Wednesday, October 12, 2005


“Knowledge adds; wisdom lets slide.” – Paul Westerberg

Okay, I’m getting older. In some ways, it sucks – my knees make noises they didn’t make a few years ago, my metabolism doesn’t forgive snacks the way it used to, and the Scalp Liberation Movement is making undeniable progress. I don’t get IM’ing, and the point of the Black Eyed Peas escapes me.

But it’s mostly good.

One of the attractions of academia is that it’s one of the few industries that actually allows people to age. Armed with data from HR, I found that the median age for full-time faculty at my college is 59. The social scientist in me decided it would be fun to find out by how many standard deviations I am younger than the mean faculty member here: the answer is 2.2. I can’t think of any other industry in which this would be true.

Maturity brings with it a clarification of priorities. I spent much of my teens and twenties mad at myself for not being good at (whatever), not getting along with (whoever). I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, so feeling out-of-place anywhere was cause for panic: I might be missing my chance! Since not-fitting is more common than fitting, it was a tough time. Now, with a wife, two kids, a mortgage, a (very) full-time job, and a heightened sense of the passage of time, I don’t worry so much about who I am or where I should be. It’s pretty clear.

Last week I had a chance to teach a class to a visiting group of senior citizens from the area. It was amazing – they were the kind of students every teacher dreams of having. They were opinionated, yet civil; the conversation was both lively and orderly, a tough combo with the 18 year olds. Part of it, I’m sure, was that it was a one-day class, and they had all chosen to be there. Part of it, though, probably comes from a sort of impunity that age grants. They could care less what I thought of them, since it made absolutely no difference in their world, so they could just engage the discussion for the sake of the discussion. (Naturally, it raised my opinion of them.)
They tested my assertions against their life experiences, and challenged me where appropriate. At the end, they applauded, and I reciprocated.

I still worry, and in some ways, the causes for worry are much greater than they used to be. (Any parent can tell you what it means to worry.) But they aren’t arbitrary anymore. I will sometimes go out in public looking like something the cat dragged in, if necessary, knowing that I don’t have to worry about missing my shot with my true love. That wasn’t possible at 24. I don’t especially care if smart people disagree with things I say or write; I’ve been attacked enough times, and by smart-enough people, that it just isn’t that intimidating anymore. And if some new music sounds like dental drilling to me, well dammit, it just means I have taste.

My grandfather, who was an electrical lineman for many years and a physically imposing man, spent his retirement wearing colors that golfers would consider too loud. His attitude, essentially, was ‘why not?’ I liked that. Age brings restrictions, yes. But it also brings a kind of freedom. Freedom to reject a boneheaded fad, to shrug off irrelevant concerns, to forgive oneself one’s own limitations.

I don’t have time for angst anymore. There’s just too much to do.