Archive for the ‘aging’ Category

A conversation for all ages

June 1, 2012

It’s a gloomy cool morning but that’s more than offset by the compensating brilliance of the occasion here: it’s  Younger Daughter’s birthday. She treated me to breakfast at IHOP yesterday, now it’s my turn to flip the flapjacks for her and her sleepover party pals. Oh, to be so young and free again.

“Age clarifies,” begins John Lachs in his just-published Stoic PragmatismClarity is a wonderful gift, but so is youthful indeterminacy. So many still-untested hypotheses, so many experiments yet to try, so much fun on the horizon.

The spirit of youth is indefatigable “can do” energy and enthusiasm. Age is more realistic, having tried and succeeded and failed at so much more. The two, age and youth, have things to tell one another. Too bad each tends to think it already knows it all. “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors,” snarled young Henry Thoreau. Kids  these days, they rejoined. We rejoin. Why don’t you pick up your room?! (And then, as Ron Padgett reminds, then save the world.)

I certainly don’t dispute the practical wisdom of stoic pragmatists who know, with Lachs, that “there’s nothing infinite about us.” But I still envy the young their intrepdity, from which I daily draw practically-infinite encouragement and inspiration. They remind me of my own misplaced sense of sky-high possibility.

Henry’s whole statement on this matter, so delightfully and so youthfully over the top:

What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new… Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

Yes, it’s way over the top. I began hearing valuable, earnest advice from my mentor John Lachs before I was thirty and I’m still hearing it. Some of it has finally registered. I’ll pass it along to my Intro students in the Fall. If they read carefully, they’ll hear much more than a cautionary  warning not to repeat the hubris of Ozymandias.

True enough, from dust we arose and to dust we’ll return. But within those natural boundaries there’s plenty of room to roam, and so many ways to find our personal, familial, communal, and social delights, to be good (or “good enough,” as Lachs likes to say) and to be happy. How to do it, and how to allow others the respectful autonomy to do it too, is a conversation for all ages.

Donald Hall’s window

January 21, 2012

Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets, a former poet laureate, a Red Sox fan (and author of “The Baseball Players” and “Baseball and the Meaning of Life“) , and a feature subject in the current New Yorker (which I’ve finally caught up with). He’s now old and alone (his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon left us several years ago) and infirm, no longer writing poetry but still loving life. The view from his window is a reminder to us all that we’re damned lucky to be here, and should not waste a breath on despair.

Jennifer Hecht has also read Hall’s essay and commented on it.

Did you read the piece by Donald Hall in the New Yorker this week? It is an essay on looking out the window, old, and between pages on birds and snow he reports on his life with a phrase for each decade, his thirties bad, his forties forgotten because he was drunk, fifties a good total change of life. Each brings so many questions none of which he there answers. We’re in the middle of so many adventures. Life, I’ve long said, is a decent book with a terrible pacing problem.

The pacing gets too slow in January, she’s saying. April is not the cruelest month. How could a St. Louisan like T.S. Eliot say such a ridiculous thing? Oh, yeah – he’s one of the two from my hometown- the other was a student last Fall- I’ve encountered who did not care about the Cards. He was a convert to Catholicism and not to the Church of Baseball, aka “religion without the mischief.”

I think Mr. Hall shares George Santayana’s perspective on the seasons, as expressed in The Life of Reason: we should enjoy each in turn, and not allow ourselves to be hopelessly in love only with the Spring.

But I still can’t wait for April. Neither can Donald Hall.


October 19, 2010

My new favorite almost-centenarian, Ms. Tuttle, stretches and walks every morning. “That seems to be the secret.”

That, and her daily cocktail. “Moderation is a wonderful thing,” she says. “You’ve got to work, be cheerful and look for something fun to do. It’s a whole attitude.”

And I would add: sleep past dawn once in a while. At least during Fall Break.

transhumanist piety

August 11, 2010

The new scientific quest for immortality is secular, not religious? Maybe that was hasty.

Jaron Lanier says these new seekers (Kurzweil, de Grey et al) are religious, too, motivated by the same aversion to death that has always populated the pews. In this light, Singularity University is the transhumanist mother-church.  Its core message?

One day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening.

Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain. Yes, this sounds like many different science fiction movies. Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly. But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.

Well. If they’re talking about destruction– of humanity, individuality, subjectivity, personal consciousness– they can count me out.

But is that what they’re talking about? According to the Transhumanist Declaration, they

favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

Cryonics, eh? That raises a red flag (with Red Sox and a “B”) for me.

But who could be against “wide personal choice”?

childhood’s end?

March 12, 2010

Revisited the old Arthur C. Clarke ’50s sci-fi classic Childhood’s End last night, and was again disappointed in his vision– did he intend it to be as bleak as it still seems to me?– of a post-corporeal, post-individual humanity swapping embodied selfhood for “higher” hive existence in some vast impersonal “Overmind.”

This time it put me in mind of Ray Kurzweil‘s techno-utopian intimations of immortality. And, of Rebecca Goldstein‘s slant thereon:

“You mean just backing up our software, and throwing away this beautiful hardware platform we call my body? Are you kidding? I don’t want to look into the mirror and see a rectangular screen… Give me my body or give me death!”


August 4, 2009

“No coffee this morning!” That’s the annoying note I left last night by the coffee pot, to check the habitual ritual of  my somnolent pre-dawn self. I greet the world today not with my beverage of choice but with yet another jug of Gatorade and Miralax, the choice elixir of the medical diagnosticians who also imposed upon me the fast that went on all day yesterday and will continue ’til mid-afternoon. Nothing human is alien to me, but being deprived of caffeine will soon have me feeling alien enough. Ah, the cost of vigilance in superintending one’s middle years.

I thought there was no place more humanizing, in the sense of reminding a human of his animality, than the dentist’s chair. But I’ll bet the colonoscopy couch will top it. I wish Montaigne had had an opportunity to write about it. I probably won’t.


July 21, 2009

40 years is long when it’s not spent well. 90+ is short, when it is. Or 78. Walter, once more:

“In journalism, we recognize a kind of hierarchy of fame among the famous. We measure it in two ways: by the length of an obituary and by how far in advance it is prepared. The news services and some newspapers and TV networks often have standing libraries of some obituaries. The subjects are usually older, and often ailing.”

Frank McCourt‘s obit was probably not in the can, though apparently he’d been ailing for awhile. He was a wonderful writer, but did not allow himself to discover that until relatively late in life when Angela’s Ashes was hugely successful. It was published in 1996, when he was already 66 years old.  Student testimonials suggest that he may have been an even better teacher than writer, so maybe I shouldn’t feel bad for him that he didn’t write that memoir decades earlier and get himself out of the New York public school system. But I’ll bet he wishes he had.

Regrets or not, he (like Walter) exuded a serene comfort in his own skin and an at-homeness in the world. Was it native or acquired?

“Frank’s serenity may have come from the fact he’s surrounded by and had lived through so much that would be upsetting to serenity. There was a willful calm and happiness. I think people can decide to be happy.”

We can at least decide to try.

as old as you feel

July 19, 2009

How to spend a beautiful Saturday in  July when the high tops out in the mid-70s:

Load up the bikes and the family (all who aren’t in Ohio), head to Shelby bottoms, ride ’til lunchtime. Discover that Rosepepper Cantina is just five minutes away, go there and dine alfresco. Go home, find $40 coupon in the mail, run and pick up the digital converter box, plug it in (in the Little House)  and watch a couple innings of the Game of the Week. Head to the hammock, stay there with the new “Moonstruck” issue of Time and T.C. Boyle’s The Women, ’til the sun goes down. Head inside, eat some cheesecake, watch “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (the film transcends Fitzgerald’s story)… and ponder, then dream of, its  message: nothing lasts. It’s never too late to make a new start. Or have a happy childhood.

That was a fine day, I’ll take another. 

honest feeling and care

July 10, 2009

honest feeling and care

John Updike said all he ever tried to do in his books was give the mundane its beautiful due… to craft models of how to use the language, of honest feeling, of care.

CBS Sunday Morning ran this brief tribute in February.

Updike told Charles McGrath and a Times Talks audience,  just three months before his death, that he was cheered by the thought of being read by posterity, a prospect “soothing to the anxious ego fearful of extinction.” His last novel was a meditation on aging, his and ours and his witches and widows of Eastwick. He promised no sequels.

“You need to have a sense, as a writer, of an ending as well as a beginning.”

Something always escapes

June 26, 2009

That’s probably enough said in this forum about Updike and Williams, ‘least for now. If you’ve not read the former, get started and maybe you can catch up in a month of Sundays or so. (In fact, start with A Month of Sundays or The Centaur if you’re looking for something to take to the beach or the mountains.) There’s plenty to read about Teddy Ballgame too, beyond Updike’s little New Yorker gem. Best bio is Leigh Montville’s, including a very smart parallel  account of “Hub Fans” alongside a more conventional sportswriter’s account of Williams’ last game by Ed Linn. I still wouldn’t call him, or any athlete (save maybe Jackie Robinson) “heroic”. But Williams came  as close to personifying Platonic perfection with respect to willed mastery of  a single difficult skill as, well, as a person can. Updike’s genius was intellectual and creative and and versatile and  various, hence more impressive to me. Heroic even, especially at the end when Updike very deliberately witnessed, transmuted, and shared his very own final days. (Williams’ end was distrurbingly, perversely unheroic. “Refrigerated,” as Montville has it.) But I prefer to draw illuminating and not invidious comparisons, so let it be.

On to my next obsessive working concern: William James’s A Pluralistic Universe. Howard Callaway has given us a new reading of that 1909 pragmatic classic.  My “crowds” post foreshadowed this theme, and how our various inner lives can converge to create shared meanings and rituals and public displays. When they do not converge, we sometimes find one another opaque and incredible. Consider Callaway’s opening epigraph:

“As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.”  -James, “Will to Believe” (1896) This isn’t quite what a wag meant by: “Disregard all facts in conflict with your favorite theories.” But it may be too close for pragmatic comfort.

Another epigraph, drawn from A Pluralistic Universe itself, notes that “something always escapes” from every theory, every system, every account of things. Something , somewhere, somehow will always evade our best efforts to impose ultimate order and tidy, predictable, rational unity. Pluralists are happy about this. An open universe invites and promises adventure, for those who go to meet it.

Ask Carl Fredricksen.

carl fredrickson