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November 24, 2009

Now Just What Exactly Is Wrong With That?




So I was at a party last week for about a dozen of the students in my undergraduate seminar, one of these affairs where you all sit around a big table and consume shochu cocktails and fried chicken for two hours or until someone abruptly projectile-vomits, whichever comes first.

Everything was going along swimmingly until one of the junior members, name of Akiko, blabbed the news that she had at last found a boyfriend. This bulletin prompted approving and congratulatory murmurs from the predominantly female assemblage until Akiko blew it by adding, “And he’s forty-eight years old!”

There is a specific sound that young Japanese women make when they are dumbfounded by a bit of news. It is akin to the English “Hey!” but with the vowel dragged out and curled upward in pitch, giving it an interrogative flavor. When several females do it in unison, it produces a sort of Doppler Effect, as if a pack of powerful motorcycles were bearing down on the listener. My best attempt at transcription is:

“He-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eyyyyyyy???

The girls seated around Akiko made just this sound, but those of us sitting at the far end of the table had not quite caught the second half of her news. I was feeling happy for Akiko, a delightful little sparkplug of the type who is a bit too loud and colorful for her Japanese male peers and thus seemed fated to go through her college years without even once getting a chance to try out her plumbing, as it were. Anyway, I asked for a clarification of the news that had set off the elongated Hey!, and when Akiko cheerfully repeated the bit about her boyfriend’s age, it ignited a second elongated Hey! in my vicinity.

For my part, I reeled not a little from the force of this news and yet somehow managed to get off a “What’s wrong with that?” aimed at the Hey-sayers.

“How old are you?” asked one of the Doppler Girls of Akiko, even though she already knew, more or less. To no one’s surprise, Akiko answered that she was twenty, setting off still more Hey-ing, which I largely squelched with a more heartfelt “What’s wrong with that?”

Undaunted, Akiko plunged ahead describing her boyfriend, how they met, what sort of dates they’d been on, the existence of an ex-wife and preschool-aged son, and so forth as blithely as if the initial murmurs of congratulations had not long since given way to shocked ejaculations. For their part, the other girls finally stopped Hey-ing, instead resorting to neutral (yet somehow disapproval-laden) interjections like, “Is that right?” while I chimed in with “I think it’s great. I’m happy for you,” and really meant it.

A girl quietly asked, “Muggins! Are you serious?

I replied that whenever I hear news of a fellow roughly my age getting involved with a much younger woman, I feel as if someone on my team has just scored a goal in a World Cup match. To drive home my point, I then shouted: Goooooooooooooooal!!!


Careful readers of the Muggins oeuvre—heck, drunken and preliterate readers of the Muggins oeuvre, for that matter—know where I was coming from on this, for I am a veteran of an age-gap relationship myself. I met the girl I have called Princess Michiko in my books when she was a freshman in my English classes at my former university, NU, and we began a clandestine relationship the following year when she was nineteen and I forty-three.

While our age gap of twenty-four years was somewhat smaller than that of Akiko and her new paramour, Michiko and I faced numerous other obstacles that presumably Akiko won’t have to deal with: We were less than fluent in each other’s languages, the whole teacher-student thing loomed over the relationship, and there was, above all, the fact that at least one of us was married to someone else. It ended badly, of course.

But we both survived, and my feelings nearly a decade after the fact about what happened then boil down to this: Well, heck. Most relationships of any sort end badly, age gap or no. And while I can’t speak for Princess Michiko, with whom I no longer have direct contact, I’ve never for one minute wished our time together undone. It was a bizarre and wonderful fourteen-month interlude, a thing that feels so far removed from my life before or since as to almost qualify as an out-of-body experience; it changed me in more ways than I’ve yet been able to identify, and it inspired the most controversial chunk of a fairly well-received debut memoir.

Thus, I wouldn’t deny such an opportunity to anyone else simply because his or her partner is—in that awful phrase one so often hears—“age inappropriate”—no, not even to a somewhat naïve student in my care.*

“Age inappropriate.” Good Lord. I honestly think, and fervently hope, that there will come a time when “age inappropriate” is tossed alongside expressions like “mongrelization of the races” and “abomination in God’s eyes” on the dust-heap of loony, bygone bigotry. I have that dream. I might not get there with you, but I’ve been to the mountain top! And I’ve…

Yes, well. The thing is, I’ve noticed on my trips back to the Satan that comedians are still having an awful lot of fun at the expense of supposedly “age-inappropriate couples”—the sort of fun they would no longer think of having at the expense of an interracial or gay couple. There’s that old standby, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, though they have recently been eclipsed by Morgan Freeman and his step-granddaughter, not to mention David Letterman and his intern. In a completely separate category for mockery lie Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Their gap is a puny fifteen years, and yet the woman-on-top angle has proven irresistible to lazy comics.** Beyond Demi and Ashton, there is only Woody and Soon-yi; and beyond them, only Thunderdome.

When you’re a white male well into his fifties, as I am, it’s hard to stake out a position on a social issue that can truly be called progressive. We’re just so out of it, you know, that we end up embarrassing ourselves taking stands along the lines of “We should make it, like, okay for gays to serve in the military as long as they don’t tell anyone that they’re gay!” But I’m going to take a shot at it here with age-gap relationships:

So long as all parties involved honor the inviolable eighteenth-birthday boundary, age gaps in mutually heartfelt relationships should never be a cause for prejudice, derision, snickering, or elongated hey-ing in unison. To be in such a relationship, regardless of which partner is the elder, is no scandal; treating such couples with scorn, however, ought to be one.

That doesn’t sound unreasonable to me. And to be sure, some progress is being made. By all accounts, such relationships are increasing in number in most advanced nations—Akiko admirably holding up the statistic here in Japan. It should come as no surprise that there are websites where people who find themselves in such relationships can consult with like-minded souls. Ageless Love seems a particularly good one. Here’s an Aussie’s thoughtful column on the subject on another site.

One parting thought, though: The Ageless Love site, I can’t help noticing, allows its members to post personal ads seeking new partners, a la “Older Man Seeking Younger Woman.” Seeing that gave me pause. For, while I think my analogy of age-gap relationships to interracial or homosexual ones is valid in terms of the discrimination that such couples have faced, I don’t think the analogy holds in terms of how such relationships are formed.

Here’s the thing. If you’re a gay man, no one expects you to be interested in female partners, now or ever. You like men. Good. That’s fine. No prob. Me? I like choppy sentences. For the moment. At least.

Likewise, as I noted in an earlier post, society now affords a broad (though not quite universal) amnesty for people who prefer partners of a specific other race. If a white lady likes black men, then, well, she likes black men. We ought not to cluck our tongues.

But when it comes to age-gap relationships, it just seems to me that there is something unseemly about actively seeking them. It seems to me that feeling a powerful attraction for a much older or younger person is—or at least ought to be—a more random thing, like being struck with lightning. Having had it once doesn’t necessary give you a taste for more of the same. For Princess Michiko and me, the magic lay largely in the fact that neither of us expected to be in such a relationship. It wasn’t about our respective ages or positions, it was about our respective selves, the individuals that we were at that point in our lives. The thing just seized us. I’m pretty sure that that was the case with Akiko and her fellow as well. On the other hand, to go to a website and trawl for young meat is…well…

Damn! I really thought I was going to be cutting edge and progressive on this issue. Now it turns out I’m just another half-dead white male…


* And let’s face it: Had I vehemently denounced Akiko’s choice and demanded that she consider ending the relationship, does anyone think that would have achieved the intended result?


** For my part, as you might guess, I’m torn between an intense disdain for this insensitive mocking of a group that I was once a member of, and a burning desire to take potshots at Ashton Kutcher.