What’s My Age Again?

(I almost called this post “Forever Young,” but then I decided to reference a much less crappy song. )

How old do you think you are?  I’m not talking about chronologically.  I know how many times the Earth has gone around the sun, since I emerged from inside my mother.  I’m also not talking about the various aches and pains that are currently plaguing or not plaguing your body. 

Instead, what is your mental age?  There’s a psychological concept of mental age that involved intelligence versus chronological age.  I don’t really mean that, though (Is everyone thoroughly confused now?). 

I don’t feel like I’ve changed all that much since I was in my mid-to-late twenties.  I am now some years beyond that physically, but every so often I’ll get a jarring reminder that I am no longer in that age group.  Last weekend, I talked to a woman at my daughter’s dance school who was about to celebrate her 25th birthday.  I quickly did the math.  She was born in 1989.  1989!!!  I was in high school in 1989!  She’s an adult now, which means 1989 was a long time ago.  That means I’m a lot older than I think!

I know I’m not alone in this, though.  That same weekend I talked to the mother of one of my son’s best friends.  She’s in her early fifties, a fact that she can’t quite wrap her brain around.  Like me, she thinks of herself as being basically the same as she was in her twenties.  In writing this, I attempted to research whether or not there have been any studies on when adults stop mentally maturing.  My efforts (i.e. a quick check of Google) didn’t turn up anything.

All of this makes me wonder how much of adulthood is a sham.  As I mentioned in my Star Wars post last week, I recently bought myself a lightsaber toy just because I wanted it.  My cubicle at work has an entire fleet of starships sitting on a bookcase and pictures of the Doctor and the crew of the Serenity mixed in among photos of my children. 

Does the fact that I enjoy these things make me less of a fully-functioning adult.  I have a career, a mortgage, and the other accoutrements of adult life.  I’m raising two kids and, so far, don’t seem to be screwing it up.  Yet, I know that my head has a near-constant stream of stupid jokes, story ideas, and other random musings running through it.

As I’ve gone through my adult years, I’ve taken to using my father as something of a measuring stick.  What was he like when he was the age I am now?  Looking back through my admittedly cloudy recollections, I just remember him seeming so much more mature than I feel.  Was that really the case?  Or when you’re a child, do most adults just come across as being far more mature than they really are?  I know I’m a lot sillier than my father ever was, but that’s more of a personality difference than a maturity difference.  But who knows what was really going on inside his head?  Well, other than him, of course.

Besides the idea that we seem to stop mentally aging in our mid-twenties, I've also come to realize over the last few years just how much of an effect our childhoods have on us.  It wasn't really something that I ever considered before.  I mistakenly believed that your childhood was something you left behind when you grew up and anything that you experienced then would just fade into the increasingly-foggy past.

That's really not the case, though, is it?  Our childhood isn't called our formative years for nothing. 

My present giddiness at owning a lightsaber toy is there at least in part (or possibly mostly) because little-kid me would have killed to have a lightsaber toy this cool.  It lights up and makes the proper sound effects when you ignite it, swing it, hit something with it, or shut it off.  The best lightsabers they had when I was young were just solid red and green pieces of plastic with no lights or sound.  I fully believe I bought this new lightsaber on orders from little-kid me.  He’s still very much in my brain, whether I realize it or not. 

I had that brought home to be on a trip to Busch Gardens in Williamburg, VA a few years ago.  The park has a Sesame Street themed section for little kids, and, even though my daughter was six and a little old for it, she still wanted to go in and check it out.  They have costumed characters roaming around, but frankly they looked a little silly to me.  Bert and Ernie on TV are Muppets and about three feet high.  Guys in giant Bert and Ernie suits are...kind of creepy actually.  Then there was the 6-foot-tall MEGA ELMO!  (I've never trusted Elmo, and I never will.  I can never forgive him for completely taking over Sesame Street).  My daughter was happy to hug the costumed park employees while I stood back and watched from my position as a father pleased to see his daughter so happy.

And then I saw Big Bird.

This Big Bird was...well...Big Bird-sized.  He looked exactly like he does on the show, and deep inside my brain the part of little-kid me that still exists in there had a complete and total freak out.

OH MY GOD, IT'S BIG BIRD!!!

I swear to you that it took everything I had not to run up and hug him...or should I say hug the poor, underpaid college student who was probably stuck in the suit that day.  I have never felt anything like that before.  I've met Star Trek actors before, which was neat, but nothing like this.  I'd describe it as an almost primal feeling of love.  This was my friend!  Now I did watch a lot of Sesame Street as a child (or so my parents have told me), so all I can guess is that the fact that Big Bird was a regular friendly presence during my early development created this bond deep in my psyche that I had no clue even existed until I was faced with Big Bird in person.  I don't know how else to explain it. 

So, despite what I believed, our childhoods are always with us.  You may not realize it on a regular basis, but it's in there affecting you in ways that you may not consciously realize until you're confronted by a man in a giant bird suit.

But that leads to another question.  If we think we’re a lot younger than we actually are and the child inside us never really goes away, are we all just kids walking around in adult suits?

- Alan Decker

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