After finishing four full decades on this planet — subject to the implacable tug of gravity and bills, the subtle indignities of an hourly wage, the wallop and recoil of calamities both big and small that occur with dismal, unremarkable frequency — life anymore could barely surprise me.
I had checked off all the boxes, those signs of an aging American who’s nearing the top of his hill and has thoroughly adjusted himself to the thought of going over: A thick middle and end; low tolerance for walking uphill; a fickle prostate prone to pick fights at 3 in the morning after too many drinks and a painful pilgrimage to the head; an irksome inability to understand the young and give anyone the benefit of the doubt; an unexpected distaste for voting your principles when ballots offer both a savior and a pragmatist who might actually win.
I scored high on these gerontology tests. If they had been my SATs, I might’ve left town for college. Life in fact was generally proceeding nicely along its pre-planned route despite some earlier misdirections and even a full work stoppage in my 20s and early 30s.
Yet all was not well. Is it ever?
Boredom was lurking in the hallway, a meddler scared of the light who’d hunker down near the heating vent and listen to the unguarded grownup chatter long after it was time for bed. And apathy.
One of the stranger consequences of age is how one’s sense of time can warp and stretch with the give-and-take of years. Young people experience each moment as a unique and dynamic instant in time where possibilities reign. Their clocks therefore run slower, each successive tick of the clock fully considered. Seasons linger long, and years stretch into ages. As a child anticipates his or her next milestone — driving or kissing or turning of age — the universe retards time as if to make the achievement shine brightly in the darkness of our consciousness.
My brother Greg, six years older and the first to dabble in many of the hobbies and pursuits I later came to love, was first to get the prize. His age brought him privileges which I at the time saw as unfair, cruel even, for me to bear.
He’d stay up all night with friends, half men gathered around the dining table with grubby barely beards itching long into the night.
Their lips were orange like their fingers from cheese dust, and they’d dance in an endless cycle from laughter to the shaping of words they barely understood; from terse concentration to bemused smiles of victory and even defeat.
Banished to my bedroom, I could only listen to their playful buzzing, the low cacophonic symphony of hormones and caffeine, sugar and sweat beads falling hard to the carpet. I clenched my eyes shut as if to open my ears, and willed the slow bitch of time into a trot.
Their game was Dungeons and Dragons, a competition of chance and pretend limited only by the clatter of dice and the contents of its players’ imaginations. At nine years old, it was off-limits and deliciously ridiculous.
On the bed, under only a sheet as the ceiling fan failed to cool another hot valley night in a summer of swelter, the intervening years were an insurmountable eternity. And in fact they were. A forever would pass before I was old enough to shit without washing my hands.
The good things, of course, were worth waiting for.
These slow times, where everything good seemed possible only after years of want, they lasted for many years — through elementary and middle school, high school and even college. Every goal seemed impossible at the outset, and if I reached any kind of finish line, it was only after forgetting one existed.
Wanting time to speed up only made it slow way down.
That changed about the time my first child was born. The combination of work, parenting, tending my marriage and pursuing personal goals simply ruined my ability to actively wait. I was barely able to keep up with life, much less anticipate the next thing and the thing after that.
So while the pace was far less belabored, it finally seemed as if a day was really a day, an hour an hour, and work kept me plugging away.
This didn’t last long. More and more over the passing decades, I’d notice that the school year seemed to end just after it had begun.
Birthdays of mine, of my wife and kids even, seemed to pass like white picket fence boards on a country road straightaway.
And the digits that signified the term I’d served among the living? They kept climbing, higher and higher, until it ceased making sense.
Ages I’d always associated with my parents and their generation were suddenly all the rage among people I’d known forever. And I at least was surely not as old as they had been at that age.
The worst part now is that the acceleration itself seems to be accelerating. As I get along in years, and my kids too get older — reaching many of those milestones I ached for back in 1985 — I can barely find time to cherish all the sadly passing moments, collect and reclaim them from the ceaseless rigamarole and store them for future reflection.
Most get lost in the onrush of time, a river of ceaseless seconds that floods the bank and fills the yard, the street, the porch, even the living room, with a dark and grimy broth that may stain the plaster but will recede, as always, with the clouds.
It’s much easier to put your head down and work. Get the job done. Eschew the sentimental need to feel things about your life, to process and analyze your experiences so that you can draw wisdom from what you’ve achieved. Just lower your thinker and bank on the thickness of your skull to get you over life’s tackling dummies.
It works, and it hurts less than pining for goods you’ll never get back. For many of us, that’s the best news since the 49ers won back-to-back Super Bowls.
Unfortunately, I find it intolerable. I want to scoop heavy handfulls of the flood water up and greedily slurp it back down. That nature and the brain have conspired to make that more difficult seems to be one of life’s dirtier tricks.
I know this reliance on remembering the past has its risks. I’ve seen old people lost in the solace of reverie, retelling the same stories over and over to a disinterested lot over holiday dinners and such. They cling to these bits of flotsam from their past as if they were a key to understanding the world, and they share them as if to give these people of the future a glimpse of who and what they really were when it was their turn on the to the main stage.
These are true time travelers. And though I don’t know, I’d like to think they’ve retired from the normal speeds of time and experience. They’ve waded through the long days of youth, the hyper drift of adulthood and all its responsibilities, and maybe now as their days in the sun set, they’re able to achieve a little peace with life’s restless pacing and let time take care of itself.
As an aside: If they’re smart, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to finally get down to what is and what should always remain the central business at hand: Cheese puffs and Dungeons and Dragons.
What could possibly offer more wisdom than a well-flung 20-sided die?
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at email@example.com