Sunday, March 21, 2010

Older.Grayer. Slower.


There's nothing like sitting in a technology workshop with a room full of Gen X-ers to make you realize that old is not just a state of mind. This was the scary realization I came to this past week.

Forget all the attempts to persuade myself, otherwise: the hair color that hides my tell-tale grey roots; the anti-aging regimen that keeps my face from collapsing like California along an earthquake fault line; the chrome-colored trenchcoat that makes me feel youthful and more or less hip.

Outwardly, I can convince myself--and pretty often the general public in the right light--that I have stalled the biological clock. And then it happens. I'm asked a question that forces me to prove that no matter how young I may feel or even look on a good day, my brain is functioning on decreased capacity. I’ve begun to understand there’s a new meaning for the term “gray matter.”

The workshop was a two-day, twelve hour intensive on how to use a program called Joomla to create websites. Piece of cake, I thought--I can do HTML code in my sleep; I should be able to manage this without staring blankly at the computer screen when asked to download and unzip a file. Everything was going fine until our instructor decided it was time for a "quick review.” To my mind, this is the equivalent of playing "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" buck naked in front of your colleagues, and without the big money prize as motivation. Personally, I've never been good at group Q&A's, even with all my brain cells intact. Same thing with brainstorming sessions at work. Fire questions at me in a group setting and I go completely Anna Nicole. Call it "oops anxiety." I'm sure I'm not the only one who goes mind-numb under stress.

This time, though, it wasn’t anxiety keeping my tongue still. It felt more like my brain was a vast jar of peanut butter and whatever I was trying to get at was stuck all the way down at the bottom.

Okay, I thought, maybe it’s just info overload, which was my lame attempt to salve my growing inferiority complex. But the thick-brain symptoms continued for the rest of day and into day number two. It’s not that I didn’t know the answers; it’s just that I seemed to need a few nano seconds more than everyone else in the room for the information to leap across my synapses and form intelligent language. I decided it was more prudent to stay mute rather than embarrass myself by answering “eggplant” to a question about top menus versus main menus simply because eggplant was the first thing that popped into my head while the actual answer was lolly-gagging around my neural network.

Then came the moment-of-truth event I’d been avoiding—I asked a question.

“What if I don’t want a module to show up on all my sub-pages?”

Our instructor Brett who, enviously, has all of his brain cells in perfect working order said: “Where would you go to manage your modules?”

My notes is what I wanted to say. But since he was standing right behind me, expecting me to brilliantly maneuver my pointy arrow over to the correct tab that would prove I knew the answer, I could hardly be blithe. It took a few moments of anxious lip-biting, but I finally and insecurely said: “The module manager?”

That’s when it hit me: inside my fifty-four-year-old head was an octogenarian brain. Age may have made me wiser, but it had also made me feel like a conspicuous idiot in a world of rapid-fire data access. For me, it wasn’t just an intellectual awareness, it was also an emotional one. I grabbed my lunch and went out to my car where I sat crying into a handful of napkins. Even worse was that I resented feeling distraught about it. So I couldn’t grasp complex information as quickly as I used to. What was the big deal?

Well, the big deal was this: a lot of things about aging sneak up on us gradually: wrinkles don’t suddenly appear on perfectly smooth faces; our bodies don’t speed along one day and tremble on shaky legs the next. Aging gives us time to adjust to the changes that take us from one stage of life to the next. Aging tends to be, thankfully, slow.

But there are climatic moments—like scenes in a movie where everything changes when a shower curtain is drawn back and the knife blade comes into view—that leave you gasping and clutching at the arms of your seat. Fear, anxiety, distress, all come exploding to the surface.

Ultimately, the fact that my cognitive abilities are slightly more sluggish isn’t a major crisis. It’s not even enough of a crisis to make me tear into the Reese’s peanut butter cups that are stashed in my carry bag to sell for a fundraiser. Although I’m tempted. It’s just one of those “getting older” things I’m still trying to accept semi-gracefully like all the other changes this time of life brings.