“There are downsides, of course, to caring about the wrong things or caring too much about the right things, not to mention getting pissed off at other’s lack of caring.”
W hat do Chekhov, Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, and Thoreau have in common? Great writers, yes, and with all their greatness achieved despite early and untimely deaths at 44 (my age). The mismatched trio of Billie Holiday, Jackson Pollack, and Baruch Spinoza also belong on my Dead At Your Age list, and then, of course, there are those who died younger: the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats; the 27 Club; Jesus.
I’ve been sending obits SchoolLess’s way lately, thinking them a damn fine way to learn about the world. Check out Mike Wallace, Dick Clark and Chuck Colson; Pete Fornatele and Levon Helm; Hillman Curtis and Mark Lane (also 44, he was to be one of SchoolLess’s baseball coaches); Dwayne Schintzius and Moose Skowron; Samuel Glazer and Murray Lender.
A few months before he expectedly died, John Updike suggested in an interview that “we are all failed youths.” His point was not that we are failures but that we are confused about young and old. We valorize youth, at least in retrospect, but also, paradoxically, diminish it: “young people today.” We overvalue possibility in the young, as if we don’t understand probability, though this misunderstanding may well serve an evolutionary purpose. And we undervalue the wisdom that accrues with experience, a less justifiable miscalculation, one I suspect Darwin would encourage us to correct.
A friend recently gave up on poetry after years of trying, and failing, “to get it”. Only now, approaching fifty, was he able to understand that his lukewarm feelings about verse need not contradict his sense of himself as a man driven by intellectual curiosity. We should all grant ourselves the serenity to accept the things we cannot change about ourselves. I, after years of bungling, have recently added home repairs to my stop doing list. Now, unless Skeptic wants to give it her best shot (she’s got more skills and a better attitude than I do), we call Handyman Paul, who does a job well and for reasonable cost, no fuss or frustration.
Knowing when discretion is the better part of valor and when it’s a cop out is the kind of wisdom Updike is talking about.
The rabbi who prepared SchoolLess for his bar mitzvah shared an anecdote from the bimah. SchoolLess had pitched in a baseball game and, with little support in the field or at the bat, they had lost again. SchoolLess bemoaned not so much the loss but the lack of seriousness of his teammates.
“They don’t care,” he said. “It pisses me off.”
The rabbi inclined—by disposition, training, or both—toward giving the benefit of the doubt and easing burdens offered SchoolLess some alternate ways of thinking about the matter: the other kids were trying their best; he should focus on feeling good about his own personal success; maybe carelessness is normal for boys of a certain age. SchoolLess was unmoved by this exegesis and responded, “But I want to care,” which the rabbi agreed was also reasonable, and character defining to boot.
There are downsides, of course to caring about the wrong things or caring too much about the right things, not to mention getting pissed off at others’ lack of caring. Greater emotional investment leads to greater disappointment. And consider emotional resources—likewise financial and natural ones—unlimited at your peril.
As I’ve grown older, I tend to root less for than against. I root for the Celtics to win the NBA championship but root harder for Lebron not to; the joy of a Red Sox victory is no match for the pain of a defeat; Duke getting upset in the NCAA tournament is pure pleasure indeed.
I am less sanguine about my mixed feelings—maybe you have these too—about the good news of others: this one scored a reservation at Momofuku, that one’s kid got into Saint Ann’s, this one published another book, that one got a promotion.
Studies have shown that for the same price the majority of people would choose to buy a small house on a street of shacks rather than a big house on street of mansions. Relativity trumps rationality. It’s not about comfort or success or happiness, it’s about relative comfort or success or happiness. I’ll enjoy my London broil more if my neighbor is munching on a Steak-umm than if he’s feasting on Kobe beef.
I obsess with what isn’t. SchoolLess and I haven’t had enough of what a friend used to call “soda pop days,” times when we allow ourselves to forgo responsibility—etudes on the clarinet, quadratic equations, organizing the orange room, papers always papers—and indulge in an afternoon movie or enjoy a ping pong marathon while blasting the Bee Gees, a guilty pleasure we share. We haven’t explored the eternal golden braid of Gödel, Escher, Bach or read The Iliad; we haven’t baked bread or studied it.
Earlier this week, SchoolLess and I discussed things we wanted to do before home school ends in June. I want more cooking (his recent shakshuka was fantastic), more Kafka, more New Humanities papers, a day to play tourist. SchoolLess wants a “final project”—we settled on a graphic short story, “The Adventures of SchoolLess”—more fiction writing, more baseball in the park, and time to watch and discuss a season of a TV comedy. I suggested “The Honeymooners” or “All in the Family”, while SchoolLess predictably pushed for “Arrested Development.”
My father recently turned 68, “a real age.” He has now lived more than ten years longer than his father, my Papa Saul (major coronary). With that family legacy in mind, I’m guessing that twenty years ago, at 48 and in the wake of his own coronary incident, my father would have agreed to take 68 and call it a life.
What age would you take?
I don’t mean to be morbid. The statistics are, actually, somewhat reassuring: my father has a 98 percent chance of surviving the next 12 months and can expect, on average, to live another 15 years. I’m 99.7 percent good to go for the coming year, with another 34 years—again, we’re talking probabilities—to look forward to. My father, I’m pretty sure, would take the 15 in a heartbeat. Handicapped but not disabled by thoughts of death—the swelled neck, the aneurismal bubble, the distracted driver (it could be me!), the telling tremor—I’m cautiously optimistic, I’ll roll the dice, that I can do better than 34.
My circumspection on this matter belies my behavior. Skeptic and I are without wills (the legal kind) and we give more thought to our next vacation than to planning for retirement. I am a mindless eater. I play basketball, of a sort, once a week but just can’t bring myself to work out.
How to find the balance between thinking every sunset on the beach, every catch in the park, every juicy burger might be your last and total obliviousness?
I am no longer at an age when anything is possible, which seems to me okay. Or am I using rhetoric to subvert and delude?
We have so much time, and so little to see. Wait a minute! Strike that! Reverse it.
When I’m 44 (wait, I am 44) I will take the time to count my blessings. I want more but I don’t need more.
Headline for the day: Humility Triumphs Over Hubris.
One of my Basic Writing students concluded his recent essay about his journey from boy in Haiti to man in America thusly: “But stop a moment, catch air, wash your face, and realize that self-punishment and flogging, the pain of infinite loss and sorrow, are not the best ways, possibly the opposite.” Not sure I can say it better myself.
In line with Gandhi’s contention that “we must be the change we want to see in the world,” we may be better off spending less time assessing every action (not to mention inaction and reaction) and more time concerned with how we be.
As I embraced my father on Sunday afternoon after a quiet birthday celebration, I imagined myself in his position years from now. My father didn’t change the world in the ways he once dreamed but he did change the world. He has lived a meaningful life.
And meaning is exactly what I’m searching for, my life a work in progress. I may be a failed youth but failure, too, is relative. What matters most now is that Skeptic and I are doing our best, together, to raise two wise men.
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