March 07, 2015
The secret of eternal youth, according to Alice Longworth Roosevelt, is arrested development, and the penny dropped last week. The mountains were misty, snow was falling, and I went to the dojo for some karate training. I was sparring with a tough, fifth degree black belt instructor, Roland, and kept nailing him, something I hadn’t been able to do previously. That’s when it dawned on me. Respecting my advanced age, he was taking a dive.
“If you don’t stop this crap, I’ll beat the crap out of you,” I threatened. He didn’t, nor did I. We ended up laughing and doing kata instead. I felt great after 45 minutes of punching and kicking, but what a bore old age is. The last time somebody pulled his punches on me, I was a white belt and it was 50 years ago. And I can see it now, being escorted across the street like some old ladies are when they’re not being mugged.
Never mind. The heartlessness of youth, the selfishness and cluelessness, are zero compared to creaky old age. They say that wisdom comes with age, but does it? Karajan was greater when his hair was pitch black, as was Mitropoulos when he still had hair. (I was happy to read in the Telegraph that the Greek was included among the five greatest, the others being Furtwängler, Karajan, Klemperer, and Kleiber.)
Both Alexander the Great and Napoleon erred late rather than early on, but it was Plato speaking for Socrates who nailed it best in the Republic. He’s great on sex, although the word is never mentioned. This is Cephalus talking to Socrates about old age: “I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.” Well, maybe Cephalus felt like that, but I sure don’t, nor does Jack Nicholson, who announced five years ago that he was through with chasing pussy but has kept on chasing, maybe not as desperately as before, but the hunt is always on.
Cicero recycled Plato without attribution, but what the hell, the Romans always copied us Greeks, so what else is new? (And they will again in the near future, when Italy turns into the basket case that is modern Hellas.) Character is very important in old age, according to Cicero, and I agree with the old wop; he also mentions happiness from within. (Happiness from within until now meant going to bed alone and finding Ava Gardner in it.) Basically, old age is not for sissies, and those who complain about it nonstop are silly people and very boring. Yeats was muscle-bound and a would-be hero, but a bit strange about old age. To make up for it, he wished to collect mechanical songbirds that a Byzantine emperor once possessed. (I’d rather have a cutout of Betty Grable in a bathing suit circa 1945.)
Philip Larkin, who never reached old age, is very depressing and bleak about it. Senility in an old people’s home is so depressing I needed a stiff drink and some soft porn immediately following. But enough about a subject that only old people can take seriously. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature about a fisherman who was old and powerless against nature. I’ve read quite a lot about Papa’s last years, and he never felt sorry for himself. He was cantankerous and weary at times, but never passive or accepting of fools. That’s what I liked about him, and come to think about it, my old man was also like that at the end. Fear of death should make one defiant, not cooperative, but it’s usually the other way round. Moral exhortations to rise above the humiliations of old age are hooey, but they can provide a good living for those who make them, especially in America.
I know this is hard to believe, but a great Olympian decathlete champion, Bruce Jenner, gold medalist in 1976, has just become a woman. He is the stepfather of the Kardashian tarts, which perhaps explains it. Mind you, I wouldn’t change sex, but commit suicide instead, had I the ghastly luck to be the stepfather of those grotesques.