"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Too Soon Old, Too Late Schmart

I just read a funny article in The Telegraph (Terry Wogan, 1.5.13) entitled The Mellowing That Comes With Age Isn’t Coming where the author laments the fact that he is getting older without getting schmart.  He is less patient with inanity, foolishness, boors, and bores than he ever was.  Where is that renowned wisdom and understanding, he asks, that allows us to recline in our Golden Age, happy in the knowledge that we have made it this far and that the fools around us still have miles to go?

Perhaps the cruelest moment in the unfulfilled and idealistically expectant later years is when men realize that they still want to lick, suck, fondle, caress, and fuck luscious young things; but those precious bundles see only a decrepit bag of bones:

The scales fell from my eyes there some years ago, when, at a dinner party in Ireland, a beautiful young woman caught my eye. She returned my smile, and came over to sit beside me.

“Aha,” said I to myself, “good man yourself, you never lost it.”

“Hello!” she said brightly, “you knew my mother, didn’t you?”

I don’t go back to Ireland much these days. Too many elderly women telling me about their grandchildren.

I wrote a blog post recently (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/01/do-we-really-ever-change.html) about change.  Do we really evolve over the years, or are we fated to be the same creatures who came out of the womb, stamped with a genetic code, modified by the adult family circus until the age of five when we begin what will be a familiar and altogether predictable journey.  New research has indicated that we both overestimate how much we have changed and underestimate how much we will.  Most of us, say the researchers, are convinced at any moment of time that we are at the pinnacle of wisdom and understanding or at the peak of our powers, and that the future will be less dynamic. While this perceptual legerdemain seems logical, even the most indifferent parent is never surprised at how their adult children turn out.  The colicky, whingeing, hyper-sensitive, Princess-and-the Pea little pinafore baby always turns out to be a jumpy, critical, and temperamental woman.  The cruel little boy who pulled the wings off fireflies, trashed birds nests, electrocuted frogs, and hoed cats will never turn out to be a caring, inclusive, respectful man.

To say that older people esteem their generation as the apotheosis of historical evolution, and that all subsequent generations have done their best to erode and degrade this Olympus is a cliché. There is a great scene from the Louis Malle movie Atlantic City where an aging Burt Lancaster is talking about the Good Old Days to a young grifter. He goes on about Atlantic City, the boardwalk, the fashions, women, style, and pizazz of the Forties.  “''The Atlantic Ocean was something then”, he says. “You shoulda seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.''

Memory is paradoxically both selectively romantic and deceivingly optimistic.  The past is filled with warm memories of love, youth, enthusiasm, and promise; while the present must necessarily be more gritty and threatening.  The romantic past is a necessary opiate for the short future of old age.

I used to say that my only goal in life was to figure it out; that somehow on my deathbed I would have this final, last epiphany; that years of curious searching would eventually pay off and answer eternal questions.  I now realize, of course, that there will be no epiphanies, only conclusions. Just as I am convinced that human beings don’t change, I am even more convinced of an ineluctable human nature that propels us all in the same direction.  Despite the parlor games of reconstructing our own personal evolution, we simply play out the universal genetic compulsions of survival.  Our modest lives are no different from Shakespeare’s kings and queens who fought for accession to the throne; expanded their territories through wars, politics, and duplicity; and held on to them with tenacious ferocity.

We all live on two planes. While my overriding philosophy may be one of determinism, amorality, and will; my daily life is spent with tens of millions of other Senior Citizens spewing and spitting bile at the idiots in Congress, the vapidity of television, the erosive invasion of privacy, the dysfunctional ghetto and irresponsible preachers….On and on and on. Given my conviction that Shakespeare was right – history will always be a predictable, repetitive cycle – I cannot look at the past and think it was any better than today.  I do not rail against kids today, the eclipse of family values, or the weakening of moral fiber.  Whatever is today is simply a product of the past.

All groups have their particular characteristics from the Terrible Twos to Teenagers, and finally to The Elderly.  After years of sharing my experiences on the African veldt, the high Andes, the bars and whore houses of Liberia, and in meditative Himalayan retreats, I am now sharing horror stories of hospital stays, sponges left in abdominal cavities, knee replacements gone bad, and innocent falls which cripple and maim. I get deluged with emails laughing at Old People.

* Things you buy now will never wear out

* In hostage situations you will be released first

* You can live without sex but not your glasses

* Your investment in health insurance is beginning to pay off

I laugh despite myself – it is all true, and so I enter a third, dippy plane of thought.  If we alter kockers laugh enough at ourselves, the fear of the approaching Big Void might be less. Of course it isn’t.  We laugh by day and tremble by night.

So, maybe I am schmart in my old age, but it doesn’t seem to help much.  I wish I could believe, as I did when I was 30, that enlightenment – or simply understanding – would be the magic elixir that would levitate me above the trembles and fears of my generation.  Not so.

My father lived well into his 90s and outlasted all his brothers and sisters.  One of his nieces asked him how it felt to be the sole survivor of the family.  “Well”, he said. “It sure beats the alternative”

Terry Wogan ends his piece with a familiar old people joke that in his case was true:

A few years back, a listener of mine told of his grandparents during an air raid. As the sirens went off, everybody in the house rushed out to the relative safety of the good old Anderson shelter. As they ran, the grandma stopped suddenly, and turned to run back .

“Where are you going, woman?” shouted her husband.

“I’ve left me teeth indoors!” came the reply.

“For heaven’s sake!” roared Granddad, “they’re throwin’ bombs, not sandwiches!”

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