Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Becoming an Octogenarian

On October 29, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” the U. S. Stock Market crashed… and I was born. I have never allowed my sometimes runaway ego to actually relate these two monumental events. But here I am now, eighty years later, another octogenarian, and it is quite possible the Stock Market could do it again. Things change, but stay the same.

If anyone asks me how to live to be eighty I tell them to live an exemplary life, completely free of sin and decadence, mind your mother, eat well, get lots of sleep and do everything in moderation…You there, I see you laughing, and that other guy smirking…I didn’t say this is how I, personally, managed to become eighty. Frankly, I have no idea how I managed to live so long, especially as during much of my life I was terribly self-destructive. You could say medical science has had much to do with it, as they have sometimes patched me up and also slowly turned me more and more into a cyborg. When I was a teen-ager I thought anyone would be lucky to live to be thirty-five. When I was 35 I figured maybe 50, then after that 65, but I never anticipated being 80…never… until yesterday. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the longer I have lived, the more the goal posts have changed. There are now, I estimate, probably at least 100,000 centenarians in the U.S., so I guess at best, by those standards, I am really just a young old man, or perhaps middle-aged.

But, depending upon how you look at it, eighty is pretty old. Naturally I remember (not always with nostalgia) many things from what does seem like a very long time ago. I remember when there was no Airline travel and no television. We listened to Amos and Andy and Jack Benny on the radio. I remember as a boy we had no refrigerator, only an old-fashioned ice box, and the iceman carried the 20 or 25 pound block up our back stairs once a week. Milk was delivered in bottles to our back porch, and during the winter it would expand, lifting the cardboard lids an inch or two in the air. Our only source for both heat and cooking was a wood stove in the kitchen and we had no telephone until I was in my teens. On the family farm in Post Falls we still farmed with horses until WW II, and I remember driving a team to rake the hay, and a horse-drawn stone boat to pick stones out of the fields. We had no hay bailer and pitched hay up into a horse-drawn wagon and then into the barn. People still darned their own socks, butchers gave away dog bones and even liver, and there were no supermarkets. Most every town had its own brewery. We used metal roller skates that you screwed onto your shoes with a key you hung around your neck and we swam only in the lakes and rivers. People wrote their manuscripts by hand, typewriters were not common, electric typewriters not yet invented, computers not even conceived. During the “Good War” there was rationing of gasoline, shoes, butter, meat, and I don’t remember what else, and we collected tinfoil, grease, and newspapers for the war effort. It was a time when men still tipped their hats to ladies, and perhaps even more shocking, there actually were “ladies.” I cannot deny thinking those were good times. Perhaps I was just too young to have become cynical. But I think I would argue even now that in general things really were better in those halcyon days than they are at present. Although I cannot explain it, it seems to me everything began to change for the worse with the atomic bomb.

For a long time, through my studies of anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, history, sociology, and diverse other subjects, I believed it would be possible to not only understand human behavior but perhaps be possible to change it for the better. I no longer think so. My eighty years of existence have revealed to me there is a dark and perverse side of human nature we do not understand that is apparently impervious to change and unpredictable in the extreme. While we have words for our behavior: envy, hate, sloth, gluttony, lust, greed, jealously, and so on, these are merely descriptions with no useful explanatory value. How do you explain a human history of virtually unremitting war, murder, arson, rape, torture, misery, and plunder, a history of the most unbelievable acts of savagery even by those societies who have claimed to be the most “civilized?” Man’s in humanity to man continues unabated, only the means of causing such misery change over time. If there is a “missing link” in human evolution it is not some mysterious skeletal intermediate form midway between man and non-man, but, rather, some basic element that would allow us to live in peace and harmony with our fellows. It is unlikely that such an element ever existed in our evolutionary past, far more likely it has just never developed at all.

So… now I am pretty old, pretty cynical, not likely to change, and certainly not going to get any younger. Many of my classmates and friends are now gone, although a few are still alive, in conditions ranging from horrible to not so bad. One is still alive after suffering two devastating strokes, another is still alive hospitalized with severe Parkinson’s, several have wives that have recently died, and one has just entered a Nursing Home he terms the “Penultimate Arms.” Still another keeps going, although he has more health problems than you can count. He keeps reminding me that “we all just remain infants, but in increasingly decaying bodies.” I think he is right, although some of us are lucky to decay much slower than others. I am one of the lucky ones, a situation I accept with much gratitude from the “Great Mystery.” Perhaps if my luck continues I will someday join that cohort of centenarians who, after being broken down by age and sex, and carefully studied, might actually give us a useful clue to longevity.

Would I do the same things if I had it to do over again? No way, and I suspect people who say they would do so, did not really "live." Do I have any regrets? Yes, many, but mostly, and most personally, I regret not having been able to be a father before I became a son.


Bubblehead said...

Happy (belated) Birthday!

Wordsmith said...

I regret not having been able to be a father before I became a son.

Yes...true that - although I'd just substitute father/son for mother/daughter.

I'm still surprised I'm alive at 50, so I'll probably be almost giddy when I hit 80. Congratulations on getting to the 4/5 mark.