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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Road to Dotage 2: or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Down the Shore
By Tom Phillips

The road to dotage turns out to be strewn with rocks and boulders.  Why should it be different from any other phase of life?   In June, I was in a “continuum of wonder, free from anxiety or regret” to quote my last blog.  But after a month of summer vacation, I returned to find my house infested with a widely dreaded type of bug, and my mind infected with anxiety, regret, anger, bitterness and despair.  After weeks of nearly constant interaction with children, grandchildren, friends and strangers, almost all of them younger, I perceived myself as decrepit, discounted, rejected, ignored, used, used up, useless.   Don’t get me wrong.  I had fun, I relaxed (see photo) it was good to see everyone.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel the erosion of my place in the world. 

It doesn’t matter who you were in the past.   A few years ago my older cousin Dickson, a retired federal judge and by far the most distinguished member of our family, took a bunch of us out to lunch after a family reunion.  The waiter brought everyone’s order, except Dick’s.  Is this what happens when you get old? I asked.  He chuckled.  Yes, you just fade into the woodwork.   

Donald Hall, the one-time poet laureate of the United States, recently wrote about a Christmas party where some young people pulled their chairs in front of him into a conversational circle.  He was left with a good view of their backs.   Someone else might have moved his seat, but Hall chose instead to contemplate his irrelevancy.   No one noticed.  

William Butler Yeats was a champion contemplator of his irrelevancy: 

“That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
---Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect..”

I’m no monument, more of a ruin.  At the shore, I listened to one of my daughters trash some ideas I had visited upon her as a child.  “You used to dismiss global warming!”    I don’t remember going that far, but the point is that all my wisdom is now suspect, my once-imposing credibility shot.  Of course, this is a good thing.  Grown children have to distinguish between the sound and unsound opinions they heard from their parents.   But who cares for the devalued sage?    

Yeats and Hall, distinguished poets, had the answer for the world’s neglect:  you write your way back into their consciousness.  Hall got revenge on his boorish young relatives by embarrassing them in The New Yorker.  Yeats was more expansive; he confounded the world by turning out his greatest masterpieces in his dotage:  

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress..

As you may guess, this blog is no more than my attempt to write my way back into the world’s consciousness, or at least that of my family and friends.   I lack the poetic talent to imitate Donald Hall, much less W.B. Yeats.  So my role model is the humble inventor of the essay, the world’s first blogger, Michel de Montaigne.   

Instead of trying to keep up with the world, he retired into solitude in his forties, (the equivalent of today’s 60s) and began writing what he had experienced of himself and the world.  Montaigne is still a pleasure to read, partly because he is so learned and insightful, but even more because he is honest.  It’s rare to see any kind of a confession from someone who isn’t trying to polish his image, or to make himself more important, more consistent and effective than he ever was.   

Sometimes I am embarrassed because this blog has been all over the place – starting with political protest, veering into art criticism, lately musing on the delights of growing old, now complaining about its pains and deprivations.  I feel I should be more consistent.   Montaigne knew better:  

“I cannot fix my subject.  He is always restless, and reels with a natural intoxication…   I do not portray his being; I portray his passage; not a passage from one age to another… but from day to day, from minute to minute.  I must suit my story to the hour, for soon I may change, not only by chance but also by intention.  It is a record of various and variable occurrences, an account of thoughts that are unsettled and at times contradictory, either because I am then another self, or because I approach my subject under different circumstances and with other considerations.  Hence it is that I may well contradict myself, but the truth I do not contradict.  If my mind could find a firm footing, I should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions; it is, however, always in its apprenticeship and on trial.”   

In 1584, Montaigne had to interrupt his writing to pack up his household and flee an outbreak of bubonic plague in France.   The flight was a long-running nightmare, as he describes it:   “..a family astray, alarming to their friends and to themselves, and spreading horror wherever they tried to settle.  They had to change their abode as soon as any one of them began to feel so much as an ache in one finger-tip.  Then every ailment is taken for the plague; no one gives himself time to investigate it.  And the best of the joke is that, according to the rules of the profession, every time you go near any danger you have to spend forty days worrying about the disease, with your imagination working on you in its own way all the time, and making even your health into a fever.”   

Still, Montaigne was able to endure and even learn from this ordeal, protected he says by his own antidotes, i.e. resolution and endurance, and by the example of the common people, who greeted death with calm fortitude:   “all unconcernedly  prepared themselves for a death which they expected that night or on the morrow;  there was so little fear in their expressions or their voices that they seemed to have resigned themselves to a necessity, and to regard it as a universal and inevitable doom…”   

This summer, I had to interrupt my writing to deal with a present-day pestilence.  Bedbugs are nothing compared to the fleas that carry the plague, but given the advanced state of our civilization, they seem to inspire the same kind of panic today.   So it has been a long-running nightmare ever since we arrived home from vacation to find bedbugs crawling up the wall of our guest room.   Like Montaigne’s family, we became a horror to ourselves and our neighbors.  We called in the best exterminators we could find, but even after that, freaked out at anything that looked like a bug bite, and stared aghast at our most familiar possessions, convinced they were contaminated, cursed.   We became refugees in our own home, sleepless, afraid of the furniture.   

I want my dotage back! I wailed in the middle of this nightmare.  Unlike Montaigne or the French peasantry, I have little in the way of resolution, endurance, or fortitude.   But even I can learn from such an ordeal.   For starters, I learned that “the delights of growing old” are the most fragile of pleasures.   No one is entitled to a “continuum of wonder,” and if you happen to find yourself in such a state, enjoy it as long as it lasts, because there is a 100% chance of trouble ahead.   Old age comes in a package with suffering and death.   

Still, I hope for the return of my dotage, and will be intensely grateful for every moment of it.   It’s not an achievement or an entitlement, it’s a gift.  You should live so long to enjoy it.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips