-haired seniors? Where are the streaks of grey?

This leaves a huge vaccum of images for middle management, middle age. Even for those of us with greater flexibility than my mother, that shortage of images can leave us floundering. There's Jane Fonda working out. And we have The Office, an image of quiet desperation. I don't know about you, but I know I am no Jane Fonda. And I hope I am not half the fool that Steve Carrell plays so well.

What am I left to guide my way? Mid-life can be an opportunity for reflection. Though the dreams of youth may fall short, I also have a wealth of experience to share. I can revisit early dreams and now that the obligations of parenthood are over, start a second career. There's many years of middle-age to come; there are many more years than there used to be thanks to the advances in medical care.
One great model for ageing well is Betty Friedan in her book, "Life so Far". This astute woman pointed her sharp finger at the "Feminine Mystique" and the hollow promise of suburbia. Now she tackles old age with the same vigor. From her book, page 346, "All my research was showing that in age as in youth the important things are work and love. Not surprisingly, the longest-lived people were in professions in which there was no forced retirement, among them symphony conductors, Supreme Court justices, artists, and rabbis. "
Well, I think Supreme Court Justice and symphony conductor is out. But I am still left with my own way and "weird". Funky grandma. I like that.