Essays About

Youth and Age

When I look at my wedding photo, I am amazed that such an important decision as who to spend my life with was made by someone so young. The life I live now, albeit happily, is not the life that I, but this baby face, chose. With age we get wiser, but our green and innocent selves have already made life's great decisions. A doctor labors for forty years at a career he chose as a college sophomore. A fifty-year old smokes because a fifteen-year old wanted to try it. Decision is brief, and consequence long. Five minutes of pleasure leads to parenthood. Moments determine decades.

To do what one likes requires free time, money, and health. Children have health and free time but no money. Adults have health and money but no free time. The old have money and free time but no health.

Last night I returned home from vacation. Not having checked the local forecast, and arriving after dark, I could not tell the weather conditions except for the temperature. This morning I woke to a gray, dreary sky, humid air, intermittent rain, and moderate warmth. This waking to unknown weather recalled my experience of weather in childhood, when I had no knowledge of forecasts. Each day was a distinct world divided by the curtain of night, and I never knew what was coming. Reversing unpredictably from dry to drenched or calm to blustery, weather had an arbitrary and absolute character—not part of a causal nexus but a fate handed down. I submitted to the sky utterly, making its mood my mood, imagining life only within its limits.

In adulthood, broadening my knowledge has localized the weather. I anticipate cold or heat waves, recognize this overcast sky as a frontal system exiting the region by tomorrow. In dry weather, I am conscious of the rain falling in places I could drive to. In winter I think of Australia's summer. Great thunderstorms which once rattled the whole world now seem small because my thoughts fly to the storm cell's edge, where the clear sky eastward dwarfs the blackness behind.

There is a comfort in the memory of my childhood acquiescence to weather. I would like, again, to be ignorant of the weather, so I could wake surprised and submissive to each day, believing the here and now were the whole of life. Knowledge of other possibilities has fragmented my adult consciousness. I am nowhere, through being too aware of everywhere.

Who would not be fascinated to know what his life will be like in 15 years? Yet time will satisfy our curiosity about the future so slowly that we will never gain much pleasure from learning the outcome. To quench my curiosity now, I travel back in time instead of forward. My present life is the future secret that some self of a prior decade longed to look into, and now I know the outcome and need only recall the curiosity. I imagine myself in high school wondering whom I would marry, where I would live after college, and what my job would be, so that I can pull the curtain of time and flood my remembered ignorance with insight. My accurate and failed predictions equally fascinate me: I am, and am not, who I planned to be.

The mind is a phasic receptor, only noticing a sudden stimulus. We are unconscious of who we've become because we became who we are too gradually. Forgetting is a trick for remembering.

Observing teenagers—their self-doubt and theatricality, the earnestness of their flirting, their bleeding desire to be seen, to be loved, to be in love—I envy adolescence. Granted, I am far happier in my early thirties than I was at seventeen, and would not trade places. My teenage years were at sea, which is to say were typical, but in the decade since, I have made landfall, gotten a wife, a career, a home; I have set my lands in order. I have attained much of what I then felt sick with desire to have. But though happy, I am happy within the limits of possibility, whereas my teenage imagination was ignorant of limits. Adolescence attracts me not for the happiness I had, but for the happiness I believed I could have. Desire, not happiness, tastes of the infinite. I felt most alive in those years I would least relive.

From the delivery room to the morgue is a short walk down the hallway of life. Obstetricians keep undertakers in business.

At the funerals of the young, grief is raw and chaotic. Young people being the limbs and liveliness of the world, the death of the young amputates the world, and the mourners' grief is like the howling of an amputee. In contrast, the funerals of the old are more solemn than horrific. Why beat one's breast at the inevitable? On closer inspection, this solemnity for the old is a muted grieving for the young, that is, for the young of fifty years ago, on whose world the barely cracked door claps shut when the elderly die. Fifty years ago, the hunched and white-haired hobblers of the present were in their prime, making laws and making loans and making love, when today's movers and makers were still asleep in the lampless anteroom of the future. The sun shone on a world that, with the elderly's death, no one left living now remembers except through lifeless books and black-and-white photographs. As the coffin is lowered, not so much a person as an era is laid to rest.

We think of childhood as a time of stability, and adulthood as changing and uncertain. But whenever I visit my niece and nephew, this attitude is revealed as false nostalgia. Every visit, my niece and nephew walk differently, pronounce "R"s differently, attend a new school, are taller, play with different toys, have new wardrobes, converse with me at a higher level of consciousness. I must enjoy any likable phrasing or mannerism quickly, since next visit my niece and nephew will be new versions. What do adults know of mutability? Occasionally we switch gyms or jobs or towns, but children change their whole costume of body and mind on a regular schedule, cycling through identities faster than birthdays. Our unit of aging is the decade, theirs is the month. Humans age faster, the younger they are.

We seldom catch the transition from sleeping to waking. Gently we dawn into consciousness, but because so gently, we do not notice the metamorphosis until it's complete, when we discover ourselves lying fully awake in our bed. It is like the change into life itself. Having clambered up the steps of infantile cognizance, one day in childhood it first occurs to us that we exist, already many years after the fact. Looking back for our beginning, the past is a fog, and we find we cannot remember a time when we did not exist. No wonder in youth we feel immortal. How could we die when it seems we have always lived?

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.

For the young, music is an intimation of life. Each sonata or concerto cracks, but does not fully open, the door to worlds not yet experienced. The violin, singing of unknown desires, stirs desire. The cymbals' crescendo resounds with heights of elation not yet relished. The bass drum booms a cryptic proclamation of great events—happening where? For the old, music is a memoir of life. The buried strata of past experience, loosened by the mysterious psychoanalysis of sound, erupt into consciousness. Sorrows and joys which played singly through time now harmonize into a grand symphonic impression of the tremendousness of living. Must not the brittle self shatter to have been poured so full of experiences?

In a concert hall, the girl in bloom closes her eyes and imagines all she may be, while beside her the wrinkled widow closes her eyes and remembers all she has been.

At a wedding last weekend, a girl was present whom my wife had not seen since high school and did not recognize at first. Apparently in high school she was rather plain and unremarkable, whereas now, at 26 or 27, she is all elegance and glamour. She is living in Boston as a shoe designer. She wore a black, backless dress with a low, V-shaped front. Her hair was no longer straight and brown but blond and wavy, and she wore it half-up. She had a tan without being too tan. She smiled and talked to her friends and drank a beer and danced often.

The next day, reviewing her old appearance in my wife's high school yearbook, I was surprised by her transformation, for in the old photo it was clearly the same face, and all that seemed to have changed was her hairstyle, her fashion, and her posture (which in the photo was slumped and unconfident). I had trouble deciding whether her high school plainness had masked a beautiful face, or her twenty-something glamour now masks a plain face. I tend to think the former, and if so, it makes me wonder how many other girls may be beautiful incognito.

Had my wife not told me this girl was not always so attractive, I might have guessed it from her demeanor. She acted like someone newly pretty. Girls who have always been pretty strut about like shining goddesses among mortals, aloof and scornful. Woe to the flirtatious male if he is not as gorgeous as she! Woe to any friend who aspires to be more than her mere attendant! The girl at the wedding was too unused to her looks to be arrogant. She evidently retains the fresh memory of her adolescent plainness and is still learning to believe in her new beauty, as if the mirror's reflection and men's attention compete in her self-esteem against the insecurities engrained over years. She hopes, rather than quite believes, in her beauty; her fledging faith craves additional proof. When men smile at her, her sincere and surprised smile seems to say, "then you do find me pretty?"

Young writers are often guilty of contriving passion. They begin their work in earnest, but then they overstep the limits of their real feelings, adorning their hard-won experiences with borrowed ideas in the hope of enhancing the impact, yet actually diminishing it. Nevertheless, this youthful erring toward artifice and overextension is rooted in genuine ardor. Because young writers feel so impassioned, they try too hard to impassion their readers. Should not the reader then forgive this falseness born of authenticity?

Waking today to my twenty-seventh birthday, I caught my first glimpse of middle age. Last year I was twenty-six, which leans against twenty-five, which means scarcely out of college, still hoisting one's sails, all seas untraveled. But twenty-seven tips and falls toward thirty, which is another era entirely, suggesting children and yard work and settled plans and life figured out. In high school I had a recurring dream of taking a test and realizing the time was almost over, though I was still reading the instructions. The dream was prophetic, for though I've only had time to complete an education, which is reading life's instructions, I have already blazed a third of the way to mortality. My future has shrunk from infinite to countable. Whoever can count his money has too little of it.