“A Letter always seemed to me like Immortality, for is it not the Mind alone, without corporeal friend?” — Emily Dickinson
The aging process takes us in unexpected directions, doesn’t it? It’s always disturbing. You’d like to think you’re an eternal creature, a permanent existence, when not only is it a fact that someday—relatively soon, friend—you won’t be here any more, but you’re not even unchanging. You wake up every day a little more eroded, a little more educated—changed. Unfortunately, our self-image does not always change accordingly, resulting in people like me who still see themselves as they were when eighteen—svelte, optimistic, able to handle their liquor—instead of how we are—bloated, ruined, and suffering permanent yellowed skin from debilitating liver damage.
Time is indeed a harsh mistress.
There are plenty of examples of time’s softly scrubbing fingers I could offer: My taste in booze, my aching back, the fact that I’d rather shove pins under my fingernails than go out to a movie these days. These all seem subtle to me, however, and easily ignored. One aspect of my changing existence that always strikes me these days is the fact that I now suck, totally suck, at correspondence. This is not simply bragging about my misanthropic tendencies, my friends—when the phone rings, I glance at it in annoyance and let the machine pick up, and then fail to respond. When an email arrives, it sits in my inbox for weeks, ignored and threatening. I haven’t written a letter in years. People often write me through my zine or this blog, and even if they send me emotional, interesting letters or gifts, the most anyone ever gets back is a curt note thanking them for their interest. If I am drinking while stuffing envelopes, they get incoherent threats that if they don’t stop assaulting my bunnies, I will fertilize their lawn. Or something.
In short, I completely suck at correspondence.
This is weird because I used to be fucking great at correspondence. I remember when, as a teenager, I finally convinced my parents to give me my own phone extension in my room (note that this was not my own phone; I got an extension, because my parents were neither rich nor fools; I still managed to call a few 1-900 lines, forcing them to take out a second mortgage) and it was off to the races—I would spend hours on the phone with kids I’d just spent hours at school with. In college, I would call people and literally be on the phone with them for the entire night. When I graduated it got worse, between staying in touch with old college friends and staying in touch with new work friends, I burned up the phone lines, wrote numerous letters, sent emails—everything.
I recall that when my friend Misty changed jobs and didn’t have email access, we actually faxed each other several times a day. That’s how good at corresponding I was.
These days? Not so much. I can’t put my finger on exactly when it happened—and probably there wasn’t a sudden moment where I just decided to stop corresponding. Probably I just slowed down over time as people drifted out of my sphere. Relationships of any kind require a sort of day-to-day presence in your life, at least at a theoretical level. The possibility must exist to some extent that they will turn up in your life at some point. Once you start thinking you’ll probably never see them again, forget it: Correspondence turns into a trickle of halfhearted missives, frozen over with polite bullshit. So as old friends moved to all sorts of bizarre places, I slowly just stopped having much to say to them.
But this, like the booze, only explains part of the phenomenon. The other part is simple: My perception of time has changed radically. I’m certainly not the only poor bastard who woke up one day in his late twenties, horrified because he finally realized that he isn’t the Chosen One who will live forever, and has spent the rest of his life staggering about in an alcoholic daze, stunned at so much unfairness of things. As you get older, several things happen all at the same time, messing with your understanding of how the world works.
First, you get busier. I’ve heard rumors that some people were pretty busy in their school days, attending classes and reading required texts. Fools. I spent most of my school days coasting along with a B average achieved through a minimum application of brain power. I’m not suggesting I’m sort of genius—I’m suggesting that most school curriculums are simplistic and a not-terribly-bright monkey could probably graduate them. Maybe not with honors, but scrape by. Since we are supposedly evolved beyond the monkey stage, almost any school curriculum should be easy enough for humans.
To be fair, I’ve never attended an Ivy-League or similar type school, so the possibility that the curriculums at those institutions are more challenging remains. Somehow I suspect the only thing more challenging there is picking up the snobby coeds in the bars, but I may be wrong.
At any rate, up until I started working for a living it always seemed to me that I had nothing but time. Summers, naturally, were just long extended holidays. Sure, there was usually a part-time job in there (my Mother meeting me at the door to extract 99% of my earnings as rent every week) but in general there was nothing but free time. Part of this is the fractured nature of school: Forty minutes here, forty minutes there, the day ends at 2:18 PM—there simply weren’t those blocks of hours upon hours spent doing the same thing that can so easily seem like eternities. Very simply, up until I was about twenty-five, I never had much to do, and thus my days seemed endless.
Now, my days are packed. Aside from working, there’s social obligations, four damned cats, and one gorgeous wife fighting for my attention. Letter-writing or friendly phone calls just get shoved to the bottom of the list every day.
Second, you start being less dramatic. Adolescence and post-adolescence is a dramatic time; everything seems vitally important and desperate. Emotions run high, perspective runs low, and this results in a dire need to communicate constantly, if only to reassure yourself that you’re not the only one feeling whatever you’re feeling. Back in my college days, there was a lot of amateur philosophy, a lot of tears, and almost nonstop talking.
Today, I am, for want of a finer term, content. No one’s life is perfect, but I have few complaints, and the last time I sat up all night torn up with emotion was when I killed off a bottle of Glenmorangie Madeira Wood and realized I didn’t have anymore. As a result, there’s less impetus to stay up all night discussing something. And also too, I have come to realize I am a genius, and know everything, which removes the existential doubt that used to torture me, not to mention the need to endlessly compare notes with someone.
Finally, let’s face it, you do have less time, don’t you? Being older doesn’t just mean you start to think paying more than $3 for a bottle of wine is a good idea, it also means you have less time. As in, less fucking time to exist. The time you do have starts to look a little smaller each moment, I think, and you start getting mighty picky about how to spend it. While staying in touch with old friends is a good thing, and not a waste of time at all, it gets punched down on the list pretty easily. And when you do make an effort to get back in touch with someone, it’s easy to get into the habit of trying to shorten those interactions as much as possible—boiling them down to basic information and maintenance. These kinds of communications don’t enrich a relationship very much, and it isn’t surprising that they don’t do much aside from assuage your guilt for having let the communication lines get so rusty in the first place.
Of course, as some of you bastards are no doubt thinking, there’s also the boozing, the rampant egomania, and hallucinatory friends like McEgo the leprechaun and the Rat in the Smoking Jacket taking up all my conversational energy. And you’d be right. But damned rude for saying it, you bastards.
At the current rate of correspondence decay, of course, I will probably be a complete recluse within the next few years, having conversation only with my lovely wife The Duchess and my cats, which will be carried out, of course, in song. So there I’ll be: Bathrobe Man, never out of his pajamas and feared by the neighborhood children, living his life as if he’s in a Broadway Musical. No wonder I hallucinate.
This essay first appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 13, Issue 1, March 2007.