There is an intriguing scene near the end of J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek in which the elder Spock (Leonard Nimoy) gives counsel to the young Spock (Zachary Quinto).
Who wouldn’t relish that opportunity to travel back in time as the older, wiser you, and give counsel to the stupider, younger you?
Here I am in the winter of 1973, age 26, freshly graduated from college with a BA in English. I am at a crossroads. I am living in a small studio apartment in downtown San José with a galley kitchen smaller than what you might find aboard a 30 foot sailing craft, sharing a bathroom at the end of the hall with four other men, one of whom declares he was once a Texas Ranger, and another who likes walking around with a Remington carbine. I am tired of being poor. I have heard there is a glut of teachers, especially at the college level. This had once been my ambition, but now, I just want a job that pays reasonably well and doesn’t give me suicidal thoughts morning noon and night.
Get that master’s degree, I tell myself. There will be jobs. Don’t be discouraged. But get that degree. With no skills and nothing but a BA in English, you are virtually unemployable. Getting a master’s degree will save you from numerous menial, dead end jobs, that leave you feeling like a lump of fecal matter squeezed from the rectal orifice of the workaday world. And while it’s true that getting a master’s degree doesn’t quite conform with your ambitions of becoming the next Richard Brautigan, or Tom Robbins, the publishing world may not be so quick to grant your literary efforts so generously with a livable income and broad distribution for a public eager to spend their hard-earned dollars on your work. I’m not saying your writing isn’t good. Just that your expectations about publication and finding an audience or painfully naïve.
This is what parents are supposed to do, but nobody listens to their parents. Parents are parents. They come from a different time and adhere to a slightly different worldview.
So what makes me think I would listen to myself at age 64?
I am a very different person at age 64 then I was at age 26. I would imagine most people feel similarly, though maybe not. I would like to think that the 26 year old me would find something to respect and admire about the 64 year old me. The fact that we are the same person does not readily mean that we will have things to like about one another. The difference will be acute. The 26 year old me might well find the 64 year old me just as pedantic and tedious as Hamlet found Polonius.
The difference (apart from weight gain, wrinkles, and loss of hair) consists in wisdom, wisdom which is the fruit of experience. So it’s not really fair to call myself wiser, because it is experience that has made me wiser, and confers an unfair advantage over the person I was at age 26, who was still acutely concerned with romance, getting laid, and drinking immoderate amounts of alcohol. How do you reason with such a person? How do you tell such a person that life is sweeter and far more benevolent when you go to bed at, say, 10:00 o’clock and drink prudently, if at all, and by all means don’t worry and fret over getting laid, or finding a romantic partner, those things happen naturally, and unexpectedly, usually at times in your life when you’re happy living alone, and are passionate about other things than women, and getting laid. Because women are quick to sense those things about a young man. They tend to be leery of men who are needy, impatient, and basically just want to get laid. Men find it desirable to have sex with someone with whom they feel compatible, but that is generally an afterthought. Men use love to get sex and women use sex to get love. It’s a nasty little formula, and one that results in a lot of unhappiness, but there it is, it’s the gospel truth. So watch it. Buy a lot of dirty girly magazines. It will serve you better than all those drunken nights at the local meat market.
I see the 26 year old me nodding with polite agreement, but knowing, deep down, it will be impossible to adhere to this advice. At 26, testosterone is pouring out of one’s ears. One is chained to a maniac. Telephone poles look sexy.
At 64, one is down a few quarts in the testosterone department. Given a choice between a good novel or a freebie at a Texas brothel, the novel would win hands down. Moby Dick. So to speak.
Of course, knowing what happens in the future confers an absurdly obvious advantage when it comes to giving advice to someone. But would I have the heart to tell the 26 year old me that there will come a time when books are no longer appreciated by the masses? That text will be available on tiny electronic gadgets but that the art of reading will have virtually disappeared? That theocratic fanatics who denounce science and evolution and believe the world is 6,000 years old will run for president? That the United States will be a totalitarian police state in which 84 year old women are pepper sprayed for protesting against an obscenely wealthy and fraudulent class of oligarchs? That the middle class will be dying? That a substantial number of people who once owned homes and lived Leave It To Beaver lives are now living in tent cities? That although only a tiny minority continue to relish books and read poetry there will be an industry cranking out millions of poets competing for the limelight? That habeus corpus and posse comitatus will be quaint constitutional relics? That Bob Dylan will be doing commercials for the Cadillac Escalade? That Bob Dylan will be mistaken as a vagrant and picked up by a woman cop in New Jersey? That Bob Dylan will actually still be quite a compelling song writer and weirdly relevant?
That the world itself will be on the brink of destruction due to irreparable environmental degradation and climate change?
That Mount Saint Helens will erupt? That a tsunami will wipe out Indonesia? That a Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry will not include the work of Allen Ginsberg? Will not have Howl in it? Will not have George Oppen or Louis Zukofsky or Michael McClure in it?
That would be cruel. I would not do such a thing to myself. Maybe the kindest advice I could give myself is to hang in there with the poetry thing. There is salvation in poetry. It is the sweetest religion going. It won't save you from a lot of pain, but it sure makes it more palatable, and interesting.
I might also hand my 26 year old self a suitcase full of winning lottery numbers from the future, and all the winning football, baseball, and basketball scores. A little financial independence never harmed the working of the muses. It would also be nice to finance a media empire that would not only rival but squash that of Rupert Murdoch's. Goodbye Fox. Goodbye Rush. Hello Howl. Hello Bernie Sanders.