I Feel Old — Some wayward thoughts on time from a homeward bound twenty-something
I recently made a trip up to Pittsburgh. Well, down, I suppose, Detroit is kind of northwest of Pittsburgh.
I’ve traveled to Pittsburgh many times actually. For those who’ve fallen out of touch, I went to college there and it was swell. Went back a few times, mostly to see friends. But every time I made the trip back home, I felt a peculiar feeling. One I couldn’t name. Not until now.
I felt old.
And I shouldn’t. No twenty-something should. But more and more, that seems to be the norm. Even around the campus I visiting, I saw it. Weary looks. Halfhearted waves. How have you been? Busy. You? Busy. This isn’t a nursing home, it’s a college campus. What gives? Why does everyone sound like the baby-boomers at work?
Anyways, I’m driving out. I’m at the wheel and this time I have company. A friend who lives relatively close. We shoot the breeze for a bit, but eventually he takes his passenger’s privilege to fall asleep. Ah well. Alone again.
Not that I mind. I like just driving and letting my thoughts wander. This time I’m admiring the Appalachian mountain range and thinking that familiar animist thought — what would these mountains say if they were alive?
I imagine they would feel equally as old. Mountain top mining. Opioid crisis. Appalachia. I remember reading in elementary school that the Appalachian Mountains were more rounded than the Rockies because they were older and had been worn down more. An apt metaphor for all of us in 2017, I felt.
If you’ve been living under a rock (or reading this from a future not akin to the stone age), the news cycle in 2017 was particularly traumatic. A lot of attention was shifted to the Midwest in the wake of a contested 2016 election. Or maybe more accurately, a 2016 upset. And there is no way not to notice.
I’m mulling over this thought as we pass the Ohio Turnpike. The Ohio Turnpike is my favorite because it’s smooth sailing and there are plenty of clean rest stops. The toll slams hard, but at least this time I wasn’t paying for that.
I take the ticket. My friend puts it in the dashboard (he’s awake for now, but he’ll sleep again shortly).
And it goes on.
This time the feeling isn’t sinking in as hard and I’m trying to figure out why. Usually I feel very oppressed by leaving but this time it’s just the slightest tinge of nostalgia. It’s not a sledgehammer. What is that feeling? What’s the right word?
A friend of mine pointed me to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an attempt to make words to describe phenomenon or experiences that aren’t already named. Tumblr, is my cynical response. But I do like some of the words the author of the blog has come up with. Most relevant?
The sense that time is accelerating.
I think that explains why so many people of my generation feel and act so aged. Our sense of time is, collectively, accelerating in an exponential fashion. If you looked at the world over some two-month period in 1980 versus some two-month period in 2016 you would see what I mean.
The complexity of events and the meta-analysis and propagation in 2016 far outpaces that in 1980. But we have finite minds with limited bandwidth. Our processing hasn’t evolved to keep pace. But we still try, right? I mean sure, some of us tapped out, but a substantial portion are still trying to make sense of everything, yeah?
So we look back at last month and compare that to the month before and because time is accelerating at an exponential speed it feels like that last month was twice as long as the month before. And we feel as though we’ve aged twice as much. Or at least, I do.
That’s probably why Buzzfeed uses nostalgia so effectively. Why so many wanted a return to simpler times in our most recent election. Not that this is a new point, it’s well worn, but what I don’t think is discussed is how goddamn old it makes us all feel, age be damned.
And it goes on.
We pass by acres of cornfields. Ohio is pretty much just cornfield. Some stereotypes are true I suppose. It’s one of the things I dislike most about the Midwest. Ohio is very flat. Michigan too. I feel exposed. Only the highway stretches before me.
That’s the other aspect of time though, space, right? Like Einstein and General relativity and all that. It takes time to cross space. Crossing space will take time. That whole expanse of cornfield is just time to kill. Waiting to be taken advantage of, to slow down.
Another stereotype, on I think is less true, is that Midwesterners are slower than the coastal counterparts. Stereotypes are like clichés in that they are only adopted as pragmatic means to deal with life. There is no pragmatic reason to take it slow. Or so I thought. Maybe that’s the antidote to zenosyne.
If that’s true, I resign myself to the cliché “It’s better to travel than to arrive”.
If the general relativity view of time had any bearing on psychological time, it would mean time should decelerate, right? Well, no, we can now cover distances far quicker now than we have in the past. That’s probably what contributes to the explosion in complexity.
Looking out at the cornfields I can’t help but think of the Catcher in the Rye. I remember when I was younger my father told me he originally thought of the whole catcher-in-the-rye metaphor was about the mind trying to randomly catch thoughts. That the catcher is the mind and the children running through the field and coming dangerously close to the edge of a cliff are thoughts.
If you haven’t read the book, it’s actually about Holden Caulfield trying to maintain some sense of innocence and the catcher in the rye is him trying to protect innocent children from adulthood. If you can’t maintain your innocence, the next best thing is to prevent the loss of innocence in others.
Both speak to our times, but I like my dad’s interpretation better. I think it means more in our day and age.
And it goes on.
My friend next to me wakes up.
“Ugh. How long was I out?”
“About an hour. Not long. Want to stop somewhere, grab a bite?”
“How long have we been on the road?”
“About two hours, little over that. We’re about halfway.”
We stopped. Ate. Did our business. Drove onward without incident. It goes on. It always goes on. We barrel headfirst into an uncertain future of increasing complexity, our past slipping out of reach faster and faster. We are becoming more akin to animal than man, in a state of constant present. A folk society mindset. Tribal.
In the end, we end up becoming ourselves.
I wonder what would happen in an alternate reality, where complexity decreases, more like an inverse logarithmic function. The past becomes more and more inscrutable, increasingly out of our comprehension but the future seems simpler, deterministic. Predictable even. Would we similarly fear an inevitable breakdown?
All in all, an uneventful trip through some of the Midwest. Like I said, I’ve been in a lot of places in the Midwest. Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis. Smaller towns too, like Yale, MI and Akron, OH. I made it home okay (obviously, as I’m writing this). I guess my biggest takeaway is that I wish more Americans took the time to drive through flyover country.
Also, feelings are stupid. Don’t have them if you can avoid it.