How Old Is Old?

“Do you know how long a year takes when it’s going away?’ Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. ‘This long.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you’re an old man.’

‘Old?’ asked Clevinger with surprise. ‘What are you talking about?’


‘I’m not old.’

‘You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow down?’ Dunbar was almost angry when he finished.

‘Well, maybe it is true,’ Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. ‘Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?’

‘I do,’ Dunbar told him.

‘Why?’ Clevinger asked.

‘What else is there?”

~ Joseph Heller in Catch 22.


23 thoughts on “How Old Is Old?”

  1. A friend of ours has a daughter, Maggie, who is 9 going on 92. We call her Maggie the moral majority. (“You can’t cross the street here”. She is afraid of the world) A student of mine spends his entire lesson organizing my teaching. (he is afraid to learn) A relative is 93 and has been 93 since I met her 45 years ago. Everything controlled, nothing changes. Fear. My father retired at 65, discovered there was no newspaper in the town my parents moved to, and started one. My mother, an artist, started a painter’s group that helps kids express themselves, and gives exhibitions for charities. Both had had cancer twice. Unhappiness? Only if you live there. Plaster it over with goodness and activity! (Life can also be a long collection of things to be proud of.)

  2. Yes, my dear Ramana, time is indeed a non measurable quantity. Subjective. Slithering mercury in the sand.

    I so relate to childhood summer holidays as mentioned by Heller, luxuriously stretching into eternity. Loved it. I had no concept of time. Still don’t – to some extent.

    It was only yesterday I gave birth to the miracle of my life, yet twenty three years on he is so much more astute about the shortness of life than I ever was/am. You know, I can see the day now when the reaper (what is his actual gain?) will catch me unawares. Let’s hope I’ll be sitting down at the time. Lest I faint. Famous last words of the eternal optimist I am: “I didn’t see this one coming.” No, one better: “Don’t you knock?” Fait accompli.

    Ursula recently posted..Chickenfeed – on a drip in seven daily instalments

  3. What I dislike is the general assumption that anyone who’s old (i.e.over 60) must also be decrepit and half-witted. I know plenty of oldies who’re both fit and sharp as a razor. On the other hand, as everyone knows, young people are all lazy anti-social binge-drinkers….
    nick recently posted..Candid camera

  4. what is wrong with me?
    this is serious stuff.
    and all i can do is laugh.
    i admit. i think age is relative. when i felt so terrible… actually the last two years… there were literally times i felt at death’s door. and i thought “well COME ON! you want me! OK. let’s get it over with!!!”
    i felt old indeed.
    now that i’m feeling better and better due to this new grain free lifestyle… i see a future. and i feel younger and more free.
    pain and illness are inhibitors of the feeling of agelessness i think.
    i see you as wise and smooth and calm and funny. and ageless.
    like a buddha. a GOM. beloved by chutki and all of us! 😀
    tammy j recently posted..little sister is watching you

    1. I would rather that you laughed. Nothing should be so serious that one cannot see the humour, even if it is just dark, in all situations. Heller would not have it any other way!

  5. I really like that book! My Father always said each year feels like it progresses faster than the previous because the history of what we have lived is so much longer. I guess unpleasant conditions makes this even longer.

    As an aside – okay wow! A lot of responses already to your sage posting.

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