Some years ago, I had coffee with a woman I knew slightly and wanted to know better. We were
talking about divorce when she asked how old I was.
“I’m 45,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “I thought you were older.”
I think I said, “Thank you,” because I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, “I’ve had a rough life,” which is sort of true, but I don’t know if I said it to defend my old-looking face or to make her feel better about having no filter.
Later, after we’d said how nice it was to spend time together, and that we must do it again (even though I was beginning to have my doubts) I wondered whether her assumption had really bothered me. My ego was bruised, but not stung. Most of the rough life I mentioned was dominated by the quantities of booze and drugs I’d drunk, smoked, and snorted between the ages of 13 and 36, and I’d never consistently removed my make-up before going bed until I was at least 35, so really, I did it to myself. The miracle is that I made it this far, more or less intact.
I’ve always looked older than I am, which came in very handy for pursuing my hobbies of smoking and drinking when I was younger (and in case you’re wondering, it was irrelevant for the drugs: dealers don’t usually ask for proof of age). Looking older was an aspiration until I hit thirty, then it became a more ambiguous asset. Until I hit forty, at which point I realized I’d entered that strange and untalked about realm in which people (and by “people” I mean women) become invisible to a significant percentage of the population. I do not like being invisible. But this unwished for change can be its own reward. For example, I haven’t had to endure a cat-call or a wolf-whistle for years. And if it did happen now, I wouldn’t put my head down and wish for the ground to swallow me up (hell no!), because what I paid for with the currency of lost youth, perkiness, and smooth skin, was a sense of self, a sense of worth, and a sense of humor.
When I got to the “incredible invisible woman” phase of life, also known as “middle age”, I started to really identify with women who’d stopped worrying and started kicking ass. Not just the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou – phenomenal though they are – but other inspiring females who refused to settle for anyone else’s expectations. One of my role models is Yvonne, a brown-and-white dairy cow from Germany who, in 2011, made a break for freedom after she was sold for slaughter. She became a fugitive, hiding in the Black Forest for weeks, cunningly evading all attempts to capture her, including the temptation offered by Ernest, a prize-winning bull who was, in the words of a German official, “the George Clooney of bovines”. But Yvonne knew that freedom was more important than pheromones, and she kept her distance, seemingly contemptuous of such a pathetic ruse to imprison her again. When the allure of Ernest failed, her would-be captors also set out her sister and her son as bait, but she remained elusive.
2011 was a slow summer for the European media, and there was a lot of coverage of this story. My favorite photo of Yvonne is one taken from a distance (obviously). She’s in a clearing, looking uncompromising and unafraid, or so I like to think. Making a stand for herself, and the hell with what the rest of the world wants.
One of the many joys of the whole Yvonne saga is that in the end she wasn’t captured, but chose to leave the forest in her own time, for her own reasons. A farmer discovered her on the edge of his fields, gazing wistfully at a herd of his cows. She was saved from slaughter by an animal rights group (but perhaps she really saved herself) and now lives peacefully with some of her relatives on a farm in Bavaria.
Yvonne’s “I don’t give a fuck what you think I should do” attitude is something I’m embracing. It still seems that we’re supposed to diminish as we get older, especially older than forty, but I’m getting in touch with my inner Yvonne. Finally, I don’t care what anyone else thinks of me, because I’m a lot more interested in what I think of myself. Jim Morrison said not to take life too seriously, because no one makes it out alive, so like Yvonne, I’m just trying to stay in one piece while I’m here. Getting older is okay. Looking older is okay, and if I do look older, while wearing clothes with a little attitude, and hair that my sister calls, “courageous”, so much the better. You’ll just see me as a few years more fabulous. Or you won’t see me at all. And I’m okay with that.