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GENERATIONS: Hank Slotnick: How to tell how old you are

I'm not thinking about things like women's using hair colorants to cover their gray, or men's hair falling out. We all know about those things, and so they just aren't very interesting.

What I'm interested in are changes we go through but infrequently notice, and almost never understand. These categories include "I didn't know that was happening to me," and "I didn't know people were like that." Last and arguably the most interesting is, "Is that what folks expect of people my age?"

An example of the first category? One of my granddaughters, at age four, did a family portrait featuring stick figures.

"Which one is Grampa?" I asked, smiling at her.

"This one," she said, also smiling and pointing to the left-most figure.

"And how do you know that's Grampa?" I asked.

"Because it's the only one with hair growing out of its ears," she said proudly. And to make her point, she identified a handful of horizontal lines exiting the right and left sides of the figure's head.

Another example is that my size 11½ shoes have become too small; now I need 12's. Why?

First, tendons and ligaments in our feet stretch out with use while the additional weight we carry collapses our arches. And, second, weight flattens the fat pads cushioning the bottoms of our feet.

The "I didn't know people were like that" category means we're suddenly aware time has passed even though we feel youthful and vital.

When I approached the registration desk at my 25th high school reunion, for example, I saw cards that we were each to attach to our jackets/dresses declaring our names and displaying our pictures from the 1961 yearbook.

Yeah, I recognized all those people immediately because the photos, well, looked like the people I saw in the hallway and sat next to in class. But when I walked into the room where the event took place, all I saw were middle-aged people I didn't recognize wearing pictures of people I had actually known.

I didn't recognize the men because they weren't wearing jeans and button down shirts, nor the women because they weren't wearing shirt-waist dresses.

The boys pictured on the name cards played basketball at 165lbs, tops, and their waists were, at most, 32". Nevertheless, the pictures were on the lapels of men whose bellies folded over their belt buckles. The girls? Those I admired so much that I was afraid to ask them out (and the others, too, for that matter) had their pictures on the pantsuit lapels worn by women who looked like middle-aged mothers of teenagers. What's more, instead of talking about bands we liked, they talked about how their kids were doing in school, and how stimulating or unstimulating their jobs were.

The last category is far and away the most interesting: How old other people think you are. As shocking as it is to realize you and your peers seem older than you think you are, it is even more shocking to find out that others see you as even older—even if you're in an environment that speaks directly of your firm convictions of your own youth and youthful vitality. My daughter, Jeanette, and son-in-law, Brad, tell a story that makes this point beautifully.

They went to an outdoor concert near Kansas City featuring The Doobie Brothers and Chicago. Their experience at the concert was similar to mine at my reunion since the overwhelming majority of attendees were not teenagers but people ranging from middle age to late middle age. While their larger waistlines and clothing bespoke their actual ages, they were nevertheless acting like teens since they knew all the words to all the songs, unabashedly

sang "Black Water" and "Saturday in the Park" along with the bands, and skillfully danced in the aisles. How could old people do those things? Was this less a rock concert and more a "Twilight Zone" episode? (If you don't recall "Twilight Zone," dear reader, you may be too young to appreciate what you're reading.)

There was one thing Jeanette and Brad didn't notice. If these really were teens dressed up like middle-agers while they listened to The Doobie Brothers and Chicago, where was the aroma wafting through the open-air arena indicating that some in the audience had elevated their abilities to enjoy the evening's music? The aroma just wasn't there.

Toward the end of the evening, Brad pulled himself away from the marvelous music. As he approached the rest area at the back of the arena, he noticed two things. The aroma he'd missed in the arena was present, if only mildly so, and there was a policeman relaxingly straddling his bike and listening to the music.

Since Brad enjoys talking with pretty much anyone who crosses his path, he greeted the policeman by noting the aroma. The cop looked at him, smiled a bit, and observed, "That ain't gonna hurt nobody."

The cop paused and then observed he was more concerned about other folks. First, he nodded toward a woman running toward the ladies' bathroom. "I just hope she doesn't fall and break her hip," he said.

Then he pointed toward the line at the men's room door indicating one man in particular. "See that guy who keeps shifting his weight from one foot to the other?"

"Yeah," Brad replied. "He's likely suffering from fallen arches. He's about the right age for that sort of thing."

"I don't know anything about his feet," replied the cop. "I think he's finding out that basketball players aren't the only ones who dribble in their shorts."