Autumn Colours

I guess there’s still hope. I mean, there has to be something to look forward to other than empty branches as my leaves gradually alter their colours. And yet, if I’d thought it through a little more, I might have guessed that everything adapts to change -even me. I’m not who I was when I started: my teeth are different, my hair is grizzled, and my laugh lines are more ditches than cosmetic attractions. Life is change. Age is change.

So naturally, my personality should be equally malleable. Some things are more obvious than others, though. I don’t use as many big words in an argument nowadays, because by the time I remember them, the need has passed and I’ve had to concede the point. Even the word for them- sesquipedalianisms– requires rehearsing all of the syllables mentally and planning the position of my tongue beforehand; I need advance notice before I pull anything of significance like that out of my mouth.

But the most encouraging thing about age is how it smooths things out. It seems to me I am far less arrogant and argumentative than I used to be. I’m more likely to be diplomatic and listen to the other side before committing myself to an opinion -especially if I don’t really have one. That’s self-report, of course -only my mirror knows for sure… well, and my dog, I suppose: I used to take things out on him.

And yet, I’ve been wondering if it’s just impending dementia that forces me to listen, or simply the wisdom of deciding to process whatever information is coming my way before I make a fool of myself. I could run away faster when I was young.

I happened upon an article by Zaria Gorvett, a freelance science journalist writing for the BBC that tweaked my interest:  It would seem that our personalities are far from stable throughout our lives.

‘Our traits are ever shifting, and by the time we’re in our 70s and 80s, we’ve undergone a significant transformation. And while we’re used to couching ageing in terms of deterioration and decline, the gradual modification of our personalities has some surprising upsides. We become more conscientious and agreeable, and less neurotic.’ That’s pretty much the way I would have put it.

‘Research has shown that we develop into more altruistic and trusting individuals. Our willpower increases and we develop a better sense of humour. Finally, the elderly have  more control over their emotions.’ I mean, you can see why I liked what she had to say, right?

‘Psychologists call the process of change that occurs as we age “personality maturation”. It’s a gradual, imperceptible change that begins in our teenage years and continues into at least our eighth decade on the planet. Intriguingly, it seems to be universal: the trend is seen across all human cultures, from Guatemala to India.’

Maybe you have to be older to understand just how reassuring that is. Still, it’s not all roses and sunshine -rather than diluting the very concept of personality, its changing nature is Janus-faced because it would seem that ‘there are two aspects to personality change: average changes, and relative changes. While our personalities shift in a certain direction as we age, what we’re like relative to other people in the same age group tends to remain fairly stable… “There is a core of who we are in the sense that we do maintain our rankings relative to other people to some extent,” says Damian [Rodica Damian, a social psychologist at the University of Houston]. “But relative to ourselves, our personalities are not set in stone – we can change.” Uhmm…

I’m not sure that fits, though, because my circle of friends seems to be more tetchy lately if there is disagreement between either of them. It’s admittedly a rather small circle, but I’ve always been more comfortable with a tiny, easy to measure, radius.

Just why these changes occur is a matter of continuing debate, however -‘some think that our personalities are partly forged by genetic factors, then sculpted by social pressures over the course of our lives.’ That makes sense, I think, although when you’re actually wearing the personality, it’s hard to judge.

Anyway, the timing of the article seemed ideal. I was meeting both friends at the Tim Hortons coffee shop in the mall, and I thought maybe I’d take notes and write a sociological blog about them.

They were both sitting in a table by the wall, and I could tell by their eyes they were none too happy. David, a large and chunky balding man, was hunched over the table, and if not in Greg’s face, certainly in his personal zone. Greg’s thin and wrinkled hands seemed to be clenched, while his greying mop of untidy hair was, unfortunately, squeezed against the wall and unable to retreat.

David’s eye-corners saw me with my coffee and multigrain bagel and grunted what seemed like a reluctant acknowledgement of my approach. Greg at least smiled and attempted a fleeting eye-contact before he refocussed on his protagonist.

“What’s up, guys?” I said, smiling and sighing at the same time. They had always been earnest interlocutors, but lately more gladiatorial than competitive.

David straightened up a little and briefly glanced my way. His usually wrinkled face was taut; he looked ten years younger like that.

“Greg here was telling me -telling me!- that I shouldn’t be adding so much sugar to my coffee!”

His exclamation marks vibrated off the wall that Greg was pinned to -I could almost see them.

“Well, you’re putting on the pounds, Davey,” Greg said, trying to catch my eye to wink at me. I could see the hint of an amused smile on his face.

“And you’re withering away, Greg!” Another vibrationally palpable exclamation mark. I could almost imagine him sticking his tongue at him like we used to do when we were kids.

“I think it’s healthier at our age, don’t you G?” Greg said, turning his head towards me in case he got hit by another exclamation mark.

Not being in either of their camps, I hadn’t thought about it much, so I merely shrugged. But Dave was shaking his head angrily.

“I think Greg is right to worry about our healths as we age…” I suggested, hoping to dampen the fire, but unable to think of the proper plural of ‘health’ -if there even is one.

Dave suddenly sat back in his chair and glared at me – well, it started out as a glare, then kind of melted into a stare, and finally his eyes, instead of circling angrily over my face, landed gently on my cheek. “Healths?” he asked, a little smile forming on his lips. “Is that even a word?”

I shrugged -humbly, I hoped. “It’s probably a neologistic adaptation of a common word -Shakespeare did it all the time…”

Dave’s eyebrows headed skyward. “He gets here late, takes sides in an almost resolved discussion he knows nothing about, and then compares himself to Shakespeare, Greg…!” Dave said, throwing his arms theatrically above the exclamation marks. I could tell he was trying to suppress an even larger smile. “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice, G.”

I had to smile. “Very good, Dave: Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Both Dave and Greg stared at me, surprised, that I recognized it, I guess. “But do you remember what else Polonius advises him…?” Neither of them answered, so I continued. “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel!”

Dave’s smile suddenly grew to fill his face. “Very good, G, but Shakespeare didn’t put an exclamation mark there!” he said, his eyes twinkling.

Greg and I both stared at him and started to chuckle.

“You learn to see them after a while, eh…?” Dave continued, before joining in our laughter -friends all.


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