Put that date (day and month) and the words “birth sign” into a search engine, and you discover that Mr Ratelband is “a complex individual full of intuition, confidence and a complex approach to life matters” (says www.thehoroscope.co - yes, just dot co at the end). Leave aside such considerations as possibly shunting the birthday forward so that it falls at the beginning of the Summer school holidays - Mr Ratelband’s nature “combines creativity and intuition with a sense of responsibility and with dignified behaviour” (ditto), and my guess is that he’s actually making a serious point.
“We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender. Why can't I decide my own age?" Mr Ratelband is quoted as saying (BBC again). Tinder doesn’t work for him at 69 as well as it would if he was 49, apparently, and his employment prospects would improve if he was able to tell a different truth about his age. “When I'm 69, I am limited. If I'm 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work," is another quotation that I’ve just cut and pasted from the BBC. Mr Ratelband’s doctor, I read here, tells him he has the body of a 45-year-old.
Maybe I could drive into Truro and ask the Magistrates’ Court there for a ruling that I’m a “media personality and motivational guru”. Maybe that would be a worthwhile career move. But in the meantime, I remember hearing a scientist-on-TV, a while back, saying that he couldn’t refute any of the logical steps in the argument towards the conclusion that we live in some version of The Matrix (1999). Sorry - mentioned a film. More to the point, I don’t think I can - or at least, have any right to - reject any logical step in Mr Ratelband’s argument that, how to put this, he’s as old as he and his doctor feel he is.
If Mr Ratelband quacked in a certain way, and swam in a certain way, et cetera, I’d have to say that “Emile Ratelband” is a distinctly unusual name for a pet duck. But Mr Ratelband wants to succeed on Tinder. He wants to work more, drive a different car… I’d say he’s an obvious 49-year-old. The suggestion “act your age” cuts both ways, surely? And anyway, age, like the passing of time generally, is just something else onto which we’ve imposed measurement. We have “the economy”, for example, whatever that is, and GDP, and blood pressure; we had the millennium bug, and the Mayan calendar; an old wife told me a tale recently about twins, born either side of midnight, who had to start school in different academic years.
It’s pretty much arbitrary, right? I’m [some text missing here] in human years, but a dog would get to my age in [some text missing here] and a mayfly shortly after sunrise, possibly, but certainly before lunch. Tea, anyway. I’m old enough to be reminded, regularly, that “You’re as young as you feel,” but if the china-clay industry here is still building those “Cornish Alps” of waste near St Austell (I don’t think it is), I could claim to be as old as at least some of the hills. Age is just a number, and in this context, possibly not even that. [These days, come to think of it, a birth date counts as sensitive personal information: we have to use different passwords every time, and change them regularly; perhaps my birth date should have at least one capital letter and a symbol in it - and change regularly.]
We can change our birth certificates already, of course, as Mr Ratelband points out. We can change our names; we can transition from male to female, female to male, and have our legal system respect our new gender. Heck, when we marry, or enter into any equivalent arrangement (could we just let that pass?), the forces of law and order are on hand to change our status. I remember that news story, a few years back (wrote about it then): the Glastonbury Festival introduced an enclosure for people who “self-identified as female”. I could do that, if I was looking to meet women, and how would you challenge my self-identification? Heck, give me advance warning, and I could even bring a birth certificate.
I imagine that there are times - in the day, the month, the year, the life - when it would be convenient either to switch from one, ah, arrangement of bits and qualities to another, or failing that to self-identify as young, old, male, female, and then to switch back again later, or to some other combination of, um. Life deals us a hand, and the less we’re stuck with playing it, perhaps the better. Some of life’s differences - inequalities, unfairnesses - are inbuilt. You’re tall or you’re short, thin or big-boned, inconveniently attractive to nuisances or not allowed near the zoo for fear of scaring the animals - and it’s either difficult or impossible to switch any of that off.
But if I wanted to serve as a front-line soldier, or become a nurse (as distinct from a “male nurse”), or a PC (the term “WPC” is no longer used), or claim my state pension on the same day as my imaginary twin sister gets it, or join a Working Men’s Choir or a Women’s Group, I can see that there would be some advantage to going online and clicking the M box to F for a few days, or vice-versa. I can see why I might not be a popular winner of, let’s invent, The Young Woman Of The Year Award, but my point isn’t that I should be entitled to cross even the most well-founded boundary, but that the surmountable obstacles should remain, well, surmountable. Let’s all be equal; let’s make difference history.
The legal system can offer protection to the vulnerable, which makes sense, and I suppose a measure of social engineering is inevitable. But where I would draw the line: the state has no business insisting on the immutability of artificial difference. [I checked ‘immutability’ online, and the first definition given was ‘not mutable’. Uh huh.] State-imposed difference, on top of natural difference, is too much. Years of an exact length are as artificial as the pagan festival of shopping that we’re going to celebrate through December. Global warming, actually, changes the length of the seasons and thus makes years bendy anyway.
I’d say let Mr Ratelband be 49. We live in a culture that insists on self-expression - even my local supermarket tells me to “live my style”, whatever that means - and if young Emile proves after all to be older than he thinks he is - the people he meets on Tinder will convince him of that, not the court in Arnhem.
I wonder how he’s planning to celebrate his fiftieth, next March. Will he invite the same people as last time, or friends his own age?
PS: I wrote this, and then I watched Anne Lamotte’s TED talk entitled 12 truths I learned from life and writing, which was shared by Climbing Tree Books’ elegant and witty Head of Sharing a few days ago. Life, age and death all feature; recommended. That ended and on came Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED talk entitled The beauty of being a misfit. Watch that too. These are new names to me - life and writing are bigger than I realised.
You might have been punched by one of the other actors, so the drama can unfold around that, or you might have inadvertently used black paint rather than make-up this morning - and we’re in absurdist theatre: the one-way pendulum still swings, Mr Simpson. Or you might be setting out on a date with a giant panda. But if you come back with some variation on “I haven’t got a black eye!”, the whole thing grinds to a halt, rotten fruit gets thrown, and the theatre empties in a miasma of grumbling and resentment.
The principle of what used to be called “brainstorming” is that you keep coming up with ideas. You don’t stop to comment on an idea, or discuss how you could implement it, because once you do, the session grinds to a halt and you all sit watching the person who’s, ah, killed the vibe. [Would "taken you out of the zone" work better there? Suddenly said; "How are we going to do that?" is what I mean.] Ideas spark ideas - you can weed out the silly ones later. Just keep firing ideas at each other, and let it go on until you’re pretty sure that four or five of the sixteen ideas you’ve got might actually work (then hang on for the seventeenth).
People who can do improvisation get the idea quite quickly; people who can’t, never do. There are people in the world who should never be invited to participate in a brainstorming session, and others who should be bribed to attend. But I got to thinking. We had a conversation about “mansplaining” the other day, my friend and I. Delightful word, inspired by Rebecca Solnit. A man had insisted on telling her all about a book she had herself written (and told him she’d written). Suddenly I don’t feel like explaining any more about the word “mansplaining”.
Women do it too, I said in the imaginary version of the conversation that ran through my head after the actual conversation had ended and I’d left for home. I don’t think there’s any need for the word “womansplaining”, but “mansplaining” isn’t quite as gendered as the term itself might suggest. I could give examples, but I’m not quite that stupid (perhaps there should be a word for the implicit micro-man-to-man-joke contained there?). Who cares, though? Just say “Men!” or ”Women!” in the tone that the word itself dictates, and leave it at that.
What I wanted to say was, we’ve all got our barriers up. Not exactly that we’re all ready to be offended, but that - well, if life was an improv., which it is when you come to think of it, we wouldn’t necessarily take kindly to the suggestion that we have a black eye. How dare you comment on my appearance? Have you considered the feelings of people who have skin blemishes around their eyes? I’m going to tell Facebook about you!
Sometimes, I suspect that being offended is the response that goes with seeing life as a competition. If you’re offended, you’re one up on the person who has offended you, and (I have a horrible feeling I’m about to use the term “passive-aggressive”) in a passive-aggressive kind of way, you’ve made them a target. Your comforters gather around you, and the prat who offended you gets carted off to the guillotine of public opinion (sorry - I wish I’d seen that overly lurid phrase coming too; I could have averted it).
But life isn’t a competition. Except to the extent that it is. Life is a something-or-other in which we need allies, friends, companions, supporters and people to support. There’s something naturally tribal in us that makes us competitive, but above that, the tribal instinct gives us a need for a tribe. May I say “Duh” here? We’re tribal, so we need a tribe. But a bigger tribe is stronger, and the boundaries of a tribe can be extended … a long way. And anyway - it’s only animals in captivity that get stressed enough to attack their own kind. Is this Western Civilisation that we’re living in, or some kind of captivity?
I like that colour around your eyes, by the way.
*Blink (2005). You can, if you wish, go online and find at least one impassioned refutation of Malcolm Gladwell's take on improvised theatre. I say: it makes sense to me.