Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Big Kaboom

Is there any preparation for getting old? It's just like you wake up one day and you're a senior citizen -- Kaboom, just like that, totally exposed, totally in denial, thoroughly hammocked in disbelief, and then, what's next -- obliteration, ... how does one prepare for that? is the notion of "preparation" obsolete/trite/or misled in these contexts? can one maneuver these shifts gracefully? why would one want to ... this is not a Random House book or Hollywood Movie with Julia Roberts foraging the age sequences, this is about out and out Confrontation, the Do Not Go Gentle of Dylan, the fire to unload while we can, to maximize in the face of imminent annihilation, to boogie our arthritic knees onto the dance floor and say dithyramb or die ......

So wrote Heller Levinson in a recent email. He states the situation brilliantly. Life goes by at such a dizzying pace that it seems more like a carnival ride than a journey. You arrive at a mature age without preparation. Without warning. Without signage. Without course or bearing. Without a toolkit or proper clothing. You stand on the shore of a new country without a clue as to how to negotiate its geography, its flora, its fauna, its geysers and deviations, its rills and hills and chasms and cracks. You do not have a compass. You do not have a map. You’re just there. Stunned and dizzy.

One day in your twenties you go to bed. Your skin is smooth, your limbs are supple, your libido is strong, your muscles are firm, your gums are pink, your teeth are intact. The next day you wake up to find hair growing on your ears, your paunch hanging out, your joints creaking, your face sagging and craggy, your muscles aching, your hair (if you still have any) brittle and thin, and your former set of perfect teeth full of bridges, crowns, implants, amalgam, or possibly even dentures. You have far more past than future. Your tolerance for anything new is negligible, your irritations have exponentiated into towering agitations too legion to number, and your eyebrows have gone totally insane.

Your prostate has enlarged to the size of a truck tire, while your libido has shrunk to the size of a snow pea.

You once got erections so quickly it was embarrassing. Telephone poles were sexy. You had to restrain yourself from pumping on people’s legs. But now it takes a porn movie, generous amounts of Eurycoma Longifolia extract, yohimbe bark, muira puama, ginkgo biloba, and a potent vasodilator to even get interested.

This, surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) has become a plus. In your twenties, your life was not your own. You were, as Dustin Hoffman put it, chained to a maniac. Getting laid was your top priority. You would do anything to get laid. Crawl, beg, demean yourself in a thousand different ways to have sex with (ideally) a fellow mammal.

Now, older, much, much older, you have the luxury of neutrality. Which is not the same thing as being neutered. You are not neutered. Desire continues to flash like a distant pulsar. But its gravitational pull in no way threatens the stability of your voyage.

I can’t speak for women. But age is not kind to them. That much I know. The leverage of sexual appeal lessens with age. But where there are liabilities there are sometimes unanticipated assets. The loss of looks means no more unwanted attention from horny slobs. No more cajoling. No more coercion. No more begging or emotional extortion. And some women, such as Sophia Loren or Catherine Deneuve, become sexier with age.

One thing is certain for both sexes: with age comes metamorphosis.

I remember Robert Creeley remarking in an interview that when one enters old age the body becomes phenomenal. You are in a situation similar to that of adolescence, when the body goes through a number of dramatic changes. You no longer inhabit the same body. Adjustments are necessary. Resignation is highly recommended. You cannot fight mortality. The gods do not like it. They will kick your ass.

And then there is the big D. Dying. Death in your twenties is an abstraction, a chewy, bittersweet philosophical candy. Unless you’ve signed up with the military and gone off to fight in some war, the prospect of dying is pretty distant. You have a lot of life ahead of you. But as soon as you get into your fifties, and friends and relatives begin disappearing, and you no longer recognize any of the celebrities in Parade magazine, or the tabloids at the grocery market, dying becomes a reality.

It is very similar to floating down a river. You are on a raft. The raft cannot be stopped, and you cannot get off of the raft. This is life. You know there is a waterfall awaiting you at the end of this journey. A huge waterfall which you will not survive. When you are in your twenties, you do not hear the waterfall. The water is serene. Then turbulent. Then serene again. And so on. Rivers are like this. They meander and change. But all this while you do not think about the waterfall. It may enter your mind occasionally, but it is not an imminent threat. Then, in your late forties, you begin to hear something. A continuous susurrus. This, you recognize, is the sound of the waterfall. And as your raft continues downstream, the sound of that waterfall gets louder and louder. It becomes a roar. And the current is growing stronger. Faster. And faster. And there is nothing you can do.

Animals are lucky. They don’t suspect a thing. Don’t know they are going to die. Maybe cows at the stockyard sense something of a bloodbath going on. But until that moment they live in the present. Life is simply a matter of chewing grass, giving milk, and sleeping.

You would think that knowing that death is a certainty, that one day you will die, would make the frictions of the workplace much smoother. Why worry about satisfying a boss, a supervisor, who is most likely to be a total asshole, when you’re going to die? When life is a quick little carnival ride? Why take anything seriously?

I can answer this: health care. If you’re old, you’re going to need health care. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Europe, you’ve got it made. Your health care is taken care of. But if you happen to live in a third world country like the United States, you had better get rich, or do what you can to please your employers, however disgusting they may be. Because you will be needing as much financial help as possible to take care of your arthritis, diabetes, stroke, cancer, or any of the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.

The United States has never really been known for its enlightened social policies or kindness or inclination toward peace. Quite the contrary. But the generation of people that survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II were honorable and moral. Materialistic, yes, and oftentimes maddeningly, fatuously parochial, but they assumed accountability for their actions, understood completely what is required to make a democracy work, and could be trusted. My generation fucked all this up. Our carpe diem philosophies and dope-smoking and party hearty attitudes culminated in a generation of slackers. TV viewers. Video game players. Knuckleheads. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. Britney Spears. Fast food, big cars, disposable relationships and wallets crammed with credit cards. The Me Generation.

Many of the same people I marched with in the 60s against the war in Vietnam went ditzy over mirror balls, mood rings, hot tubs, cocaine, prestigious careers and upward mobility and voted for Ronald Reagan. I’ll bet they’re sorry now.

Which brings me to another aspect of age, and one of its more frustrating sides. When you arrive at a certain age, your social criticisms lack credibility. If you’re a man, you get labeled a curmudgeon. If you’re a woman, you get labeled menopausal.

Take rap, for instance. Rap sucks, no two ways about it. It is obnoxious, boring, and void of originality. In 1991 the comic Sam Kinison was dismayed that rap hadn’t been more like disco and gone away like a bad fart. I can go through a litany of things pointing out the total inanity of rap, compared to the beauty of soul and rock, and merely get called a curmudgeon. I cannot enlighten a fourteen or fifteen year old kid with the monumental joy of listening to James Brown or Otis Redding. Nothing I can say will carry any weight. Why? Because I am a curmudgeon. Arguing with a twenty-something about the vapidity of rap compared to the richness of the Beatles, or Smoky Robinson, or Sam and Dave or The Temptations, is as futile as arguing with a tea party imbecile about the true meaning of democratic socialism.

On the other hand, maybe they’re right. I am a curmudgeon. I have become my father. Who hated rock. I mean really hated it. He blamed it for the vulgarity, stupidity, shallowness, and ditziness of my generation. I swore I would never do the same thing. Make sweeping generalizations. Damn entire generations.

But hey, wait a minute. Did I say sweeping generalization? After 63 years on the surface of this planet, 63 years of experience eating, conversing, struggling, playing, reading books and meeting people, you do not make generalizations. You have a lifetime of experience to back you up. You have seen things. Tasted things. Touched and felt and breathed and held things. You do not make generalizations. Generalizations are for adolescents. Sophomoric twenty-somethings. By the time you’ve made it to your 50s, you have earned the right to make judgments. Criticisms. Observations. Authoritative statements. Because you have lived it. Done it. Seen it. Smelled it.

You do not make generalizations at 60. Or 70. Or 80.

You divulge.

You lay bare.

Disclose. Impart. Reveal.

It’s called wisdom, sonny.

So there.


Delia Psyche said...

A couple days ago I asked a roomful of twenty-something students to finish this sentence: "Four American presidents have been assassinated: James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and ________." Jaws struck tables all over the room. Obviously the students resented my effrontery in asking them so unfair a question.

And not one of them got it right. One girl wrote "Carter"; one boy wrote "Harry Tubman." In her most recent paper, this girl repeatedly spelled reckless "reclace." The only comma in this boy's most recent paper was a period which, having jogged to the end of an interminable run-on sentence, had its tongue hanging out.

One thing that worries me about growing old is this: how am I going to tolerate these knuckleheads when I no longer find them sexy?

John Olson said...

Wow, this is disheartening David. This is why I get called a curmudgeon all the time, and often feel like the grumpy old man stressing how many miles I walked to school through blizzards and packs of howling wolves. But the fact is, this new generation of twits is so pathetically ignorant and lazy it defies comprehension.

Another aspect to aging which I did not go into has to do with seeing everything you once valued erode. Die. Books and bookstores, for instance. It appears even Barnes & Noble is having trouble paying the rent in Manhattan. It's not just the decay of one's physical condition that is distressing, but everything you worked for decay; that hurts more than anything.

As for William McKinley, who was a terrible president, his statue overlooks the little square in Arcata, California where I lived in '68 and the early part of '69. Nearby McKinleyville wanted it, but the Arcatans fought to keep it in town. Lord knows why. I would prefer a statue of Allen Ginsberg. Or Sara Bernhardt.

Joseph Donahue said...

you were kind of bumming me out in the beginning there, John. But by the end I was saying, let my freak flag fly.