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The Measure of Age

words by Daniel Redmond & photography by Edana Isobel Jamora




“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.” 

― Mark Twain

How old are you?” 

It’s the question that haunts many a mortal’s waking hour.  A terrible query that packs enough gunpowder in its slanted barbed little words to blow up an entire day’s (or even month’s) sense of optimism.  But what exactly does this poorly received question really mean?  Most of you might say something like, “Age is only a state of mind” or perhaps offer a more fatalistic response, such as “We grow old, then we die.”  Yet what is viewed with such a darkly stained lens may be a lot clearer through a different one.  This writer hopes to present a new (and greatly overlooked) theory on the measure of age.

 In the 18th century, a British philosopher and moral ethicist named Jeremy Bentham developed the ‘felicific calculator’-- a tool he used to quantify small measurements of pleasure and pain, believing that if humanity could calculate how much pleasure or pain resulted from its various moral actions, then ethics and calculus could be merged.  It sounds simple enough: take out a pen and paper, draw two large tables, and start scratching in the day’s complaints and joys, its high points and its downfalls; when you’re finished, add the tables up and see which wins out.  Was it worth it to leave that empty shopping cart in the middle of the parking space next to you?  Surely the pleasure of knowing you didn’t have to walk all the way back to the cart rack, wasting precious seconds and straining precious calf muscles, outweighs the pain felt by the grocery store employee who comes out late at night to find a stray cart on the other side of the lot.  There’s something human in calculating, though-- in rustling up numbers and making grids.  And while pleasure/pain math might seem archaic and obsolete, we might pause to consider that, if applied differently, that sort of empirical process might be refreshing in a world full of the cold creases of callous calendars.  But how would this work?

Mull this for a moment: a florist, aged 64 in terrestrial revolutions, stumbles upon the new-and-improved felicific calculator (I’ll call it the ‘senescent calculator’) in an article published online, and is intrigued.  She thinks about the premise: what if instead of counting how many times you’ve slung around the sun, you counted something more tangible, more real?  She thumbs the rose stems she’s cutting in her hand, and gets inspired.  She takes out her calculator, and (for fun) starts summing up an average.  She wonders how many stems she’s trimmed off in her career.  It must be a rather large number, she suspects.  Taking out a piece of paper, she starts calculating.  Traveling back in time, she remembers when she first started selling roses over thirty years ago.  She recalls the roses that grew in front of her mother’s house when she was a young girl—the original roses which started her love for flora.  She begins to write:  15 bunches of roses a day x 12 roses per bunch x 300 days x 30 years.  She puts down the pen.  She knows she isn’t exactly on the money, but even the general idea shocks her.  1, 620, 000 roses.  She has cut over one and a half million roses. 

 Another reader comes across the article as well.  He’s only 34, but he’s just as interested in the senescent calculator.  He works as a professor of literature, and has had his nose between mountains of pages throughout his academic career.  But how many?  Could he tell you if you asked him?  He decides to put the calculator to the test.  He remembers the first “real” book he ever read: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.  He was ten; and while he couldn’t understand half of the words, he savored the act of reading nonetheless.  He surmises that he has probably read 30 or 40 books a year since then, give or take a few.  Taking an average, he starts his sum: 35 books a year x 24 years.  He stares at the solution, basking in algebraic bliss—840 books.  It may seem more underwhelming than with the example of the florist, but let’s go even further.  Suppose he isn’t satisfied with that number (it doesn’t encapsulate the enormity of the experience) and endeavors to count how many words he has read in his lifetime thus far.  Taking the rough length of the average novel (about 80,000 words), he creates a new sum: 840 books x 80, 000 words = 67, 200, 000 words.  This number is a bit more impacting. 

 The senescent calculator isn’t just for career-based actions, either.  A grandfather to a beautiful baby girl could use the calculator to figure out how many times he has tucked his granddaughter into bed at night.  A hobby cyclist could run the numbers on all the miles he’s racked up over the years.  A couple could (very roughly, of course, but still accurately enough to be meaningful) keep track of all their sexual escapades, and so could you, if that’s your kind of thing.  A gig guitarist could lament at the abnormal amount of strings she’s broken (often just before she takes the stage).  The combinations are as limitless as the neural connections in our thought-hungry brains.  It may seem contradictory to the tried-and-true methods we tend to employ in our everyday lives—living clump-like, bathed in abstract conceptions—but perhaps identity could be understood more clearly with mathematics, and thus become more beautiful.

The search for identity often ends (or seems to end) when one learns some astonishing aspect about oneself.  In the case of the senescent calculator, it isn’t a single thing or all encompassing, spiritual facet of one’s self; rather, it’s a multitude of actions which coalesce into the personal assignment of all one’s actions to one’s state of mind.  It is difficult for us to think in such an arithmetical way (often we find ourselves shaping our memories into giant, continuous blobs of thought, instead of discrete pieces of information), but perhaps we should give it a try.  If we try hard enough, we’ll forget about the forest, and concentrate wholly on the trees.