On Ageing

Birthday Cake

Sitting in a hotel room in Berlin on New Year’s eve is as good a time as any is write a long-belated post about growing up, and how it differs to ageing.

I recently turned 31. 31 is a nice age to become, and not only because it is a prime number. I dealt with a great deal of anxiety when I turned 30. Many of the reasons for this had nothing to do with my birthday, but had a lot to do with the surrounding circumstances of the environment – my relationship and career at the time being two major contributing factors. 31 is nice because it seems much less significant than 30 – it really feels like you’re only getting one year older. Somehow, turning 30 feels like suddenly becoming 10 years older. (yes, I realize that it is ironic for me to say such silly and innumerate things, being a mathematician and all).

Once again, events surrounding the turning of the years has given me perspective and food for thought. As it happened, my birthday coincided with a Speed Skating Junior World Cup, where I would be coaching the Danish team. I decided to go a few days early and have some “me time”, which really means hanging out with friends who are my friends by choice, and not simply people who I hang around with because we all happen to be in the same place and can speak a common language (veterans of elite sport will know what I mean).

The day before my birthday I was in Salzburg visiting the Christmas Market. Nothing in the Christmas Market really interested me, except perhaps for the glühwein, but fortunately Salzburg is a pretty nice place to be on its own merits. Walking around, I wandered into a music store and I fiddled around on the pianos for a bit. Then I saw a flute and thought to myself “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to play the flute?”. So I bought a flute.

31 isn’t ordinarily an age where people are recommended to take up new musical instruments, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I am assured by those around me (at least those who have a great deal of experience playing the flute) that my progress has been reasonably quick. I am reminded at this point of the time when I first began playing the piano (I would have been about 5 or 6) and my mother also took lessons for a while. I distinctly remember that her progress was not particularly quick, especially compared to mine, and that she soon gave up while I continued to eventually become quite a competent pianist despite failing my grade 8 exam twice at the age of 10. This continues to be my fear with learning the flute – that I will basically be hopeless at it, and be forced to admit that my 400 euro expenditure was a waste of money. It is noteworthy that I do have a slight advantage in that firstly, I have a reasonably thorough prior knowledge of music going into this, and secondly, that I don’t have a small child making rapid progress alongside my slower progress and discouraging my by making me look (sound) bad. The piano has also endowed me with a high degree of digital dexterity, and coordination, as was evidenced by the speed at which I was able to become good at the video game “Guitar Hero”.

Then there was the dinner. In the evening a few friends joined me for a nice dinner in an Italian restaurant in a nearby town. By the end of the evening, the restaurant staff had figured out that it was my birthday, and brought out my dessert – a tiramisu, with a candle in it (pictured above). As the waiter gave me the cake, he spoke to one of the German-speaking members of the party (we were in Germany) and said “how old is your friend today? 18? 19?”. Of course, most of the table knew enough German to know what had been said, and there was much laughter. I am used to having my age guessed lower (earlier in the evening, one of my friends guessed my age at 26) but this was quite ridiculous. However, on further consideration, not unprecedented.

Earlier in the year, about a month before my birthday, I was in Minsk, Belarus, coaching the Danish team at a Junior World Cup (this is a recurring theme). Unfortunately, the skater I was coaching had a bad fall and injured himself requiring a brief hospital visit on the first day of competition. While he was waiting in the medical room for the ambulance, I rushed to the organizing committee room to tell the organizers that my skater would have to withdraw from the remainder of the races for the weekend. One of the girls looked up and said “ok… but what about you? are you still racing later today?”. (in Speed Skating, you are classified as a junior until you are 19 years of age).

Fast forward to the Junior World Cup which happened a few days after I turned 31. On the first day of competition, one of my skaters was randomly selected for an anti-doping test. Despite me reminding everyone to have their passports at the track for identification, he did not, so I had to accompany him to the testing centre and sign a bunch of forms to “prove” that he was who he said he was. We both walked down the stairs, opened the door to greet the official and were greeted with “oh, are you both being tested?”.

Maybe it’s just genetics, maybe it’s because I don’t like being in the sun, maybe it’s my diet. Being an elite athlete is supposed to make you age a little faster than normal, but perhaps it’s a little bit different for speed skaters because we spend most of our time indoors. Whatever the cause, it is clear that I look much younger than I really am. Curiously on the few occasions when someone has guessed my age correctly, it has been after they learned some of my life history. Two bachelors degrees and a masters degree aren’t ordinarily found in persons under the age of 20. When you add up the time spent as a full-time athlete, and all of the epic travel, as well as the various bits of work experience I’ve done, then it makes much more sense to guess a number close to 30.

Is this a problem? Yes, a little. While it is certainly nice for people to think that I’m young, and I’m sure that when I’m 50 and I look 35, I’ll be thankful, it does present its own set of problems. People often don’t take me seriously because I just look like a kid. I also don’t look very physically intimidating because my facial hair patterns resemble those of a teenager more than those of a rugged athlete. I often get disbelieving, incredulous looks at the gym when I stack the squat bar with weights. I’ve all but given up on giving people advice on technique.

The biggest problem though lies with girls. Looking like a guy in his early 20s means that I get a great deal of attention from girls in their late teens or early 20s. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, and while I have learned to never say never, girls this young are generally undesirable for a serious relationship.

People who have travelled a lot know that you can “get along” with just about anyone, anywhere but with most people you’re limited to talking about the weather, or sports – the conversation never moves much further than superficial chit chat.

I make a big deal about being “unequally yoked”. The term appears in the Bible, in Corinthians in fact, and is used to describe a very different situation, but I like the metaphor. If you’ve got a cart, with two oxen pulling it, you want them to pull with roughly the same amount of force. Because of the way “modern” ox carts are constructed, it will still work if they are unequally yoked, but it will be difficult on BOTH of the oxen. What is the point of all these oxen metaphors? People who have travelled a lot know that you can “get along” with just about anyone, anywhere but with most people you’re limited to talking about the weather, or sports – the conversation never moves much further than superficial chit chat. To really connect with other people is much more difficult, yet for longer-term relationships this is quite important. Strangely, I have also learned that it is impossible to predict which people will click, and who won’t. However, I do know that it is more likely for people to click if they’ve had similar life experiences and are at similar places in their lives.

What implications does this have for relationship-relationships? I’ve travelled a lot, much more than would be considered average. I’ve lived for significant amounts of time in many different cities on four different continents, with significantly different cultures and languages. More than that – I’ve seen a lot, and experienced a lot. I’ve also nearly died three times. Perhaps I’m being overly idealistic, but in a partner I generally look for an equal. Someone who will challenge me – an intellectual and… er… physical sparring partner. Luckily, the world is a very big place and there are nearly seven billion people in it. I am still optimistic that a suitable partner can be found. However, I do recognize that in all probability, she will be older than I am. Indeed my most recent ex was older, and we clicked very well, at least when she wasn’t busy being a mother.

And so we come back to the age thing. If I look like I’m in my early 20s, what are the chances that a girl in her late 20s or early 30s will show any interest in me? It makes me realize just how important physical appearance really is. My previous ex always felt insecure around me because even though she also looked younger than she really was, I looked even younger. Many times I was mistaken for a student of hers, or an au pair. Which seems funny at the time, but really is kind of awkward. What other possibilities exist? Perhaps a girl in her early 20s who is one her way towards accumulating the kind of life experience which will make her a good sparring partner might come along. This initially seems like a good prospect, but then I think back to what I was like when I really was in my early 20s (and being mistaken for a schoolboy) and what I was like. Not only what I was like, but also how drastically I changed from year to year. Every year since I was about 20, my entire outlook on life has changed. From year to year, I was a completely different person in some significant way, and here lies the rub – experiences change us. And with the kinds of people I like to mix with (and possibly date) experiences change us on a very fundamental level.

Maybe I’m overthinking things. In fact, I’m sure that I am. Rules, expectations, preconceptions, they all get thrown out the window when the love bug bites. On the subject of experiences changing us – I’m obviously worried about growing apart from a partner, but it seems more likely that once the relationship is initiated, that two would grow closer together. Also, it is likely that there are many more people out there who, like me, don’t seem to age very quickly. My ex was one, and come to think of it, I know a handful of others too (of course, I don’t think I’d have the guts to ever ask them out). Of course, while we’re on the subject of overthinking relationships, there’s all the agony of deciding where to “settle” which, in itself, is a slightly terrifying prospect for someone who has become so accustomed to moving around… and then there’s kids, and what to do with them, where to raise them, how to raise them, and so on and so forth. But I might leave that to a later post.

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