Dear Associates in Aging:
The other morning, I looked at my feet and realized I’m getting old. Without too much detail, there seems to be something about a lifetime of socks that has eroded my ankles’ capacity to grow hair, and over 50 years of shoe wearing sure has done a number on the shape of my toes. What was disturbing wasn’t the look of the feet themselves, but that these old-guy feet had become unambiguously affixed to the end of MY legs. These couldn’t be my feet! My dad’s, maybe, but mine?
This isn’t the first disturbing evidence of time’s withering power. For several months now, a significantly late middle-aged guy keeps stalking me from the back-side of mirrors… It’s creepy. He’s vaguely familiar, appears to even be related, but he’s not what I expect. I’m well aware that it takes me longer to get from the bed to the mirror in the morning, but there’s always a reasonable explanation for the slow-down; the cause for stiffer joints seems to be confined to yesterday’s strenuous activity, not the accumulation of age… Then I look up and see that creepy old guy. Where did he come from?
Were I taken to the emergency room with a head injury, I’m fairly confident I could answer all the “orientation” questions offered by the physician. I know my date of birth, I know today’s date, I know who is president, I can even identify the day of the week (usually), but please do not ask me my age, because if I don’t take a moment to subtract my date of birth from today’s date, I’ll be off by about eight years. What’s completely disconcerting is how the arithmetically-derived calculation of my maturity seems to match the age of that guy in the mirror…but me?
Equally frightening is how this stranger will, from time to time, commandeer my vocal cords. He’ll make cultural references that indicate he hasn’t been to the movies in a long time. In front of young people he’ll reference music composed and performed decades before their birth, then respond with bafflement at their inability to comprehend his insightful connection.
What bothers me most is how I’ve spent a lifetime coaching others to come to terms with their old-person stalker. I’m even familiar with the neurological explanation of how the brain stores time as a percentage of experience and how that creates a compression of sequence for new information. In other words, when you’re 10 years old, looking forward to 11, that coming year is nearly 10% of your life; when you’re 50, the next year is less than 2% of the total; as a result, today seems pretty brief when measured against a lifetime. As far as your brain is concerned, time really is moving faster.
In 1719, Isaac Watts (no, we were not childhood friends) created a musical setting for Psalm 90 in the hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The full version has nine verses; our hymnal only contains five (clearly, they had a lot more time back then). Verse seven in the original, four in our hymnal, contains this amazing observation: Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day. Watts, who was in his mid-forties when he composed the hymn, may have rethought the verse had he composed it a decade later:
Days, like an ever-rolling stream, / Will make you wonder what / Happened when you wake from dream / And see time kicked your butt. (Don’t worry, my verse ten is not contained in the new Presbyterian Hymnal.)
Looking for short-term explanations for long-term complications, I remain,