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How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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Memory and plagiarism

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Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Nostalgia in old age

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As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.

A utilitarian view of nostalgia.

Fragments of time

Most of us walk around with time strapped to our wrists, and most of our watches are digital. We see only one number at a time. On the other hand, for those of us who still use a circular clock face, that number is seen in the context of many others. It’s located by moving hands. Time experienced as analogue has a wholeness and flow that digital time doesn’t.

Does this have anything to do with the fragmentation of our lives?

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The movies in my mind

I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns!  I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.

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Remember the “good old days” when the world was “normal?”

We’ve all heard the phrase “the good old days” many times. Too many times, probably. But just yesterday, for the first time, I understood it.

First of all, it’s not that they really were “good.” Not necessarily, anyway. They were just the way things were, and everything that’s deviated from them is not the way things ordinarily are.  Could be better, could be worse, just not “normal.” My normal, and I would guess that this might be true of many people my age, happened in the 1950s. I was old enough to begin to understand the world around me, but not old enough to understand that everything was not what it seemed. Age 11 to 17 or so. I’m sure the actual years will vary from one person to another, and younger people will have other times that became their normal.

Anyway, at that time we lived in the suburbs where most average and normal people lived. We went to church on Sundays. My mother always insisted that most people believed in God, and from what I could tell, that seemed likely. We all thought Mormons were odd then, but their Tabernacle Choir sang on the radio every Sunday morning, and was a Christmas staple. The mainstream Protestant churches were the church; they were very American; there was a reason two flags, the American and the Christian, were at the front of most churches. Catholics weren’t all that much different from us, even though my Lutheran minister thought they were an abomination. He apparently hadn’t seen Bing Crosby as the affable priest in television reruns of “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” There was no one more American than Bing Crosby.

Bing Crosby in “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”

The only cheese was American cheese. I guess there was something called Swiss too, but all I knew about that was that it had holes. Children were expected to grow up and do better financially, and in most ways, than their parents. They were expected to marry and bear children, and do something practical to earn a living. Everyone knew that it was necessary to defeat Communism and the evil Russian empire, and that we might die in a nuclear blast – but probably wouldn’t.

I could go on and on about what was normal then. When I got to college (in San Francisco), when I ate cheddar cheese and San Francisco sourdough and drank red wine; when I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” and listened to Miles Davis, when I marched for peace with Communists and discovered they looked like other people; when I began to frame another kind of American world for myself — when the whole world opened up to me and I discovered the beautiful variety and excitement of life — then normal faded. And I was glad.

 
But last night, for the first time, I really grasped that “the good old days” were those several years when I came of age. That, I’ve always unconsciously measured the fascination of the world around me by what I knew then. That was what was normal, and everything else has been wonderfully, and sometimes awfully, abnormal.

Do you dream in colored pictures?

In the 1950s people said they dreamed  mostly in black and white. Today, the vast majority say they dream in color. Did our grandparents have brains that were very different from our own? In a review of the book Perplexities of Consciousness by Eric Schwitzgebel, Nicholas Humphrey in the New York Times Book Review of July 31, 2011, writes:

“Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies — pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black and white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version. But here’s the thing. Neither analogy is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.”

 
I’m giving short shrift to the review and the book. Both are about variations in seeing and its interpretation. What do we really know about what’s going on in our minds? Just maybe, not much.

The living and the dead

Not many weeks ago, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz was on Charlie Rose. He’s one of those people who says things we’ve heard before, but says them in a way that makes us think it’s the first time.

However, on this particular night he said something I hadn’t thought of – that Protestantism has changed our perceptions of death in the Western world. We no longer feel close to the dead. There is no continuity between the living and the dead. Shakespeare, for example, had no difficulty writing about ghosts. Oz theorizes that the end of purgatory also meant an end to spirits and their kind.

 

In Chinese and Mexican cultures, the dead are honored, even celebrated, every year. Death isn’t at all as final as it is where Protestantism and, today, science hold sway. Death is understood to be a definitive ending: My grandmother died. She went to heaven or hell, became one with the universe—or simply turned to dust. Whatever, it’s unlikely she’ll speak to me from beyond the grave.
This hasn’t always been true. Just read Splatter, a blog from Lady Marilyn Kay Dennis,  filled with tales of a not-very-long-ago time when commerce with the dead was not nearly as uncommon.

 

P.S. I wonder if the vogue for vampires doesn’t have something to do with a need to make contact with the unliving

10,000 year-old-clock

I’ve always been uncomfortable about the passage of time. Nevertheless, I remember as a child debating with my sister about the wooden grandfather clock in my grandparents’ kitchen. It chimed on the quarter, half hour and hour. Would she inherit it or would I? Even then I knew it wasn’t worth much—it came straight from a Sears catalogue. As it turned out, we were both busy somewhere else in the world when my grandparents moved to Assisted Living. I don’t know what became of the clock.

Watches and clocks are wonderful machines. There’s something intensely lovely and human about them. Which is surprising when I think about it. Time isn’t a warm, cozy phenomenon. It measures the beginning and ending of everything. It’s a source of hope and a harbinger of death. And still, I like clocks.

Clocks age gracefully. But I just read about a ten thousand year old clock. Unimaginable. Ten thousand years ago were there any clocks of any kind? Were there numbers to measure time? Were there people to measure it? About six thousand years ago, people were only beginnning to read and write. Eleven, maybe twelve, thousand years ago they made their first tentative beginnings at tilling the land. Who knows?

But the 10,000-year-old clock that I’m talking about is a work in progress. The largest clock ever made—with gears of stainless steel, titanium and something called silicon nitride—it will be tucked down a long stone tunnel chiseled into limestone on a stretch of West Texas desert. “Over the course of its 10,000-year life span, it will be able to power itself enough to keep time, synchronize that timekeeping with the sun, and randomly generate unique melodies on its chimes so that visitors will never hear the same tune twice. And it will do so entirely without electricity.” All of this from a technological journal.

The geeks building this long-living clock are searching out possibilities and materials that will withstand weather and the millenia. For example, the clock doesn’t tick every second; it works in ten second units, which should extend its life by a factor of ten.

In an age where speed reigns supreme, where everything happens more and more quickly, the clock is about the long term. One of the clock’s inventors, electrical engineer Danny Hills, built his career on making fast machines. …. He was struck by evidence that our increasingly accelerated culture is eroding our ability to think about the future. Building an ageless clock was a way to bring long-term thinking back. …. the world needs to learn to think long term or risk failing to appreciate century-spanning problems like climate change and deforestation.

Ironically, one of the creators of the project and its major funder is Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and head of Amazon
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I’ve been trying to think about this incredible clock ever since I read about it. It isn’t, of course, the first monument meant to last for many millenia. The pyramids, Stone Henge…  The difference, it seems to me, is that they were built for religious reasons, and they were meant to be forever. The reason for this clock is of our time and deeply secular. The clock has an expiration date. The reason for its creation is about what humans must do for themselves.

I try to imagine what the world will be like in ten thousand years. Cultural changes are accelerating. Today, even a century means change that is unimaginable.

Most of all, I wonder why, even now, I find the idea of the clock charming, warming, a little whimsical, magical even. What is it about clocks anyway?

A jug, a man and the circling world

A few months ago I attended a memorial for a friend—a man, a husband, a father, a community activist and a Quaker. I hadn’t known Nash as well as many of the 150 or so people there. We’d both worked in the Civil Rights movement for national church organizations decades earlier, and I remembered the photographs he’d taken of Mississippi’s Delta Ministry. When I met him a few years ago, I immediately felt connected.

At the end of the testimonials, someone who knew him far better than I did paraphrased a poem by Wallace Stevens that reminded him of Nash, and when I got home I looked it up. It was a whole new way of looking at him and, perhaps, at all the people who matter to us in the world.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the mound
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.