That I have lived as many years in the new millennium — 18 — as I did in the time from birth to finishing high school seems inconceivable to me. I’m 88, and between 1930 and 1948 went from newborn to adult, from toddler to leader of an infantry squad. Those first 18 years were a journey into manhood, while the millennium seems merely its epilogue.
I’m certainly not the same man at 88 I was when the millennium began. But changes in me — stiffness, skin that invites angry bruises, occasional memory lapses — are insignificant compared to the growth spurt at 17 that shot me from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-2. I hope I’ve gained additional wisdom during the millennium, but feel I’m essentially the same man I was 18 years ago.
That contrast came into sharp focus recently when I renewed my driver’s license. A motor vehicle clerk, glancing from me to the photograph taken seven years earlier, said I hadn’t changed enough to require a new picture. So little physical change in seven years! Only my mother would have recognized me in photographs taken seven years apart during my first 18 years of life.
Aging has put me on a conveyor propelling me through days as though there were only two in a month, the first and the last. Daily rituals like shaving, brushing my teeth, dressing have me puzzling, didn’t I just do this?
I sometimes think of time as slices of a pie. Summers were endless when I was 6, just as one-sixth of a pie is a generous portion. Even with a scalpel and hands steadier than mine, cutting a pie into 88 slices is beyond most of us. That thought alone reminds me that the slice of life remaining to me is very small.
I’m aware I should be grateful the days are rushing by for me. I have ill friends in almost constant discomfort who describe their days as “unending” and “hard to fill.” One recently told me, “Time goes about as fast as I can push this walker.”
Knowing I’m a stumble away from a walker of my own has me examining how I spend the days left to me. That is more difficult than it seems as my mind often resembles a theater, transforming the most casual stroll into a play noisy with dialogue.
Does the girl texting as she hurries forward realize she’s going to plow into me? Are there enough hedge-fund managers to fill all the apartment buildings shooting skyward around me? Which is more likely to hit me as I cross this street, a taxi or a bike?
Hardest for me is reflecting quietly on the path I’ve taken to where I have yet to go. I know I have to make some profound changes in my behavior if I am to recapture the adventure and passion I experienced during the first 18 years of my life. That means being willing at 88 to acknowledge I have to break habits that are comfortable but confining.
The place to begin was the theater of my mind. I read of a brain training center that treats children with behavioral problems and adults entering dementia. I called and asked if their neurofeedback program could help a healthy brain achieve a better balance between the noisy frequencies that fill my mind with chatter and the quieter, more calming ones. They said it might, and I decided to participate in a few sessions.
I followed a therapist to a soundproofed room, where electrodes were attached to various parts of my head and connected to a computer that measured the electrical patterns of my brain. The therapist’s objective was to invigorate neurons that were less active — the rarely quiet part of my brain — while dimming those firing more vigorously. After six sessions, I had no idea if my mind attained a healthy equilibrium between chatter and calm.
I do know I emerged determined to find in my daily life the tranquillity I experienced in that room. While I’ve meditated for years, the peace I feel during 30 minutes of mindfulness is quickly eclipsed by noise in the street and in my head. I had to begin replacing the dramas playing in my mind with the quiet needed to reflect on how I was going to spend the time remaining to me.
I’m trying to break other habits in far more conventional ways. As in many long marriages, my wife and I enjoy spending time with the same friends, watch the same television programs, favor the same restaurants, schedule vacations to many of the same places, avoid activities that venture too far from the familiar.
We decided to become more adventurous, shedding some of those habits. European friends of ours always seem to find the time for an afternoon coffee or glass of wine, something we never did. Now, spontaneously, one of us will suggest going to a coffee shop or cafe just to talk, and we do. It’s hardly a lifestyle revolution, but it does encourage us to examine everything we do automatically, and brings some freshness to a marriage that started when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president.
My fitness regimen had also become habitual: treadmill, swimming, core exercises and resistance training. Watching others work out in different ways tempted me to vary that routine. When I read about a rehabilitation program designed for a New York Giant defensive lineman who had mangled his hand, it made me wonder if I could ask new things of my body.
The gym he went to was near my home, and I arranged a meeting with his trainer and asked if he could design a far less rigorous program for me. He added exercises I had never attempted, pedaling and running in brief bursts of intensity, lifting weights while balancing on one foot, focusing more on reaching and lifting movements that mimic the functions of everyday life, countering the stiffness accompanying aging by stretching, bending and leaping. The workout I now follow is mentally and physically taxing but within the capabilities of someone my age, and I regard it as part of my intention to ask more of my mind and body in these remaining years.
None of these efforts to break old habits will add one day to my life. But I feel I’ve stepped off the conveyor and am experiencing some of the passion and adventure I felt in the first 18 years of my life.
Robert W. Goldfarb is a management consultant and author of “What’s Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?”