The Old Man Who Is Me

editorial by Chris Lott

A week ago (October 23 for those who are interested and for friends and family who forgot) I turned 27. The event was marked with little recognition, but it was the first birthday I’ve had which has truly made me aware of the fact that I’m aging. I’m getting more gray hairs (enough that other people see them), becoming more complacent about doing things and, at the same time, more agitated about the need to do them. Mostly, though, I am feeling—finally, some will say—the strange transition from teenager to man, the new feeling when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror that I actually am an adult now.

By no stretch of the imagination am I claiming to be an old man, only that I am really feeling the effects of aging. I’m old only to my children, who have no concept of time, and the adolescents I run into, who are busy denying that time exists.

I’ve always been one to expect the worst in order that I could be happy when anything less than that happened. Anytime age becomes a topic of discussion, I am the spoilsport who claimed to feel older than my years and twice as old on the inside. Now the worst has become reality— I really do feel this way, all the time. My usually cheery claims to pessimism have run into a snag… I can either start claiming to actually be dead, something most people wouldn’t believe, or try to lie to myself that there is always the sunny side to consider: at least now it can’t get any worse and I can live in happy stasis for the next 50-60 years.

Or I can take the Norman Vincent Peale route and try to convince myself that it’s all psychological, that aging is a matter of the mind. Right. I’ve got news for all the Og Mandino and Deepak Chopra fans out there: age is mostly something the matter with the mind.

There is no denying the clear signs: I don’t remember what I read as well; it takes longer to remember people’s names; common words fail to come to my tongue when summoned; the connoisseurship that I used to laugh at and associate with the fuddy-duddies—fine wine, classical music, chess problems, gourmet cooking—are now my obsessions.

And let’s not forget the body. There is nothing pretty about the slowly encroaching decrepitude of the human body. I no longer recover from exercise like I used to… I don’t even recover from recreation like I used to; weight is gained and takes up permanent residence along with every cold and flu within a 200 mile residence; sports become work and the gym a death chamber populated by medieval body-breaking contraptions; sex is something that other people have that I am content to sit in a chair and read about while eating a snack.

Some of the changes are wonderful. I love being able to appreciate the texture of so many things in life instead of just the color and cut of the material. Like the late convert to coffee, my only question about this aspect of my new mental landscape is how I lived without it for so long (of course, this is also the feeling of the heroin addict, but that’s another subject entirely). But the sum effect is one of loss and frustration that only becomes worse with cogitation.

I have always advised those who are having problems writing not to refer to their maladies as "writer’s block" because doing so only magnifies the myriad tiny problems that compose this mythical mental ailment. "Charge forward!" I confidently advise, "Don’t create a real problem out of something that is really simple, though not at all easy." When it comes to the changes that accompany growing older, though, this becomes a hard prescription for the doctor to take… my back hurts too much to charge and I usually can’t remember where it is I’m supposed to be charging off to.

But both of these aspects are mites next to the elephantine problems that accompany the aging of my ambition. In this day and in my position, when the physical elements have ceased to be deadly, my physical needs are accommodated, and modern medicine can sustain my bodily mechanism for longer than is conceivably positive, it is the tidal forces of ambition and time, accomplishment and aging, that wreak the real havoc.

In terms of these ideas, I am withering right before my very eyes. No longer can I harbor the not-so-secret hope that I will publish a groundbreaking first novel which will firmly establish me as a new, young literary lion, or that my verse will mark me as a poetic phenom. In the realm of poetry, at least, I am still relatively youthful (I recently read-- with an inordinate amount of happiness-- that Robert Frost published his first poem at 37!), but am never going to be mistaken for a prodigy, and am unlikely to make any Contemporary Young Poets or Young Author collections.

The "fire" still burns, but much less remarkably. Dragging myself to pen and notebook is more often a chore than a treat, and reading the prodigious work of a youthful author more often inspires fear than any desire to best them… which is worse even than envy, a feeling which was at least usually uncomplicated by feelings of inadequacy.

My ambitions haven’t changed, but their scope, and the expected reception of their products-- which I am unashamed to admit is a motivational factor, despite the unfashionable nature of saying so-- has become smaller. Worse, I’m convinced, despite myself, that they need to become smaller still. I don’t want to believe this, but I can no more teach myself to think otherwise than I can force myself to believe in God or Karma, despite the comfort such beliefs could give me.

Paradoxically, all of the urgent agitation that accompanies these thoughts is also partnered with diminished intellectual inertia. I feel the overpowering need to do more and more accompanied by less energy and compulsion to actually do them. It’s harder to get the ball rolling and it seems to slow down faster than ever.

I’m not looking for pity. There are many worse things than aging, even if I’m not completely sure what they are. Nor am I alone, I am sure, in feeling old before my time… though none of my equally cured friends seem to exhibit any anxiety about it. I’m not even looking for answers, since nowhere in these paragraphs can I spy a clear question. I just want to understand when, exactly, looking in the mirror started revealing an adult rather than a young man… and why it doesn’t feel more satisfying.

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