I remember as a child, a card arriving in the mail from the United States Library of Congress
, to inform my father his thesis has been checked out from their collection.
Given the comprehensive catalogue maintained by the Library of Congress and the esoteric subject matter of my father's PhD thesis in applied statistics, this was an unusual enough occurrence for the library to inform him, at least at the time and upon the first occasion.
There were perhaps a half-dozen people on the planet who could understand his thesis, all of them prominent. Carl Sagan
would phone to speak with my father and it was only much later in life that I would come to appreciate how significant this was: Sagan was composing the Message from Humanity
encapsulated on the Voyager
probes traveling out of the solar system and in the meantime, chatting to Dad about Mars.
When you're a kid a universe of possibility is in front of you and your perception is stuff like that is it's no big deal, you'll be doing the same one day.
Though I've only ever seen one of them, to my certain knowledge there are four printed volumes of my father's PhD, leather-bound and gold-leaf; his in our family library, the one in the U.S. Congress, and the two held in trust for my brother and I, his children.
Fifteen years ago I casually asked my father when he'd last read his PhD thesis and his answer surprised me. He told me he'd read it again fairly recently but he couldn't follow the mathematics any more, even though he was the author and it was entirely his work. When pressed, he explained that mathematics was a young person's game and he was, in his fifties, beyond it.
I was shocked. In my twenties, still operating under the presumption that one gets better at stuff the older one becomes, failing utterly to appreciate the life lesson my father could teach here if only I'd listen. Needless to say I should have paid attention and didn't. Not, I have to admit, for the first or last time.
Stuff like that simply doesn't resonate when you're young and bullet-proof. And in my case, stoopid.John Donne
warned us that "it tolls for thee
" but he failed to fucking mention that you might not hear the gong by the time you're in your mid-40s and hard of hearing. The truth is we're all in decline and middle-age is about managing expectations. What no-one tells us when we're young is that it's primarily about managing our own
expectations. Shakespeare's "to thine own self be true
" ripped us off as well, he should have emphasised the know thine own self
Because that my friends, is one of those secrets to a happy life.
The last age group in football is over-35s. When you're a codger, under-18s and under-30s are fond memories. Once you're over 35 you're over-35s and that's it, there are no later age groups.
You're playing with the same bunch of geezers until you die.
Probably on the pitch.
With a wheezing middle-aged fat guy slobbering an attempt at CPR like he's horny.
A few years ago I was playing for Eastern Suburbs in a grading game at centre-midfield, the engine room, a position which particularly demands aerobic fitness. My opponent at centre-mid had played for Yugoslavia at the 1982 World Cup and was in his 60s. He manshamed me despite being twice my age because form is temporary and class is permanent, but also because he knew his limitations. Where my 35 year-old self imagined it could get to the 50-50 ball with my 20 year-old self's alacrity, my opponent knew himself better.
He cleaned me up. That self-knowledge of his own capabilities, even despite the gulf in class mitigated by his advanced age, was the primary difference between us.
But that self-knowledge is not the entirety of it. The fuck of it all is the acceptance of harsh truths, the willingness to keep turning out despite the knowledge that you're not meeting the expectations you once set for yourself.
And that you never will. Across all your fields of endeavour.
I'm less inclined to play snooker, or chess, or football, or engage in any of my other pastimes these days because I don't take pleasure from the pursuit, stymied by the frustration at failing to meet my own expectations.
Because I can't perform as once I could, childishly I do something else.
Knowing those who accept the reality of age and just get one with it are not merely more successful, they're also better men.
-SRA. Auckland, 6/viii 2015. (reposted.)