• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Fun With Aging

Long stories, and figuring out what really matters.


April 5, 2016

A few days ago the whole family was watching tv together when someone onscreen made a reference to the Cold War. The Girl, 11, asked “how did THAT start?”

The best I could come up with in the moment was “it’s a long story.” I’m not proud of that.

When I was her age, and even through high school and into college, the Cold War was a very real thing. It was just a background condition of life. Yes, it was starting to look a bit shopworn towards the end, but it still held power in the culture. (If it didn’t, Rocky IV wouldn’t have resonated the way it did.) When the American hockey team beat the Russians in Lake Placid, it felt important. Cheesy pop hits of the 80’s were often Cold War allegories: “Shout,” by Tears for Fears, was about ICBM’s, and Sting hoped the Russians loved their children, too.  

It’s hard to convey now what it felt like then. But to The Girl, I might as well be describing Periclean Athens.  

Aging is like that. My lived reality is her ancient history.  

Doing the math makes it even worse. Mathematically, the 80’s are as distant from now as the 50’s were from the 80’s. Of course, the math can’t be right, because that’s just preposterous.


The math gets even worse when you figure out how old certain authority figures in your life were at given moments. When Mom was the age I am now, I was in grad school. That can’t possibly be right, but that’s what the math says.  

Aging has some downsides that are hard to ignore. Aside from the whole “hurtling headlong toward death” thing, there are the noises one’s knees make in the morning, and the way that small print decides to get fuzzy at random moments.  There are the losses of people who were important in your life, whether through death or just through sort of wandering off.  Popular culture loses its coherence and becomes much more fragmentary and arbitrary, though (mercifully) also far less important.  The Boy, who is fourteen, is sometimes taken aback that I don’t recognize this song or that one.  I explained that at a certain age, you’ve earned the right to not give a single, solitary &*)&^ about Fetty Wap or Justin Bieber.  And I choose to exercise that right.

But getting older also has some real upsides.

The big one is pattern recognition. It becomes easier to spot personality types and to predict behavior. You learn the difference among implacable opposition, give-me-some-time-first opposition, and ritualistic opposition. You recognize cycles. You learn viscerally that time has a way of juggling priorities, and that it will again. You get some distance on yourself, and either beat yourself up or, if you’re lucky, cut yourself some slack. You start to see dynamics develop, and have a quick sense of “I know how this ends.” That saves all kinds of trouble. And you learn that rejection is survivable.  That’s a big one.

You get a better sense of yourself, which is nice. And you get better at sorting out the things that won’t change from the things that will. History suddenly seems a lot more accessible, since it’s easier to picture actual human beings, flaws and all, in different settings.  

The Girl is beside herself about this year’s election. In her young life, it’s the first one in which she could actually follow arguments and land on her own opinions. I share her fascination with it -- that poli sci doctorate came from somewhere -- but not her panic. I remember that panic, but I don’t have it now. Concern, yes.  Panic, no.  I don’t miss it.

Where the Cold War came from is a long story. It’s all a long story. But the plotlines gradually become clearer, even if the type gets harder to read.


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