Moving Forward in Time -- or Moving Backward?

John Kelly looking as if he has a stomachache, circa 1964. Soon his arms will be this length again.
John Kelly looking as if he has a stomachache, circa 1964. Soon his arms will be this length again. (Family Photo)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Over the past few months, my arms have gotten progressively shorter. I don't know what doctors call this condition. I call it "near-armedness," and it's the latest manifestation of my accelerating slide into decrepitude.

My near-armedness has affected me in strange ways. I can still reach the gearshift in the car and the coffee mugs in the cupboard. In fact, the only real problem I've encountered is that it's getting increasingly difficult to read things that I'm holding in my hands. My newly stubby arms just aren't long enough to allow my eyes to focus on whatever it is I'm trying to look at.

The other night I was driving around lost in Alexandria. I finally pulled over and opened the map book to see if I could figure out where I was, only to find myself unable to decipher the tiny street names in the back of the book. I considered approaching a stranger and saying, "Excuse me, will you hold this book open while I back up a few feet and try to read it?" In the end I did what I always do: Drive around blindly, following my gut in the hopes that I might randomly encounter my destination.

The weird thing about my near-armedness is that all my shirts seem to fit the way they always have. My suit cuffs don't pool around my fingertips. This suggests the problem might not be shrinking arms but something else. A freakish, localized, blurrifying miasma? An abundance of printing errors?

Or it could be my eyes. I've had this particular pair since I was born 46 years ago. That's a long time. I've worn glasses since college, but whereas before I couldn't see far but I could see near, now I can't see near or far with the naked eye. Is it possible I might need bifocals? If so, I don't like where this is going.

People may tell you bifocals have been replaced by "progressive lenses," but I'm not buying it. They are trying to make them sound a little less pathetic, the same way they changed "Patagonian toothfish" to "Chilean sea bass" in an attempt to make it sound more palatable. Progressive lenses sound like eyeglasses that support universal health care, and I won't be fooled.

People I know who have bifocals hate them. You have to train yourself to look through different spots in the lenses depending on what you want to actually see. And it doesn't stop at bifocals. I understand there are trifocals. I'll bet you can get quadrifocals and quintifocals, glasses with so many viewing facets that they look like the playing surface of a steel drum or an insect's compound eye.

It's more than just my eyes, though. Other bits of me seem to be showing signs of wear. My knees hurt when I jog. My head doesn't bounce back quite so quickly after a night of alcohol abuse. Years of exposure to loud music has me seriously contemplating the acquisition of an ear trumpet. Doctors have started suggesting plumbing various orifices.

In short, I appear to be getting older.

Or am I? The other day I came across a baby picture. The baby was me. I looked awful, with thin hair, an incipient double chin and a look on my face that suggested there was something wrong with my gastrointestinal tract.

I'm turning back into that baby.

It makes sense: I've noticed lately that I'm having trouble sleeping through the night. My once-taut belly is going to baby fat. I get irritated easily. I often don't like the food that's put in front of me and must fight the urge to fling it to the floor. I stare hungrily at women's chests. More and more words seem strange to me. "Twitter"? "Naked shorts"? "Troubled Asset Relief Program"? What do these expressions even mean? Waaaa!

Reverting to babyhood is not so far-fetched an idea. There's a film out -- "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," I think it's called -- about this very condition. Perhaps its success (13 Oscar nominations!) will help focus medical attention on this debilitating ailment and help find us a cure.

Until then, I'm just going to crawl over there and take a nap.

Essay, Can You See?

On Friday in this space we'll announce the winners of the "What Does It Mean to Be a Washingtonian?" contest, readers' essays on how to define the essence of Washington. You can read the entries and vote for your favorite at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/essay-contest.

Like the underside of an iceberg, there is a whole hidden world on my blog, "John Kelly's Commons."

Check it out at voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.


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