Spotting Age

Time seems to accelerate its pace in dread of looming ages ending in zero.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

On the morning of my 77th birthday I awoke with the impression—I don’t know why—that there was something strange happening outside a bedroom window to my right. The family was in the kitchen downstairs, getting ready for a celebration breakfast. The shades were half-closed, but early morning puffy clouds could be seen from my bed. Something was happening. I couldn’t tell what, as I lay motionless, staring at the clouds moving against a periwinkle sky. They were moving fast, exceptionally fast.

Above my head was a rapidly revolving ceiling fan that appeared to be slowing down, as if it were unwinding a hidden mainspring, though for some odd reason I knew the fan blades were not rotating at all. I tried to rise from bed, eager to lift the shades, but could not. Looking left, everything appeared normal; looking right, the world was spinning in a vortex. Spots, that were nowhere on my body the night before, began to appear on the back of my right hand, one-by-one, but not on my left.

I was aging—swiftly. When I finally did manage to get out of bed the sky appeared overcrowded with specks that, with more directed attention, seemed to be clusters of flying cars and drones dropping minuscule parachuted packages. It was not a dream. I was in a time machine. 

I had just submitted my final draft of The Clock Mirage to my editor, and knew quite a bit about clocks, sleep, aging, time machines, mindful-time, and body time, though—I confess—time itself continued to baffle me, as it had bewildered every philosopher since Aristotle. But that completed book on the question of what time is, in all its guises, was never meant to be about how to use time, nor about how time will be used in the future, and not fully about aging’s affect on time.

So my pondering continued, from studying clues of what time might possibly be, to thoughts that many of us ordinary folks tend to have from time to time about aging. Those fast-moving clouds in the sky seemed to be bringing my age forward at an alarming rate, as the fan above my head steadily wound its imaginary spring tight in a potential to accelerate the clock. Each time I looked, one-, two-, three-more brown spots seemed to appear on my right arm.

Time, though, moves at the same pace that it always has (these days coordinated with the precision of a cesium beam atomic clock in Boulder Colorado), and yet every one of the several hundred people over 50 I interviewed on the question of time’s speed had told me that it seems to move more rapidly with age. For physicists, who use time and its related notions to learn about the workings of the universe, it is both relative and rigidly fixed to the observer’s reference frame. Not so for most folks who feel that time has a way of manipulating impressions of its speed.

Fifty is that age when time seems to start passing at forever-increasing paces; it’s an age that commands a fresh awareness of time. Ages ending in zero seem to count most, but 50 is special — half a century, an age when time becomes increasingly dear, an age when life appears to move faster than it ever had before. Unlike a five-year-old, who daydreams her sixth birthday a humdrum long week away, a 50-year-old conjures that same week as a flash. Sixty comes soon after. Without a few sporadic time-marking nuisances or pleasures to shake up the routine, a 60-year-old recalls times between breakfasts and dinners as vanished flickers of living.

At 60, years begin to rush by with ever-increasing speed, even though water seems to take longer to boil and their rate of tissue repair is five times slower than for a boy of 10. The next decade will fly into the past, and the next after that will pass in a wink as age begins to take over in ways that it never had. You might be wiser, but not faster. Your thoughts of future possibilities shift to the ease of familiarity and acceptance of habit. It’s the decade when body joints yell out their age before those septuagenarian liver spots begin to appear at alarming rates along with wrinkles of the brow, and before one begins to shrink.          

The time machine experience of my double-seven birthday, I suppose, was partly a consequence of dehydration, joined by angst of the looming octogenary decade. That’s when we come, as we eventually all do if lucky enough, to a time when we find ourselves at the top of our genealogical chart. It’s an abrupt revelation, a fast transitory alarm.

It’s when we get to that position of being, as baseball jargon has it, “on deck” for going “gentle into that good night.” That’s when we begin to understand time and life far better than we ever did, when greying hairs no longer matter. It’s actually the reception of pleasant aging. Yes, aging can be very pleasing. We still can have those wonderful moments enjoying a spring walk in a garden, or rhapsodically relishing a meaningful piece of music, or absorbed in what we love most, or perhaps just moments of deep intellectual focus on the real meaning of life, those significant moments of time when we feel alive.

© 2020 Joseph Mazur