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Essay: Spherical Senility

Thu, 04/27/2023 - 14:44
The author, right, with his wife, Celia Paul, on an outdoor excursion during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At 88, I've been granted tenure in an institution called "old age," a.k.a. "senior citizenship."

It resembles a lifetime appointment in a university, where tenure is granted because of your books, articles, the quality of your teaching. But in tenure due to elderliness, the entrance requirements are entropy, chronological time, the density of your complaints, and your bone density. Aging into senior citizenship transforms your transient maladies into thermodynamic decay.

I spent a few hours the other day trying to remember the word "eureka." It was a word I used often in my lectures. Familiar, yes; recallable, no. Much later I was able to remember. Tenure time is spacious. The ideas and words are still in that spheroid at the top of your spine. You just have to wait. Albert Einstein said he wasn't smart, he just stayed with a problem longer. Genius is merely continued attention.

Spherical senility means we look old from every angle, every vantage point. Despite the pandemic and creeping decline, why are some of us tenured elderly so lucky, so unreasonably effective? And cheerful? And productive? 

Despite pervasive medical issues and cognitive decay, can you still read your own handwriting? How long does it take you to start the day? Do you wear suspenders and a belt? Does your body tilt forward when walking (even when there's no wind)? Do you still understand song lyrics? How about opening pill bottles, or dropping pills? How about your sense of taste? Sad, especially when it's moi.

Do you know why young people beep their car horns at elderly people who stop at red traffic lights? The red light has changed to green and the old guy hasn't noticed. Sad.

Do you know anyone who waits at a red stop sign for the stop sign to turn green? So very sad.

Are you distractible? As in going into another room for a piece of paper, and by the time you get there you think you need a pencil? Or you forgot your mission?

When watching old movies, you almost remember who the old actors are. Or misremember. Is that William F. Buckley or William Bendix?

Don't say hello to the guy at the gym — because he almost certainly remembers your name. But I can't remember his. A friend has developed a greeting strategy: "Hi pal! You look great!" ("You look great" is a euphemism for the third phase of life, the one that comes after youth and middle age.) 

Have you noticed increasing wait times for tech support? Is that because senior time flows differently than junior time? Or because pandemic forces have increased the demand for help, especially from seniors.

Spelling. When I type words on Google email, the app completes my word. Problem: It isn't the word I was thinking of. For instance, I type "to" and out comes "too." I've been second-guessed by an algorithm, but it's not the end of the world.

Did you ever know a man who shaved one side of his face, got called away, then forgot to shave the other side? I knew him. C'est moi.

But all is not lost. Repairs are available.

How about music? Name that tune: Beethoven's Fifth or "I Got Rhythm"? "Swanee" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"? There's an app my daughter introduced me to. You let your smartphone listen to the song, even in a restaurant, and guess what? The app tells you the name of the piece, who is performing, when it was recorded, and so on. Thanks very much! 

Technology. Unbelievable. Dad would have loved the miracles of the 21st century. Electric cars! Helicopters on Mars! Dark matter! Artificial meat! Modern medicine! Entertainment excess! Thanks again!

As we age, our moderate eccentricities become less moderate. I have always heard melodies in my head. I used to think it distracting, especially when it was an "earworm." One of those tunes like "Mares Eat Oats" or the tune from the ice cream truck. As a kid, sometimes it would last for days. A Grammy Award-winning friend pointed out that an earworm is a benefit. "Aren't we lucky to be able to carry these melodies around with us?" It's a gift.

When young, doing physics, writing a book, or trying to focus on any chore or topic or conversation, I noticed my mind would wander, ranging over a long, seemingly random list of topics unrelated to what I was supposed to be concentrating on. Now I view it as an asset to my imagination and creativity. Thanks!

Thirteen years ago, I had an inspirational stroke. Got to the hospital in time. Stayed under observation for a week. Had time to think and enumerate my life's woes. Here are the kvetch lyrics my creative hospital stay inspired, to the tune of "Everything Happens to Me":

I take a lot of naps, get lost while reading maps / my teeth have many caps, I imagine hearing taps / I guess I'll go through life, getting lots of real bum raps / senility is zapping me with zaps.

My face gets very red, I need a lot of med / lie down in my old bed, but not yet am I dead / I guess I'll go through life complaining, like I said / it's nothing, not really, to dread. 

Thanks for listening. 

Stephen Rosen, a physicist, lives in East Hampton and Manhattan.

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