It amazes me how we give meaning with structures that have no intrinsic meaning. Take the idea of reflecting on the significant events of a millennium or poignantly reflecting on your life around the time of a “fiftieth” birthday. One thousand or fifty … mere multiples of ten. Why not have similar reflections on 857 years, or the age 36¾? All power goes to the decimal, based on the somewhat arbitrary fact that we have ten fingers instead of nine or eleven. Thus we have just a “sense” of meaning where there is no meaning, like turning 50 …
* * *
Her name is Sarah and she is a young, beautiful blonde. Her attractiveness is made more radiant by the kind manner in which she helps me post a parcel, something I haven’t done in years and the local post office feels like the setting for a sci-fi movie. Just before Sarah arrives I gingerly approach a machine in the post office that would be R2-D2 if it had arms. I stare at the robot in wonder, expecting to hear the sound track for Star Wars. And perhaps real post office people will appear from nowhere, shouting “fooled ya!” and tell me how to turn the bloody thing on so it can somehow post my docs …
* * *
… and the word “meaning” is just that: an equally, almost arbitrary series of letter strokes that have become convention, whose power can nevertheless evoke a cry of anguish (“what the fuck is life meant to be about??”) …
* * *
… instead, Sarah blessedly descends, radiating helpfulness. After asking me a few questions in a calm voice, she selects a plastic envelope from a rack, inserts my docs and puts it on R2-D2’s lap (whatever happened to paper envelopes and arty stamps of politicians and other animals?). Then she takes me through screen options, including tracking choices and speed of delivery. Sarah then takes my bank card and sticks it into a thingummy. R2 spits out a sticker and Sarah puts that on my packet and offers to pop it in the appropriate slot somewhere in this sci-fi temple to communication …
* * *
… or of deep satisfaction (“my job is so meaningful”) or of frustration and puzzlement (“but what does it mean?”). Would there be any need for meaning, without the word, “meaning”? I doubt it, but as we are so “languaged” as humans, we cannot escape language just as surely “I” cannot jump out of my body. Is everything encoded into language?
* * *
… I say yes and watch Sarah disappear, awed by her radiance. Knowing full well at my age (as I think I’ve mentioned) that people complain far more than they praise, I spot a manageress and walk over to her. I know she is one because of her poise and the attentive way she is observing Sarah’s progress. (These are some of the things us alert, wise, fifty-year-olds can do: instantly spot a person’s role by their body language.) I walk across to her and exclaim, “Sarah was awesome. What amazing service!”
A few moments later I am ordering coffee from Muffin Break. Sarah bounces up to me. “You left these.” I gape at the packet of important stuff in her hand I’d left behind, which includes my passport. This, I am discovering to my alarm, is another of the skills finely honed by age fifty: a disintegrating short-term memory. But it gives me the pleasure of having to repeatedly deal with delightful, service-driven, pretty maidens.
Perhaps I should develop my absentmindedness into a ruse.
She skips back to work. I stand there mesmerised, as if she’d thrown garlands around my neck. Am I feeling more fatherly … or just attracted? I know it’s a dilemma I will never have to explore. Maybe.
But I’ve got Sarah’s number. That is to say, I know her type, not her mobile number. She is an ambitious university student making some bucks during the December vac. She’s too sharp, too sincere, too mature for anything else.
* * *
… so would my body/mind age at the same rate if it didn’t “know” it was time to act like a fifty-year-old? Wouldn’t I just carry on having a fat jol, flirting with hot babes, partying, beaching, not taking things so seriously? Reminds me of all the years I spent in China. At first I blithely walked down the streets of Shaoxing and Shanghai through all the noises people made. Later on I learned those noises, their language, and some of it was hilarious, but bloody insulting. Which affected my blood pressure and sense of self-importance. None of those chemical reactions would have happened in my body if I hadn’t learned to decode those noises …
* * *
Suddenly I seem to be needing to post more docs and go to the post office again.
And there stands my Sarah among the more ordinary assistants. I lapse into the philosophical ramblings only those of fifty or over are capable of: I am aware that when I think of her as “my” Sarah that that “my” is only my perception of her. And that she can only be that perception, lingering between a kind of daughter and … well, the kind of chick I used to chase as a student.
“Are you a uni student?” I brightly inquire. “Third year?”
“Yeah,” she replies, sleek eyebrows darting up, amazed by my seasoned discernment. “This is just a casual job till I start fourth year.”
“I am also going back to uni next year,” I truthfully reply. “To do a master’s. You also at Auckland Uni?” God, I now really feel I am at Rhodes University nearly thirty years ago inside Kaif … angling for a way to ask for her phone number, or which res she’s in … Sonny, I primly remind myself, just think of her as if she were your daughter’s age.
She puts her pink-nailed hand over her soft mouth. “So sorry,” she says, “I remember giving you back your stuff — what’s your name again?”
“Rod!” she exclaims. “My grandfather is also called Rod and — and you remind me so much of him! Like wow … ”
As I leave, I wonder if I burst the bubbles before they arrive, or savour how many bubbles may still be left. At half a century, bubbles have such a twinkle as they implode.