The parallax effect of middle age

The parallax effect of middle age

Post by blog member Kerim Friedman.

Meme with baby Yoda and Yoda from the original films. Baby Yoda is captioned "Faculty profile photo" whereas the older Yoda is captioned "Faculty in real life."

As one gets older, one’s experience of time simultaneously collapses and expands, creating a parallax effect. Amidst the daily routine of the school year, time seems to pass ever slower, each semester much like the next, erasing any sense of the passage of time. At the same time, the years breeze by at an ever faster pace, unnoticed, until they are brought to one’s attention with a sudden shock of realization, such as when you see a picture online of a high school classmate with grey hair and wonder, “How they could have gotten so old?” Currently, I am still only “middle” aged, not yet “old,” but part of what it means to be middle aged is to become more acutely more aware of the passage of time and its effects, to become more aware and reflective of the aging process and its impact on you and those around you.

Of course, such an experience of time is far from universal. I consider myself fortunate to have the kind of job security which allows my work to feel repetitive. My friends still employed on precarious temporary contracts—with no guarantee that they will be renewed from one year to the next—do not have the same luxury. Not having children also sets me apart from some of my peers. I get the impression that those who do have kids often get to experience time vicariously. For young kids, a year can feel like an eternity. I can also think of ways that gender, ethnicity, and disabilities might color one’s experience of aging. There are also studies showing people in their late-sixties and seventies have a better sense of their personal wellbeing than those in their fifties. For all of these reasons, when I began writing this post I decided that I didn’t want my own thoughts on aging to have to stand on their own, but should be part of an ongoing series in which I solicited a variety of contributions. This is the first post in that series.

My initial request only received a handful of submissions, which I will post here as soon as the come in. I hope, however, that others reading these posts might be inspired to come forth and join the conversation, sharing their own experiences as well. You don’t need to be (or even feel) old to contribute. None of the first round contributors are even retired. That makes what we are doing here a bit different from the excellent series of interviews with retired anthropologists over CaMP Anthropology. You just need to be willing to talk about how aging has affected your career as an anthropologist.

Having blogged here about every other stage of my academic career, I didn’t want to treat this topic any differently. But I soon found that this would not be possible. Last year I became a full professor, and given how rare such positions are these days, and the fact that many of our readers are still in the early stages of their career, I can’t help but be aware that this sets me apart in a way that wasn’t the case when I first started blogging seventeen years ago. Moreover, the longer I live in Taiwan, the less connected I feel to North American anthropology. Even attending online events in North America can be difficult because of the time zone difference, and in the age of COVID I find myself less eager to undertake international travel for conferences. When I do attend international conferences, I’m more prone to choose smaller or regional events rather than huge mega-conferences like the AAA, even if that means I miss out on seeing some of my friends.

When I was first hired, I thought I might just be in Taiwan for only a few years before moving on to a job somewhere else, but not only have I stayed on and built a life here, I have even become a Taiwanese citizen. Having put down roots I now feel it would take much more psychic energy to even think of relocating somewhere else. Even though I’m still young enough to switch jobs (or even careers) if I wanted to, I’m comfortable enough where I am that it would take either a big carrot or a big stick to get me to make a change at this point. Moreover, even if I wanted to move, it wouldn’t be easy. Most job hires are either for someone far more junior, or for someone far more productive and ambitious when it comes to publishing and research grants. I have ambitions, to be sure, but they have had to be scaled back from the wild fantasies of youth to something a bit more age-appropriate.

More than anything else, what really made me start to accept the fact that I was getting older was my experience with chronic hip pain. As we age, we need to take increasingly more intense care of our bodies. To just maintain the same level of personal fitness I had in my thirties seems to take exponentially more time and effort with each passing year. I’ve always been reasonably active, but when hip pain began interfering with my sleep, work, and ability to sit through a meeting . . . I realized that I had to make some radical life changes. My own health became my top priority. I’ve chronicled this story in a series of blog posts on my personal blog, so I won’t repeat it here. Let’s just say that I’m in better shape now than I probably have been at any other time in the past twenty years. I feel lucky that I was able to figure out how to overcome my hip problems (at least for now), but I have to remain ever-vigilant to prevent them from coming back.

Nor is it only one’s own body that one has to take care of. I have also had to adapt my lifestyle to better take care of my aging parents. Although my parents are still remarkably active, the sense of time running out is hard to ignore. Every month, my parents seem to loose another one of their close friends. Suddenly, my choice of a career twelve time zones away from my home on the east coast feels like it was a huge mistake. My colleagues with aging parents in Taiwan can take the train home every weekend, but I can only go home over summer and winter break. And that was before COVID made travel even more difficult. I once wrote about how fortunate I felt having found a job near my fieldwork, but with so much time spent back home, I now rarely have time to do new research. Fortunately, I have a huge backlog of unprocessed data, unfinished projects, etc. that will me busy for the next few years. I am also focusing more on mentoring and collaborative projects.

Not being in a precarious position means that one has the luxury (within limits) of re-defining one’s own career priorities and goals. But adjusting your career to be more age-appropriate might mean giving up some of what attracted you to the discipline in the first place — the joy of being in the field, the pleasure of attending conferences, etc. I’ve also tried to be more picky about what kinds of service work I do, but there are only so many times one can say “no” to requests for contributions, talks, collaborations, etc. before people stop asking. And one has to try to do one’s best to pull one’s weight so that the burden doesn’t fall on junior faculty. Getting older means you need to slow down, yes, but you can’t afford to slow down too much.

Finally, getting older has also compelled me to try to be more focused in my intellectual pursuits. In the past two decades I must have downloaded several thousand PDFs I will never read, not to mention all the lists I have made of books and films I will never read or watch. I would need several more lifetimes to get through it all. The way I’ve learned to manage my anxiety about all these unread texts is to (a) keep telling myself I don’t need to know everything, and (b) try to have a limited number of projects I am working on at any given time – focusing my reading on one of those projects. Also, I’ve found listening to audio books, podcasts, and even using text-to-speech software allows me to listen to things I might not otherwise get to. Dense philosophical or ethnographic texts are not well suited to such distracted listening, but it is great for popular nonfiction and well written history books. (I do wish that there were more ethnographies out there which were not only available as audiobooks, but also written so that they worked well when read aloud.)

This post has been hard for me to write, partially because confronting one’s own age is never easy. There is a school of psychiatry that sees our repressed existential dread as being as fundamental to who we are – replacing the role that our repressed sexuality served for the Freudians. I’m not convinced by such arguments, but I do think we would be well served to talk more openly and honestly about the aging process and what we expect or fear in our old age. I would even say that writing this post has been therapeutic, allowing me to put into words a lot of what I have been going through these past few years. I very much hope that I can convince other people to do the same. As I said at the beginning, there are a wide variety of factors that affect how we experience getting older, and we need a diverse range of voices to join us in this conversation.

P. Kerim Friedman is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. His research explores language revitalization efforts among indigenous Taiwanese, looking at the relationship between language ideology, indigeneity, and political economy. An ethnographic filmmaker, he co-produced the Jean Rouch award-winning documentary, ‘Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!’ about a street theater troupe from one of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).

One Reply to “The parallax effect of middle age”

  1. Thank you for initiating this series, Kerim. I realize that people are mainly interested in the wretched state of the academic job market, so caring about what happens later is not that great. But there are different paths and stories to tell. Most people won’t know that you were a graduate student in the linguistic anthropology seminar I taught as a visiting professor at Temple so long ago.