“I said, time, time, time is on my side, yes it is”—the Rolling Stones [cover]
But maybe not so much.
This is the story of my time and how I have thought about it over my 75 years. It is painful to write, but for some reason it feels necessary to write it.
Perhaps it is an unpacking of accumulated angst.
Perhaps it is designed to convey to younger folks a perspective on what I suppose to be a typical journey. Forewarned is forearmed.
Perhaps I am just afraid.
And so we begin. And we begin with an admission of failure. Who can recall what a young child thinks about age? It is easy to project and assume, and to have a high level of confidence in that assumption. Thus it would be easy to say that at an early age I became aware of time in the sense that I wished I were older for any number of reasons. That might include being able to play sports better, or to stay out later, or to watch a favorite television program that started as late as say 8pm. That might include wishing that when we played stick-ball in the street, trying to hit a pink Spalding as far as possible with the handle of a broom, I wanted to be older so I could hit as far as the benchmark distance for bragging rights, the distance of the length between the sewer cover we used for home plate and the second distant sewer cover down the middle of the street. So why do we not assume together those assumptions as they are as good as any; they are what I would think that I would have thought. But I confess that I do not recall.
So what is it that I do recall?
I remember pride at being old enough to graduate from PS 189 in Brooklyn, New York and to move onward to PS 232, my junior high school. I felt grown up. We had different relationships with teachers, we were embarked on a joint march to knowledge. They were leading, but we were participants, not silent cannon fodder.
I remember waiting for my learners permit to drive a car, for which I became eligible when I turned 16. I promptly applied, certain that driving was to be easy because it seemed that almost everyone could accomplish it. Even mothers who, at that time, were generally thought to be ancillary functionaries although to be strictly obeyed. And to be defended, with your fists if necessary, when some other kid said something disrespectful about your mother, or simply answered your own taunt with the thrown gauntlet words, “Ya mamma!!”
I remember being angry at my age when I arrived at College only as a sixteen year old. My classmates were all two or even three years older; some had gone to yet another prep school year for anotherl year after graduating from their initial prep school, a thought wholly alien to the middle class streets of Carroll Gardens. They had better clothes, better panache and better academic preparation, and they were far more confident about girls (or so I assumed). What foolish hubris had encouraged my parents to advance me so quickly and to leave me at the whim of my under-agedness? My efforts to grow older on the spot by buying a pack of Camels cigarettes (wretched, and the bits of tobacco kept dropping off from the unfiltered cigarette into my mouth) and by getting drunk at the West End Lounge on Broadway (the policeman was very nice to me, as far as I can remember) did nothing but reinforce my sense of inadequate aging.
I remember pride when I graduated from Law School, younger than almost all my cohorts. I had a head start. I would practice longer, achieve more, earn more, be better for longer. Married at that time, I reinforced my head start by starting to have children. I was young to have children, to move to our two family house and finally our single family house, young to be a partner in my lawfirm, young to have my children advance through school. Time was relational then; it had to do with my personal sequence with respect to my cohort. It had no personal meaning other than a benchmark that made me feel superior.
I am at this point reminded of two of my favorite lines from a movie. Interestingly, they both are about death. I think now that I prefer these lines because they carry the voice of inevitable power with them, a tinge or mortality of which we are reminded not by our own perceptions but, rather, by some broader force or being.
The first is when Orson Wells is dying, presumably taken by his God. The voice intones deeply: “And then death came, as it comes to all men, to Charles Foster Kane.”
The second is when Roy, the last surviving replicant(robotic person, or “skin job”) is about to die in the original Blade Runner movie based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Robotic Sheep. Programmed to die at a certain moment by the robot’s God, the man who designed him, Roy turns to the Blade Runner and wistfully recalls the wonder of his quasi-life: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the darkness at Tan Hauser Gate. All these moments will be lost, in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”
When does one begin to contemplate one’s mortality, and begin what I will call the mental mathematical dance we have with our own time to live? I see great depths of truth captured in great movies; I see my own awareness reached and drawn out by the power of what appears on a screen. For many I am sure it is the written word but, for me, it is the written word expounded by the artistic enhancements of lighting and photography and the emotive skills of actors who I believe are putting a voice to the truth and emotion within those words. I do not know if either of these movies (let us not call them films, a pretension of nomenclature) triggered my own initial awareness of time as a fearful thing and a gross injustice to my person, that would be far too pat a conclusion to be accurate, but this is the point about time: it is finite, and when your mind switches from thinking about time as chronology and how you relate to the world, and when you begin to count your remaining years, you have stepped upon the most slippery slope of all. And, you cannot step back onto the high ground.
Not that you abandon how you mark yourself to market on a comparative basis. I still think that I may look young for my age, or be one of the oldest lawyers or partners, or have outlived many or have more energy than people much younger. The old habits do not die. But these thoughts now are secondary to the thoughts you have when you lie down in bed and actually shock yourself by thinking, “I hope to hell I wake up in the morning.”
So now I will explain to you my own mathematics. It does not involve counting down to meet my maker. It does not involve achieving certain things before I die, although I do find myself having those thoughts also. It does not involve being “there” for my family, although of course I think of that also. It is a remarkably selfish and fierce mathematics, and it is all about me.
And it is a false mathematics, unlike the purity of real numbers. It is a subjective mathematics. It is rigged.
I think I was about forty when I started thinking precisely about time. Until then, a casual mental throwaway sufficed—I am young, I have lots of time to do what I want and so I need not think about dying. Anyone can die at any age of course, but for me it is a rarity, and it is a waste of the time I have to worry about the statistically insignificant.
I absolutely recall being forty. Not the day it happened, but finding myself within that cohort. Why? Perhaps it was popular culture beginning to invest a certain decade of life with the baggage of age. People do not call you young when you are in your forties; you are middle aged. Middle of what? Well, your mind translates that into “half-way to dead.” Not a happy phraseology so, let’s change it up.
Maybe the average person of my generation dies at 80 or so. You find yourself looking up those things. Women live longer; well, can’t much parse that metric. Men live around 80, it turns out, though it depends on all sorts of things like race, geography, genetics, not to mention poverty and war.
Well, that’s not so bad, is it? Look at all I have done, enjoyed, accomplished and learned in my first half. I can foresee a picturesque denouement through my second half, learning and earning and finishing raising my children and meeting my grandchildren and retiring and reading and traveling and enjoying the benefits of new medicine that, dare I think it, is likely to give me a few more years than today’s actuarial tables suggest. They never could fully anticipate the incredible rate of medical advance that will actually allow me, a person with enough money to afford the insurance that will allow me to enjoy these advances, to tack on a few golden years.
That worked for me until I hit sixty. That is, for those of you without your slide-rule, 75% of the trip to 80, not a sanguine thought. Time to think about the math you are using. Well, it is clearly wrong, at least as for you personally. Here you are, sixty and healthy and look at all the new medicine, and you seem immune to the things that kill younger men. Is it not true that if you make it to 60, your time line expands. You look it up. Eureka, it does! And we all know about genetics, don’t we? Let’s look at the family tree. Let us ignore those unfortunate relatives who died young and, particularly those troublesome analogies of those who died at say 70 or 75, or just about 80. Not much help from those cohorts. But wait. Dad! He lived to almost 101. Everyone says I look a lot like him. Even the same theoretically unhelpful build, a realized tendency to some body fat. And he did it without all that new medicine. Mom died around 90, not bad but then again she had been a big cigarette smoker in her early and mid-years so let’s just tack on another ten years to her story—fair is fair and after all, my mother’s mother lived to 109, rumor had it.
We obviously misfigured when we began thinking about this age thing. We were counting percentages based on a rough end-line of 80 years. We really should use 100 years. Sure, it seems like a push, but then again think about all the careful analysis that brings us to this conclusion: genetics, present health, new medicine, careful life style, and let’s start modest systematic exercise while we are at it just to be sure. We now have 40% of our life left. Sounds good.
I have a child when I am 60. I am putting my money where my mind is.
Actually, I am putting the kid’s money where my mind is, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?
Things go pretty well. Now you don’t dwell on percentages as you have a vague but certain sense that the percentage of your time is, by definition, falling. You think about 100 years as your target. You feel good, although truth be told your knees sometimes feel awfully stiff and you get a bit more winded when you walk quickly, and you avoid those hikes up the steeper hills. But that is normal, those are not markers of anything other than your success in getting to where you are standing. And standing you are, that is the point; sure those knees you are standing on are a bit tired, but they deserve to be respected and to be rested a bit more, while your heart and lungs take care of that living thing you have going on.
There is something not good about thinking that your life is 75% over. It is what drove you to recalibrate when you were 60. So happy birthday, you are 75 years old and 75% down the slippery slope. How do you handle those thoughts? Not easily.
We can revisit our already revised assumptions; let’s give that one more try. Medicine is accelerating; great although those advances seem to focus on illness rather than simple aging. People are living longer; great, although a lot of them are those pesky long-lived females and what is that statistic about certain foreign countries pulling ahead of the USA in male longevity? Looks like some of those are European countries with early retirement ages; less stress on those men. Maybe I should slow down? But my self-image a long-lived survivor is tied up in not being one of those short-lifers who actually do slow down. Gotta think more about that one.
What about the end-line? Increase that above 100? That actually does smack of self-delusional manipulation. It is very important not to rig the mathematics so grossly that your mind is required to recognize that you are playing a self-serving game of mental massage. Mathematical Xanax is not the goal. Credibly believing you are going to live a long time is the goal.
So at 75 I have run out of tools to play the percentage game in terms of how much longer I may live. I change up the game. Now I am concentrating on the absolute number of years I have remaining. Again, eureka. I now have twenty-five whole years to live. Given my skills, education, health and attitude, that ain’t so bad. That’s actually a lot of years. Years in which to be sure to slow down a bit and work on enjoying the now-ness of things, of people, of children and friends. Pretty comforting, actually. I am happy again, although truth be told I would trade where I am today, chronologically, for just about any earlier point, however embarrassing and inept I might have been when I actually struggled through that age.
It all works, and you cannot live your life being afraid you will die. To say you will live every day as if it were your last sounds inspiring, but it is actually an anti-life statement, and is enormously depressing. I think this model of personal mathematics is going to work for me for a while. I occasionally think forward and wonder what I might think in fifteen years from now when I am, ugh, 90. Best to not go there, it might cast a pall on the years in between. But when I do think about it, I say to myself that perhaps I will be more tired, less scared, less drive, more at peace. I will see my children and grandchildren in or approaching middle age, or even beyond. My own personal health may be such that living forever seems less appealing. It may be, as I have been told by my own father, that you change your thinking when all your friends and acquaintances and contemporary relatives are gone; not a thought I enjoy but, then again, I have been told this by someone with an experience base I lack.
Thus I am working at living my time and being at greater peace. I have little choice in any event, and that is also somewhat a comfort. I can be who I am, and that may be for good or ill in the eyes of others but it is an unabashed comfort when I am looking at myself.
So it is good.
I just have one residual wish, and that is each night, when am going to sleep. And it is a wish that sometimes does interfere with closing my eyes, to tell you the truth.
Each night, I find myself wishing to hell that I wake up in the morning….