Me and my friend Julie and our kids were on the subway home from an outing, when Luke, who is five and unused to riding the subway (being from LA and all), wedged himself in a seat between Vivian and a man.
“That man is old!” he proclaimed. “Hi, old man!” Julie shot him a look and explained to me that they play a car game at home in which they pretend to be talking to the people they drive by, and that she’s not sure that Luke gets that when you’re not in a car, people can actually hear you. That would be because he’s never not been in a car (being from LA and all).
The guy he was referring to was maybe 60ish, and good humored. He smiled to himself. Desirous of diffusing the awkwardness, I said, “Lucas, old people don’t like being told that they’re old. Especially mommies.”
Which prompted my daughters’ usual chorus of “You’re not old, mommy!” which, although all three of us know it’s an obvious attempt to stroke their poor vain mom’s varicose veiny ego, we all laugh about, because, well, you have to laugh or what the hell else are you going to do? Get all lifted and injected, like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills? And of course at 44 I am not old old, at least not as old as I hope to be someday.
Earlier in the day, when the kids were off playing, Julie and I were talking about the word fat. Many kids, including Luke and my girls when they were younger, blurted out “That lady’s fat!” in front of some fat stranger, and not inaccurately, either. And yet our instinct is to slap our hands over our kids’ mouths and apologize for them.
I’m not entirely sure why, exactly. Apologizing assumes “old” and “fat” are insults, which is in part what makes them so. One time, after an incident like that, Sasha, who was maybe three at the time, said, “But why can’t I say it? She is fat!” The best I could come up with is, “It’s not polite to talk about other people’s bodies.” But that’s not really an explanation so much as another way of saying, “Shut the ef up before the lady gets mad at your mommy.”
Fat, like old, is just an adjective, and often an apt one, in describing a person. It’s not even inherently pejorative, like disgusting or despicable, and yet saying it, even if it’s the God’s truth, is not OK. I’m not sure what to call these presumed insults (who would want to be old? who would want to be fat?) that should, in my opinion, be stripped of all their associations and used like the words green, smooth or shiny are–neutral and not value laden. What would happen to their meaning if we did that? After all, maybe the guy Lucas sat down next to was a cancer survivor, and glad to be old because that meant he didn’t already die.
So yeah, Luke sat down next to an old guy. Not ancient, Not even elderly, if we’re working on shades of meaning. But was he young? No. And neither am I. Old may be pushing it, but when I am, feel free to point it out.