Numbers Game

Lying about age is practically a civic duty. Who knew honesty could be so liberating?

Illustration by Gracia Lam

I cannot remember when my sister and I found out our mother had lied about her age. We were already in our thirties, maybe our forties. Here’s the thing: She only bought herself two years. That made us laugh and also feel very tender toward her. My mother had been an actress, and we figured her sleight of age had started back when a part required a younger woman. Two years, though? Essentially honest and straightforward, she must have thought it was the kind of tiny cheat she could get away with—she always looked great, still does, with high cheekbones and wide aquamarine eyes. My mom simply told someone along the way that she was, say, 28 instead of 30, and the ruse stuck. We found out when her lifelong best friend, Toddie, spilled the truth—the sort of accident my mother must have always thought would happen someday. Toddie responded to a comment we made with, No, you girls have it wrong. Your mom was born in 1922, not 1924. We never confronted our adored if tricky parent. But in these recent years we have noticed that her official papers—insurance cards, will, et cetera—list her correct birthday. At some point she outgrew her small deceit.

This is not an isolated case—certainly not in a city that checks itself out in the mirror every day, a land of eternal sun and scant clothing where people routinely engage in the age fudge, hoping to be mistaken for someone younger. A journalist friend told me a funny story about an interview with a well-known local personality. The subject was being questioned over the phone, and when asked her age she lopped off two full decades. The reporter swallowed hard and carried on. You don’t confront the speaker in that situation. Of course, the fact checker turned up the woman’s true years in a matter of minutes and thus, in print, those 20 years were added back.

People have similarly fibbed to me during my long journalistic career—much of it spent here in L.A. I do have sympathy for them, especially for those who work in the movie business. I am not talking about the performers but the agents and producers and publicists. They operate in a youthcentric world of teenage stars and baby-faced directors—not to mention colleagues who are in their twenties—and there’s a fear of being seen as unhip, obsolete. At her funeral the much mourned public relations whiz Ronni Chasen was fondly remembered as one determined to keep her age a secret. She had stayed trim and attractive—and was mum about her real years. Beneath the amusing stories was the hard reality. Hers was a tough business, a lot of jockeying among the troops to hold on to younger clients.

The problem, of course, is you can’t really keep anything a secret these days. In a nanosecond—with the click of a computer mouse or the tap of a cell phone screen—someone can find your real birthday. I am amused that, knowing how readily accessible information is, anyone tries to chop off a little—or sometimes a lot. These days, prior to setting out on an interview, I’m on Google, which means I know how old someone is before I ask. If they’re not being straight with me, I crack an inward smile and keep going. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t lie about my age. I would feel chagrined—make that mortified—to be found out. 

The other reason is more old-fashioned. I am a golden rule girl, a child of the 1950s. I was taught since kindergarten not to stray from the truth, a lesson reinforced by my attendance at Sunday school. My parents were not committed churchgoers, though they firmly believed that their young daughters needed a smidgen of religious education. On many an early morning, my sleepy mom, her camel hair coat thrown over her pajamas, would drive us to the Presbyterian church, which stands on the corner of Bundy and San Vicente a half mile from where I live now, for our spiritual and moral lessons—which included “Don’t lie.”

It was considered hugely impolite to pry into someone’s age anyway. I remember sitting as a child on the sofa in my pink party dress, staring at the father of my mother’s then boyfriend. He looked ancient to me. I was probably around nine. I couldn’t hold back. I finally said, “How old are you?” Before he could answer—I recall his rather thin smile, and I think I asked because I didn’t much like him—my mother said, “That’s not appropriate.” Dutiful child that I was, I never again asked anyone, at least not before adulthood.


I don’t want to sound too prissy. There are times when a minor dodge over how many years one has been around has merit. Even in our days of high-speed info delivery, the question, when put directly, can feel invasive, and you want to say, “Hey, none of your business.” I found it hard for a while to admit that my husband had crossed into his eighties. The sound of that scared me, moved him closer to the end zone. By not saying it out loud, I felt as if I were holding him in place. I had always been his “child bride.” That’s how he signs his cards to me. But it has begun to sound a little corny and a touch nostalgic. The other time I hedge is when asked about my big yellow Lab. People at the park or on the street will inquire, “How old?” If I tell the truth—if I say, for example, “He is six”—they plunge right into my heart with their advice. “If you are going to get another one, you’d better do it soon so they can play together.” It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining and my dog is full of life. I don’t need a reminder that he will, in a handful of years, not be that way. I say in response, “His birthday isn’t for a while” or “Isn’t he the best-looking Labrador?” I punt; I feint. I am not out to talk about mortality.

For women in general the issue of age raises a basic fear that’s inescapable in our city of flashy divorces and cautionary tales about older men leaving wives for younger babes and suffering no opprobrium. Several of my friends have been blindsided by the defections of longtime husbands. Their angry tears have lubricated—along with plenty of white wine—many marital postmortems with their female posse. How? Why? I didn’t see it coming! We all quake before such pain, the betrayal. Yet the ex sails on into new waters, often having a crop of babies in his sixties or seventies, leaving a lot of midlife women to grumble about the procreative disparities between the sexes.

Obviously, lying about her age does not make a woman younger (just as no amount of Botox does). But that minor cheat—or self-con, if you will—helps her get back up and out there and brave enough to offer herself on eHarmony or JDate, albeit with a mildly dishonest birth date. If you are single later in life and rattling around the dating sites, the temptation to prevaricate can be strong. We who are snuggly ensconced in enduring marriages must refrain from judging those who are not.

I am unable to misrepresent my age, not even by a few years, à la my mother. I don’t want to tote around a deception. Nor do I want to play games—not with men, not with bosses, not with myself. I want to stand tall, no apologies, no ducking. OK. Here it is: I am 60. Never before have I written it out for the entire world to see, the big “6” and the big “0.” There they are. All those decades. Do I feel liberated? Ask me later. I am amazed that I am here. Most of my friends feel the same way. We were young forever; we are the baby boomers. Youth culture are us. These pals are a vibrant, noisy, energetic bunch. They hike and cook and read and write and run companies and litigate cases—and yes, they are sometimes tired to the bone or sad to the core because we are also, at this age, losing parents and friends. We try to take care of ourselves. We badger each other to have mammograms and colonoscopies and full-body skin checks, and we take our calcium and fish oil tablets.

Never have so many women aged so well—particularly here in L.A. With its emphasis on youth and beauty, this is a tough place in which to grow old, but it is at the same time a great city to do it in. It is one giant outdoor playground. There is so much physical freedom, with the beaches and the mountains. My friends are always rocketing around, exulting in new sports or the ones they have loved since girlhood. I have sixtysomething pals who are taking their first surfing lessons and others who boogie board in Malibu in the dead of winter. I just bought my first wet suit. I did it so I can swim in our pool, which we cannot afford to heat during the cold months. The real story is that I didn’t want to live a whole life here and not own a wet suit. Getting into it was a hopping, cursing, laughing struggle. I have also taken up beach volleyball. I competed on a high school team, but that was on a hard surface. Playing on the sand is a revelation. You land facedown time and again as you dive for the ball. That fear of falling and breaking a bone—which haunts older people—has been transmuted into joy. That’s what I am after, more bliss-filled moments, ones where I am flying free, limbs working, hair a wild mess. This is what 60 looks like.