So, it’s been a pretty nasty couple of weeks for Tom Junod of Esquire. Women—many of them my friends—-have been lighting up the Twittersphere and the Interwebs (some of us are too old to tweet) in discussion of Junod’s July offering, “In Praise of 42-Year-Old Women.” My response has been evolving, beginning with the moment I first opened up the July issue to when I tossed it in the trash on my husband’s side of the bed, to the morning of my 51st birthday this week when I woke up with something on my mind.
I am by nature and habit not a compassionate person. I’ve always been considered by others (who don’t really know me) empathetic, but in reality, empathy has never been my strong suit.
So my usual knee-jerk response to Junod’s piece would have been anger.
Initially, I did feel several kinds of hurt when I saw Tom’s piece. The pictures were the most difficult for me—-Sofia Vergera, et.al., glowingly backlit or sun-lit or just generally lit up by what Tom J. was introducing as the new 30. And I was turned off by some of the writing, because it felt prurient. (The most oft-quoted line this week: “There is simply no one as unclothed as a forty-two-year-old woman in a summer dress. For all her toughness, and humor, and smarts, you know exactly what she looks like, without the advantage of knowing who she is.”)
I tossed out the issue after I was done reading it, not because I was pissed off but because I was de-cluttering my desk. I did for some reason, though, pay particular attention to the moment I dropped the thing in the trashcan, because it made a distinct, metallic “thwink” when it hit the bottom, and that sound struck me as odd and sort of lonely. In fact, the sound stuck with me for days. Thwink.
What was I thwinking about? I wondered. I felt sort of bad that I’d tossed out the magazine, especially since the dialogue about the article became ever more vitriolic and voluminous as the days went on. (Anyone who wrote about it got about a zillion more likes for their posts than my posts about my kid’s recent visit to NASA), and I sort of wanted to go back and not only read it but look at the pictures and give myself a second chance to be deeply offended, too. And I felt like not a good feminist because I didn’t feel as hateful as others. When I started to really thwink about it, I realized I felt sad. But not for myself.
Watching others, particularly men I know, age, is painful to me. The last time, for example, I saw my college friend, Alan, I wept when we said goodbye, because I was sad to the bone about how old he looked and what that meant: how little time we had left to be friends. Sometimes when I look at my husband—-who mostly is still disguised by my love for him as a perpetual 27 year-old—-I find myself terrified because we’re both headed in the same direction: not on this planet. I don’t feel it often, but when I do, it’s like a lightning strike.
Which brings me back to Tom Junod and compassion.
I remember reading him in my 20’s. He was probably in his 20’s, too. I remember thinking, wow, he’s cool, and good-looking, and he writes for Esquire, a magazine whose fiction I especially admired, even if it was very Raymond Carver-y-Gordon-Lish-y. Tom’s a good features writer — smooth prose, sentences often full of pleasant surprises lurking around the corners, and I’ve heard he’s a decent person.
Esquire’s writers, including Tom Junod, have aged commensurately with their their/his readers (people my age who still read print magazines). So, I guess I’ve been aging and witnessing Tom Junod age for a while. And I’ve seen how it works for him and for men in general. And I don’t think Tom’s piece is about Tom. And I don’t think the discussion women have been having is about Tom. And this essay is not about Tom.
Think about it. When men of “our” generation turned 30, they were talking about maybe 20 as “hot.” At the age of 40, 30 looked good to them. (Do you remember when 30 was the new 20? I certainly do. It was about 10-12 years ago. Check any magazine’s archives). Recently, women’s mags and People have advanced all the way to the age of 50.
So here’s the compassion piece. When Tom Junod (a man) writes about 42, he’s not writing with the intention, I think, of trying to hurt me—a 51 year-old woman—-or anyone else like me. Rather, he’s sharing with me, with us, with secret generosity, the arc of his—and other men’s—-pain.
When Tom Junod celebrates a woman at 42, what I think he’s really saying is: “Oh, god. I, a man, am older.” And by elevating women at 42 to acceptable romantic or sexual partners, A man is saying, “Okay. I get it. No 20 year-old or maybe even 30 year-old would even look in my direction. So 42 is looking pretty do-able (so to speak) to me. I hope.” In other words, a man isn’t ready to say that a women his own age is attractive to him, but he’s willing to lower the bar. Because he has to.
Tom Junod, a man, is in mourning. And not over whether young women will sleep with him, but over the fact that he is, like all of us, going to die someday. Sooner than yesterday, in fact.
One of my favorite books of all time (that it is my favorite says a great deal about me, I know) is The Denial of Death by Ernst Becker. In it, Becker argues beautifully that we (humans) spend our lives constructing “immortality projects” in order to give us the illusion that death will never take us. For example, having children is an immortality project. Working hard to make a lot of money is an immortality project. Fighting passionately for a political cause is an immortality project. Becker even says—and brilliantly so—-that a culture’s devotion to the continuance of its beliefs is about immortality, too (will Christianity or Islam or Hinduism prevail?) Staying alive, though, even after death, is what’s underneath our devotion to our individual “projects.”
Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly, with the exception of a recent, stunning Roger Angell New Yorker essay this year.
But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying, just as attached to their immortality projects—-themselves—as we are. How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s aging. With the exception of someone like Roger Angell, who’s like 90 billion years old and has nothing to lose, not too many men write about their fading attractiveness, etc. Instead, they write about women’s fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.
Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.
Tom Junod, according to one bio, is 56. In a couple of years, I predict, if he is still alive—and I hope he is, and he probably hopes he will be, too—-Tom Junod is—and other men are—-going to write an article that ups the age of women’s attractiveness in direct relationship to his own age—it’ll bump up to 45, then maybe even 48, then to 50. If we get to 60, I’ll be super impressed, and Tom will be 70, 80, or even 90, in need of Viagra, and writing not for Esquire but for AARP magazine. Our aging will still frighten him. But he will still be meditating upon ours. Because it’s the only way he knows how to meditate on his own. And for that, I truly feel compassion for him. Because each of us has to find a way to come to terms with it. Tom may recently have been more public about his denial of death and his attempt to grapple with his mortality project, but, like it or not, he’s been honest.
We all deal with death differently. It’s the way of a lot of men. Looking at women age and making judgments about what’s okay and what’s not, what hot and what’s a turnoff, is a way of trying to control death. They don’t want to die. And I don’t want them to die, either. I simply wish none of us would die. None of us, except the actively suicidal, wants death the way we want life. And so in this, my 52nd year, a decade older than preferable, I simply wish all of us well in our jagged journeys to try to be at peace with that. Even a man named Tom Junod. Who people have been treating pretty badly this week. Who’s doing the best he can do right now, I thwink.