Dispatches | November 01, 2005

I’ve been ma’am-ed with increasing frequency lately.

This is due in part to my recent move from New York City to Columbia, Missouri. Having grown up in Michigan and gone to college on the East Coast, I’d always taken Missouri for a Southern state. I’ve lately learned that it’s part of the Midwest – albeit, a part of the Midwest where the bugs are gargantuan and the temperature can reach 88 in October. These signs of Southernness give me hope that the ma’am-ing is a regionalism. But a look in the mirror suggests differently.

The true reason for these ma’ams is that I’m no longer anybody’s miss. I’m a fortnight into my thirties, and I’m realizing that this milestone birthday means something different in a Midwestern college town than it would have if I’d stayed out East. Thirty is fashionable in New York – aren’t those Sex in the City girls thirtysomethings? Here, though, thirty may mean I’m the oldest woman in the bar. I speed along concert admission lines, the bouncers unfailingly waving me past. And while my own mother wouldn’t pretend that I look under 21 (despite what this would imply about her own age), I’d still appreciate the courtesy of an ID check. But in a college town, the parameters of youth haven’t been stretched the way they have in the culture at large. Here, if you’re not an undergraduate, you’re old.

Of more concern to me than these episodes is the fact that I am no longer, in the strictest, most striking sense, a young writer. I won’t be making anybody’s “Best 20 under 30” list. If I have a publicist, somewhere down the line, it’s unlikely she’ll be pitching my age; if my books are reviewed, the reviewers won’t be exclaiming over my precocity. From here on out, I’ll be expected to write like an adult. And as you might guess of a perpetual student, I’m not quite ready to do that. While I’m not interested in coming-of-age stories, I don’t feel like I have the perspective yet to create primary characters who are older than I am. So, for several years, I’ve been struggling to complete a novel that I don’t feel old enough to write. The lameness of this excuse is becoming all the more clear in a climate where I am more dame than ingénue, less miss than ma’am. Could this, then, be the bright side of being ma’am-ed? Is it possible that answering to a new form of address will help me to wise up as a writer?

I am taking this idea with me to my computer, taking from it what I can. In the meantime, I’ve concocted a different strategy for my daily affairs. I call it pre-emptive ma’am-ing. It can be employed when interacting with young strangers of either sex. For instance, at the gym: “Excuse me, ma’am, are you done with this elliptical machine?” Or at the big game: “Pardon me, sir, but your foam finger is in my beer.” As someone venerable once said, turnabout is fair play.