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Wasted on the Young

Somewhere there’s a rocking chair with my name on it.

I picture it on a wide porch, pulled close to the railing so I can kick my feet up—assuming I’m still that limber. There’s probably a newspaper discarded on the floor, though the only section that has received a thorough going-over is the one containing the crossword puzzle. There’s a hardcover book, with a ribbon marking a midway page, pinning the paper in place; even so, the free edges beat an intermittent drumlike roll in the light wind coming up from the lake. (Or the river? The sea would be nice, but it’s a long shot, admittedly.) The book’s a veritable doorstop, a history, maybe, something with sweep and scope and bold error. Like Thucydides or Spengler or Wells. In this vision, I’m paying only about as much attention to it as is the snoring, drooling dog (a big, dumb, gentle breed) dreaming beside the chair.

There are kids nearby, on the lawn, in the trees or at the shore. They’re squealing and shrieking and generally freaking out. Occasionally, one of them comes up to show me, I don’t know, some fascinating nothing-much, a clod of dirt with a weird fringe of weed, or a bent and rusted spoon presented like a holy relic. These kids are tended to and shepherded by older-but-still youthful people, whom I watch with pride and awe as they expertly wipe the noses scampering past and deftly defuse tantrums with magic phrases and the laying on of hands—as I once did for them.

Some of you will identify this as a pretty tepid fantasy. The imagery is more mail-order catalog than cable-network hit, certainly. That’s alright, I can live with that. I don’t mind if you mildly deride the vision as a bland, General Foods’ International Coffee kind of daydream. What I would mind is if you, as someone recently did, tell me that you don’t believe me.

“No one looks forward to getting old,” he said flatly.

QED, apparently.

But I do. And not just in the “it beats the alternative” kind of way.

“No, you don’t. No one does.”

Dude, I’m telling you: Yes. I. Do.

He wasn’t having it. And neither were the other folks involved in the conversation. They, all three, were in agreement that aging—and the implication, for them, of infirmity, docility, disengagement and, I suppose, eventual death—was something to be, if not dreaded, denied. How then, I wondered, do you daydream at all? Only in retrospect? Only nostalgically?

How defeatist.

Honestly, I’m not looking forward to prostate cancer. Or arthritis, or senility or the utter depletion of fossil fuels and the ensuing economic and social turmoil, or whatever. I’ll give them that. But, to quote Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards. But it must be lived forward.” It’s important to note that this is not necessarily a pessimistic dictum.

The future is scary, and it’s a drag to entertain notions of your own mortality, it really is. That’s just the way we’re wired, for survival. But, c’mon, get over it. You’re gonna die. We’ve already been over this. On the way, though, you might just pick up something more interesting than the Kohl-rimmed hottie with the flask in her boot. Understanding, say. Wisdom. Maybe peace before you die.

I think it’s a fair exchange. “I took one draught of life” . . . and all that. It sounds like a good deal to me.

But not as good to my friends, who found my thoughts on the subject morbid, shot through as they were with the inevitability of death. They were more interested in youth as the stuff of fantasy—their own youth. The strange thing is that none of them are yet old; still though, they were more comfortable in rewind. This, I couldn’t buy. It was my turn to refute.

“Bullshit,” I protested. “I think you’re using only selective memory. You’re only remembering the good stuff of your youth, which at the time was probably mostly miserable and confusing. You’re attaching meaning and perspective after the fact. Would you trade one year of your future for one specific year of your past, exactly as it was lived and with exactly the same feelings and no increase of wisdom? Would you gamble away that year in the future?”

And then we got in a really stupid and unproductive argument about the mechanics of time travel.

But I still think I asked a pretty good question. To which the answer, for me, is perfectly clear: No. Not no, but hell no. No freaking way. Ab-so-goddamn-lutely not. I’ve got fond memories of my life to date, of course. I find my past—and my past selves—amusing. Hell, I write a column all about my own thoughts, and in the first person—I’ve got my fair share of self-absorption. But would I trade so much as a minute of my unknown future for one I’ve already lived? That stuff’s already been bought and paid for, so to speak. It’s mine already. Why pay that price again? That kind of nostalgia’s a scam, it seems to me. I’ve already been that idiot. I want to get to be a different idiot.

Because what if that minute, the one you traded away for the sake of a revisited pleasure, a rerun, is the one in which it all starts to make sense? Or, to be slightly less starry-eyed, the one in which some vital clue is dropped?

Maybe I’ll never get that clue, or maybe I’ll misinterpret it. Maybe my peaceful vision is some sort of L.L. Bean delusion. Maybe that one minute I’m banking on will, in fact, prove to be dull or painful.


But I already know the content of the previous minutes.

And I know that none of them, so far, has had the right rocking chair on the right porch.

—John Rodat

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