Saturday, September 18, 2010

Act Your Age

You could never say I was a girl who loved math (hardly), but there was one formula I always found fascinating – dogs age seven years for every one human year. I pondered this handy math fact quite a bit in my youth, considering the method by which all the dogs around me were racing ahead to grownupness, while I was still stuck as a little kid.

There weren’t any dogs in my house (mom and dad seemed to believe that caring for an animal would cut into all that precious time needed for addictive behaviors and bitter recriminations), so I amused myself by making calculations for the few dogs with whom I was acquainted – Tag the beagle, Tammy the pekinese and Tequila, the frightening mutt with one blue eye, one brown eye, and not a lot of hair, who lived in a house with nine kids. Even if he was a sophisticated 21 while I was just eight, I knew that Tequila had a worse lot in life than I did.

Like most of the things I was certain of in my childhood, this one turned out to be wrong. The actual formula, I am now told by reliable sources, is 10.5 dog years per human year for the first two years, then four dog years per human year for each year after that.

And that, my fellow liberal arts majors, is just too damn much math for me.

I’ve been thinking about chronological age quite a bit lately, since I’ve been spending time with people whose age is wildly different from my own. It’s exhilarating and also a bit unnerving. I understand that I was a born 40-year-old, and that my twitchy ways, which seemed very strange back in fourth grade, really hit their stride about 1998.

The great chronological disparity in the clan belongs to Mary Katherine. She arrived with degree of emotional maturity that pegs her at about 80 years old. Yet, for a great portion of her early years, Mary Katherine was content to live in perpetual slow mo. She never wanted to hurry up to the next developmental stage, and she didn’t care who knew it. “Don’t you want to do this, like all the big girls do?” I would ask about toilet training or giving up the high chair or whatever developmental next step on which I was currently fixated. She’d shoot me a pitying look and say, “No, not really.”

Then, this summer, little kid Mary Katherine became 23 overnight, bursting to move on-grow up-get started. The fact that she’s 12 is a major bummer to her at the moment, and I can only sympathize.

Her sister’s is an easy age to calculate. Emma was born 25, she still is 25, and I suspect she’ll be 25 when all her teeth fall out and she’s toddling about on a walker with tennis balls on the front legs. In Emma’s picture of the world, she has finished all the school she needs, has a great house on the beach, and holds down an incredibly lucrative job that involves handcuffing perps and saving the world. She is always driving down the coast in her convertible, her long hair flying back in the wind and remaining fabulously untangled. Being only 15 conflicts with this vision, just a bit. If there were a chance to leap herself forward, even one involving risky time machines or untested serums, she’d jump at the chance.

The new dog, Boomer, is about two, according to the shelter, and he is one person in the house who is doing a great job of acting his age, which is that of a teenaged boy. Only an adolescent could hoover up two-and-a-half-dozen cupcakes off the kitchen counter, with wrappers, and show such little regret, even on the, um, back end. Look long enough at his face and you can almost hear him saying, “Dude. That was sweeeeet.”

I think back to my envy of the mature 21-, 28-, and 35-year-old dogs of my youth. Why did I think it was so great that they were getting older faster than I was? They were just hurtling themselves that much more quickly toward the Final Appointment at the vet, or, in Tequila’s case, a one-way encounter with the Peavely Dairy truck. Like all kids, except Mary Katherine, I was in a hurry to grow up, and I was appreciative of those who’d tricked the system to do it faster.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be eight again, and I really still think that poor Tequila, from the family of nine children, earned himself a special golden doghouse in heaven. But I wish I had appreciated, back then, that there is no formula for time passing. Some years do go slowly. Some, the good ones, fly by. And sometimes, in retrospect, even the awfulest moments gain a golden haze, like the closeup shots in a Barbra Streisand movie.

In the meantime, I’m refusing to calculate Boomer’s age with the newfangled dog year formula. Besides the fact that it involves those pesky decimal points that always trip me up, I just don’t want to know. He’ll live while he’s alive, and then he won’t. Me, too, come to think of it. I just hope that I fill up some of those empty spaces in the years with something worthwhile. And there isn’t a math formula in the world that can help me do that.

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