Father Time and Airport Security

I traveled over the holidays – probably not a wise decision, but it seemed like a necessary one at the time.  As I double-masked, waited in long lines, and prayed that our flight crew did not call in sick, I pondered why I was doing this at seventy years of age.  Open question.  But the question of age and its benefits and disadvantages kept coming back to me during this time as we approach the end of 2021 and the prospect of another year gone.

Nothing has changed in the past few decades as much as air travel.  So, I separated my liquids and made sure our fruit cake was not wrapped in aluminum foil.  When I came to the front of the airport security line, I asked a TSA employee if I needed to remove my shoes.  I tend to get dizzy bending down so I would have liked to avoid untying my sneakers, not to mention pattering around on my socks on a dirty airport floor.   The nice young man asked how old I was, and I told him (70).  He smiled and said that the limit was 75, but I should just lie next time because they never check.  Nevertheless, I make it a policy never to fib to people who can put me on a “no fly” list, so I guess I will keep taking my shoes off.  But the encounter got me thinking about uses of age – we want to be old to qualify for keeping our shoes on, for Social Security and Medicare (especially Medicare!), for early Covid vaccinations, for senior discounts, but we don’t want any age restrictions on driving, employment, credit, or any other parts of our lives.  I have a 95-year-old relative who says she is too old if confronted with something she doesn’t want to do, but alternately asserts that she is so old that she can do anything she wants to do in the face of any kind of limitations (regardless of protest from the near and dear).  Ahhh….  In a way, this is all of us.

Centuries ago, there was little concept of age restrictions on the old; neither was there much sympathy for retirement.   Pope Celestine became the first pope to “abdicate” at age 79 (in 1294) for which he was much maligned; he wanted to become a hermit.   Celestine even makes it into one of Dante’s circles of hell for his “great refusal.”  The whole point of King Lear seems to be (at least at first glance) that the old man let go of the rei(g)ns too soon.

Early modern times did make some allowances for the old.  At sixty, one could not be forced into military service and at seventy an elder was exempt from jury duty.  (The latter is of interest to me as I have a jury duty notice and, in my state, the automatic exemption age is 72 and I don’t quite make it.)

But, in general, the old were expected to carry on to the extent of their capabilities.  To be excused from service to the House of Lords, for example, age was generally not enough.  The important imperative to persevere, however, was more ethical than legal, and in it was embedded the assumption of the duty of the old to be wise and to impart that wisdom to the young.   When the Fool admonishes Lear that “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” he paraphrases the words that Lucrece addresses to Priam as she views a tapestry depicting the deception of Sinon (in the Bard’s “Rape of Lucrece”): “Priam, why art thou old, and yet not wise?” Regardless of her age, no one expected or wanted the Virgin Queen Elizabeth to retire in Shakespearean England (and the current Queen Elizabeth apparently assumes this is still the case).

Again, I am also focused on numbers because we are headed toward the countdown for a new year. (I will be asleep when the ball actually falls.)  What will 2022 bring besides making me another year older (if I live through it)?  I have a habit of making resolutions in my journal every year, but last year’s entry was mostly about my hope that Covid would disappear.  That has been a disappointment for us all.  I hope for more good days, more ordinary days.  I pray with the Psalmist that life will even out, and that God will “make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (Psalm 90), that there will be a return to normality, good days to make up for the bad, normal to balance the abnormal.  But maybe such strict accounting is not necessary; as Frost says, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”   If Frost is right, numbers surely do not matter.

My new year story, “Amnesia at the Airport,” was prompted by memory and my recent air travel.  It compares the fantasies of youth with the realities of age, and I hope it also points out the advantages of each.  You might also take a look at my blog on Baby New Year and Old Father Time.  Cheers!

Holidays, Holy Days, and Old Saint Nick


The holidays are upon us, and – as usual – we will be traveling to see relatives.  I am looking forward to the family, but not the airports, highways, hotels and car rental firms.  I am getting too old for this, which means I spend December dreading the season when I should be celebrating the coming of the light. 

Christmas itself is a disappointing holiday in many ways.  One of the most awkward situations over the years as we have visited our children’s homes is the moment when we are about to leave for a Christmas Eve service at a church we have located on-line and ask if anyone – child or grandchild – would like to go with us.  The question clears the room rapidly.  So we go to church to try to feel what Christians and Druids felt as the dark days start to get light again, and everyone else remains home and dreams of the glories of capitalism that will appear under the tree in the morning.

I recently heard Rebecca Solnit use the term “the tyranny of the quantifiable” (which she attributed to Chip Ward).  What a wonderful description of the world we live in!  Democracy may be trouble – I am not quarreling with that.  But the biggest winner of all is capitalism.  For a holiday that celebrates the worth that can come out of a cow’s manger, the indoctrination of us all to a season of excess is pitiful.  And in an age when you can simulate sunlight and set your thermostat at 70 (no matter the weather outside), perhaps the turning of the year does not seem like such a miracle.

Don’t get me wrong, we looked forward to Christmas presents when I was a child.  Expectations were lower but ripping paper off packages was just as passionate as it is now.  But we had other memories of Christmas – church nativity pageants, family carol sings, the smells of cooking that went on and on.  I know that I sound like an old grump.  I will keep these thoughts to myself when I visit the grandkids and help them put batteries in the multitude of plastic that will emerge on Christmas morning.

Even Christmas decorations have gone downhill (says the grumpy old lady).  Our neighborhood is filled with those blow-up Santas and elves, which require a light and a noisy compressor to keep them inflated during the evening.  During the day, the deflated Saint Nicks look like piles of garbage bags on the lawn.  Our neighbors have an inflatable Holy Family, which is sad to see in its deflated daytime state.  It would be more of a “joy to the world” if we acknowledged global warming and cut down on the Snoopy Santas.

Santa, as you probably know, traces his origins to Saint Nicholas.  Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of – among other things –merchants and children.  So maybe he would not have disapproved of a holiday which made both children and merchants happy.  He died in the 4th century at the age of 73 – a ripe old age for those perilous times.  He is usually depicted with a white beard, but little body fat.  It was Coca Cola ads that originally made Santa chubby. (Of course, he does have to eat all those cookies.)  Santa is always depicted as old, but never as decrepit, never as tired, never as sick.  But think of all that traveling (magic reindeer or not)!  I only have to face air travel for a few hours, but it will age me.  It always does.  I am sure that my grandchildren wish that I were jollier and came with more presents that I can fit in my carry-on luggage.  I am definitely not aging as well as Santa.

Some of my grandchildren celebrate Three Kings Day on Epiphany.  Artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.  But it should be noted that the eldest brought the gold.

I am posting a new Christmas story – “Cookie Crumbs.”  The tale of a Santa for an old person.  There are other stories about Christmas here; you might try “Epiphany” if you are dealing with young adult children returning home for the holidays.  As we head to the New Year, there is also the post “Baby New Year and Old Father Time” from a couple of years ago.  Here’s to a meaningful holiday season and a peaceful and healthy new year. 

Uncertainty and Old Age


In his old age, Einstein was perplexed by quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  “God does not play dice with the universe,” exclaimed the great genius.  Bohr, another great genius, answered (less famously) “It’s not our place to tell Him how to run the world.”  We want to believe that life is not subject to blind chance, that the world is reasonable and just.  If we live long enough, we learn otherwise.

I recently finished When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (highly recommended).  This somewhat strange book explores the scientists of the twentieth century and the consequences of their science.  It filled a gaping void in my education by detailing the development of quantum theory up to the point of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Scientific advances have done wonderful things like cleaning our water and delivering us from polio, but science was also responsible for the atom bomb.  One of the first stories in the book concerns Fritz Haber, who both invented a way to fix nitrogen out of the air (making chemical fertilizer possible and warding off global famine) and also engineered Germany’s gas attacks during the first World War. 

Labatut eventually moves on to Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle – the theory that the underpinnings of the universe are based on chance, on odds, on probabilities.  How that threatens us!  How it threatened Einstein!

Labatut writes:

For Einstein, physics must speak of causes and effects, and not only of probabilities.  He refused to believe that the facts of the world obeyed a logic so contrary to common sense.  Chance could not be enthroned at the expense of the notion of natural laws.  There had to be something deeper.  Something not yet known.  A hidden variable that could dissipate the fog of Copenhagen [this refers to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Heisenberg and Bohr relating to quantum mechanics] and reveal the order that undergirded the randomness of the subatomic world. (167)

Einstein struggled with this proposed randomness for the rest of his life.

Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.  In 1939 the Nazis asked him about the feasibility of an atom bomb – he said it was not possible within the duration of the war and was apparently surprised when one was dropped on Hiroshima.  One might hope he was lying to Hitler to stop him; my guess was that he was just wrong.

The reader should be aware that Labatut’s book is a mixture of fact and fiction, and I don’t know enough about the subject matter to differentiate.  But it is a good read.  And it forces us to think again about technology and science and what we know to be true.  And how much of life is pure chance.

Although our parents acknowledged that “life is not fair” (after our cries of “it’s not fair”), the subliminal message was always that life is not random, that we have some significant level of control. People who fared badly did something wrong (didn’t finish college, didn’t work hard enough, ate too much, etc.) – if we will only get that degree, get that job, find that husband, have that baby – everything will be okay.  And yet everyone has had the experience of watching bad things happen to good people.  Lung cancer sometimes comes to those who never smoked, husbands leave loving wives, and one wild child in a wonderful family causes endless grief.  Uncertainty principle indeed.  Shakespeare has the poor Earl of Gloucester acknowledge that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” 

The world has never liked to think that the human life is based on probability, chance.  When in the 17th century “bills of mortality” were first used to create actuarial tables for such things as life insurance, people bridled at replacing individual providence with en masse reckonings.  Fate in the hands of mathematics is quite different from providence in the control of a deity.  Identical numbers/probabilities would be used for you or your neighbor or the sinner down the street; there is nothing individual or ethical about such calculations.   It might have been a scientific approach, an enlightened approach, but it was not comforting.

No one wants to hear about wanton boys and flies.  No one wants to think that life is random on some basic level.  No one wants to believe that technology gets away from us and has repercussions that we cannot predict.  But, those who have lived long, know that this is true.