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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Loony Tunes–Who Said That Older Means Wiser?

“Too soon old, too late schmart’, worried Herb Stein now that he was old enough to know better but not old enough to have figured out what’s what.

Not so when he was a young man.  Math-smart, Mediterranean good looks, charm, and the confidence of Casanova, Herb had been a Lothario, a champion, and a success.

Image result for images casanova

“What happened?”, he said as he straightened the papers on his desk.  “How did this happen?”

Life is commensurate just like the stock market.  The higher the return, the higher the risk; or the more fulfilled your younger days, the less fulfilled your older ones.  Had Herb not been the envy of classmates, colleagues, and friends and loved by so many women, he might not have been in such a funk. 

Moe Blatt, on the other hand, had never been remarkable in any way.  In fact he had been unremarkable – homely but not ugly; uncoordinated but a decent swimmer; neither very smart nor very dumb; religious, studious, and responsible; he never excelled at anything, dated late and poorly, and went to dental school.

When Herb met Moe after many years, he found him blissfully unconcerned about old age.  So chipper, in fact - which he had no right to be – that he was irritating, a bother.  How could this plain, uninspired, nebbish be happy?

As happens to most formerly talented, attractive men, Herb Stein began to unravel after a certain age.  He wasn’t so much concerned that he had not had sex for a long time, but that he couldn’t remember what it was like.  Worse yet, he wondered what all the fuss was about.   His days revolved around the boxwood bushes out front, keeping the basement dry, watching the finches at the birdfeeder and – to his credit, he thought – reading all of Lawrence and Conrad.

Image result for images finches at a bird feeder

There was nothing wrong in all this, par for the course at his age when nothing remarkable or surprising was supposed to happen.  It was an age of preparation not surprises, winding down not up; minor satisfactions not epiphanies. 

Yet he was unhappy because he could not erase his boogie nights, nor his Indian lovers, nor his adventures in the South Pacific from his memory.  They persisted not as pleasant dreams but reminders of what he had lost. 

The Law of Commensurateness has another application – the more energy one has as a youth, the more twitchy, nervous, and quirk-ridden one is in old age.  The energy never dissipates or disappears. It just is transformed from a positive, outwardly directed force to a corrosive inner one.
Herb swung between obsessive worry and dull, obstinate despair.  Both took a degree of mental and psychic energy which made Herb even more depressed about his age and angry at himself for twisting in such useless cycles.

He fidgeted, couldn’t sleep, nitpicked and never sat still.  There was no outlet like there had been before.  No young love, no carousing, no irresponsibility, no toots – nothing to verify that he was still alive and kicking; nothing but a relationship as dry and brittle as old parchment, an aching body, and a house that needed constant repair.

His friends became worried about him, especially those who knew him in college and had travelled with him in Africa. They had somehow evaded the Law of Commensurateness and turned the enthusiasm of their youth into something at least aspirational.  They had refused to become bitter let alone endorse bitterness as Herb had and took things in stride with an occasional skip. 

Herb was too smart to become batty with old age.  Compared to Helen Bright, for example, he was a model of good sense, maturity, and good humor. 

Helen was smart, sharp, and attractive but after years of living in the shadow of Abel Bright, a brilliant physicist who had worked at the Fermi Labs and later tenured at Harvard.  Helen never got a say or even a say-so, so complete was her husband’s authority.  The Law of Commensurateness worked to her disfavor, for with no outlet for her exuberance and vitality, she became a magpie, a voluble, prolix woman to whom no one paid attention. 

She had been stunning as a younger woman, captain of the swim team at Wellesley, svelte, strong, and confident as she went to New York to work in publishing.  She quickly and completely fell in love with the charismatic Abel Bright, but not long after their marriage she had been completely subsumed.  He was the light, she the shade.  He the crystal and silver, she the tablecloth.

He died at 65 after a short illness; but Helen was never able to recover her former energy; and according the Law, had become an impossibly chatty and insufferable old lady. After so many years seeing her as the acolyte of her brilliant husband, their friends could never see her otherwise after his death.  Chattier and chattier and battier and battier she became until she died at 81.

Bert Alison had been Herb Stein’s classmate at Harvard and like Herb had led a charmed, privileged, and full life as a young man.  As he aged, he matured along a predictable path.  He gradually gave up his life of sexual adventure and risk, became a partner in a K Street law firm, and seemed to be headed for an equally predictable retirement in Palm Beach or St. Bart’s. 

Image result for images st barts

Yet he too was unable to escape the Law; and his social, moral, and personal conservatism did him in.  As he got older he began to resent his life of planned mediocrity.  It wasn’t so much that he regretted the lost days of his youth – time passed, nothing to moan about there – but that by 30 he had trapped himself into the most pedestrian, ordinary, and life without sparkle possible.  Try as he did after retirement, he could not shake his stolid foundations.  You cannot invent humor if you have been humorless, or charm if you were pedantic; and yet he tried.

Not only did he fail to reinvent himself, but he created a weird caricature of himself, drawn from The Count of Monte Cristo , the movies of Errol Flynn, and Paul Newman.  As an aging boulvardier he was ridiculous.

Image result for errol flynn images

It is ironic that those who are most concerned about getting old before they are shmart are the least able to become wise; and the nebbishes get there without trying.  Of course their wisdom is unconscious – falling asleep in a chaise longue without a care in the world doesn’t exactly qualify for a spiritual epiphany – but that was cold comfort for the likes of Herb Stein who until the end of his life kept trying for a ‘meaningful’ discovery.

Perhaps at the very end of his life his thoughts turned to his green-eyed Persian beauty or to the hyacinths on the Niger, or even to High Mass; but then again perhaps not.  Deathbed conversions are one thing, but coming to your senses is another altogether.

“The smart are doomed to be loony”, said a friend at Herb’s funeral. “Alas, I will never be either”.

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