Earlier this afternoon I read another article, this time in the Atlantic if I’m recalling correctly, that talked about life in terms of a series of particular stages:
- Learning and development (teens)
- Ideas and vision (20s and 30s)
- Exposition, development, and writing (40s and 50s)
- Teaching (60s and onward)
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard (or read) this bit of wisdom. In fact, I’m not sure I can count how many times I’ve heard something essentially similar to this. In this case, the author was reflecting on their experience amongst professional writers and journalists, saying that in effect this rang true.
I suppose there is something to it all. By the time I was finishing my Ph.D. I did feel as though my brain was different from what it once had been. And this does seem to be a period in my life in which I’m more attuned than ever before to the practice of communication, and in which I feel compulsions to write, even if I’m not writing much in particular at times.
But it does make me wonder what lies ahead. It often feels as though most of my life hasn’t really been in any of these stages, but has rather been about “problem solving.” Problem solving not just in personal life and in career life, but even my career itself seems to have been a series of posts in problem-solving—mainly small logistical and practical problems, with little room for my own ideas or vision. The Ph.D. was the first time I really got to exercise those parts of me.
Given that it took me so long (nearly my first four decades) to arrive at a place at which I could express ideas (I’ve always had many) and actually have people pay attention to them rather than deign to listen to them as a matter of relative status differences, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give the “ideas” part of life up so quickly.
And yet it’s also true that I have felt my mind evolving over the last few years. I don’t mean in terms of feelings or opinions or politics, though I mean those too, but also in terms of the way that it works. It has become much more restrained, more stable, more patient, which is all good—and at the same time far less passionate or intense.
I suppose this is what they call “getting older,” and (I can now more clearly see) why so many people become more measured and conservative as they age. Your mind just feels differently from the way that it used to feel, and it leads to different modes, habits, and outcomes of thought.
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© Kamil Macniak / Dreamstime
The other way I can measure my increasing relative age is through my attachment to email.
Because of my unique background, I came of age in email. During my most formative years, from the time I was nine or ten years old all the way through my teenage years, email was how I communicated with all of the most interesting, important, and infatuation-worthy people in my life.
This now manifests as a constant feeling of annoyance with text messaging and with Facebook, which intensifies the older I get.
Everyone wants to communicate through text. Nobody even reads email.
Yet every thought or communicative impulse that I have I imagine in email-sized chunks and visualize first and foremost as email in an email window. Mine is an email brain. While it’s worlds away from fountain pens and blotters, I still live in a mental universe of letters and letter-writing.
I don’t have thoughts as short as texts. When I text with people, I tend to translate emails into texts, plugging in a keyboard and sending dozens of lengthy texts all in a row, boom, boom, boom, as though I were pounding out an email.
I always wake up at some point in the midst of this behavior and realize that what I’m doing seems bizarre and unhinged on the other end if the person is of the “text” generation.
Why is he throwing sentence after sentence at me without letting me get a word in edgewise, littering up my phone?
Because I think in groups of 800-1,500 words, and I presume, unless I actually sit down and think about it, that you’ll read them and send the same back in a day or two.
Of course you won’t; if I’m texting with you and send you 20 texts in a row of 50 words each, you’ll write something right back, right away which always also throws me. I’m never expecting that immediate response. Intellectually I know that you could do that, but it always bursts my expectations when it happens. Because after that last text I’ve sent your way, I’m saying to myself, “Whew, that’s said, now I’ll go and do something else and tomorrow I’ll read what they think in return.”
But of course it doesn’t come tomorrow, and it (appropriately, in the formal sense) doesn’t actually contain much thought much of the time—just a single brief text in return, as is appropriate for texting.
I’m the contemporary equivalent of the letter-writers who stuck doggedly to their pens, pads of letter paper, and wax seals years after everyone else was talking on the telephone.