As I age, my reaction time increases. This is a demonstrable if regrettable fact of life. Since I lead a fairly sedentary
existence, this is most noticeable for me when driving. I love to drive; have ever since first getting behind the wheel of a car. No, strike that; I knew
I was going to love to drive long before then, looking longingly at others in cars, driving with the uncaring nonchalance of those who waste a privilege granted them from the bower
s of heaven, indifferent to the pain they cause the deprived as they waft by.
When I was in summer camp, we once had a Trip Day to a fun park which offered Honda Odyssey go-karts. These were, I think, 500cc roll-caged little beasts which let you bomb around a dirt track with tire stacks to prevent you doing too much harm to yourself on the curves. They had yoke steering, pedal brakes and handgrip squeeze throttles. They were as close as my ten-year-old self had got to driving, and they were heaven. I think I spent the entire trip on that track - not so much racing, but experimenting. I learned just how much lateral force they could take on the basic dirt before sliding; I learned (although I didn't understand what I was doing, really) that braking into a corner was a Bad Thing because it put multiple forces on the tires that were steering me and unbalanced even this light, rear-engined toy.
The ride operator let me take the kart out by myself while the rest of the camp group was eating lunch, so I could experiment on an empty track - he ate his lunch with his feet propped up on the tire wall, keeping an eye on me. He refuelled my kart twice that day. I think, now that I look back and see the tolerant half-smile on his face, that he knew a budding fellow Driver when he saw one. I flatter myself that maybe he felt tickled to be a part of that magic moment of discovery.
Whatever the reason, I had several hours of my own with a motor vehicle, at age ten. It had four wheels, a pedal, gears (two), ran on gas, and had brakes. I almost rolled it twice; after the first one which frightened me more because I thought I'd be kicked off, the ride op came out and helped me roll the kart back upright. He gave it a critical once-over, restarted it, waved at me and ambled back to his sandwich. The second time, I recovered before it actually left its remaining tires and filed away the information under breakpoint, lateral, do-not-exceed-you-dipshit.
When we left the amusement park, I sat in the Blue Bird school bus with my head against the window, looking at the neatly parked rows of karts as we pulled away down the dirt driveway. We had a thirty-five mile drive back to camp, about an hour in the bus over winding mountain two-laners and back roads. All during that trip, my fantasy had me following along behind in a Honda Odyssey, riding on the shoulder since it would be illegal to operate on the highway; driving at last. Wrangling my prize home to camp, to park outside my thin pine-walled cabin bunk for the rest of the season, to exuberantly jump in and burr off in the mornings, leaving a cloud of sandy dust and pine needles behind me as I headed out to look for a new piece of blacktop education; a new bit of highway curriculum to absorb. Here learn to hold the tail out in the tight corner, managing the nose's direction not with the steering wheel once the back end has given way but with the throttle; there learn where in the curve to stab the gas for maximum stability and speed on exit.
Nowadays, I have larger toys, but toys they are. Trying to learn the lessons they want to teach is harder, potentially more expensive and dangerous, sometimes illegal, and just as much damn fun. It's also complicated by the fact that my reflexes and reaction times just aren't anywhere near what they were at ten, or (especially) at eighteen, when my nervous system and musculature had settled down from growth and was in peak fight-or-flight, wasted in my modern existence on stupid mating rituals in cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and on motorcycles in Manhattan. Well, all right, not wasted - they kept me alive through much of my young stupidity, granted. But I realize, especially these days as I power my steeds through maneuvers that even my eighteen-year-old self would have quailed to see, that I'm doing so not because my body is letting me, but because my brain is letting me do so.
As I age, I am old enough now to feel the salve of experience take up the stiffness and slack of age in the nervous system. I note my hands and feet starting motions earlier, triggered not by reaction times from my eyes, ears or inner ear but, rather, from templates of similar experiences in my abstract brain. This sensation doesn't trigger a pull of the steering wheel to the right, but, rather, it pulls up thousands of prior experiences of that sensation, and in each of them - damn right, I'm going to have to pull that steering wheel right in just a few milliseconds, and if I wait for my eyes to see the picture that, when I was eighteen, would tell me now is the time there's no guarantee that my nerves and muscles (and brain) will Dance The Tune fast enough.
So I turn the wheel.
It's not conscious thought. But it's not reaction, either. It's experience and memory taking up the slack, and the car slams sideways around the corner, front wheels in opposite lock and aimed hungrily into the highway at just the right angle to pull the rest of my Germanic juggernaut onto the proper vector with no last-second adjustments. This is how older drivers remain drivers, not passengers; this is how older drivers (sometimes) beat younger drivers. Not younger drivers with equivalent experience, no; but younger drivers who are relying on their reflexes and their physical performance, yes.
As I exit the corner, some part of my brain will note that I'm perhaps a foot too close to the right edge of the highway. I will drive this highway tomorrow on the way back to the house. The next time, that piece of data will, probably, inform when I pull the wheel, or where I point it - I couldn't tell you precisely what, if asked out of context. I just know that every time I drive this road, my performance on not just it but curves that look similar gets better, even as my physical reactions fade slowly with age.
At some point, I suppose, they will fade past the point where it will be safe for me to do this, even compensating with experience; or I will experience cognitive degradation to the point where I'm unable to compensate, or my muscles will be unable to perform the actions precisely enough even if I know when and how to do them.
But not today.