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Beyond Gertrude Stein

David Cowles

May 11, 2023

“The agony of childhood is only incidentally related to bad parenting. The Prince and the Pauper are, above all else, children, and childhood is exile.”

As ATM frequent fliers already know, we are big fans of Gertrude Stein. In my view, she is one of only a handful of truly original 20th century prose writers. So the title of this article, Beyond Gertrude Stein, gave me pause. There’s precious little ‘beyond GS,' but here goes…

Famously, Ms. Stein wrote, “We are always to ourselves young men and young women.” No matter how old or young we are ‘objectively,' we feel ourselves as ‘young men and young women.'  

I’m 23 and free! I can go anywhere and do (almost) anything. In our culture, the range of so-called ‘age-appropriate’ behaviors is broadest during the period we define as ‘young adulthood.' Age consciousness is lowest and, therefore, so is age-related tension. This is our period of maximum chronological mobility. This is our golden age!

Even so, society always has its expectations: “These are the best years of your life, don’t waste them; if you plan to have a family, you better start soon; I ran into Betty at the supermarket, her Mikey is already a junior partner.” 

Nuisances, no doubt, but a far cry from the boot camp of childhood or the super max of seniority. Still, even a nuisance can cause tension; that’s why I always keep a fly swatter in my desk drawer.

When we were in nursery school, we were all pretty much the same; so it is again now that we’re all on Boot… I mean Shady… Hill. “Damn girl, is that you? Weren’t you in my play group at Humpty Dumpty Academy?” In fact, a bunch of us HD grads are matriculating at SH now, getting ready for that final ‘final exam.'

From nursery school to nursing home, about 3.5 miles I’m told, but oh, the adventures we had on the way! We had a million different jobs; we traveled to a million different places; we met a million different people; we had a million different kids, some of whom still visit on holidays.   

At every stage of life, we experience age-related tension. We must be what we are not: a baby, a child, an adolescent, etc. Naively, we assume that people can and should just be themselves whatever their age, but, of course, you can’t ever ‘just be yourself,' not at any age. You must always ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’ (Eliot). 

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At least you’re in good company! These days even God ‘prepares a face.' He caught Moses’ attention in a ‘burning bush’; he confronted Job ‘out of the whirlwind’; and he revealed himself to Elijah as a ‘still small voice.'

Imagine that the course of one’s life is like a sine wave. The peaks correspond to the periods of greatest age-related tension, the troughs are energy sinks. Once I am at rest in an energy sink, I’m ‘trapped’…but blissfully so, and young adulthood is the mother of all such sinks! 

From here, no matter which way I move, tension can only increase. This is as close as I’m ever going to get to my ‘Octopuses’ Garden in the shade’ (Beatles), and we cling to it…desperately. 

Growing up, I had a perfectly acceptable life. Nevertheless, when I left home ‘for good’ at age 18, I felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted. I was surprised; I had not known that I was carrying such a heavy load. Many times over the next decade, I remarked to friends, “My worst day since leaving home was better than my best day before.”

Had my parents overheard, this would have been hurtful. They did what they could to make my childhood a positive experience. In retrospect, nothing they might have done differently would have made much difference. The agony of childhood is only incidentally related to bad parenting. The Prince and the Pauper are, above all else, children, and childhood is exile. We sojourn in a foreign land!

Like most ‘60s kids, I hungered for independence; even so, I did not anticipate the extent of the physical relief it would bring. At the age of 23, I found myself splashing about like an empowered infant in my newly discovered Kohler ‘energy sink.'

From nursery school to nursing home, you’re prodded all along the way to ‘act your age.' But how?  We’re not born with a sense of ‘age.' It might sound crazy, but you have to learn to be an infant (“be cute…or else”), a kid, an adolescent, an adult, a geezer. 

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From this data, Stein concluded that ‘young adulthood’ is our ‘natural age,’ but there is nothing intrinsically special about it. Society has made it special by glorifying it. We have only minimal behavioral expectations of young adults. ‘Don’t shoot someone’ is a far cry from ‘drink your milk’ or ‘ring the nurse when you need to move your bowels.' 

It’s not so hard/being me/now that I’m finally/23! Of all life’s stages, young adulthood is when we’re least conscious of age. We’re old enough now to do most anything we want (except run for president), but we’re still young enough to ‘indulge our inner child’ when necessary. 

You can hobnob with septuagenarians at a morning board meeting and then join a pick-up basketball game with 14-year-olds in the afternoon. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for all our lives! Free at last…at least sort of.

Stein takes this to mean that “we are always to ourselves young men and young women.” Actually though, we’re ageless! Being expected to “act your age” is tension-generating at every age, albeit least so in young adulthood. On the other hand, it sucks being five…or, God forbid, 75!


Image: Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). Gertrude Stein, 1905–6. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946. (47.106) © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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