The Sensations of Age

The New York Times published an article about David Milch’s new memoir, Life’s Work: A Memoir a week ago. Milch, well-known known for the creative work he did with Steven Bochco as co-creator of genre-breaking TV hits Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, went on to create the cable TV series Deadwood. Those of you who may have watched any of these shows will certainly appreciate his creative mind even if you didn’t care for the generally dark series’. A few years back he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and today, while often confused, has moments of stunning clarity. One of Deadwood’s writer/actors W. Earl Brown visited him at the facility where he now lives and tells of such a moment. During their visit Milch leans in close to Brown and says, “I have to tell you something, Earl. The indignities of decrepitude are boundless.” Aging isn’t a topic of great interest until you are of a certain age. The older you get, the more personal it becomes. Suddenly, aging is no longer a peripheral but a central concern. The drumbeat of time and the steady stream of losses associated with aging are profoundly intimate, even private in spite of it being our common destiny. Thankfully, many of the more intimate losses, or small signs of decline are blunted by a succession of subtle accommodations we make day after day, so the full impact of the sum of these minor losses is barely noticed. It is often a caring friend or spouse who may gently call attention to what we have determined to be insignificant and barely noticeable changes, that we learn are in full public view like those wild hairs growing in places they should not.

“Oh my!” Lynda cries. “Get the tweezers. We need to clean up those ears!”

I don’t see them since bifocals thankfully thwart any effort to closely examine my face in the mirror. The decline in vision spares me the indignity of disturbing encounters with my early morning mirror time. Yet there are moments when the veil drops, and we see things as they are. Opening up the Facetime app is always a shocker.

“Good god!” Gazing down at my I Phone’s screen, I am staring at the image of a face I hardly know that has been roughly managed by the forces of gravity. The face I am looking at seems to be slipping off the man’s skull and onto his neck. It’s a lot to take in, but the sudden and merciless confrontation with the realities of aging elicit a personal pledge to test camera positioning before carelessly participating in a Facetime or Zoom call, or even casual selfies. Another shocker is to view your face in one of those lighted magnified mirrors. I visit these only occasionally when I have to present well. In my latest encounter, I was alarmed to discover little patches of white whiskers I have missed while shaving, a trait, as a young man I attributed only to old men.

But again, let me emphasize the impact of our changing bodyscape is generally buffered not only by its incremental nature and its relatively slow pace, but aided by the diminution of sensations, in general. Moreover, we have what might best be described as an overly familiar relationship with both our own reflection as do the circle of familiars with whom we regularly interact. As a matter of practical concern I try to avoid magnified mirrors and assume my familiar friends are disinclined to scrutinize such things and so simply adapt as we do to incremental decline. If not for magnified mirrors, Zoom calls and the whispered concerns of black-hearted intimates, we’d live comfortably unconscious of many of the outward signs of decline.

And even when we experience one of those ghastly reality break throughs, we adapt, adjust, acclimate. We find some comfort knowing we are in the company of our peers who are similarly devolving. Furthermore, as we age, we hone our capacity for assigning how much drama discoveries of a certain sort deserve. When you have collected enough years to qualify as old, you’ve probably gotten pretty good at managing disappointments, setbacks, and the anxieties that life inspires. We moderate our excitement regarding good news as we are confident that we will get through difficulties that bad news brings. Things that accounted for highs and lows years ago may now elicit little more than a philosophical “meh”.

All this has simply been a prelude to my sharing with you the news that after careful consideration, I was fitted with a pair of hearing aids for age-related hearing loss. The hearing aids I purchased employ a new technology that dramatically increases the frequency range beyond standard hearing aids. This, of course, allows the vendor to jack up the price and ‘wouldn’t it be just great to hear like you used to’. But, in the end, the reasons for finally acquiring them had less to do with my awareness of hearing loss and more with the spoken and unspoken comments others. A former Australian colleague used to poke friendly fun with not-so-subtle comments like “Davey! Mate! Yer deaf!” My wife complained that I was playing the TV “pretty loud”. And yes, in a crowded bar, I learned to look engaged and interested in conversations that lay just beyond the reach of my hearing. I’d laugh, taking my cue from others, but, in truth, it was difficult to have a discernable conversation. So, even while saying it was others who urged me to get hearing aids, it was also coming to terms with this loss and finding some enthusiasm for regaining the hearing I had lost.

And now, with my new hearing aids, I do indeed hear what I did not know I was missing. And how is it you wonder? I’m only a couple of weeks into it but the sudden restoration of much of what diminished so gradually has been more than a little jarring. Indeed, its impact is akin to the Facetime or magnified mirror experience. It’s a breathtaking amount of reality to take in all at once. Turning on a water faucet mimics the sound of ferocious rapids. One of our dogs needs her nails clipped. I know this because when she walks on the hard wood floors in our home, it sounds like somebody is crinkling a plastic water bottle behind my head. I hadn’t realized our 150-year-old house generated so many creaks virtually everywhere I walked.

Annie Dillard, who I often cite, writes in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek of the experience of the blind or nearly blind suddenly gaining or regaining their sight. As the reader we anticipate the newly sighted will be elated, but it is often quite the opposite. For some, Dillard explains, seeing was so disorienting they wanted to claw their eyes out. Still others simply closed their eyes, so they knew how to get around. For one newly sighted blind person, coping with depth perception was nearly impossible.

Aging for most people I suppose involves a mixture of many feelings influenced by the mechanisms of sensation and the meaning we assign to the input they offer. As sensory organs dim, surely our understanding of reality is reshaped. And experience suggests that as some sensations dim, others may sharpen. Maybe one of the reasons aging can be so interesting is that as sensations dim and others sharpen we are constantly redistributing the value we assign to the sensations we are bombarded with. As the volume of sensation we are capable of processing slows, perhaps we are better able to appreciate and even savor at least some of them. The proverbial drink from a firehose becomes possible when the spigot is adjusted to restrict the flow. As the least subtle mechanisms that mediate our relationship with the world beyond ourselves dim (eg: sight, sound), does the potential for experiencing the more subtle sensations rise? So, for example, are we better equipped to see what we have seen, to hear what we have heard, and so on. I might liken it to say, suddenly having time to read all the ignored or quickly skimmed emails in your inbox, or being able to focus enough to have a meaningful conversation with your son or daughter? We are largely unconscious of the vast repository of data our sensory organs have collected for so many years. Does the age-related dimming of some sensation allow us to catch up with the backlog we unconsciously cast aside? I do wonder. All this data stored as memories becomes more intriguing to us, not just as nostalgia but for the truths we may extract. Consider the collection of memories you are! It’s no secret that older persons spend more time looking backward than young people. I have been participating for the past several years in classes largely populated by older adults that focus on memoirs- telling the story of a particular memory or set of memories. These stories invariably lead to novel discoveries when viewed through the lens of many years. So often, the light goes on and we see what we have failed to see for a lifetime. We understand ourselves and others better, we are more forgiving, more compassionate, or perhaps, more aware of anger, disappointment, and remorse. Interacting with our memories, or one might say re-encounters with past sensations offers huge potential to yield new insight and understanding. And new insights and understanding often inform better judgement. No doubt the tragedy of Alzheimer’s is to be deprived of this magical rendezvous with the sensations we have collected over a lifetime.

The re-collection of memories…revisiting what we have experienced long after it has passed, often has the effect of knowing it for the first time.It is hard not to think of TS Elliot’s oft-quoted lines from The Four Quartets, Little Gidding-

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

While it may not always be true that with age comes wisdom, certainly the conditions seem right to make this true. I’m not sure but maybe, in part, it depends on our willingness to stop resisting the changes to our bodyscape. Instead, framing the symptoms of aging as gateways to new insight, rather than signs of rot and decay. This is not to disparage efforts to correct impairments in hearing, seeing or any of the other mechanisms of sensation. Rather, it is to encourage one to resist the urge to rail against the inevitable in order to capture the possible.

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