We’re all getting older

Honestly, I don’t feel a day over 12. I remember leaning on an old fence near the rhubarb on a fine fall day in 1969, looking out over the mucky little stream that ran near our house and listening to the frogs creak, and thinking that this was a very fine life I’ve got, and I think I’ll hang on to it for as long as I could, and maybe in a little bit I’ll get on my bike and pedal into town to see if there any new model airplanes at the five and dime, and browse the comic book rack at Stewart’s Drug, and then maybe say hello to Grandma and fuel up on cookies and kool-aid. That was me then, and this is me now, and there’s a conscious sense of continuity between us—and while Grandma is long gone and I haven’t been drawn to model airplanes or comic books in a good long time, they’re still all there in my mind’s eye. I can still hear the hum of the fan at the drug store and smell that plasticky reek of toluene and feel the nubbly cushions on my grandparents’ sofa. I still remember that old bike of mine, an ancient single-speed racing bike that made my thighs strain and ache every time I started out, but then felt so good once I got up to speed that I never wanted to stop…in part because then I’d have to lean hard on those pedals to get it moving again.

One way of coping with this business of living is a little denial, judiciously applied. I’m sitting in the office with a stack of work before me, and I promise myself that once that proposal is done and once I’ve met that deadline and once I’ve polished off that stack of papers, I’ll be in that contented 12-year-old state again, with places to go and novelties to explore and a comfortable home to snuggle down in. Nothing has really changed, and I can almost … taste … Grandma’s cookies again.

Denial is getting harder to maintain, though. Wake up in the morning with that stiff and aching ankle, that complaining shoulder…hey, I don’t remember those from when I was 12. And then the wife reminds you of the cholesterol and the blood pressure and no, there will be no sugar-frosted chocolate bombs for breakfast, and there’s a long list of things you need to get done that day, and the next, and the next, and suddenly you’re 49 again.

Here’s what’s even worse. In old movies they might show the passage of time with clock hands whirling about its face, or pages of a calendar curling up and flying away. More chilling by far are…kids’ birthdays. Look at this guy: he’s turning 23 today. 23!

i-e35a75a0dbf35a967b2b603231cb9124-alaric1.jpg i-c9341ed537bf356aff6a66ea501a7a48-alaric0.jpg i-84d2936638a38eee1eb22b74887e1e1e-alaric2.jpg i-7ce0cd668cd987f656cc0d41e51283df-alaric3.jpg i-1318971e841ffc851870d8bd521d6a77-alaric4.jpg i-cb5148fef2c529476e58b3fcf01ea538-alaric5.jpg i-cce28587be9871934030558e572ba303-alaric6.jpg i-f6886cf4fcec755160f557f61748b24b-alaric7.jpg i-b1ee2b1a61ec9f57a832af9483ba7bf8-alaric8.jpg i-a852a3ae4061e9848e0fd9d084d8cf4b-alaric9.jpg

That’s my first-born, Alaric. Truth be told, I’m really glad we got past the colic and the diapers, but gee, things have changed. No more afternoons at the playground. No more mud pies. No more towing him in a little red wagon down to the theater to watch an Indiana Jones matinee. No more reading Tintin at nap time. No more yelling up the stairs at 7AM (and 7:15, and 7:30, and 7:45…) to get him off to school.

I swear, kids are in a conspiracy to make me feel old.

I can’t complain, though. Denial is no way to live, and the other thing that one learns from watching kids grow is that change is also good. Change is inevitable. But change doesn’t always mean loss—the memories are still there, and the young man is still also the little kid.

Just like me.


  1. says

    Those little tree frogs we’d find hopping all over didn’t croak — they made a squeaky little trill.

    You don’t see them as much anymore…I hope nobody oiled them. That would be fatal.

  2. JakeB says

    I’m not as old as you, PZ, but I’ll never see 35 again either. I sometimes have the odd feeling that the 10-year-old boy I once was, the one whose favorite candy was Lifesavers and favorite comic book was Captain America, who saw the original Star Wars 5 times in the theater, is still somewhere inside me, seeing the same things I do, but looking at them with his own eyes. (I will add that I prefer my adult take on boobs, however.)

  3. says

    The bane of my inner emotional life is an overdeveloped sense of nostalgia. I spend most of my time these days wishing that it was still the summer of 1994.

  4. says

    Very sweet.
    Spent the weekend visiting my niece and nephew (8 and 12), had a long rambling walk along the river and taught them to skip stones. I hope when they are all grown up they will remember that winters day when thier awesomely cool Aunt and Uncle taught them to skip stones.

  5. Mouth of the Yellow River says

    Dr. PZ. I was looking for an end wrap-up on the cycle of life and the evolutionary basis of aging making sense of it all.

    I guess you have noticed that each year your students get younger and younger, so give up and just join them (mentally that is). My recommendation is at the bard’s sixth age, revert mentally 2 yr/yr real time aging back down through the five subsequent stages to “second childishness” and the bard’s prediction. I’m afraid we can’t escape that one, but enjoy the regession.

    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
    Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
    Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
    Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
    Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
    Seeking the bubble reputation
    Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lined,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
    Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
    With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
    His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
    For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
    Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
    And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
    That ends this strange eventful history,
    Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
    Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.


    “My you stay forever young”–1964 Robert Zimmerman; “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”–ibid.

  6. j says

    Love the Shakespeare excerpt, MOTYR.

    I guess I should consider myself fortunate that I don’t have to worry about these things yet.

  7. druidbros says

    Oh man. I feel much the same this year with my son going off to college. I have been able to keep the little 12 year old alive in some part of me. But it is a very bittersweet thing to see my son, with whom I shared Monty Python and John Woo films, Anime and Manga, fried spam sandwiches, and laughing at the women in the household (when they were not around,of course). He was my cohort in crime more than once and I will miss him terribly. But I love the way we laugh together, like it doesnt matter if anyone else is watching.

    And I recommend you start reading ‘The Walking Dead’ comic book.

  8. apikoros says

    After reading that, I recommend Christopher Morley and Ray Bradbury. Both are excellent anodynes to aging, especially Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”

  9. KiwiInOz says

    I live by Billy Connolly’s philosophy – ‘you have to grow older, but you don’t have to grow up’. Note that Billy’s expletives have been removed for the benefit of the younger viewers.

  10. Goldrush says

    It’s somewhere up toward 50 that you realize the past 20-30 years hasn’t been just one long afternoon. It’s a while after the fortnight earlier in your 40s when you go from being the youngest person in the room to the oldest at meetings you attend or preside over.

  11. thwaite says

    Aging may permit memories to be preserved (one always has to wonder if it’s the original memory, or a memory of having had the memory, or so on… a question for psychologists and authors such as Hermann Hesse). But aging *will* diminish openness to novelty (or perhaps it’s the converse, increasing fondness for the familiar non-novelties). And various kinds of creativity flow and ebb with age.

    These brutal facts are lucidly and humanely summarized by Robert Sapolsky in ‘Open Season’, his essay from the New Yorker 1998, reprinted with notes and references in his essay collection MONKEYLUV, 2005. Highly reccommended reading for all, like most of Sapolsky’s behavioral-biology popularizations.

  12. says

    Hey, you have a red-headed boy with hair as long as my red-headed 17 year old son’s is! Congrats to the birthday boy!

    And my 20 year old son’s hair is halfway down his back. He’s mooing at me right now. Yes, he’s strange.

  13. says

    “But aging *will* diminish openness to novelty (or perhaps it’s the converse, increasing fondness for the familiar non-novelties). And various kinds of creativity flow and ebb with age.”
    If Sapolsky says so, there may be good neurological basis for that. But the human brain and body is also an amazingly flexible machine. I remember going though Europe as a kid and every woman over 50 was dressed in black and put out on the front steps with a broom. The thought of people over 50 learning some new sport like kiteboarding or skiing was very rare. My grandmother who cycled in her 60s and 70’s was considered extremely eccentric.
    Age is much less important now, people still do great things and learn new stuff as long as they have the energy to do so, and no one considers it unseemly.

  14. says

    You named your kid Alaric? That is so cool. I wanted to name my son Theodoric or Wulfila but my wife wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted boring names.

  15. says

    Sugar Frosted Chocolate Bombs
    A favorite of Dad’s and Mom’s!
    Now caffeine fortified!
    Try it with coffee on the side.

    Mm mm mmmmm…

  16. David says

    You will get all those things you got from your kids all over again with their kids. The wheel keeps on turnin.

  17. Bloviator says

    Wow, you’re old. Still have most of your faculties, it seems, which is encouraging.

    I was born much more recently, in nineteen fifty-tw…

    Uh oh.

  18. thwaite says

    The claims that “changes *will* happen” in cognition with age are based on massive 20th century survey data and the little bit of anecdotal data from earlier centuries. The neurobiology is still surprisingly unclear. So it’s a statistical phenomenon, and needn’t apply to any particular person. Therefore it won’t apply to *us*, of course, any more than smoking would affect us.

    Sapolsky doesn’t mention this, but the classic maxim of ‘sound body, sound mind’ is still valid – exercize is the best thing any individual can do to influence the statistics.

    Your image of social expectations (especially for older women: black clothes & broom) is vivid and interesting. The new socializations for the prosperous aged are unknowns. Perhaps 62 may be the new 46 … I’ll cheerfully try to assimilate this novelty.

  19. bloviator says

    And I fondly remember a colleague of mine who liked to say “You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.” He’s dead now.

  20. BB-Idaho says

    Old memories? I hid in the closet when all the sirens and fireworks went off on on VJ day: a locomotive engineer down at the depot let me help him with the oil can on the driving wheels of the steam engine before they left for Milwaukee: got so sick on green apples I fell out of the tree. I don’t fit in the closet anymore, haven’t seen a
    steam locomotive in years and I now hate green apples. And of course, my son had long hair too. Sigh.

  21. R Hayes says

    My daughter Flora came up with this theory of aging when, as
    best I recall, she was age 7:

    How old are you, Flora?

    I’m 7. And 6, and 5, and 4, and 3, and 2, and 1.

    Well, she was right, you know.
    (She often is).

  22. says

    Posting baby pics of your son! Has he annoyed you or something?

    Bringing out the baby photos is usually reserved for the potential fiancee the evil parents want to test to destruction. I keep equally embarrassing photos of my father reserved for this sort of event, together with a promise of mutually assured destruction.

  23. says

    Was childhood really that wonderful? Did I miss something? Or, is there some kind of selective amnesia that people develop?

    In my memory, the aches and pains of childhood hurt no less than the aches and pains of adulthood, except that now I can stop when I want to, get medical attention when I need it, and avoid doing things that induce unrewarded pain.

    Childhood had its good stuff: building sets, board games, junk candy, ratting around with my friends, exploring, bicycling, building catapults, mimeographing TV Guide parodies, soldering radios, riding in the front car of the subway and the like. I still do that kind of stuff, it’s still great fun, and as an adult I can do more and better and enjoy it even more.

    Do people really forget? Do women forget the pain of childbirth? (My sister says that she didn’t). Do soldiers forget what they see on the battlefield? (Soldier’s melancholy and PTSD say they don’t). Do grown ups forget the powerlessness of childhood? (George Orwell and Charles Dickens never forgot).

    The child is still there, but growing up frees him. PZ, you’re a scientist, you should know this.

  24. jason MC says

    Isn’t “single-speed racing bike” a contradiction?

    The first bikes, also raced, were fixed-gear singles.
    No coasting allowed and now surfacing in a college town near you. I’m thinking PZ must’ve had the luxury to coast, So he’s not so old after all…
    Every day you live is proportionally shorter than the one before it. The challenge is to deny the math, and have fun.

  25. jason MC says

    I should’ve said “early bikes,” or “first chained bikes” since the real first bikes raced were velocipedes or high-wheelers.
    It’s just funny that single-speed MTB racing is a thriving niche nowadays…circles and cycles.