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Jewish World Review
March 17, 2009 / 21 Adar 5769
What Was I Going To Say?
The Daily Telegraph brings welcome news "Old age begins at 27 as
mental powers start to decline, scientists find." It seems that the
University of Virginia conducted mental acuity tests on 2,000 adults
over the course of seven years. The results: Your steel-trap brain is at
its best around the age of 22. By the time 27 rolls around, you've
already begun to depreciate.
Those of us who are well past 27 can smile smugly as the younger set
takes in the fact of its relative senescence. A 30-year-old may feel
pretty immune to the ravages of time, but aha! we now know that he or
she is taking just a smidge longer to factor those square roots than
someone fresh from college.
As someone who got her first gray hair at the age of 24, I've always
been unusually conscious of time passing. This needn't be morbid. My
junior high school French teacher had a sign on her desk that read
"Wasted time is wasted life." Bearing that in mind can make you crazy or
it can make you productive. It may have made me a bit of both.
Study or no study, most 27-year-olds will not perceive their creeping
decrepitude. That comes later. About age 45, most adults notice big
things, like their vision deteriorating. "It's the age when your arms
get shorter," explained an ophthalmologist. I don't mind this. Before I
had Lasik surgery I wore glasses anyway. It's not such a shock to need
readers though vanity forbids doing the only sane thing, which is
wearing them on a chain around your neck. I'd rather leave a pair in
each room and spend time patting piles of papers in search of missing
ones than look like Marion the Librarian.
Becoming far-sighted isn't so bad. Losing your short-term memory,
however, is another matter. What was I saying? Oh yes, short-term
memory. In the last several years I have forgotten countless
appointments, addresses, events, and e-mail addresses. I laugh if
someone tells me a phone number when I am without pen and paper. I have
three calendars and a BlackBerry that rings to remind me of things and I
still manage to screw things up. Bill Cosby recommends that when you
forget why you entered a room, you simply back out and walk back in
again. This sometimes works. I tell my family that my declining powers
of recall are a boon to them as I can enjoy the same jokes over and
over. This works less often. You must hone compensating skills, like
searching for that bored look in your spouse's eyes to alert you that
you are repeating yourself. This rarely works.
I have forgotten the names of friends' spouses and children hundreds of
times. I now understand why my parents had so many acquaintances called
"whatshisname." Big social occasions become gauntlets as people whose
names I've forgotten greet me by mine. When I do remember someone's name
I sing it out proudly and then later cringe at the thought that I may
have gotten it wrong anyway. I wish I could wear a sign around my neck
at times like these. It would say roughly the following: "Please don't
take it personally that I cannot remember your name. I can list the last
several articles you've written that I particularly enjoyed or the talk
you gave at whatever that was broadcast on C-SPAN. But names are my
There are other dismaying aspects of middle age, but there are also
major compensations. Truly. George Bernard Shaw (at least I think I
remember that it was Shaw) famously quipped that "Youth is wasted on the
young." One great aspect of getting older is that you gradually shed
your self-consciousness. To quote Cher's character in "Moonstruck," you
"get over yourself." Young people are in perpetual fear of being
embarrassed, of saying or doing or wearing the wrong thing. They are
burdened by an exaggerated feeling of conspicuousness. We middle-aged
people get to the point of not caring so much about the opinions of
others. We know that most of the time people are too wrapped up in
themselves to even notice or care what we may be doing. And if they do
take notice and judge us harshly, who cares? Suddenly little old ladies
in tennis shoes make perfect sense.
So fear not. While the mental decline may begin at 23, the serenity
kicks in later.
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