Ties that Bind

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Immediacy.

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I think it’s overrated. Yes, it’s quite wonderful and gratifying in a subversive way to be able to access the universe on a 4×7 sliver of technology in your pocket. But is it really so great to be able to know everything there is to know about anything on a moment’s whim?

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time of card catalogs and trips to the library; of asking someone with more knowledge about a subject than you; for that matter of the “phone a friend” option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The universe still had mysteries, and specialization meant unique access and value. Instant access to everything there is to know may be a form of democratization but it has diminished the value of expertise, with devastatingly predictable results. Fake news. Zero quality control on published information. Less person-to-person communication. Access to weapon-making skills on the part of insane people who always should have been locked away from society, but who now have the ability to cause untold damage because skills are at their fingertips that were formerly reserved for professional war-making machines like governments.

switchboard

Now it seems the only way to actually possess an information advantage, at least in terms of raw information, is to become an expert in something so arcane and technical that no one without formal training can actually understand it. Like nuclear physics. Or molecular biology. Or how the damn smartphone actually accesses a universe full of information virtually instantaneously. (Lots of us remember a quaint construct called a switchboard where wires had to be connected to make things work.)

I’m not railing against modernity, or being overly wistful about some gauzy mental movie set in the past. I am, however, suggesting that technology has got us all by the throat with an ever-tightening noose. We are at once able to access all of the information in the universe and, if the college students I teach are any indication, becoming completely unable to hold or articulate a substantive body of knowledge about anything. This is probably the inevitable outcome of the loss of a common body of experience.

Take the news, for example. Three channels of vetted, professional, credible evening news and major newspapers in every city once provided a common body of information. Today it’s 24/7 muckraking, with a focus determined by the ability to titillate rather than the obligation to inform. Or consider public service. We have a government that’s been so shredded by decades of prevaricating and dishonesty that we have no expectation that either political party is acting in the interests of the people. We were once horrified to the point of expulsion by Nixon. Today we’re barraged with horrifyingly obvious misbehavior, yet can’t muster more than a news cycle’s indignation over a candidate punching out a reporter. A frightening proportion of the “body politic” probably couldn’t name the three branches of government.

And it’s not just public issues. The loss of an essential knowledge base has swept into our personal lives as well in the age of apps that do it all. We’ve abrogated responsibility for such basics as monitoring our personal expenditures and budgets to the point that lots of college graduates can’t even balance a checkbook. Worried about something so basic no longer being taught … hell, how about basic arithmetic? Or that basic social interaction on a face-to face basis has been replaced by Instagram? Look, we’re all guilty to some extent; you’ve probably stared at your phone instead of your dinner companion at least once in the last few weeks.

What happened to thinking? Caring? Mattering? It’s all being swept away in a continually cresting tidal wave of information and misinformation. There’s a play I have acted in a couple of times called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, where the protagonist goes on a 15-minute rant about the loss of shared experience. The essential message is the one that’s common to those who look behind them for meaning: We’ve lost the ties that bind. It’s not the things we do or the tools we use but the importance of a common body of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

knowledge

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Intellectual Vitality

It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

I love this post from AARP’s Disrupt Aging:

Aging measured by one’s ability to jump up and down misses the point. You can jump up and down and do push ups while your brain turns to oatmeal mush. For example, I haven’t been able to jump up and down for years, I hate to go down escalators, but my IQ hasn’t dropped more than 10-12 points.

Some days oatmeal mush doesn’t sound so bad, but of course that’s fatalistic thinking and the reality is the loss of snap crackle pop is probably what is most frightening. Accustomed to thinking quickly, spontaneously, it’s more than a bit disconcerting to be looking around for words or names that should be right there. It’s pretty classic “senior moment” stuff, but uncomfortably noticeable as it progresses from occasional annoyance to regular state of being.

We’re used as a culture to thinking about vitality as physical, but I think the blog comment above puts a fine point on the relatively higher importance of – I don’t know, whatever the opposite of vacuity is. The value of age, apart from the actinic keratosis and disintegrating menisci and creaking joints, all of which point out how great a day is when you wake up and everything doesn’t hurt, is that our minds are incredible intuitive machines that have rebalanced their act in favor of reflecting over reacting.

On the emotional front, frustration has context, anger is less persistent, action is so neatly tempered by consideration. It’s not a black-and-white thing, of course, but it’s every bit as much in evidence as the physical signs or aging. On the intellectual front, things that are just plain hard to know what to do about when you’re coming up are obvious and easy, philosophical positions may not be any more logical but they are confident and clear, and the trade-off of absolute cognitive speed against just knowing isn’t ultimately such a bad one. Not being able to do things, whether skiing a black diamond trail or doing mental calculations, just don’t matter the same way.

OwlIn other words, we have finally figured out what brings us joy and what is not worth worrying (so much) about. Here’s another quote from the Disrupt Aging blog:

I’m 70 and I’m constantly learning because I still teach and do tutoring.  I used to repair my own ’66 Mustang and it proves valuable that I know mechanics when discussing repairs with a mechanic, especially since I’m a woman. 

Recently one mechanic told me that I needed a new catalytic converter.  Yes, I knew that the sounds I heard from under the hood were indicative of a possible distributor failure.  Yep, another mechanic (without my prompt) said that the problem was the distributor.

 It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

It’s not perfect, it won’t ever be perfect, but it’s progress. And not so bad at all in the universal accounting of things.

Scott@agespots

 

Intensity

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first.

Ah, the joys of waking up from a great dream about people you’ve loved, or things you’ve achieved … and feeling every joint you didn’t even know you had.

There’s nothing wrong per se with feeling a bit wistful about the past. It’s all true, we’re 60- or 70- or 80- something, and it’s not the same thing as being 20 or 30 or 40. But here’s the thing. What if, instead of bemoaning what’s in the past – interests, people, experiences we can’t replicate anymore – we spent more time focusing on intensity of the moment.

I’m not just talking about smelling the roses. I mean an alternative, a substitute if you will, for the mission that once drove us. Because that mission, however exhilarating, even fulfilling from a distance, cost us in proximity. Stress, interpersonal tension, willful or blithe inattention to people we could have been more in the moment with. They are the collateral damage of being driven.

I’m a recovering Type A and I know. Like the time I found myself completing a client project at 2 in the morning while my mother was in the last week of her life. Stupid. And for reasons better explained by social psychologists and evolutionary biologists, somehow unavoidable mistakes we all sometimes make.

Kayaking2

I’m hardly stretched out on the gurney at this point in my life, but unmistakably diminishing capacities are real. (I went kayaking yesterday and it hurts this morning.)  I find myself hating aging. But the worst is not the change in body or muscle tone or speed of cognition. No, the hardest thing about this aging stuff is the loss of interest in some things that used to be interesting. It’s not that I don’t want to ski anymore, or that I rationalize it by saying my knees don’t like moguls, it’s that I can’t seem to get up the head of steam to go out and do it.

I was talking to my oldest friend about this. He’s struggled with change, and through losses I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But he’s found the only prescription I’ve heard that’s actually worth anything. I always chased something, and I’m persistent and bullheaded enough that I almost always achieved my goals. So not having something to aim for is absolute hell for me. But what if, as my friend suggested, I change the depth of field from that longer-range ambition (because really, the range has ineluctably shortened to maybe a couple of decades) to a very short focal point of here and now?

Again, I’m not talking about those damned roses, what I mean is concentrating the focus from the lighthouse in the distance to what I’m doing right now, today, this minute. You can’t force yourself to be happy, but what’s always made me happiest is doing something meaningful and with satisfying immediacy. The shift in thinking is it doesn’t have to be meaningful in anybody else’s mind field, just in mine. I don’t know whether I can successfully do this, but it’s sure worth a try.

So thanks to that conversation late last year, I finally sat down and executed on this idea I’ve been kicking around for months now. Age Spots.

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I don’t think this is a space for 30-somethings to reflect on their transition from 20-somethings.

I’ll write a blog post, probably not daily but I hope a few days a week, and you’ll be able to post your own experience, emotions, perspectives – either in response to what I or someone else has written, or just as a personal reflection. I want this to be affirming, but I’m not going to set any rules other than civility and honest reflection. So if you’re having a bad day and just need to vent, well that’s obviously part of it too.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping that for you and for me, the opportunity to express ourselves, to those of us in the same stage of the journey, could provide just the intensity that defines and lifts us.

Scott@agespots

If you have to ask…

This blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I thought for a while about what to call this blog … until Age Spots popped into my head, and seemed the perfect holistic expression of what I’ll be talking about on this site.  If you’re of a certain age, I don’t need to explain.  If you’re not, you might find the blog useful or amusing in an “old people say the funniest things” kind of way.

Sunset (just as inspiring as sunrise)

Getting back to what this is all about.  I’ve reached that point in my life where the balance of prospective to retrospective has pretty clearly shifted to the latter.  So have a lot of my friends and business colleagues.  We talk about all the stuff we’ve always talked about, but especially about what it means to find ourselves here.

We still listen to rock music, but our idols are getting scratchy of voice, crabby, and too frequently “moving on” – for good.  Many of us still work, at least part time, but careers seem less a central focus and certainly don’t involve the same amount of angst or carry the same ambitions they once did.  We strive to remain vital and relevant, but face the reality that we rejected as the baby boomer generation that yes, Virginia, moving body parts do start to get just a bit creaky.

Most of all, we seem to struggle with the hurdle of remaining relevant in a youth-centered world that we made that way.  I once lived in the university town that is now my daughter’s home, and loved it for the fact that everyone in town seemed to be under 30.  While the place has grown threefold or more over the years, that essential characteristic remains.  Except that when I visit now, the place can make me feel like an alien.  We visited a very hip cocktail lounge last time I was there, and the bartender rolled his eyes and couldn’t accommodate my “exotic” drink order – a bloody mary.  Seriously.

So this blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  I will write my thoughts, usually in response to something in the news, or an article that caught my attention, or something intriguing from the fields of art, science or literature.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I invite and encourage your thoughts, and will facilitate the conversation by maintaining the dialogue in subsequent posts.  In the immortal words of that great sage Timothy Leary, thanks for tuning in.

~Scott@agespots