Thanks, Mom.

In my last post I shared an anxiety about my failing memory, and compared the dilemma of try to remember what is forgotten to proving a negative, like showing that one des not have WMD. My mom read the post (yea for moms!) and posted a comment... in my e-mail inbox. Mom is quite adept at e-mail, but apparently not so clear on the workings of blogs. Or maybe she was just protecting me from humiliation. Again, not so clear on the concept of blogs. These were practically designed to allow people to embarrass themselves, as far as I can tell.

In that vein, here was Mom's comment:
"Not being able to remember is not a sign of greatness or meanness or anything as eriudite [sic] as being in the same company as a head of state - it's age, Ben. You are now feeling the effects of fast approaching the age of 30! It's downhill all the way, baby! Welcome to the real world."

Yes, it's true. I am old. The last post centered around the beginning of the school year, and if having my mother call me old weren't enough to drive the point home the arrival of high school students LESS THAN HALF MY AGE certainly did the trick. More and more, pop culture references in my class are preambled with "This was probably before your time..." and produce a strained silence that shows I should have stopped there. I've often said that for my students anyone over the age of 21 is basically dead. For me, anyone over the age of 30 is essentially old. I am fast approaching that category myself, as Mom pointed out. Thanks, Mom.

When I was in college more than one person joked that I wouldn't live to see thirty. This was a consequence of my diet and sleep habits, which have only marginally imporved despite my wife's best efforts to force healthy food into me and tell me I'm an idiot when I come to bed as the sun comes up. Oh, and there's also my complete lack of muscle. I used to get exercise by playing video games, but we got rid of the game console and now even my thumbs are showing signs of atrophy. Back in college I probably weighed about 140 pounds. I thought of myself as "scrawny". When I wanted to flatter myself, I thought of this as "scrappy". Now I weigh 138 pounds. Apparently I was sporting a couple pounds of hair back then.

More than once since losing my hair I've been told I look like a cancer patient. I shave the remaining hair off. I like the cue-ball look, though I do miss my long hair when I hear a song that calls for head-banging. But a note to those who think I look like a cancer patient: Wrong! I look like a cancer patient with remarkably tenacious eyebrows. So there.

My declining memory hasn't been the most telling sign of my age. I have always wished I had a better memory. Or, at least, I think I've thought that before. To the best of my recollection.

My consummate un-hip-ness isn't even the best sign of my aging. I have never been in the least bit cool. When someone makes a clever movie reference I'm the one who waits for everyone to stop laughing and then says, "What's that from?" This is a guaranteed mood killer, as no explanation is ever as funny as the joke. If only I could remember this!

No, the best sign of my age is the growing detachment with which I observe the world around me, especially the world of high school politics. I always found them shallow, even in high school when I also considered them important, but I also detested the adults who seemed the respond to everything with an air of jaded experience that I couldn't compete with. I've made a point to refrain from responding to student concerns with sayings like, "You'll understand when you're older," or "This won't matter so much in ten years." When I started teaching I didn't say these things because I didn't like the people who said them to me. Now I don't say these things because I don't enjoy the fact that I am a person who thinks them.

When I was young I thought that experience was a highly overrated teacher. I still think so, but for different reasons. Back then it just seemed unfair to appeal to the authority of experience when someone else lacked the luxury of doing the same. Telling someone they'll understand later is just wrong. If experience is germane to any conversation, it is the obligation of the experienced party to explain the lesson of said experience. If they cannot convey the message to a younger person, the lesson really hasn't been learned. All those people who told me I'd understand later really should have tried to make me understand at the time. I would have been better off. If experience is a means to avoid inter-generational communication, what good is it?

Now I look at experience differently, though still distastefully. I see what I could do when I was young, what I was capable of and accomplished and what I failed to accomplish, and recognize that most of my vaulted experience is composed of lessons I could not learn now. Someone once said, "Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils." I am now realizing that experience is not only the measure of what I've learned, but also the measure of what I cannot learn again. Unlike book knowledge these learning experiences are, by definition, things of the past. They are nostalgia, not authority. Certainly I have a lot more to learn, and a lot more to learn experientially (read: The Hard Way), but as soon as those lessons are filed away the experiences are gone, too. I cannot learn to tie my shoes again. I cannot learn how wonderful it feels to immerse myself in my first great book. I cannot learn what heartbreak feels like for the first time. My experience only allows me to begrudge my students one thing; I wish they were more grateful for the experiences they are having right now.

I finally am grateful. I can't learn to tie my shoes again, but I can watch my son learn, and I think that's pretty wonderful. I can't read my first great book, but I can keep looking for better ones, and maybe even someday write a halfway decent one (mine are terrible). I cannot re-experience the first time I prayed and didn't feel like I was talking to myself, but I can continue to be amazed by new examples of the other-ness of God. I cannot forget that first heartbreak, but I can keep learning that a heart can get more full as I love my wife and son more and more each passing day. I can barely remember the casual amusement I felt the first time I considered the possibility that I was living through the downfall of Western Civilization, but I can continue to be surprised by the growing dread I feel every time I see that opinion reinforced, now that I have a son who will face the consequences.

So I'm getting simultaneously more grateful and more cynical, happier and more crochety, more filled with both hope and despair. I guess that's what getting old is all about.

I still think the "real world" is highly overrated, and is due for an overhaul. I hope I never give up on my belief that "ought" is more important than "is". I hope I die first.

But I hope I don't die before I'm 30. Downhill, here I come.