The Middle Distance 10.14.11: Doin’ the Math

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photo by Sean Cayton

Much to my surprise, I have two sons who are math whizzes. They love mathematics and are both pursuing careers in math. Twenty-five year old identical twins, math is their shared language. When I asked one of them what he was learning when he was taking Abstract Algebra in college, he said, not completely ironically: “I’m learning the secrets of the universe.”

I admire their minds and their talent for math, while at the same time, it leaves me blank. To be perfectly honest, it leaves me feeling inept. It’s not something I can talk to them about because my mind turns off when the language of math is spoken.

Except recently, out here in the middle distance, where I obsess regularly over the mathematics of aging.

It’s a cruel mind game. You’re walking along, enjoying a beautiful fall day, and your mind turns to your next birthday and how old you will be. From there you begin calculating backward. What is half that number? How old was I then? Is it possible I will live another half a lifetime measured by that number?

Here are the numbers: I’ll be 58. That’s hard for me to say, because for many years, since I turned 40, I have lied about my age, rounding up a year so that when the birthday came I would be prepared for the impact. It’s a good strategy. It worked particularly well the year I turned 50 but had been telling everyone I was 50 for an entire year prior.

But I digress. Here’s how it works. I’m 57. For real. So half a lifetime ago was somewhere between 28 and 29 years ago. I had a 7-year old daughter. I wasn’t yet 30. Looking forward, if I live another half-lifetime, I can expect to die at 85 or 86. I can either be comforted or depressed by that simple math fact, depending on which way the wind is blowing that day. I can choose to ignore the current predicted life span of American women, somewhere between 81 and 84, or I can seize on that prediction and grow gloomy.

This is how obsession with the mathematics of aging works at its simplest level. Sometimes it’s meeting someone who’s, say, 42, and calculating the number of years since I was that age, fifteen. This leads to more qualitative thinking about the passing of time: What did I accomplish over those 15 years? How much younger did I feel then than I do now? Will I be able to keep up a similar level of productivity for the next 15 years, until I’m 72? And it leads to reductive thinking — fifteen years ago, my daughter was a sophomore in college, my oldest son was 12 and his little brothers were ten. How long does that distance in time feel? Will the next 15 years feel as long?

Sometimes I try to assign existential meaning to a given time period, say 15 years. Fifteen is the number of years between the birth of my last two children and the time I got serious about being a writer. Fifteen is the number of years between the breathless exhilaration of my first serious boyfriend and the birth of my second child, during a year when I remember feeling incalculably old.

It’s a slippery slope. These calculations can lead to thoughts of probability and inevitability. What is the probability that I will ever fall in love again? That I will die alone? Publish another book? That I will still be able to walk my dog in the foothills 15 years from now? Is it inevitable that I will become less adventurous as the years advance? How wide, exactly, is this middle distance, and at what point does it cross over into the land of the elderly?

Despite my general math-phobia, I confess I like to go to the math calculator on the Internet that breaks down age into finer components, the seconds constantly ticking forward. I’ve lived 57 years, 690 months, more than 3,000 weeks, more than 21,000 days. If my half-life calculation turns out to be true, I have more than 10,000 remaining days and can expect at least half of those to be good ones, if I’m lucky. That’s as many days as it took me to get from 43 to here — 5,000 days of sweeping change, stagnation, creativity, exhaustion, frustration, excitement, adventure, disappointment, loss, renewal, satisfaction, despair, and gratitude.

A vast sea of mathematical navel-gazing. Five thousand days of starting back there and ending up here, a lifetime within a lifetime. Here’s to the next five thousand.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

8 Responses to The Middle Distance 10/14/11: Doin’ the Math

  1. Joyce Cheney says:

    Aging has stages, thank goodness. Someone in our age range described “go go, slow go, and no go.” Another declared that 60 and 70 are “young old,” and 80 and above is “old old”. Friends (friends with some bucks) built themselves two homes; one is a 2 story house in the mountains near Taos; the other is a one-floor home in the middle of Taos, with an adjoining apartment for a live-in attendant. That flat townhome is rented… until later. “Young old” works for me, tho it’s tough to admit. At 61, I can’t pretend to be middle aged unless I plan on living to be 122.

  2. Carmen Thornburgh says:

    Kathryn, thanks again for doing the math! I love math and have been walking/talking with these numbers in my own casual conversation with myself. But your ability to put it on paper always makes me smile. Keep thinking and writing, that’s what you’re good at!
    Carmen for old yoga days

  3. Grace Clifford says:

    No half-life! You’re as old as you feel. I think the “old 50″ is the new 70. I plan to be 100. Have planned for that birthday since I was 20. My most frequent prayer is that God has the same plans for me that I do. If he does, I have only have 13 more birthdays
    to make it. Happy birthday.

  4. Lori says:

    “how wide, exactly , is the middle distance”…? such a great question and so easy to assume the longevity of one’s life! thanks again for your thought provoking and beautiful words!

  5. Neil Myers says:

    Lovely essay, as usual. But I’m curious about the accompanying photograph. It looks to me to be a photo of Melvin Henricksen, one of my math professors in college. Can anyone identify the subject or source of the photo?

  6. John Sobecki says:

    Well I did feel old a couple weeks ago, after attending a presentation on a solar power garden, and the CEO says “I can’t wait to see what this project looks like in 20 years, when I’m 44″.

    Ouch.

    Enjoyable article, thanks again Kathryn,

    John (coming up on the big 5-0)

  7. John says:

    I loved your line: 5,000 days of sweeping change, stagnation, creativity, exhaustion, frustration, excitement, adventure, disappointment, loss, renewal, satisfaction, despair, and gratitude.

  8. Marsha says:

    Your essays always end my week on a beautiful note, Kathryn… I liked this one especially. Just turned 64, and realized that half again will be 96. Wow!

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