The age-old question

Debra-Jane Appelby is both 21 and 50 this year. Wait, what? Don’t worry, she’s going to explain. But also ask, what does age really matter anyway?

birthday cake candles
How old am I? I’m 50 this year. A big milestone. However, Debra-Jane Appelby as a legal entity is 21 this year. Yep. How cool is that? I’m both 50 and 21 in the same year.

How, you ask, is that possible? How can you be both 50 and 21 at the same time?

Quite simply because for the first 29 years of my life I wasn’t Debra-Jane Appelby. As anyone who has read the blurb at the bottom of this and the other articles will know, I’m a trans-woman and transitioned when I was 29. Then Debra-Jane Appelby was born as a legal entity and, I suppose, a physically visual one.

Age is a funny old thing, isn’t it? We take it as an absolute but it’s really pretty much subjective. Some people don’t even believe the age of the planet is 4.5 billion years, so why should I believe them when they say I’m 50 just because that same planet has sailed around its star 50 times since I popped onto it kicking and screaming?

I assume I was kicking and screaming, as that’s what babies do but I can’t remember. So am I as old as my memories? The first memory I have, which is not just a memory of baby photos I’ve seen over the years and now confuse with actual memories, is going down to watch the fishing boats land at Filey in North Yorkshire with my dad on holiday. Every day at the crack of dawn, at about four years old, and having a cup of tea and a Blue Riband biscuit every morning.

I can’t look at a Blue Riband biscuit without those memories flooding my consciousness: the peeling paint on the boats, the seagulls, the smells of the sea.

Of course, my doctor would say that my unhealthy state as an obese fatty means my heart health is a lot older than 50. The stuffed superhero toys and video games in my bedroom would suggest I’m much less, mentally at least.

Psychologically you could say I was always Debra-Jane Appelby, or you could argue there is no such person as we are all just constructs of our memories, childhoods and environments. But, to be honest, I’d just rather celebrate my 21st birthday than my 50th, especially as the last 21 years have been a lot happier than the first 29.

So the simple question ‘How old are you?’ is really a very difficult thing to pin down. I mean, how old are my cells? Some of them are mere minutes old; some of them I’ve had since conception. Is my consciousness 50 years old; are we really truly aware in the womb, or when we’re six months old or two years, even? Does it begin with language? When did the ‘I’ that I perceive as my ‘self’, my personality, the ‘thing’ that’s writing this article come into being?

My brain and consciousness and my ‘me’ has changed constantly in the last 50 years with education and experience and the damage caused by Jack Daniels and head-banging.

“You can join the army at 16 but you can’t play Call of Duty until you’re 18. You can leave school and get a job at 16 but you can’t vote on what your tax is spent on. You can have sex, but not get married without parental permission.”

For some, it’s the age of the soul. Christians would say that I’m 50 because it’s 50 years since my soul was put into my body and will stay there till I die. A Buddhist would say the same but that the soul is a lot older than 50, so we’re back to just the body again as I pass through this reincarnation. Maybe I can say that this year I’m 50 and 21 and 11,014!

There’s no denying that I’m not the same person that I was when I was four or 10, or 16, or 25, or 29, even up to, for that matter, 45 because that was when I decided to give up the real world and become a standup comic. I’m definitely a much different person since then; so am I 50, and 21, and five?

Jerry Seinfeld said that your age in comedy is like your age in real life. Once you’ve been doing it for five years you’re really just toddling around, finding your way. By the time you’ve been doing it for 15 or 16 years you’re really coming of age. Cool. Won’t be long before I’m a comedy teenager, then, and I can get all sullen and angst-ridden at my gigs.

So why is someone’s age so important?

Certainly when it comes to things like the age of consent it’s extremely important. Although both of these things are arguably arbitrary, i.e. both age and the age we decide is the age of consent. We know it’s arbitrary because it’s not fixed. The age of consent differs between cultures, societies and nations as much as the drinking age. I’m surprised more American teenagers don’t make the pilgrimage to the motherland when they’re 18 as a sort of note to their history and, of course, to spend three years getting absolutely arseholed in the UK before then being legally allowed to drink at home.

Ages of consent and legal ages can be very confusing. There are many examples which have been comic fodder for ages. You can join the army at 16 but you can’t play Call of Duty until you’re 18. You can leave school and get a job at 16 but you can’t vote on what your tax is spent on. You can have sex, but not get married without parental permission. You can do all of them and have a job, a kid, a flat and bills but you can’t have a beer and on and on and on.

As far as the age of sexual consent goes, we can all agree it’s a very important thing; however it’s still merely an arbitrary number that varies across the world. There’s no chemical or hormonal changes that a girl or boy go through the minute they tick one box from 15 to 16 that allows them to make considered choices. Merely education or the lack of it.

Personally, I like that the older I get, the adage that you’re ‘as old as you feel’, that you’re as old as you damn well want to be (legal terms and conditions apply, not available in all states or territories, please see your religious and political dictates for advice) feels more relevant to me and my generation.

“The simple question ‘How old are you?’ is really a very difficult thing to pin down. I mean, how old are my cells? Some of them are mere minutes old; some of them I’ve had since conception.”

I’ve recently joined the dating game again and while filling out my profile on match.com, when it asked what age range I was interested in, I fell back on that old calculation that the youngest person you can date should be half your age plus seven, which in my case makes them 32.

At least that means Kate McKinnon just scrapes under the wire, but once I started thinking about it I thought even 32 seems a little young for me. I think that the range for me to date would be pretty narrow, maybe 45 to 55. Someone who has the same experiences and the same outlook and the same future. I don’t want to be sharing my life with someone who still has hopes and dreams.

I feel age is really all about your experience. In Blade Runner, the adult replicants were designed and built to be perfect specimens of humanity, ‘more human than human’ and used on the off-world colonies as slave labour. They were injected with memories and dreams of childhood because it made them more malleable and controllable; it made them feel as old as they were supposed to be and not fresh out of the vat or test tube. It also sent them completely, murderously, batshit insane.

So with your life experiences, especially in your childhood, comes a level of, shall we say, maturity in some that others never achieve. I mean, how often have you heard someone pat a kid on the head and say, “Wow she’s old before her time,” or “She’s an old head on a young body”? Perhaps we ought to measure people not on the years since they were born but their ‘maturity’ level. It would certainly make the roads and comedy clubs nicer places to be.

I’d like to think that was true for me too, except the other way round in that I’ve got a young head on an old body, but hey! I’m trying to make my body younger. If your heart health and your weight and everything can mean you are older than your years, physically, then exercising, watching your nutrition and losing excess weight should mean that you can get younger. Right?

And I’m doing it, well trying to do it. To claw back some of those overweight years, to repair that damage and not only shed pounds but a few solar rotations too. And to that end I dictated this entire article onto my iPad while using a static cycle.

Therefore, technically, because I’m now a tiny bit fitter than when I started writing this, I’m also a tiny bit younger. Not only am I 21 and 50 this year, but I’m travelling back in time to meet my younger, healthier self. Because I miss her. She was a good laugh. And I hear it’s her 21st this year. PARTY!


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Written by Debra-Jane Appelby

Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.