"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Too Soon Old, Too Late Schmart–Why Time Passes So Quickly

All people of a certain age have asked themselves at one time or another, “How did I get so old so quickly?”, or as the Jewish saying goes, “Too soon old, too late schmart”.  Despite the encouraging words of others, their platitudes and nostrums, numbers don’t lie. After a certain point there are simply far fewer doors to open down the hall than there used to be.

It is unfair to be this age, alter kockers muse, especially when youth is still visible in the rear view mirror. Nothing has changed, really.  We are still interested in new ideas.  Women still turn our heads, and new adventures still excite. We know we are still the same people that we were 50 years ago. Most of us have moved farther up or down the political scale but if we are honest we still look at the world the way we did many decades earlier.

I have a friend who recently had two teeth pulled and the dentist told him that he had three options: leave the hole, get a bridge, or get an implant. He explained the advantages and disadvantages of each and the cost.  The implants, what with bone transplants, sinus packing, post-excavation groundwork, implantation, antibiotic therapy, and lots of mouthwash, were expensive – not just a few dollars more than doing nothing or rigging my mouth with plates and wires, but thousands more.  “These new implants”, the dentist said, “Will last forever”.

“In my case”, my friend said, “that’s not very long.” He pattered on about how good my friend looked, and that statistically he had many years ahead of him, but he could not make the sale.  My friend opted for the Toothless Hillbilly look. At least he would have cover when he travelled through Appalachia. 

The worst part about aging is that time appears to pass more quickly than it does for the young.  Not only are we all headed for eternity, but we appear to be hurtling towards it.

According to Richard A. Friedman writing in the New York Times 7.21.13):

Why does time seem to speed up as we age? Even the summer solstice — the longest, sunniest day of the year — seems to have passed in a flash.

No less than the great William James opined on the matter, thinking that the apparent speed of time’s passage was a result of adults’ experiencing fewer memorable events:

“Each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to content-less units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

The answer, say psychologists and life coaches is to become more actively engaged. No more falling asleep in the Barcalounger in front of the TV.  No more dozing in the chaise lounge out back listening to the chirp of the sprinkler.  No more pottering around the yard adjusting the bird feeders. No more beach time.

I have understood this for some time, and have noted that my days turn into each other with scary speed and regularity.  I am pouring my bed tea at 4am one day, and then zip, zap, there I am doing it again the next.  I am acutely aware of each action - removing the cozy, adjusting the silver strainer, pouring the tea, adding the milk and sugar, setting the teacup on my desk – because each is a click on the clock, a reminder that not only did one day pass, but it passed without notice.

Most adults do not explore and learn about the world the way they did when they were young; adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood but studies have shown that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be.

Many years ago I had an acute sense of the quick passage of time during the busiest time of my life – my four years at the World Bank. Each day as I walked down the corridor to my office, I looked at the same picture on the wall – a rural Indian woman pulling water from a well, the kind of supposedly inspirational images that were supposed to put a human face on static heads and PVC pipe. The experience was no different than my Early Morning Tea Ceremony.  There she was every day, her back bent under the weight of the water, her sari pulled over her head to protect her from the sun, her hands tightly gripping the rope.

Not only did my crazy days speed up time, they accelerated it to the nth degree. Although I worked on different problems every day, met different people, crafted new solutions to thorny issues, the day was the same.  It was the routine of the day, not the diversity within the routine which mattered.

Time slowed only when I was in African airports, delayed for hours for no explained reason, sure to miss valuable European connections to get home, assaulted by malarial mosquitos, hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable, watching the clock hand move with imperceptible motion from one minute to the next.  The wait was painful and interminable.  Time didn’t move. No one but a masochist, however, would ever wish for a world of such purgatorial slowness.

Maybe more than a challenging, diverse intellectual environment, a complete change of perspective might slow the perception of passing time. Vacations to the Florida Gulf or to the Rockies might do the trick because there is nothing routine about them. In fact, all routine is broken. No more bed tea or tip-tapping on the computer at 4am.  Dinner out, drinks at a local bar.  Altercations, new looks, lumpy beds, cold mornings.

I know someone who decided simply to cram more hours into the day. Sleeping eight hours or even six was a total waste of time, he said, so he slept a fitful four or five, waking up at various times during the night to read, write, or walk.  He pushed his poor brain to the limit and began to see things. He got so completely disoriented  from lack of sleep that his concentration slipped.  He couldn’t remember how to open his combination lock or whether it was Friday or Saturday.  He wrote trashy, disconnected sentences, could no longer remember Macbeth from Hamlet. He forgot to shave and comb his hair. After six months of this routine he had become what he had feared most – a doddering drooler.

It’s simple: if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.

Nostrums, Dr. Friedman. The more we become tangled in a new and challenging subject – like evolutionary theory or learning a click language – the quicker time passes. You may forget to look at your watch, but when you have closed the book on Darwin and noticed that it is dinnertime, your remark is not “Wow, it’s only 6 o’clock!”; but “Whew. Where did the time go?”. The only way to slow time is to be bored silly, or locked in the frustration of an airless Angolan airport.

The author relates the anecdote of how his father used to read constantly and eclectically for all his long life.

And then it dawned on me. I cannot recall his ever having remarked on how fast or slow his life seemed to be going. He was constantly learning, always alive to new ideas and experience. Maybe that’s why he never seemed to notice that time was passing.

Of course he didn’t notice.  He was too busy. But I am sure that one day he looked up from Popular Mechanics and said, “Whew, I’m 86 already? Where did the time go?”.

So if the point is to ignore the passage of time, then giving yourself no opportunity for reflection is the way to go.  Keep yourself so busy with needlework, language, and gardening that you haven’t time to reflect on time.  If you are concerned about the passage of time and how to slow it (as above, we can certainly slow time by travelling to Angola or Chad), take a different route.

Time being what it is, no one has figured out how to mess with time except Einstein, and even that genius could only figure out how to speed time up, not slow it down. Besides, not only would the astronauts on the speed-of-light spaceship be bored silly on their long voyage into outer space, they wouldn’t recognize a thing when they got back.  No more Burger King, bikinis, or shrimp on the barbie.

One of my favorite movies is Nosferatu by Werner Herzog.  In it Count Dracula, played by a creepy Klaus Kinski, is humanized and laments the fact that he can never die. He envies mortals and their loves, disappointments, and passions.  For him eternal life – endless time – is nothing but dark shadows.

Life is merciful, Dracula says, because it ends. In a way he is right. Most people simply get tired of time and how to outsmart it.  They simply wear out in the struggle. 

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