Monday, March 25, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 2. The Shape of Aging

We can all do the math—when you’re born you’re age zero and when you turn 60, six decades have passed. But how do we conceive of it? There are many ways to represent this passage of time. Here are a few I thought up.


The Speedometer (and the Odometer)

Just like a sprint with a race car – the speedometer shows my current velocity. It’s a commonly quoted performance figure for a race car. What’s your 0-60 time? If it’s under five seconds, that’s pretty fast. Over ten seconds and it’s a family sedan. 

But maybe a speedometer isn’t a very good gauge for age. My speed changes the minute I take my foot off the gas or hit the brake—or stomp on it harder. Perhaps an odometer is a better concept, showing my accumulated mileage. For people, maybe each year could be, say, 2,000 miles. A car with 120,000 miles on it should have plenty of useful life left in it, don’t you think?


The Timeline

Draw a straight line between two dots—birth and 60 (or whatever your age). That’s about as simple as it could get, right? The problem is, there is no quality to a line. It just connects the dots. You could add milestones, of course, such as starting school, high school graduation, first job, marriage, first kid, retirement. Or how about first kiss? First live gig with your band? First published story? First prize in an art show? The timeline is one way of looking at it, but it is moving only from left to right. And, it feels like time is accelerating, but a line can’t indicate speed. It just lines up events—the ones you choose to think about—in chronological order.

Another kind of timeline is the bar on an iPod, which fills in until the song is over, when another new bar begins. 3:27 of your life has passed. I hope you enjoyed it.


The Expanding Circle (or Blob)

Considering what we gain by living over time, maybe an expanding circle is a good image to represent our life unfolding. From a helpless baby we learn about our world, meet people, experience many activities and events, and grow. The circle doesn’t have to be a perfect circle—maybe a blob would be better. Some areas flourish, some don’t. My musical side is the former while my athletic side is the latter. For each person it would be a different shape. 

How far does the shape expand? Does it reach its maximum capacity, like a balloon? Can it burst? How quickly does it grow? Are there periods of greater and lesser growth (image of  tree rings)? Some may think that life expands more quickly when you’re young and slows down when you age, but that may not be true—certainly not for everyone. And maybe it’s an illusion, since adding to a larger circle is less obvious.


The Focusing Circle

This is a somewhat like the opposite of the Expanding Circle. In this case, there is probably expansion for a while, but later, the less important areas fade from lack of interest or attention, and you concentrate your attention on the most important things. This could mean dropping a few hobbies to concentrate on one or two. You could end some unproductive relationships. You could clean out your garage. For a very elderly person, it could mean getting one good visit to the bathroom, or having one stimulating conversation.
Certainly, over time I’ve become aware of my splintered attention. What if I could cut out the distractions? Could I make more progress in the areas I kept “lit”?


The Unrolling Film

The file image works for people who remember watching Super8 home movies, before the age of the DVD. This image presumes a finite (but unknown) amount of life, that at one point, possibly  to the complete surprise of the individual, suddenly runs out. You see the take-up reel, full of film, rotating quickly, free of tension, as the tail flaps against the projector. The show’s over.

This concept takes for granted that there is an already-shot movie that’s simply playing out over time. But I think that life is constantly changing, and isn’t predetermined. If you stop smoking you can make the movie ten years longer.  I’d rather believe that we renew our lives every day, and that our actions today make a difference in the quality and quantity of the journey.


The Graph

Statistics can illuminate or obfuscate—or even titillate. We are used to seeing graphs that show the human life as an ascending line, peaking in the early 20’s and then declining, even precipitously, after some advanced age. Does that mean that I’m running at reduced capacity at 60? Well, sure, I do have less hair, less bone density, less muscle mass, and on and on. But what about my emotional life? What about my experience? Am I worn out or am I filled with experience? Where’s the other graph with the ascending line for wisdom?

We could also display a bar chart. This method works well for comparing now and then, or me versus the statistical average. These comparisons, for whatever they may be worth, are probably going to be depressing if they are indicating the body’s functionality, but could be very encouraging if they portray relative wisdom of a teenager and a sexagenarian (I like the sound of that!).


The Meandering Line

What if life is a journey—sequential and not linear? This makes sense, doesn’t it? I start out in Buffalo, New York but end up in San Francisco. I begin in the Music Department and graduate in English. I work in the book business but wind my way through sales, sports marketing, technical writing, and then what? I get married, go through a divorce and remarry.

The meandering line can indicate change well, but doesn’t show growth or accumulation of anything. If it meanders too randomly, it shows a lack of direction.  It also doesn’t indicate the quality of the trip or what method you used to get from place to place, or how long you spent there. It doesn’t indicate your companions either.

But for tracking the stops along the way, sure, it’s worth a look.


The Rising Spiral

It’s great to be a positive thinker, and truly believe that every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better. This could even help counteract the pain of consulting a graph that shows your declining vigor or viewing a life odometer that’s collected more than 100,000 miles on it. 

Are we truly getting better? And if so, why? What is each of us doing that makes us a better person today? Are we working out? Are we helping other people? Are we improving the world or ourselves in some way? Are we driving a Nissan Leaf electric car to work? What is the spiral measuring—simply “betterness?” I’d like to imagine I’m on a spiral, but I’m not sure.

I’d hate to see it as a descending spiral. That would be like a dead leaf falling from a tree—or water going down the drain. No thanks.


Interconnected Circles

I’ve drawn one of these charts before. It starts with me in the center and I draw all the attachments I have to things—people, jobs, activities. It shows my connections to the outside world. This kind of chart is a fascinating exercise, and is a great ways to appreciate how much you have going for you as you get older. Your Facebook friend list is long. Your list of job references is, too. You’re a member of this, a participant in that. You’ve got kids—and grandkids. This grid of interconnectivity helps prevent loneliness and a feeling of being out of the loop. The challenge is to figure out where you are amidst all that activity. You can make the circles bigger or smaller to indicate importance. Color-code them to show relationships. Go crazy.


A Dot in the Center of a Circle

This image is ideal for the Zen practitioner—or the front of a Target store. We are individual but part of a larger whole. We are in the center of our own life, with everything in it around us. We are all we’ll ever be all the time, part of the great oneness of place and time. It’s a great thing to consider. It may or may not require any religious belief, having no hierarchy built in. We just are.


The Flying Calendar Pages

This is the perfect black-and-white movie image to show the years flying by. Preferably, there’s dramatic music playing. It portrays time as passing day by day, month by month, and year by year. And, in that, it’s accurate. We live one day at a time and one year at a time. We celebrate (or mark in some way) our birthdays. If we think of life as a series of days, maybe we can experience it in small enough pieces to think that we can actually do something that matters right now. 

Conversely, if we think only of one day at a time we may not make plans. We need to manage that calendar by looking at today’s page—but making appointments on other pages, too. You can do this on your smart phone today—and it’ll even remind you, if you want.

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