On Aging

Due to the vagaries of fate, a lot of my friends are about ten years younger than me, and many of my readers (from zompist.com or the ZBB or my books) are 20 or more years younger.

So, I thought some of you might appreciate a glimpse ahead, and hear what it’s like to be middle aged (I’m in my late 50s), from someone who’s not their parent. All this is of course extremely subjective– it may not happen to you just this way.  But I think most of this will be pretty common.

Some of this will get a little dark, but you can handle it.


Aches and pains

Ironically, I’m probably more physically fit than I’ve ever been. I’m sedentary by nature and hate exercise, but now I regularly go to the gym. One reason is because of observing frail parents (see below).

But the other is: after a certain point, 40 or 45 or 50, you lose your immortality. Even a sedentary nerd can go through their 20s more or less ignoring their body, except for food and sex. After that, you start to get unwanted pains, not obviously tied to anything you’re doing. Your back may spasm for a week.  Kneeling and getting up from the floor are no longer effortless. Going up a couple flights of stairs with groceries starts to be hard work. You may get sciatica. If you don’t exercise, you can, well, kind of feel lousy all the time.

Sciatica is, except when you have it, pretty interesting. It’s a sensor malfunction. You feel like you have a burning pain going down your leg– only it’s not something in your leg at all; it’s an inflamed nerve in your back. It’s being pressed by your spine or something, and since it’s not a normal pain, no change in position, nothing you can do to your leg, will help. The cure turns out to be exercise. You gotta get better abdominal muscles to help hold yourself up.

The good news is that you can exercise and get fit. This is true at any age, in fact– I read a book on exercise that referenced studies of people over 90. You can get muscles even then. At my age, though, it’s the difference between feeling pretty good (also known as “how you always felt physically when you were 25”) and feeling worn-out.

Eyes and reflexes

An unwelcome fact is that your eyes keep changing, and not for the better. I’m near-sighted, which for decades meant I didn’t need glasses at all for close things, and I’m usually involved with things right in front of me. A few years ago, though, I was having trouble with books and computers.

The solution for books turned out to be “hold them closer”.  But for computers, it was “get special glasses.” So now I have two different pairs of glasses; in practical terms I use one inside the house (since I’m mostly at the computer), one outside (mostly for driving). I didn’t want bifocals because I don’t want to spend my time at the computer glancing down my nose.

If you play a lot of video games, you may wonder, when do my reflexes get shot? Well, the good news is, I haven’t noticed any deterioration yet. I don’t have the reflexes of a teenage pro… but I didn’t when I was a teenager, either. Honestly I think video game skills are far more due to practice than to natural gifts. I’m not a good sniper– but I haven’t put years into sniping. I play Overwatch every night, and at my level at least, it’s more important to know the maps, know your character, be aware of your surroundings, communicate, and understand team play than to have stellar aim.

(I wish I did have better aim. On the other hand, it’s far better than it was 12 years ago when I first started playing shooters. Plus, games have noticeably improved my hand-eye coordination. I’m less likely to fumble and drop something than when I was young.)

Sometimes I worry about memory. But the evidence is still equivocal. The thing is, if you do a stupid thing at age 25, you don’t think “oh no my brain is going.” If you do a stupid thing at 55 you can think that. So far as I can see, I can still learn complicated things, which is good because that’s what I do for a living.

Possibly related to all this: I’ve always enjoyed close repetitive work: making maps or complicated drawings or editing a text to be just so. But not quite so much anymore. When I was a teenager I started an atlas, basically just copying maps of various parts of the Earth. I didn’t finish it, but I did a lot of maps. I wouldn’t have the patience for that now. Or the eyes for doing it all on paper, without a zoom function.

Parents and death

My paternal grandparents died in a car accident when I was about 12. I remember my Dad saying that it was sobering to suddenly be the oldest in the family.  He’s right, it is, though I only appreciated it when my parents died.

It’s bittersweet looking at my wedding album these days, because so many people are dead. My parents, most of my aunts and uncles, our old family friend Mrs. Lovell.

My wife is in Peru right now helping out with her extremely frail (and extremely mean) mother. Friends of mine are dealing with the same thing: parents getting sick, maybe demented, losing their partners, finally dying.

So, basically, in your 40s and 50s you’re beginning to feel a little mortal yourself, but you’re also thrust deeply into the problems of people in their 80s and 90s. You learn a lot about normal life at that age, and you probably end up doing things that– let me put it gently– you kind of hoped only a nurse or health aide would have to do.

The details will differ, of course. The process can depend on what disorders they have, where they live, their personality, how much help they need. But it’s going to take up a lot of time and anxiety, and (spoiler warning) they’re going to end up gone. And it will affect you. I think about my parents a lot more now that they’re gone than I did when they were in their 80s.

In a sense, the whole process seems designed to beat us down to the point of accepting death. When you’re young, dying seems like about the worst thing ever. (I know a girl who’s barely 30 and is dying of cancer… it’s heartbreaking, it just feels wrong.) But the whole aging process, taking place over years and going places you’d rather it not go… toward the end you can still hate the thought of losing the person, but welcome the cessation of the pain or loss or demented confusion that they’re going through.

Sometimes the process will make you appreciate things your parents did. For instance, mine thought ahead and moved to a one-story house when they were in their 70s. That was extremely smart: by the time they were feeble and couldn’t handle stairs, they knew their house very well. (Moving to a new house when you’re old and confused is a nightmare.)

Or the opposite. My parents were not exercise-oriented. When they were fit, they were active, but they just did not have the concept of exercising to develop strength and endurance. My Mom was in rehab at one point and did amazingly well: she went in one month from nearly bedridden to being able to walk up and down the long corridors of the rehab place multiple times. But she hated exercise and refused to keep doing it. I don’t want to be that way.  When it gets to the point that 2 pounds is too much to carry, I really want to do a hell of a lot of exercise so I’m not quite that fragile.

Openness to experience

One thing you may wonder: do you get more conservative as you get older? Do you come to hate the youngs and their music?

A lot depends on whether you have kids. Till you do, you usually automatically take the kid side in any debate– you assume that authority is always wrong, that people should have more independence and do as they like. A few years of caring for babies, cleaning their butts, making sure they don’t injure themselves with their fingernails or put their fingers in electric sockets, tends to change this. All of a sudden obedience starts to seem like a virtue and getting some peace and quiet seems like a valid and difficult goal.

I’ll start with my parents, then, who definitely had children. Both were born in the 1920s. They didn’t get more conservative; in general, quite the opposite. My Dad was always a liberal. My Mom wasn’t so much, and had trouble accepting new things, like, oh, the 1960s. They used to say that their votes always canceled out, but in her later years she didn’t like what the GOP had become. (Based on reports from other people, though: for God’s sake, don’t let your parents watch Fox or listen to talk radio.)

I don’t have kids, and I’ve definitely moved farther and farther left over the decades. I went though a Christian period when I used “liberal” as a pejorative (though i was never a fundamentalist or a Republican). I got more committed to liberalism as the country moved to the right in the 90s. And the recession affected me as it did the youth– it made life far more precarious and revealed that plutocracy was getting downright dystopian. So, if the country decides it wants some democratic socialism, I’d be open to that. There are still some far leftists who turn me off, but I really like e.g. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As for new music, books, comics, etc…. well, two opposing things. One, you’re apt to discover what you like, and be comfortable with that. When I was 20, I’d make list of Great Fiction that I should read. I stopped caring about Great Fiction– by now it’s clear I’ll never read most of it. (Which turns out to be fine since most of it is way way out of fashion now.)

And yeah, people will make music that you don’t really get. That’s fine, though you should also acknowledge that “that’s not for me” is not the same as “that’s bad.”

Also, pop culture can be intensely important when you’re a teen or 20-something, and it’s unlikely that feeling will continue. It’s like first love, which by definition you’re not going to have again.

Two, you absolutely can enjoy new things. It’s a choice. You just, well, keep trying things, and never ever say “theres’s no good music anymore.”  I’m by no means a music geek, but I can easily list a bunch of acts I like who have done most of their work since 2000: The Naked and Famous, Ladytron, Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe, Tegan & Sara, Mika, Anaxaton6, La Femme, Angelique Kidjo, McBess, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Gorillaz, Fiona Apple, Postmodern Jukebox, The Chemical Brothers. Plus a bunch of one-shot songs, mostly found from jwz’s mixtapes.

(Re Anaxaton6, Barry Andrews is an old fart, but this is where he does some of his new experimental stuff.)

On comics– the golden age of comics is right now, go out and enjoy it.

As a teenager, I met a woman who was learning Esperanto in her 60s. It took her a long time, but she was doing it. I vowed that I would learn a new language when I was 60 (which, oh dear, is coming up pretty soon). And as it happens, I’ve been doing some close study of Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew lately.

That reminds me of one more change. It may be just me, I don’t know. But for some reason I don’t appreciate absurd, silly humor the way I used to. It used to be, y’know, my thing; I could recite Monty Python like any nerd and loved Pogo and Sam & Max and Bugs Bunny and MST3K and SpinnWebe and Mad and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers and lots of similar stuff. I don’t hate those things, and I can appreciate something new in the same vein, like Ryan North’s Squirrel Girl. But when I go to the library, what I come back with is normally nonfiction, or classic fiction from other cultures (like Golden Lotus). Well, and comics, but even there when I want to re-read something it’s less often Mad and more often something like Planetary or Schuiten & Peeters. I don’t fully understand this and there is no judgment in it. I do suspect that that absurdist humor rhymes well with being a smart young geek. As an older geek I am less interested in mocking the world, more in (say) seeing what’s in the Shahnameh.

I read a piece recently by a woman who started dating again in her 50s. One of the first things she did was to consciously adjust her feelings about older people’s looks. She basically learned to find people in their 50s attractive. I am thankfully not in the dating market, but if I were I hope I could emulate her, because that’s extremely smart and it’s seemingly hard for many men. Few things are more pathetic than a middle-aged man obsessed with women in their 20s. (From what I hear, that was a lot of what the Great Fiction of the mid-20th century was about.)

One final thought.  As we go through life, we kind of progress through the tense system. E.g. if you’re 18, “I’m a writer” means you intend to write books. If you’re 58, it means you write books.  If you’re 88, it means you wrote books.

Not profound, but one of the corollaries is that just as you’re no longer immortal, you find that you’re no longer infinite. It’s a little sobering to think that I’ve almost certainly read more than half the books I’ll ever read. Still, I could totally write an epic trilogy. The real lesson here is not to pull a Robert Jordan, and start writing a series that you die before finishing.

Egypt Lit

Here’s a depressing thought. What if all of British and American literature, in three thousand years, were reduced to this:

  • one book of short stories
  • one book of inspirational poems
  • a couple hundred identical Bible translations
  • some labels from Dr. Bronner’s soap


That’s about where we are with Ancient Egyptian. I’ve just read most of it, in two not-too-large books: The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems (tr. R.B. Parkinson, 1997), which focuses on stories, and Ancient Egyptian Readings (tr. Wim van den Dungen, 2018), which focuses on wisdom literature.  That’s in addition to the Book of the Dead.  The one thing I haven’t read is the medical-magical literature. Plus, the two books overlap– e.g. you get the Teachings of Ptahhotep in both.

We’ve probably lost an immense lot. For one thing, almost anything in the Nile Valley itself is permanently lost. Papyrus scrolls don’t like humidity, and what wasn’t buried in Nile silt is rotted. Almost everything we have is what someone took the trouble to store in a tomb up in the desert. Mostly the Book of the Dead, but also a few other scrolls. Some of the pieces in these books, originally written in the Middle Kingdom, at least 3500 years ago, only exist in one or two scrolls. It’s probably completely arbitary what survived and what did not.

The longest piece is a complete translation of the Pyramid Text of King Unas– the texts written in his tomb, around 2300 BCE. As such they may be the oldest religious texts in the world, earlier than the Rigveda and far earlier than the Bible. They’re ancestral to the Book of the Dead, and curiously they’re far easier to understand. They are not as filled with allusions and strange metaphors, and mostly they’re pretty straightforward: the record of a large array of sacrifices, then a long set of prayers and spells to introduce Unas to the gods, identify him with Horus and Osiris, and scare off a few minor demons. It’s probably most notable for its extreme confidence, bordering on hubris. No, not bordering on hubris: barging over the border flagrantly. The hymns sound like Unas is going to rule not just alongside the gods but over most of them. He’s going to sit next to Re, and climb on the thighs of Isis and Nephthys, and suckle the breasts of the goddess Ipy. Seems kinda bold, man.

“Sinuhe” is a little tale of adventure. The title character is a courtier accompanying the Prince on an expedition against the Libyans, and overhears a messenger reporting the assassination of King Amenemhat. He’s seized by a terrible panic and flees the Prince’s camp. He doesn’t stop running till he gets to Canaan– which to the Egyptians was a near-desert, a place of lawless nomads who live in tents, don’t dress in fine linen, and don’t attack the army openly like gentlemen. (Why go there at all? Trees, far taller than anything back home.) Nonetheless the Canaanites treat him well and he becomes a chieftain there, marrying a native.

He grows old and, near death, misses Egypt. He prays that he might return rather than dying in a strange land. Mirabile dictu, the king sends him a letter inviting him to return. His desertion is forgiven. He gladly accepts, leaving his family and his tents, and reports to the king, urging him to invade and pacify the land he left. He becomes a councilor before he dies and is buried in a nice though small pyramid.

Honestly the attitudes are those of an Anglo-Indian who carves out a satrapy in the Northwest Frontier Province, but never really took to living among the natives, and dreams of retiring on a little estate back in Stropshire.

The most unusual of the pieces is the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”, which is in both books. The man is as surprised to be arguing with his soul as you or I would. Philosophical questions aside, the soul’s position is, perhaps surprisingly, that longing for the Afterworld is foolish: one should simply enjoy life while it lasts. The man will have none of it– he’s sick of life, his reputation is ruined anyway, and he has no friends, and the Afterworld will be much more pleasant. Not with that attitude, you might think. But he and his soul patch things up for the moment.

The most amusing piece is the Teaching of Khety. Khety is a scribe, and the piece is propaganda for the profession, and includes a long survey of other jobs and how horrible they are. A sample:

I shall tell you about the wall-builder;
His sides hurt,
for he must be outside in a howling wind,
building without a kilt,
his loincloth is a cord of the weaving shop,
a string for his backside;
his arms are covered with earth,
and mixed with all kinds of shit.
Though he eats bread with his fingers
he can wash himself only once a day.

This was highly popular with scribes, who assigned it to their students to copy, so we have this text in a good number of copies.

For nuggets of wisdom from Ptahhotep about surviving in the rough world of the Egyptian elite, you’ll have to wait for my book. A hint, though: quietness. The ideal official was even-tempered and courteous, as well as pious and full of ma’at (truth/order).

Would you enjoy the book? Well, probably a lot more than the Book of the Dead, and less than Gilgamesh. If you know your Bible, you may be interested to see how the genres of hymnology, lamentations, prophecy, and wisdom were not invented by the Hebrews. Really, Isaiah couldn’t think of harsher rhetoric about Egypt than the Egyptians had already come up with themselves.

(If you’re curious, the Egyptians were not too discriminating when they looked at foreigners– there were Libyans, Nubians, and Aamu (Canaanites), and no one really cared to delve deeper. Even the Babylonians don’t get a mention.)

If you do read these, I recommend the Parkinson translation. It’s more scholarly, though a little less vivid. But really it’s because he has all the best stuff– the stories.