on the Young
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
one looks forward to getting old,” he said flatly.
But I do. And not just in the “it beats the alternative” kind
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?
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.
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.