Is Twenty-Seven Old?

At some point in the interesting new movie Frances Ha someone declares: “Twenty-seven is old.” In his enthusiastic review film critic A.O. Scott observes: “while that may in some sense be true, it is also true that 27 is not as old as it used to be. A few short generations ago members of the American middle class could be expected to reach that age in possession of a career, a spouse and at least one child, unless they were rock stars, in which case they would be dead.”

I don’t know whether Scott was referring to his generation or his mother’s (his mother’s, since I know his mother, the amazing Joan Scott, would be mine), or further back in time. But it got me thinking. Did I consider myself old at twenty-seven?

nancy27I turned twenty-seven in 1968, when this photograph was taken. I had been back living in New York after spending a good chunk of my twenties in Paris. That’s the story of my new memoir. The haircut, which didn’t last long, was the sign of my continued fascination with Jean Seberg and the movie Breathless, the cultural artifact that presides over my memoir. My curly hair even straightened and cut to an inch of its life refused to cooperate.

In 1968 I had neither a career, a spouse, nor a child; I considered myself lucky to have a new cool boyfriend (who took this picture), a goddaughter―the daughter of my Paris roommate―and, not least, to be starting graduate school at Columbia.

Annabel057My lovely goddaughter Annabel in Nice. My hair back to normal.

Above all, it was 1968, and even if I had managed to miss the student revolts both in Paris and New York, it was clear that something new was happening for young people. But I would also have to say that I did feel old, in part because I was older than my graduate school cohort; in part because I felt that I had drifted through the first half of my twenties and had little to show for it. (OK, I had survived a bad marriage, but still.) I was kind of embarrassed to be twenty-seven and still in school, still getting bailed out financially by my parents from time to time—what Scott refers to as the “quarter-life crisis.”

Despite his references to generations, Scott does not see this movie as primarily about a generation, but rather, and I agree, the story of Frances’s journey to the shot in the final scene that gives the movie its title (to explain that, the sweetest image of the film would definitely be a spoiler), and makes twenty-seven seem more exciting about what is to come than weary from the mishaps leading up to that moment.

Another reviewer calls Frances Ha “the best film that will be made about this generation,” by which he means “people in their late twenties right about now,” but I’m not at all sure that this is a generational movie, even if there are plenty of cultural markers pointing in that direction—Brooklyn, for one, the Brooklyn already memorialized by Girls.  

Maybe the better question would be: what does it feel like to be twenty-seven when you are a girl—a young woman with ambitions not yet fulfilled—in 2013 or 1968? I’m not sure it’s all that different. Moreover, it’s a story we’ve not seen, read, or heard enough about despite the fact that this is 2013 and not 1968.

Now that I have not been twenty-seven for a very long time, I’m absolutely sure that twenty-seven is young.

 

Am I still that person?

A few weeks ago, my friend and former jogging partner Ellen Sweet sent me this snapshot that she had just discovered while scanning old photographs into her computer. I remembered the picture, and I may even have a copy of it somewhere, but it was something of a shock to see it illuminated on my computer screen. The shot probably dates from the early 1980s when I had first started running along with half of Manhattan. From the beginning Ellen and I challenged ourselves by entering races in Central Park– races for women only, which this image seems to memorialize. (I should say for the record that Ellen, thinner and lighter, always ran faster than I did.)  I think my personal best  was a 10 and one half minute mile. A person could well walk faster than that! Still, we were quite faithful about our practice, running almost every morning, usually around the reservoir in Central Park (before it was cleaned up and named after Jackie Kennedy). I never imagined stopping. Ellen still hasn’t.

Ellen and Nancy race

 

Somewhere around the time of the new millennium, knee problems forced me first to have an arthroscopy and then, since the surgery didn’t accomplish much, to stop running altogether. I joined a gym and switched to machines. More recently, bored with the gym, its tv screens and spandex bodies, I’ve mainly been walking. But now my same knee is back causing problems, and I’ve been making the rounds of doctors, x rays, mris, and relearning words like meniscus and patella. Tears, not the kind you shed. When I called the first orthopedist recommended to me, the secretary, after asking for my date of birth, told me that I was too old to see this particular doctor, who specialized in sports medicine. So in case I hadn’t noticed, I have officially entered the stage of geriatric medicine. The senior card for the subway is one thing; being rejected by a doctor for being too old is another.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering, not least as a memoirist. Am I still the person in the picture who jogged around the Central Park reservoir, exchanging profundities with Ellen? Also kvetching. The problem goes well beyond this particular picture―from only, let’s say, 30 years ago. The ache in my left knee suggests a connection, but what about the girl in my new memoir? The girl I supposedly was 50 years ago? I’m committed to recreating the past as faithfully as possible, and I do remember 98% of what I’ve written, especially because I have the letters I wrote home to my parents then. Setting aside whatever I might have lied about in those letters, or, more likely, omitted, do I remember “me”? Oddly, my friend seems “the same.”

GirlParisPaula

It’s easy enough to see the differences―I had dark hair, wore contact lenses not glasses, and was at least ten pounds thinner. For me, though, the challenge as a writer is to find a way back into the feelings of that person: the jogging woman who had just lost her mother, a “never-smoker,” as they say now, to lung cancer, and stopped smoking; and the girl who dreamed of being an ex-pat so that she could smoke her way into Left Bank sophistication, stroll down the streets of the Latin Quarter, and try to look like an existentialist? Do I want to remember that girl, that woman, to reexperience those past emotions, many of which were a lot more painful than my injured knee?

That’s what I’ll be asking myself when I sit down with my “first pages” of my Paris memoir, pages to which I’m not supposed to be making mere “cosmetic changes,” when I’ll choose the version I am strong enough to remember.