Or at least, a new life begins at ninety
I have two pleasant memories of coming in contact with friendly strangers at two friendly L-shaped bars on Saint Simons, one of the Golden Isles of Georgia.
At one of them, a dozen or so years ago, I was meditatively sipping a Jack Daniels, vaguely aware that around on the shorter branch of the L was a lean young man with a bony rather Celtic-looking face (his ancestors, I would later learn, were Cornish) who was putting down three or four Jacks to my one. He presently rose from his seat, made his way around to mine and looked me straight in the eyes. “I admire you so much,” he said, “that I am going to make a web site for you, for free.”
I may have entertained the unworthy suspicion that it was Jack Daniels rather than the young man speaking, but I preferred to believe that he had been devotedly reading some of the magazine articles, on subjects ranging from town planning in the Mesolithic Age to a ride on a Ferris wheel with Marilyn Monroe, which I was then turning out by the bucketful. And so, as it turned out, he had, and you can see the results to this day by clicking on www.robertwernick.com , Notes of a Sciolist on Things Past and Passing and To Come.
A couple of years ago, I was at the second bar, again meditating over a Jack Daniels, and went on to order a modest lunch, and when I asked the charming young bartender what I owed her, she said, “Oh, nothing at all. The nice young man around the corner from you [I could not remember having noticed any such young man] asked me if you were a regular here, and when I said, Yes, he said he wanted to pay for your lunch, but he said not to tell you before he left.”
I always accept with equanimity the kindness of strangers, but I could not help think when I reflected on it later, that there was a considerable difference in my role in these two casual incidents, a certain letdown, a shrinking of perspective. In the earlier one I was still regarded as an active member of society, filling the function of entertaining or enlightening or distracting or irritating my fellow adults. In the second I was a curiosity. Something to be looked at, favorably or charitably or scornfully as the case might call for, but from whom nothing practical was expected. Part of the scenery, no longer an actor.
There had clearly been a decisive turning point in my life, and on reflection I came to believe that it must have come a few days before, when some friends had thrown a party for me to commemorate my safe arrival at what they charitably called the ripe age of ninety.
I had become a nonagenarian.
A word that never, at least in my experience, came up in ordinary conversation till a few years ago.
I use it here, not as an arithmetical absolute, but as an elastic replacement for the hopelessly imprecise and outdated adjective old to express the idea, “someone who has reached the age where he or she is no longer expected to play an active role in the business of living.” It is a friendly term embracing not only those who have reached the arithmetical check-point of 90, but those octogenarian youngsters – call them proto-nonas -- who are going full blast and can be expected to sail easily into the next decade; or even youngsters in their sixties and seventies, call them “candidate nonas”, who are feeling the advancing years taking over but are taking it in stride and feel confident that, barring unpredictable “acts of God” like encounters with drunken drivers or suicide bombers, there is no reason for them not to go on living and occasionally enjoying themselves indefinitely.
Of course there are bound to be changes in the way the world looks at us. And we can hardly be expected to accept all the changes with perfect equanimity. We may be pleased to receive indulgent smiles from people who refer to us as phenomena, to see the face of people at those L-shaped bars who have been bawling us out change from nasty to benign after one look at the birth-date imprinted on our driver’s license, to have attractive young women, once steely-eyed, put on indulgent smiles as they give up their seats for us in the bus or the doctor’s waiting-room. But we canoot help but be aware that beneath the deference is a feeling that we are really extraneous, expendable, quite superfluous.
Did not the Psalmist say: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away.”
Our labour and sorrow may be good at best for some benign pity or some kindly ridicule, as in Dean Swift’s verses on his own rapidly approaching death, written when he was about sixty-five:
Poor gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his face:
That old vertigo in his head
Will never leave him till he’s dead:
Besides, his memory decays,
He recollects not what he says;
He cannot call his friends to mind;
Forgets the place where last he din’d:
Plies you with stories o’er and o’er,
He told them fifty times before.
How does he fancy we can sit
To hear his out-of-fashion’d wit?
A few generations earlier, Ben Jonson had been similarly fretting that it was no use for him to pour out perfectly tuned and perfectly passionate love songs, for the object of his affection, when she turned her eyes on him, saw only his hundreds of gray haires and mountainous belly and rockie face which combined to remind her that he was forty years old, and she promptly closed her ears.
While his friend Will Shakespeare was explaining in his 138th sonnet that mutual lies are an essential ingredient of true love, for example.
Vainly thimking that she thinks me young
Although she knows my days are past the best.
When the poem was published he was thirty-four years old.
In my own lifetime, a nanosecond in the hundred and twenty or so trillion hours since the Big Bang, I can remember constant and considerable changes in the meaning of the tired superannuated adjective old. When for example Franklin Roosevelt contemptuously dismissed the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States as “nine old men” (their average age was a little over seventy-two years), obviously incapacitated to write or rewrite the laws of the nation. It was at about the same time that Congress passed the Social Security Act based on the premise that persons aged sixty-five were not and never could be part of the productive work force.
And how a decade later that same Roosevelt was, along with Churchill and Stalin, one of the “Old Men of Yalta” (they were all in their sixties) meeting in the Crimea to decide the fate of the world in the waning days of World War II.
The title of a best-selling book of the mid-1930’s, “Life Begins at Forty,” was considered rather daring, if my memory is correct..
When I first went to Paris in 1938 (to get as far away as possible from Boston) I drifted into a little band of aspiring young artists and writers who gathered once or twice daily in Saint German des Prés or Montparnasse around Alberto Giacometti, whose commercial career was then in the doldrums but whom we regarded as the kind of wise old man that all young artists and writers aspire to have as model and mentor and guide. He was thirty-eight years old.
A couple of decades later, the reigning potheads of California ordered their obedient followers not to trust anyone over thirty.
Now here I and an ever-increasing number of my fellows are in our nineties, and where do we stand under the current system of values?
For one thing, and a very big thing it is, we have become, for the first time in human history, statistically significant: in developed countries like the USA we form well over half of one percent of the population. And not necessarily an inactive half of one percent. Our votes can sway national elections, our purchases can affect the profit margins of giant corporations.
We should stipulate at the outset that, pleased as we functioning nonagenarians may be to be still around, we have no right to demand special credit for ourselves. At least ninety-nine percent of the determining causes that have allowed us to last this long are matters of sheer luck.
It was no conscious decision on our part which chose sturdy ancestors who could pass on to us fairly robust frames and fairly ebullient immune systems.
Or which brought us through the numberless occasions when a slight displacement of molecules in our surroundings or in our own bodies might have put an abrupt end to the even tenor of our ways. It was not my merit which ensured that, unlike one of my first cousins, I did not tumble as a baby into a pot of boiling laundry, or like another, get a splinter of flak in the brain during a bombing mission over a submarine base in St. Nazaire.
A sudden ring of a telephone, or a sudden flash of lightning over Dorchester might have postponed the moment of my conception by a few seconds and loaded me with a wholly different baggage of genes to map out my way through life.
In ninety relatively peaceful years, I can call back to memory any number of occasions when fate came squeakingly close to brushing me off the statistical charts. All but a few of them without my slightest awareness of what was going on: like the drunken driver who mowed down a family at a street crossing I took every morning at that very hour, but my alarm clock failed to go off that day.
Others that I can recall vividly and can enjoy telling my grandchildren about, like the bomb which had been screeching directly down toward a point midway between my shoulder blades but chose to deflect at the last second and land among some haystacks a couple of fields away.
Or the car which I somehow drove off the road on my way to take up my first job and ended up neatly wedged between two trees, leading the highway patrolman to remark, “You never would have got there if you’d been steering.”
Or the time when my wife and I came, passably drunk, out of a bar in Provincetown, and Norman Mailer [for the benefit of younger readers, Norman Mailer was a 20th-century American writer who spent a long and productive life, he was 84 when he died, happily playing the role of a juvenile delinquent] offered to give us a lift to a point here we could start climbing over the dunes to reach our shack on Peaked Hill Bars. We obediently piled in, it was three in the morning, and soon Norman, master of all he surveyed on the empty highway, was swinging and jolting his car with screeches of tires from left to right and back again. “For God’s sake, Norman,” said the third, or was it the fourth, Mrs. Mailer, “watch where you’re going. They’ve been working on this road, and God knows what you can run into.”
“Don’t you know, “ said Norman with each word distinctly encased in its own anger, “ that I will not under any circumstance stand for being lectured to by any one, and I will certainly not take any lectures from you. You are trying to make me lose face, and face is one thing I will not lose. Face,” he repeated grimly, and he stepped up his speed to seventy-five. “FACE,” he repeated again, and went up to eighty-five.
And face was not lost, and we got to our destination without any untoward incident.
Or the time I had sneaked up to sleep on the deck of a Liberty ship which was in the front rank in the second file of a huge convoy headed over the North Atlantic for North Africa in the fall of 1943, and I watched the sun rise on a magnificently calm and peaceful sea – the Nazi submarines had been cleared away a few months earlier – when suddenly there was an outbreak of shrill whistles and panicky shouts and confused banging. The ship parallel to us on the file to our right had lurched abruptly to the left, its steering mechanism must have broken down, it was headed straight for us, and our captain was trying to get us out of the way, and after an appallingly long few seconds, it came splashing over the level sea and plowed into our right bow, and bewildered men who had been bounced out of their sleep were running over the steeply slanting deck toward lifeboats or a place to jump from. I had time to remember that we had been told that the front hold of our ship was packed with small-arms ammunition, and the third hold carried a battalion of troops who were to help build roads and railways across Iran. But it was the second hold which was hit and sliced open, the one which contained Christmas mail for all the American troops in the Mediterranean theater, And the two ships successfully pulled apart, and there were no casualties, and for a couple of days, as we limped on alone, with an occasional plane for escort, far behind the convoy, we were able, because a lazy commanding officer had neglected to post guards at the scene of damage, to plunder chocolates and cakes floating up in the flooded hold.
Or, to take a more recent example: the morning a couple of years ago when I had produced some of the preceding paragraphs in my room at the Helmsley Middletowne Hotel on East 48th Street in New York and, observing that it was late morning, decided it was time to slip out for a bite to eat. And turning left on Lexington Avenue I was walking briskly on a near-empty sidewalk under some scaffolding set up for workers who were cleaning the façade of a building. On the gound floor of this building was a restaurant called Lily’s and as I was passing it, a burly man came bustling out the door and, apparently having a last word to exchange with the restaurant greeter, he had half turned his head back and momentarily could not see what was in front of him, which happened to be me, and he bumped into me. Not a strong bump, it only pushed me over a foot or two but that was enough to trip me over a bulky beam which lay on the sidewalk as a foundation for the scaffolding, and I toppled over it, my head passing a few inches under a steel strut of the scaffolding, and coming to rest just jutting out over the curb. A crowd began forming, My assailant came running to my side blubbering “It’s my fault, it’s my fault,” the greeter came too and pulled me back a bit, just enough to escape the left front wheel of a taxi which was coming in to park. They advised me to stay quiet, but I assured them there was nothing wrong with me, and indeed everything had happened so quickly that I had not had time to stiffen up and I had made a soft landing, without a bruise or a scratch to show, and when they helped me to my feet, I brushed myself off, amid applause and cries of Awesome! from the crowd, and the greeter offered me an orange juice at Lily’s bar, but I said would prefer a Jack Daniels and ended up getting a whole free lunch, in the company of jovial customers who advised me that the next time I put on my act I should do it in front of the Twenty-One Club, where I would be sure of getting more ample recompense.
And beyond all these private personal bits of luck, there is the colossal luck of having been born, with so many thousands of centuries to choose from, in the Twentieth Century A.D.
I know that this is a century which these days brings scowls to the face of people of taste and refinement. “The century of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the hole in the ozone layer,” as the best-selling novelist Erica Jong put it.
(While from the opposing camp come strident voices to remind us that in this sinful century, painless childbirth became standard practice in all the developed nations, in direct defiance of the first judicial decree proclaimed by God in the Garden of Eden, and so did divorce on the most frivolous of pretexts, while uncounted millions of potential human lives were snuffed out by legalized birth control, and millions of immortal souls condemned to gray wretched limbo by legalized abortion.)
And indeed, when you add in the millions of people killed off by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the 1930’s and Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s, not to speak of battles like Verdun and Stalingrad and the “strategic” bombing of cities like Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo and the massacres of Armenians and Bosnians and Tutsi and inhabitants of Darfur, not to speak of pandemics like the Spanish flu which killed my mother and AIDS, the 20th must be accounted as the most murderous of centuries since Noah’s flood.
But remember that as Joseph Stalin put it, in one of the lapidary remarks for which he will probably be remembered in future millennia long after the memory of his victims will have faded into the history books, One human death is a tragedy, a million human deaths is a statistic.
The 20th century is still a living memory for most of us, we can respond deeply and passionately to its atrocities because they are close to us, they happened to us or to our parents or grandparents or neighbors or people we had got close to through newspapers or newsreels or television. But unless we are continually reminded of them in history books or sermons or political speeches or theatrical performances, we remain relatively unmoved, simply because we do not have time to think of them, by all the countless atrocities and cruelties and agonizing pains that make up all but a small faction of the chronicles of human lifee in the continually receding past.
Actually, if we put our minds to it, there are some pleasant things to say about that unpleasant century which saw our birth.
The population of the world, for one thing, increased dramatically in its course.
Most of them, it is true, were predestined to live relatively short lives overcrowded, overworked, underfed. But an unprecedentedly large number of them have been able to reach advanced ages in reasonably good physical and mental health. What other century could show so many people who could pass all, or at least a considerable proportion of their lives without ever having to worry about where their next meal was coming from? Or achieve fame and fortune in careers that were closed to them or non-existent in the past – you can count the number of best-selling female novelists between the 10th—century’s author of the Tale of Genji and the 19th-century’s George Sand and George Eliot on the fingers of two hands, while we are now accustomed to a world where another one appears in every dozen or so editions of the New York Times Book Review?
You can spend endless fruitless hours leafing through the chronicles of the human ppast before you come across a famous historical figure, of the sort that leaves a mark on the daily life of contemporaries and sometimes descendants, who lived beyond a 90th birthday: the first being the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, otherwise known as Ozymandias King of Kings, in the 13th century BC (though spoilsport scholars insist there is no proof that he actually lived that long); then a nine-hundred-year leap to the Athenian philosopher Democritus, the first to identify and name the atom, in the 4th century BC; then on to the 3rd century AD when Saint Anthony the Great went out to solitude and hunger in the deserts of Egypt to wrestle with those temptations which have stimulated the imaginations of countless artists ever since; in the eleventh century Hassan-ibn-Sabbah, the “Old Man of the Mountain,” pioneer of suicide terrorism, whose hophead disciples the Hashishim (from whom we derive our word assassin) committed a long series of holy murders in the Middle East for a good century after his death; Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century, author of The Imitation of Christ which would remain a best seller for hundreds of years; the Dutch scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek who invented the microscope in the 17th century Things begin to pick up a little in the 18th century with Antonio Stradivari maker of violins; Christopher Wren, creator of St Paul's Cathedral in London, John Adams, second president of the United States. In the early 19th we have Julia Ward Howe, composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic; and Florence Nightingale. But it is only at the dawn of the 20th century, with its revolutionary advances in medical care, that the names begion to swell up, become a flood: George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Samuel Goldwyn, Pablo Picasso, Marshal Pétain, Field Marshal Hindenburg, Conrad Hilton, Grandma Moses, Bertrand Russell, Deng Xiaoping, Herbert Hoover, Jean Sibelius, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, John D. Rockefeller. Frank Lloyd Wright. Irving Berlin, Lillian Gish, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ronald Reagan, Willem de Kooning, Bob Hope, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Doctor Spock, Eudora Welty, W. E. B. Du Bois, Katharine Hepburn Edward Teller, Rudolf Hess, Alger Hiss, Rosa Parks. Martha Graham. Marc Chagall, Kirk Douglas, Nelson Mandela.
To which I may add my favorite proto-nonagenarian, the Abbé Breuil, who was among the first to reveal to the modern world the glories of paintings of our paleolithic ancestors when he explored caves in France and Spain in the last days of the nineteenth century, and was in the second half of the twentieth still climbing and crawling his way into dark uncharted caves in what was then the colony of Southwest Africa. He made spectacular discoveries of ancient paintings there, but at first he had trouble getting any support from the local authorities who considered that the childish scrawls of benighted Bushmen showing little black figures cavorting at random on rock walls were of no possible interest to any civilized person, let alone a priest. Until he discovered in the Brandberg hills a stately female figure painted all in white with vaguely European features, he called her the White Lady of the Brandberg and he speculated that she might have been a queen or a goddess of the Phoenician traders who sailed around Africa some two and a half millennia brfore Vasco da Gama, who gets the credit in our school books, and may have, along with their corded bales, brought with them some of the techniques and themes and magical spells of Mediterranean painting.
This White Lady had a magical effect when the abbé made a copy of her and showed it to the local authorities “This is different,” they shouted in their beery guttural way, “this isn’t Hottentot garbage. This is Art.” And they agreed to fund the good abbé’s further explorations.
Peeping into the Mississippi of current events flooding past me these days on the Internet, I come repeatedly on items like these: the body-builder Jack LaLanne will celebrate his 95th birthday by swimming from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island. Arthur Laurents is supervising the last revival of his riotous 1975 Broadway musical Gypsy. Bob Byrd is still casting votes in the United States Senate. Mike Wallace is still dispensing news and Walter Cronkite is still dispensing wisdom on television. Danielle Darrieux and Celeste Holme are lighting up new films.
For us nonagenarians of the 21st century, perhaps the most important feature of the new era is that we have the liberty to make a reasonably independent choice of how we will spend our last few years while the world makes up its mind about how it will do without us.
All but the most intolerant religions pamper us with a modicum of free will. The ninety-nine percent role of chance in our arrival at the startling figure of 90 still leaves us with a precious one per cent to handle things in our own way. While it may be true that as King Lear says,
Like flies to wanton boys are we to th’immortal gods.
They kill us for their sport the fact is that if we have somehow managed to outwit the little brats and all their arsenal of (as Donne put it) “warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, despaire, law, chance” for all this time, we must have done something right. We have had to make some conscious or semi-conscious decisions to help form our life styles on the way up, and it is up to each of us to make those decisions.
If you will look over any random group of nonagenarians, as I will in succeeding chapters, you will find it had to work out any standard pattern. Some have lived inconspicuously, some have hectically courted the public eye. Some have grimly followed the old rule, Nothing in excess!, others have chosen to follow William Blake’s advice, Enough! Or too much! Meaning, on the material plane, a moderate overindulgence in sex and alcohol
It is up to all of us to make new choices to make the choices that will fit us into fit us into the different kind of life that awaits us..
Of course if you live in one of those splendid little communities tucked away in valleys of the Himalayas or the Andes, periodically being discovered by enthusiasts, safely isolated from wars and business cycles and machinery and birth certificates, where every one works and plays in the agelong traditional style and every one is reliably reported to live to be a hundred, there is no problem.
For the rest of us, in our modern world of pollution and corruption and ruthless competition, it is no easy thing to make a sensible choice.
But at least we do have a choice, something that would have been scarcely imaginable in the good old days which stern critics like to remind us of, days when the world was not burdened with automobiles and jet-planes and antibiotics and television and Google and gossip columns and cut-rate cruises to the South Pacific. In those days, once you were past the threshold birthday, you were condemned to be housebound if not bedbound. with perhaps a bench by the fire at which you could sit, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything, to mumble and moan and sometimes get off famous last words that might preserve your name for a limited posterity: as when the aged (he was 42) King Louis the Thirteenth of France on his deathbed received the visit of his four-year-old son and asked him playfully, “What’s your name, sonny” and sonny answered, “Louis the Fourteenth, papa,” and papa growled back at him, “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, kid?”
Yes, there were some who determined to go out with a bang, a theatrical gesture that would keep their name alive in bedtime stories and in the history books.
Like the 17th-century Prince de Condé who “toward the end of his life, was seized by the conviction that he was already dead. He therefore began taking his meals in an underground cell, and took other meals in the company of guests who pretended to be dead themselves while heartily devouring the food that the prince placed before them. During these dinners the conversation revolved around the hereafter.”
Or like the Viking chieftain Egil Skallagrimsson, foremost pirate and poet of the 10th century, who, getting tired of being pushed around and scolded by the housemaids for getting in their way, got up early one morning and took out of their hiding place all the gold and silver pieces that he had accumulated over decades of plunder, and he loaded them on a wagon, and was hitching up the horses when some one noticed him and asked what he thought he was doing. He was going, he said, to the Thingvellir, the annual meeting of the landowners of Iceland, the first of the parliaments which are now the hallmark of civilized society, and he was going to ride his wagon into the middle of the assemblage and toss armfuls of the gold and silver in all directions, so that he could see all the leading citizens of Iceland scrambling and struggling and striking and slashing in a glorious free-for-all, and he could expire with an old Viking war-cry on his lips in the middle of the kind of the setting he loved best, a battle-field over-running with blood and potential loot. And when they made him turn back and unload, he arranged to get up very early one morning and load his horse with as much treasure as a horse could carry. And led the horse and two slaves out into the wilderness, and came back a few days later with the horse but no treasure or slaves, and he could die with a smile on his lips, foreseeing (accurately, since he knew his people) that for the next few hundred years search parties would be steadily going out over endless miles of moor and marsh to find the burial place, but would never come back with anything more than a few coins washed up by spring floods
These examples may seem a little crude in our more refined age, and in any case they could only be followed by the infinitesimal number of privileged persons who had enough money to pay for all that entertainment.
But nowadays, even for the cash-strapped rest of us, the choice is wide.
If and when the inevitable day comex when the future is medically certified to be all down hill, through constantly increasing discomfort, pain,, agony, modern technology has provided us with efficient and inexpensive tools like cyanide pills or plastic bags to put an end to it all, with minimum discomfort to ourselves and our survivors
And until that day comes , all doors are open.
We can accept our new state with resignation or rage, with a light heart or a heavy one.
We can choose to spend our diminishing waking hours with other old fogeys discussing constipation, diarrhea, bypasses, dialyses, transplants and all our assorted aches and pains and gnawing discomforts, when we are not diagnosing the ever-increasing follies of the younger generation as it squanders we had labored so hard to accumulate.
Or we can, if we have the money to match our desires, go to live in one of those walled fortress communities where young people are not tolerated except for brief well disciplined visits. I judge these places a little unfairly perhaps, on the basis of a single conversation I had with a man in at Billy’s on First Avenue, the oldest o the family-owned bar-restaurants now swept away like so many other monuments of the days when life in New York was worth living. This man had just been to visit his sister in of those fortified places, and she suggested they try the golf course, and as they were getting in her car he noticed that she was keeping a small hand-gun within easy reach. ‘I thought this place was guarded night and day by well-armed professionals’, he said. But she explained that the danger she was protecting herself from came not from human malefactors but from packs of wild dogs, the hardy survivors of darling pets who had been thoughtlessly left behind when their owners drove off to Wisconsin or Michigan to get away from an over-hot summer, and had reverted to the predatory life-style of their ancestors.
We can spend endless hours brooding about the vagaries of the stock market, or global warming, or the Islamic jihad, or the precise date when all life will cease upon earth, whether it be next year as a result of a battle at Armageddon, generally considered to be Megiddo on the caravan route between Egypt and Syria, or in 280 years when a meteorite comes crashing into the Pacific west of Los Angeles, or in 4,000,000,009 AD when our solar system is scheduled to implode into a Black Hole.
We can meditate and pray vigorously, in the hope of mounting to Heaven where arm in arm with William Blake and Allen Ginsberg and the Reverend Jerry Falwell we can go on singing Holy Holy Holy forever and ever and ever and ever.
We can collect stamps or porn CD’s. We can visit the sick and comfort the poor. If we invested a small sum in an oil company twenty or thirty years ago, we can hint to our heirs that we may change our will and study their subsequent maneuvers.
We can follow the old English tradition and drink ourselves to death like a gentleman, discreetly and disdainfully, or the new Hollywood tradition and drink ourselves to death boisterously under the supervision of paparazzi.
Or we can thumb our noses at all that was drummed into us by our elders. And throw off all restraint and say and do some of the things we always wanted to do, but didn’t dare or were ashamed to do, assuming that if we go too far the authorities will go easy with us out of respect for our advanced years and we will get off with, at the most, a benevolent reprimand and a bit of friendly advice to take it a little easier next time.
Or we can take life as it comes, and do our best to get whatever pleasure we can be got out of what is left of it.
Even if is only like the wizened old creature I saw once picking with a hoe at the pine needles on the oath leading to a nudist camp and who explained that he had been at it all afternoon ameliorating the road.
Or the impassive ancient Basque I saw one day at the rim of a high bank, immobile, facing out to sea, and when I saw him again three or four hours alter, still immobile, facing the same sea, and I asked him what he was doing there, he replied: “I am staying.”
Or the character in The Merchant of Venice who says, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
Or, more demurely, like Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffry who
counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life,..
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good cat.
“Brisking” is the mot juste, the proper word for it. Everyone knows what it means, though no one can come up with a precise definition of it. My brisk might seem like deadly boredom to you. Yours may seem irrevelevant, irreverent, irresponsible and thoroughly glennbeckiform to me. But we really don’t have the time ot quarrel about it.
Implication is all in this word “brisk,”, it implies activity, participation, willingness, Above all, it implies the present tense, the here and now.
And the here and now is about all there is left to us nonagenarians. Yes, the past is rich, but there is too much of it, and besides there is nothing we can do about it. Any more than we can about the future, which is getting smaller and tighter every day, The present is all that is left, and we might as well make the most of it.,
It is all very well to denounce and bewail its well-documented inconveniences, the unpleasantnesses, the horrors of advanced years, the loss of strength, the loss of energy, the fading vision, the forgetting of names and dates, the dropping off one by one of all we loved or enjoyed or were used to, all those delightful memories.
Yes, but there are many distinctly undelightful memories too, and it is some consolation that they needn’t be a burden any more.
What has become of all those enemies, who betrayed our trust, stole our loved ones, cheated us out of an inheritance, took credit for our achievements and sold our secrets to gossip-mongers? They are all dead by now, or feeble-minded, and we don’t need to waste time searching for some suitably dramatic way of getting back at them.
And there are all those unpardonable things we have done ourselves -- that girl we got in trouble seventy years ago, that friend we let down when he got in trouble, those promises we conveniently forgot to keep, those times we made utter fools of ourselves in public, and so on and so on. And our regrets may well keep stirring deep inside of us till the day we die despite all our efforts to deny or suppress or forget. But think how much worse things would be if those regrets took physical shape in our daily life, if for example one of those people we so cruelly wronged unexpectedly took a seat next to us at the theater or on an airplane. It is comforting to know that the chances of their doing so plunge more rapidly toward zero with every passing hour and year and decade.
So brisk away, girls and boys, it is no later than you think.
ii. Some Sage Advice
If we manage to listen in on the conversations of our juniors when they are talking about us out of what they believe is our earshot, we are more likely to hear remarks on the order of, “What does that old creep (or codger or fogey or motherfucker) think he is doing?” than on the order of “He really is a wise old man, isn’t he?”
But even the most dismissive of those juniors is capable of coming to us every so often in the hope that, out of our prattle they may pick up some useful hints to help guide their way when it is their turn to advance into the darkening corridors.
And if that is what they want, why should I not take the opportunity to make them take it from me for once, following the advice of the aging poet, “Being good for nothing else, be wise?”
There is, I tell these inquisitive youngsters, one rule you had better follow if you do not just want to turn into a vegetable and wait your turn to be stewed.
Of course you have a perfect right to be a vegetable, sitting and withering comfortably away on a shelf in cupboard or refrigerator while your animal contemporaries sweat and stumble and get hernias trying to prove that what they are doing makes the slightest difference in the world they are pretending to live in..
But, assuming you are on the animal side and want to hold on as well as you can to the reasonably good health that has enabled you to go bouncing more or less steadily over the stormy waves of life, there are a few simple rules to follow:.
Use doctors and pills as frugally as possible.
Take a few peppy exercises every day, even if you are snowed in, even if you are in bed with a bad cold..
Everyone will naturally prefer his or her own favorite form of exercise, but some forms are less efficient than others.
Playing golf, for instance, is perfectly unobjectionable, it gives you a chance to breathe in some good relatively clean air, and offers you endless opportunities to observe the vagaries of human nature, watching your fellow-golfer for example as he tries to distract your attention while he is calculating how to get away with moving his ball a fraction of an inch from where it lies in the rough so that he can put it with one mighty swing right on the green and possibly get a birdie while you are flailing your way out of the sand trap toward a double bogie.
But golf uses only about a quarter of the muscles in the human body, and I have found it more profitable to follow my own daily pattern of climbing 103 steps to bring the groceries and mail to my sixth-floor walk-up; walking briskly (not jogging, which will deaden your feet) ) for an hour, or half an hour, through parks or fields or, if necessary, city sidewalks; playing Mozart sonatas on the piano when the neighbors aren’t home, to keep fingers nimble and responsive to command; and another twenty minutes or so of doing Pilates exercises.
One of the luckiest days of my life was the one on which I first heard, from Lawrence who was not yet Lord Olivier, of the little gymnasium on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan which was the shrine of a cult made up of selected ballet dancers, Hollywood stars, Broadway producers, violin virtuosos and people of that sort. On my website you will find a picture of me performing an introductory rite at the gymnasium, standing gingerly and afraid with one foot on eighty-five-year-old Joe Pilates’ chest and one on his belly while he lies on the floor, smiling broadly up at me, demonstrating what followers of his methods were capable of.
Joe did not quite make it to ninety, he died at 87, some say of smoke inhalation when his house caught on fire and he was trying to rescue a new exercise machine he was developing. others say of an asthmatic attack brought on by his stubborn insistence on smoking fifteen cigars a day. Perhaps it was a combination of the two (and all the whisky he put away every evening). Whatever it was, all his followers are convinced that without it he would be alive today in his 120’s, challenging new recruits to stand on his chest and belly. Barking out his orders and apothegms: Straight the knees! The only animal that doesn’t hold its stomach in is the pig! Do animals go on diets? Do animals get hernias?Inhale! Straight the knees! Out the air!”
He had learned all he needed to know about the human body during World War I, when he was an acrobat in a German circus which was touring in England when hostilities broke out and all its members were interned in an abandoned hospital building on the Isle of Man. For four dreary years. Day after day, month after month, he watched them drooping and brooding around him, coughing and sighing, growing paler and thinner and weaker, stumbling as they shuffled around the bleak courtyard or lined up for meals that were, in wartime submarine-throttled England, close to the minimum necessary for survival.
But he noticed that there were other internees than his fellow humans, and unlike the humans they were frisky and lively. They were cats. The humans might be fond of them but they could not afford to feed them because it would mean condemning themselves to slow starvation. Cats whose existence depended on their ability to stalk, and pounce efficiently upon, and devour forthwith every bit of, any unwary mouse or bird who came their way. They were terribly thin, but they were not weak, they were not lazy, when they weren’t sleeping they were always doing something, even if the doing consisted largely of stretching, extending and retracting their limbs, keeping every muscle in their bodies fit for that pounce that meant survival. And, observing them closely, Joe worked out a series of stretching exercises that would keep every single muscle in the human body in vigorous shape.
It was a recipe for longevity.
It was also in my case a source of selfish pleasure, a sop to that vanity which encumbers us all the way to the grave.
For like every one else I would like to feel that I had made some impact on the world around me, that there was living proof in the everyday life around me that I had been around. As I have watched my contemporaries pass steadily through the obituary pages of the newspapers, I have paid my respects to their often outstanding accomplishments in war and peace and medicine and law and diplomacy and publicity and astrophysics. I have done nothing to equal the achievements of two boys who lived in the floor under mine in my freshman dorm, one of whom became a famous historian and wrote the speeches which help elect John Kennedy; the other, a bashful little boy from Missouri who wanted to, and did, become a distinguished classical scholar and translator of Sophocles, but who on the way was part of the little knot of men who in a quiet Washington office in the spring of 1942 broke the Japanese naval code, which led that summer to the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway Island, an achievement described in all the history books as the decisive turning point from defeat to victory in the Pacific in World War II.
But on my little side, I can note my little contribution to the life of our times when I look out the window on the streets of whatever city I happen to find myself in. For it was I who in 1963 dashed off a little article for a little magazine called Sports Illustrated which for the first time made the name of Joseph Pilates known to the general public outside the little clique of his admirers. Of course, as I remind myself, he was bound to become famous some day with or without my assistance, but Joe did not see it that way: “the phone never stopped ringing,” as he wrote me a few days later, and he never would allow me to pay for another session with him, as his career embarked on its mercurial course, with hundreds of articles yearly in the press, with hundreds of Genuine Pilates studios springing up in Kansas City and in Fort Lauderdale, in Paris and in Shanghai, and dozens of lawsuits over the use of the name, ending only with a judicial decree that Pilates was now a common English noun, like judo or karate, that could not be registered as a trade mark.
Looking out of the window now, I can recognize on any day faithful followers of the Pilates method, making their upright and lively and purposeful way through the sluggish shuffling beer-bellied throngs which encumber the sidewalks.
Health, of course, is not just a matter of exercising your muscles. You have to be sensible about what you choose to eat.
Surely you want to avoid the corpulence, the slack-gutted stance, which is the curse of contemporary life, which keeps us from moving around freely, makes us slouch and waddle and become prey to all manner of aches and ailments.
To do this, most of us follow, or attempt to follow, some form of diet, and diets pop at us out of the pages of every newspaper and crowd the shelves of every bookstore.
Your choice is free, and benevolent organizations like Weight Watchers will help you make up your mind if you cannot do so on your own.
My natural preference goes to a little book I wrote forty-odd years ago, called The Drinking Man’s Diet, published in San Francisco, which, if the publisher’s statements to the press are accurate, has brought good cheer and narrow waist-lines to many millions of readers speaking thirteen languages all over the globe.
There was nothing original in the advice given by The Drinking Man’s Diet. It was only a somewhat livelier rehash of what was then called The Air Force Diet which was circulating, surreptitiously because the Air Force wished to avoid any suggestion that its fliers might be described as drinking men.
There was nothing new about the Air Force Diet either, it was a restating of the rules for eating that had been laid down just a century before, in a book called A Letter on Corpulence by one William Banting, well known in his day as the man who built the coffin of the Duke of Wellington as well as being the fattest man in London.
We are so smothered in diet books these days that we tend to assume they have always been with us since the first books began to be turned out in Sumer or Egypt or wherever the scholars decide, four or five thousand years ago. But no, William Banting’s was the first. Because in 1863 for the first time in human history there were enough literate people with enough leisure time on their hands and enough money in their pockets to buy books telling them how to get and stay thin.
In previous centuries, it was fashionable to be fat. People wanted well-rounded forms to demonstrate to all the world that they were prosperous, successful, upper class; that they could sit down every night to gargantuan dinners, like those of the Dukes of Burgundy who regularly had served up on their tables whole animals and mountainous pies in baked crusts designed by the greatest painters of the 15th century. Julius Caesar, you will remember, wanted men about me that are fat, Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights to help him run Rome.
If men of that sort in the first half of the 19th century decided to commission a portrait by a fashionable painter like John Stuart Copley, he would bring along with his paints and brushes a rubber pillow they could slip inside the top of their breeches to give their bellies a well-rounded look. But a new half-century was well under way in 1863, and a new, bonanza, world, and they proceeded to gobble up Mr.Banting’s book at an incredible rate.
If you open your copy of Anna Karenina, published in 1873, to Chapter 19, you will find the reckless rake Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky getting himself in shape for the horse race which will decide his fate and that of his beloved Anna, by resolving to “eschew farinaceous and sweet dishes.”
You might think that this is an insignificant detail in a 863-page novel. But you would be wrong, it reveals – without either Count Vronsky’s or Count Tolstoy’s awareness of the fact -- that human history had taken a radical turn
For Count Vronsky can only have gotten his information about what foods to eschew from some one of his fellow nobles who had read the Banting book published in London barely a decade before. A decade for a dietary formula to travel from London to become fashionable in St Petersburg may not appear impressive in an Internet age, but in the 1860's and 70’s it can only be compared to the speed of lightning. Lightning that has been scorching the fat off human bodies ever since.
Banting’s book is, I believe, out of print today (but you can find the entire text on Google). It is a short and eloquent text, telling first of all the inconveniences and ignominies of the corpulent life, like having to walk downstairs backward for fear of being toppled over by the weight of your protruding belly. Then, telling of his futile efforts to cure himself by medicines, or by surf bathing, or Turkish bathing, or horseback riding. And finally going to Doctor William Harvey who told him that his daily diet overloaded with bread, sugar, potatoes and beer was to blame, it should be replaced by one rich in meat, fish, green vegetables and good Bordeaux wine. In short, the drastic reduction if not complete elimination of “starch and saccharine matter,” what in our more scientific age we call carbohydrates, or more familiarly carbs. And this message has kept resonating with us, reprinted in new formats with new catchy titles and with learned lectures from new doctors and endorsements from new celebrities and climbing up on new best-seller lists at a regular rate for the last 145 years.
You of course have your choice among hundreds of other, more complicated and sophisticated diets than the Drinking Man’s on the market, but they are also more complicated. And few leave you with the contentment which follows when you know you can drink all the whisky you want (provided you don’t chase it with beer) and eat all the juicy steaks and foie gras your stomach can hold. And contentment is something to treasure when you are trying to grow old with a modicum of success.
Mention of the Drinking Man’s Diet allows me to tell a moral anecdote illustrating another rule worth following:
Take it easy.
There is enough tragedy in the real world, and you need not waste your remaining powers of indignation by producing an emotional outburst every time some one says or does something rude or cheap or offensive to you. To me belongeth vengeance, saith the Lord (Deuteronomy xxxiii,35), and it is just as well to leave it that way. We all enjoy it if we can think of a devastating response and bring it off crisply and put the cad in his well-deserved place, but for us nonagenarians this may be a luxury we simply cannot afford. In the long run, and it is not such a long run for us, it is better to let it pass. Remember the sensible advice of the Greek philosopher: if you meet your enemy in the street, smile at him.
The publication of the Drinking Man’s Diet was followed by a couple of years of litigation in which I attempted to get the publisher, Robert Cameron, (who, incidentally, would remain very much alive and cheerful in San Francisco, the life of every party, , till shortly before his death, at the age of 98) to make the full royalty payments I had been promised for providing the text. Expert witnesses were called by the attorneys on both sides to give testimony on current practices in the publishing industry with respect to the payment of royalties. While the Authors League kindly provided me with three distinguished literary figures to testify for my side that they are normally calculated as a percentage of the retail price of the book, the defense called an author who was a light in the San Francisco literary world whom I will call Jeremy Bullock. who, when asked what he would have given me for my services if he had been the publisher, replied “I would have taken the paper he brought in and handed him five hundred dollars and told him to get lost.”
For years afterwards I could remember the haughtily flippant tone of his voice, and hoped that some day I, in the name of all underpaid freelance writers everywhere, could pay him back for it, with interest. And then one day my wife and I were having a drink at the bar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York when who should walk in but Jeremy Bullock. He thought it very amusing that we who at our last meeting had been barking at each other in a courtroom should meet again in such a different environment, and he suggested we all have a drink together. Agreed. He had to leave after a while to see his publisher, no doubt to make a justified demand for increased royalties, but I asked him if he had time to hear a funny story and he said, Go ahead.
The story was that after the case had been decided in my favor and after the last appeal had been rejected and I had received my just due plus interest, my wife and I had decided we might celebrate by driving over the Sierra Nevada to Reno to see old friends and have a little fun at the blackjack tables. A book had just come out explaining how a keen-eyed player could take advantage of the fact that the odds, which are naturally, overall, in favor of the house, can sometimes change dramatically in favor the player, and if you keep, say, an accurate count of the number of ten-value cards that have turned up, you can pick the proper moments to quadruple your bet.
The casino people in Reno had not yet worked out a successful strategy of defense, and we scooped up several thousand dollars and we were heading home when I happened to see a sign reading Sierra County, which was where the judge in our case, Jack Keane, came from (it was the custom then for the overburdened big-city courts in California to call on judges from relatively crime-free back-country counties to come down on a per diem basis). If he is at home, I said, we can go see him and thank him for the decision and tell him we had shown it to a Harvard Law School professor who said it was a model of its kind, appeal-proof, raising no point of law but proving out of the testimony of the defense witnesses that they were not providing the court with accurate information.
The Judge was indeed at home, and was delighted to greet us there, he said that in all his years of judging he had decided hundreds of cases in favor of all manner of litigants, including two men who he was sure were guilty of murder but he had to let them go free because of legal technicalities; and not a single one of them had ever bothered to offer him a word of thanks.
Since the case was now closed and part of history, I thought I might legitimately ask him a few questions about the trial, one of them being, which of the expert witnesses who had been called to the stand had given the most effective testimony for the winning side, and Judge Keane answered without hesitation, Jeremy Bullock.
Jeremy did not take kindly to this story. “The next time you have a joke to tell me, call me up,” he growled, and he stamped out of the bar.
I am ashamed to say that I was delighted by my all too easy and all too temporary triumph. For, as I was soon to learn, Jeremy had his own ideas of well-planned revenge. He was at that time a member of the select little group, the cream of the wit and chivalry of San Francisco, which met once a week around a table at a sidewalk café under the guidance of Herb Caen to exchange anecdotes and witticisms of which a selection would earn immortality by being printed in the Herb Caen column in the San Francisco Chronicle. And Jeremy made sure that in all the ten years or so that I spent in that neck of the woods I would never be once invited to sit at the Herb Caen sidewalk table.
A final word of advice:
While keeping up the physical activity that will keep your body reasonable healthy, don’t forget that you need mental activity as well, to keep your brain from drying up and turning you into a babbling useless nonentity.
Here again, there is no standard model. Every nonagenarian or proto-nonagenarian will have to work out his or her own pattern.
I know that life can turn more boring with decreased mobility and enbergy, with old friends dying off and new ones hard to find, and all the petty annoyances and inadequacies that pop up continuously and unexpectedly to test our aging faculties
A busy brain is better equipped to handle all these problems than a lazy one, and a brain is kept busy when it has something that interests it and challenges it.
It can be a lifelong hobby, or it can pop up quite by chance at any time. It may not be something the world considers important, but that should not be of ny concern to you, after all what the world considers important today it may consider insignificant or frivolous the day after tomorrow. As long as the interest is genuine it may be considered a reliable indication that you are a prime candidate for admission to the club of the healthy nonagenarians.
A candidate like the one I met some years back, Henry de Lumley, the eminent authority on the origins of man, who told me of an amazing incident that had occurred to him one in the Paris subway. He had made his way into a rush-hour-crowded train at the Opera station and was looking around idly at the familiar everyday subway faces of Parisians going home to aperitifs and dinners when one face came flashing out at him like a lightning bolt at the nest door down in his car, it was a face that might have come straight out of a prehistory text-book, it was the face of a Neanderthal Man, minimal chin, protruding cheek-bones, receding forehead and all, the kind of face which was generally considered by the learned community not to have been seen alive in earth for the last forty thousand years,
The fate of Homo Neanderthalensis had long been a subject of heated controversy in that community, a majority holding that the race had been wiped out, either physically exterminated by our brutal and conquering Homo Sapiens ancestors, or had simply died out because, like the mastodon and the saber-toothed tiger, because it was not versatile enough to adapt to changing patterns of global cooling and warming. But a stubborn minority, including de Lumley, maintained that some Neanderthals could have survived, and been gradually absorbed into the sapiens community.
And here was what looked like a genuine Neanderthal whose genes and DNA could be studied with the latest investigative tools and might prove that there was indeed a Neanderthal strain in the makeup of modern man, that it might be responsible for some of the traits that we regard as typical of humanity.
And it was only a few yards away from him.
But those few yards were encumbered with stolid motionless people, and he could not easily force his way through them or find, in all the rattling of the train and the hubbub of getting in and out of stations, the right words to convince them of the urgency of his task. He had almost got to the point where he could call out to his quarry when the train came to a halt in the Filles du Calvaire station, and the doors opened, and Monsieur Neanderthal walked out, and by the time le Lumley had fought his way out too, he was nowhere to be seen on the platform or the stairs or the street of the street of the Daughters of Calvary outside.
Ever since, de Lumley told me, every time he finds himself in a crowded subway train, or a crowded boulevard, or a crowded cafė, he finds himself looking around earnestly for that face. And all these years later, I am sure he is still at it and that it and other mental tasks he has set for himself, will keep him, a youngster in his eighties, busy enough to help him sweep forward – if he manages to avoid drunken drivers and suicide bombers -- into his productive nineties.