On looking and being a certain age

It’s something I hear so often I’ve amassed a list of pre-selected responses.

“That’s because I’m 12” is one.

“I’m sure I’ll appreciate it someday” is another.

Or the simple and straightforward “So I’m told.”

I’ve thought of coming up with something outrageous since people who don’t know me well often take my deadpan delivery as gospel. It’s as if they’d never think that such a dry retort could come from someone seemingly so nice and, well, young.

“I actually am a prodigy,” I’d say, “and am looking to get my Ph.D. in astrophysiologicalbioinformaticalitics.”

I imagine them raising their brows in amazement and, more gratifyingly, fear. Everyone, after all, fears kid wonders and the mighty powers they haven’t yet decided to assign to good or treacherous deeds.

This time, though, I opted for a variation of the very generic (and truthful) third.

“You could pass for a sophomore at NYU,” he said.

At first, there had been nothing extra about that ordinary Tuesday. I got to work at the usual hour, ate my usual lunch (well, usual as in I get obsessed with a particular spot and eat the same thing every day until I tire of it) in my dark corner, comforted by the glow of the computer screen and the funnies of my usual geeky messageboard.

Having just finished a major project, I was leaving the office early (in my world, 6-ish in the evening) for the first time in weeks. I was further bolstered by the fact that I was free to do whatever with the rest of the night, so I had to think of something wild. “I know,” I said. “Barnes & Noble!”

And that’s how I ended up talking to Bob.

I’d serendipitously decided to go to B&N the very same night John Lithgow – the Trinity Killer himself – was signing his memoir. The seating area was surprisingly half-filled at about a quarter ‘til, and I was alone in my row, perfectly positioned so that the podium was sandwiched between the heads of the two people in front of me.

“Can you do me a favor?” I heard someone say.

I looked up from my BlackBerry to see Bob holding a framed caricature of Lithgow.

“Depends what it is,” I said.

Whenever I tell people about my random encounters, they sometimes look at me all wide-eyed: “And you didn’t run?” There was a time in my life when I would have. After all, my parents raised me to be distrusting of the world and the people in it, never to mistake someone’s offer as devoid of expectation. But while walls of that nature protect you from life’s dangers (or at least give you the illusion that they do), they also keep you from everything that makes life, well, happen. I soon learned that in order to experience things, one must be open to uncertainty and the horrors – or wonders – it provides.

Couple such ingrained (or inherited) skepticism and assertiveness with childlike wonder and curiosity, and you get someone like me. It also doesn’t hurt that I look 12. People are generally nice to me and have no qualms striking up conversations – a great thing when you’re a journalist who has to talk to strangers all day. It’s as if they sense they’re in the presence of something fragile that must be protected (or exploited).

Though I do encounter creepy oddballs from time to time, for the most part such pleasantries have the potential to evolve into something interesting. There was the businessman passing on his parental wisdom on a flight to Spain. There was the young art dealer, who, while not so discreetly drinking PBRs on the bus, talked of his perfect brother who played perfect baseball at Stanford. There was the girl from Mumbai who told me that even though we were in line to see Letterman, she actually preferred Leno. And then there was the guy on the train who, after asking me if the dress I wore was from a certain place, told me he was among the people who helped designed it.

On this night, there was Bob, who started taking pictures of flags after 9/11. He travels across the country in search of variations of the red white and blue – something he’s found on houses and trucks and gravestones. For fun, he draws caricatures of famous people.

“He has a great face,” he said of Lithgow, who, by the way, was fantastic. He read the crowd a chapter of his book, answered questions with such wit and flair, and talked of his love of the theater.

Afterward, Bob lined up to get his book signed and hand over his caricature. I, fulfilling the favor I’d deemed reasonable, waited in front of the stage, just steps away from the man who so brilliantly played one of my favorite villains, ever (a title he shares with Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa and NPH’s Dr. Horrible).

They exchanged a few words; I took a few pictures.

When he was done, Bob handed me the autographed copy: “This is for you.” The pictures, he said, were enough.

On my journey home, with the shiny, new book in my hand, I at once was the cool 27-year-old I was, and the giddy 12-year-old I sometimes seemed to be.

(Photo Credit : dans le rêve on flickr)

3 responses to “On looking and being a certain age”

  1. I think 80% of Asian 20 Somethings go through the same thing. My biggest pet peeve is being called “buddy.” Like when I hold the door for someone and their gratitude is “thanks buddy.” Would you call Lebron James “buddy”!?? Would you call Mark Zuckerburg “buddy”??

    As I inch closer to 30 I’m mistaken more for a college student, which is an improvement over an underage high schooler. I try to dress more professional and keep some facial hair which helps battle the perception than I’m 19 yrs old. I suppose that looking younger than my age reveals will have its perks one day. I look up to celebrities like Michael J Foxx and Pharrell Williams who have made successful careers with boyish looks.

    1. That’s a great outlook. It’s definitely best to laugh it off, take it as a compliment and dazzle them with our awesomeness. It’s also amazing what a difference a suit makes. Sadly, I can’t grow a full beard, so I’m kind of screwed in that department.

  2. […] there I was, walking into Barnes & Noble, one of my favorite post-work stops when I still have brainpower to spare, thinking I’d pop in, flip through a magazine or a book or […]

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