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

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Too Soon Old, Too Late Schmart

Dorchester (Chester) Roberts always considered himself a smart man. Honors at Harvard, PhD in Economics from MIT, a long career in academia and private consulting, and a vigorous retirement – adjunct courses he had always wanted to teach, writing on subjects which had always been of interest but which fell just too far outside his professional cadre for scholarly publication, and travel to places of importance.  Never a tourist Chester preferred out-of-the-way historical sites, small European museums, and African musical venues. 

Toulouse Lautrec


He made it a point of spending a full week every year at the music Festival au Désert in Mali, visited the Musée Toulouse Lautrec in Albi, and spent winter vacations at the Macaya Beach Hotel in Port Salut on the south coast of Haiti.

Festival au desert Mali


For all intents and purposes Chester Roberts had led a privileged, active, and productive life.  He considered himself well-read, perceptive, inquisitive, and intellectually curious. He had tackled and mastered the most abstruse of Origen’s treatises on the nature of Christ, taught a course on Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor and for it read volumes on The Book of Job and Paradise Lost, learned enough Greek to read the Septuagint, and was deep into the thoughts of Steven Hawking.

One day in the middle of the night, Chester Roberts woke up in a panic. He had been dreaming fitfully and bits and pieces of Tertullian, Kant, long-forgotten algebraic equations, rabid dogs in Bucharest, the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, and seared foie gras with quince jam.  In his dream his mother was hectoring him. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, she said over and over again; and then he woke up.

“She’s right”, he barked out into the dark room, waking his wife and the dog. “I know nothing.”  In his confused state, all he could remember was this:

The more you know, the more you forget.

The more forget the less you know.

The less you know, the less you forget.

Why study?

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is the adult version of the ditty Chester had learned as a child; and in his saner moments he was quite aware of the vain hope of intellectual mastery.  Every time he turned a scholarly corner, there was something new to deal with. If it wasn’t Origen, then it was Marcion, Justin Martyr, or Tertullian. 

Image result for images origen


Either Christ was Man and God; God indwelling in Man; or God manifesting himself as Man; and Chester  hadn’t even gotten out of the Third Century. He was just getting a grasp on the classic Nihilists when he read Tolstoy’s A Confession. The old Russian had spent his life as a skeptic and non-believer and suddenly turned back to the Christianity of his youth? What was that all about? Was he simply getting old and with it worrisome about his death? Would he become like Tolstoy who for his whole life had been an intellectual and objectivist and suddenly throw it all away as worthless? If so, would he have wasted his life.

Image result for images tolstoy a confession

“It’ll pass”, said his wife, his emotional anchor and voice of reason and moderation.  Whether it was the rattling pipes in the bathroom or existential angst, Merry Roberts dealt with them equally calmly. Equalizing the water pressure in the basement intake or setting her husband back on the road to self-confidence were no different.

“This is different, Merry”, he said. “I have come to a crossroads.”

His wife continued to water the hydrangeas and add a few drops of Miracle Grow.  Her husband rarely complained about anything let alone an existential crisis. She had gotten so used to his mastery of anything he began, his ironclad logic and impatience with anything even slightly soft and giving, that she could not take what he said seriously.

“Stop watering”, he snapped at his wife. “I’m being serious here.”

He looked white and pasty.  He licked his lips like a lizard, breathed heavily, then deeply, and sighed.  She put down the watering can and gave him a hug.

“Hugs won’t work”, he said. “Nothing will.”

For the next week all he could thing of was The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich had constructed what he thought was a perfectly controlled world – one in which there could be no disturbances, no interruptions to his ordered and disciplined life. When everything was in its place- wife, family, and job – he was free to enjoy his cigar, glass of port, and morning walk. He was totally unprepared for the cancer that struck him suddenly.  This was not supposed to happen to him, and for months he ignored his worsening condition.  It must be a mistake, he thought.  How could the life I have so perfectly designed and maintained cheat me?

Image result for images death of ivan ilyich

As the weeks went on and his symptoms became worse, he could not deny the fact that he might die. Death for Ivan was not only the ultimate and unavoidable end that everyone knew awaited them; it was a betrayal.  He had led his life as if there was no death, and now he was face-to-face with it.

“I am Ivan Ilyich”, Chester Roberts said to no one in particular. “I have been a fool.”

Yet he found that transformation was not as simple as that of Ebenezer Scrooge. Like the old miser he had been visited ghosts, but when he woke up it was not Christmas morning.  It was a dull, cold March day and his carefully-crafted world had come apart with just the words of this mother, “Too soon old, too late schmart.”

Epiphany is one thing, action is another.  It is one thing to realize that all the knowledge accumulated in a lifetime is worth nothing more than lint on a dark suit; another entirely to figure out with the ten or twenty years remaining.

Chester always liked going up to his office in the early morning, drinking his bed tea, and looking around at the mementos he had collected over the years. A room key from the Grosvenor where he had spent a summer weekend with his Romanian lover; an icon of St. Nicholas given to him by the priest of Voronet monastery in Suceava; a reproduction of Manet’s The Dead Toreador.

Image result for images voronet monastery


he day after his nightmares, however, the office simply looked cluttered. Most of the memories that the cards, pictures, and theatre programs recalled had faded; and he had trouble remembering exactly why he had them on his desk; so Chester wondered why he kept them. He was no memorist like Nabokov who believed that since the present is only momentary and the future only a possibility, it is only the past that defines one; and he was deliberate about indelibly recording and recalling the most important events of his childhood.  The past as expressed in these knick-knacks was meaningless.

Religion, he wondered? Would he go the way of Tolstoy and millions of others who had come to the same crossroads and invariable turned away from the logical to the spiritual? Doubtful, since he had never been on his knees once since saying his prayers by the bedside as a young child. Accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior was as farfetched an idea as going to the moon. Tolstoy did not fall head-over-heels for faith, and as he wrote in A Confession found a middle-ground somewhere between abject belief and reason.  Chester thought he could do this.  After all if Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine had taught him anything, it was that Christianity was founded on both faith and reason.

He knew he had already mastered the logic part of the equation so all that was left was faith; but where would that come from? The Holy Rollers? High Mass at St. Aloysius Cathedral in New Brighton? A sign from heaven? Hardly.

Chester moped for weeks, and by then his wife had become concerned.  Nothing seemed to right his ship.  A trip to the Tides Inn on the Rappahannock, the usual tonic for down spirits, had no effect. A hiking trip in the Grand Tetons supposed to provide some kind of spiritual inspiration thanks to their majesty was equally flat.  He stayed in the lodge and looked at the fire while his wife was up the slopes.

Image result for images the tides inn


“Pull yourself together”, Merry Roberts said to her husband.  “We can’t go on like this.  Besides, what’s the point?.”

She was right. What’s the point indeed? Pride is what was keeping him from resolution and equanimity. He could not jettison the raison d’etre he had cultivated for decades. Chester Roberts was always the smartest person at the dinner table, and he could simply never let that go. It was a question of image and, hateful though the term was, self-worth.  He had defined himself in terms of his ability to figure everything out; and he refused to admit that that was absolutely, positively impossible.

So he relaxed.  Not the chaise longue variety of relaxation, but a lot more movies, novels, and pointless but amusing trips.  Mediocre but fun restaurants; even weekends with his cousin and her jerk husband. Trips and events without irony.

Chester Roberts’s story is not that unusual.  Most of us who are of a certain age and background wake up like he did and wonder what’s what and what to do about it.  Some of us just keep on chugging away at Extended Learning courses, language immersion, or introductory painting classes. Others become doting grandparents; and still others mope around the yard trying to fill up the hours.  Each to his own.  Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes, and you never know what you’re going to get.

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