Retirement as Utopia/ Life as a Game

Residing in a household where there are diverse reading preferences, I sometimes find myself catching enthusiasm for a book I would have never come across on my own.  Thus it was that I picked up The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard SuitsIt is a book of philosophy – a very strange book of philosophy – wherein the speaker is, surprisingly, Aesop’s grasshopper (from “The Ant and the Grasshopper”).  Now, Aesop’s moral was that we should work hard like the ant to prepare for winter and not play around all summer like the grasshopper.  Suits’s Grasshopper, however, thinks that play is the thing – or, specifically, games are the thing.  And Suits spends much of the book on proofs and definitions concerning games, all of which are more interesting than you might think, though not the parts that fascinate me the most.

What I am most interested in is Suits’s chapter on utopia (as he defines it).  What would we do in a world where all our needs are met?  Basic physical requirements met, no need to earn a living, no need to prove ourselves?  Here is what Suits says:

For I suspect that playing (genuine) games is precisely what economically and psychologically autonomous individuals [read adequately housed, fed, and medicated without working] would find themselves doing, and perhaps the only things they would find themselves doing.  (165)

Now, the Grasshopper admits that people might do things like chop down trees or till gardens for the “fun of it,” but claims that our relationship to those things would change.  They would become games or play, and we would be happier for it.

Bear with me.  If a sufficiently funded retirement (and I mean sufficient to cover the basic costs of life sustenance, and not necessarily six cruises a year) can be thought of as a kind of utopia, what would it mean to think of our lives in terms of games, in terms of play?  Believe it or not, I think this is a serious question.  Would you be happier if you didn’t take life so seriously?  I’m talking about the day-to-day stuff here; this is not an argument for trivializing climate change or anarchy.

When we “play” games, we win and lose and still look forward to the next game.  It is not the end of the world if my husband beats me at gin rummy or a grandchild beats me at the very first level of a video game (as grandchildren always do).  I accept the terms of the game, including the fact that I might not win, and still enjoy playing it.

Camus said that the fundamental question in the face of life’s (seeming) absurdity was whether to commit suicide.  And once we decide to live (and he assures us that is what we should decide), we must somehow create meaning in a (seemingly) meaningless or absurd life.  Isn’t this what we do with games, with play – create some kind of pleasure and meaning from defining the terms under which we will play and then viewing the game in a positive manner?  Mightn’t life be easier if we could think of it as some kind of game?

When I was working, I always regretted that I could not take my work life less seriously – I could have worked longer and enjoyed it more.  But in work, one is less able to define one’s own rules, decide which games to play.  I have more latitude now, but am not sure that I am really taking advantage of it.

Now I am aware that while all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, the reverse is also true.  That is why it is not just play, I am talking about, but games, where there is the pleasure of striving, but perhaps in a more joyful sense.  Think about playing a board game with friends.  You know it is not serious, but you lose yourself in the play of the game within the limits of the rules.  You don’t consider cheating to win; you don’t stay up at night over misplayed cards (unless you are a championship bridge player) or think you are a better person because you won.  You take the game as it comes and do your best and enjoy the experience.

The theologian John Dominic Crossan says that games are like life in that they have limits.  In life we have all kinds of limits – death being the major one:

I would suggest… that game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death….  It is the joy of finitude and the laughter of limitation…. Game teaches us to enjoy the limitation posed by the game itself.  To destroy the limitation is to destroy the game.  Imagine baseball with as many balls as the pitcher wanted and as many strikes as the batter chose. (5)  The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story

The laughter of limitation.  I am reminded of Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, who says that “cheerfulness is always good and can never be excessive.”  Cheerfulness comes from joy and brings joy.  And looking at life as play would seem to be a joyful exercise.

The other interesting exercise that The Grasshopper stimulates is that of thinking about what exactly utopia would look like for us?  In his book, Suits somehow assumes that the government would be straightened out in utopia (which should be enough to worry us about his hold on reality, but he is – one must acknowledge – Canadian and that might make a difference).  What would utopia in what’s left of our lives look like?  What would constitute the best life we could live?  Old folks have lived a long time; we should have some idea of what makes life… joyful.  Suits says utopia  would be people playing games.  I do not entirely agree (after all the grasshopper dies because he has not prepared for the winter), but I think if I could see life as more game-like, I might be happier.

Rituals are one of the games I play in my old age; I create “rules” within which to live my life in such a way to meet at least some of my goals.  You might look at my short story, “Ritual,” to see one example of ways in which structure can add to life and what happens when it is interrupted.

New Year’s Resolutions in Old Age

The title of my blog site (When I Come to be Old) comes from a list of Jonathan Swift’s resolutions, made when he was a young adult, about how he was determined to act (or more specifically not to act) when he was old.  His list is worth reviewing by us seniors, just to see how the younger set may perceive us (no comfort there).  This new year, however, I am more interested in thinking about what kind of resolutions old folks should make about themselves?

What kinds of resolutions should old people make?  If you do a search on the web, most of what you will find are suggestions to improve your mental or physical health: take up crosswords, walk at least a mile a day, eat more vegetables.  Yes, of course.  These are common sense maintenance items, and we all are fully aware that learning a foreign language will work our brain harder than watching Brit Box.  I surely make such resolutions, but they usually (in my case) take the form of the negative.  No more than an hour of TV per day, no dessert unless I have walked three miles that day, no more than one restaurant meal a week – and so on.  Games we play with ourselves which (hopefully) make us a little healthier without undue deprivation.

On my doctor’s suggestion upon my query about any possibility of avoiding my mother’s dementia, I have gone back to French. (I once knew enough to pass a translation exam for a graduate degree, but those brain cells seem to have disappeared.) I am using Duolingo and pledged myself to a modest fifteen minutes a day.  I don’t have to worry about reminders; Duo is a pest.  I also continually contrive and amend reading lists and rules (e.g., at least one literary work of fiction or nonfiction for every mystery novel).

But how about other hopes and goals other than those aimed at life extension?  There are at least a couple of other categories.  How about creative endeavors?  Not to be published or hung on our grandchildren’s walls, but for our own satisfaction in doing something which draws on our experience, something, perhaps, that we have always wanted to do.  Most of us know what that means for us – which could be anything from adventuresome cooking to bonsai gardening to a full-length novel.  Here, too, I have found it necessary to set concrete goals for an enterprise which is not concrete at all in its reason or its results.  When I first started to keep a journal over twenty years ago, my resolution was ten single-spaced pages per month – and if I put it off, I had to write all ten on the last day.  It never came to that – but since that time I have produced the minimum (usually far more).  Similarly, when I started a blog, it was with the determination to post a blog at least twice a month and a new story every six weeks.  I have succeeded, at least on the average.

But there are more personal ambitions to do with our states of mind – our souls, if you will.  One of my resolutions this year is to start going back and reviewing my journal from the beginning to see what I can learn about myself.  (See my blog, “Rules of One’s Own,” for the wonderful Marion Milner’s advice in this regard.)

And how about resolutions that have to do with the very fact that we are aging, facing changes we cannot (wholly at least) control, coming closer to the end, however we might define it?  “Do not go gentle into that good night” was a resolve, made not by an old man, but by a younger man (Dylan Thomas) on behalf of his dying father.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children making resolutions for me.  And I don’t want to spend my last years in a “burning and raging” against the “dying of the light.”

Kay Boyle was already old when she formulated her “Advice to the Old (Including Myself).” Boyle, like Swift, warns us about not dwelling on old times or regaling others with our aches or disappointments – but she ends with a challenge to battle despair:

Have no communion with despair; and, at the end,

Take the old fury in your empty arms, sever its veins,

And bear it fiercely, fiercely to the wild beast’s lair.

This is a different kind of battle – not against inevitable death and age, but against self-generated despair, not against the reality of existence but against an antagonistic attitude toward what isFor me, it is not so much a battle (who wants life to be a battle?) as a matter of – resolution.

Resolution is a word with many meanings; at the new year, we often mean it in the sense of “firmness of purpose.”  But it can also mean the “solution to a problem” (as in “the dentist resolved my toothache”) or the “degree of sharpness with which we can see something” (think of the resolution level of your monitor or TV).  All the senses of resolution are related: firmness of purpose is only of use if we can see sharply enough to define the issue we are trying to resolve, and know what action on our part will “resolve” it.

Old age is, in itself, not a problem.  Grief or despair about the changes that old age brings can be a problem and is worth resolving.   But before we can resolve it, we must examine and define it.  Yes, bad habits can come with age and these need to be guarded against (just ask Jonathan Swift), but that is true of all times of life.  And again, perhaps the real sin is to despair at the facts of existence. I spent my childhood wishing to be older; I spent much of my middle age looking forward to retirement.  I am trying hard not to miss the opportunity to enjoy and make the most of my old age.  My resolutions will be to understand my own nature and changes (read the old journals), learn (French and patience, although not necessarily in that order), and work toward some form of resolution with age, provisional though it may be.

For a fictionalized account of a different kind of resolution, you might try “Nothing New.

The Old King Brought the Gold

We are in a new year, and about to celebrate the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6.  The legend of the three kings who were guided by starlight to find yet a fourth king is well-celebrated in Christian literature and ritual, but maybe it has something to tell us about old age – then and now.

The only place the kings/magi are mentioned is in the Gospel of Matthew, and it doesn’t even specify how many there were: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” Matthew does tell us that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – so early Christians apparently extrapolated their number from this.  But the short note from the Gospel was far too simple a story for Christians, and soon the kings had names, domains, and camels.  They also had ages, and are often depicted as ranging from young to old as in this stained-glass window from the National Basilica:

Picture1

According to legend, the oldest king or magi was Melchior, King of Persia. The gold he brought was in accordance with the prophecy in Isaiah (Isaiah 60:6).  As I said, we sometimes forget that the nativity gospel – shepherds, kings, manger – only occurs in Matthew and Luke, and the magi only appear in Matthew.  We also (conveniently) forget that the story that Matthew tells makes the magi responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, because they warn Herod of the existence of a threatening child.  This episode is almost always left out of the retelling of the Christmas story.  Perhaps for the best.

The kings appear in various poems and stories, with one of the most famous being T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of Magi” which begins with these words:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Note that there are single quotes around this first section; in fact, they were lifted from a Nativity sermon that Lancelot Andrewes preached to King James in 1622. Andrewes was best known for translating the Bible into the lovely King James version published, in 1611.  He was specifically responsible for the first four books of the Bible (giving us the eloquent creation story in Elizabethan English), and generally oversaw the rest of that monumental project.  In 1622, when he preached the Nativity sermon quoted above, Andrewes was sixty-seven, an advanced age in those days, and assuredly feeling the “dead of winter.”  He jokes in the sermon that we do not have the faith of these Gentile kings, that we do not like the hard going in the cold weather: “Best get us a new Christmas in September,” he chides.  Living through the bruising temperatures of this past Christmas, I have sympathy.

Art and literature have made much of the three kings – there are many poems besides Eliot’s, including notable ones by Longfellow and Yeats.  Yeats makes all the kings old: “With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones.” Various books and stories have used the story in some way, most famously O. Henry’s “Gifts of the Magi.

The magi are much celebrated in Christmas pageants and on Epiphany, “Three Kings Day” being the time of gift-giving in many cultures. But I am most interested in the legends that assigned age and gifts to the magi.  If the legends were created now would the old king bring the gold? Would the oldest of us have been paired with the most valuable gift?

Eliot ends his poem thus, in the voice of one of the kings (we don’t know which one):

…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Sometimes I think all old people, in this youth culture of ours, feel like aliens among people who are “clutching” at gods or values we don’t recognize.

But come the kings did and legend gave them names, countries, and specific gifts. Matthew’s Greek text dubbed them magi, a word that denotes wisdom as well as authority.  The most ancient, Melchior, brought the gold, which was said to symbolize Christ’s kingship.  Was this gift purposefully assigned to the oldest of the three?  Frankincense was said to denote worship, myrrh was used in the preparation of dead bodies and foretold death.  Myrrh might have seemed to be the most appropriate for the oldest man.  But, no.  In an age when true elders were few and appreciated for accumulated knowledge, it was Melchior who endowed the symbol and mantle of kingship.

Lastly, we might remember that January 6 was also the date of the Capitol Insurrection.  Where were the wise men on that day of Epiphany?

I’m Dreaming of a Fifties Christmas

I’ve been thinking about technology (as is evident from my last blog), and I’ve been thinking about Christmas.  We have eight grandchildren, and Christmas wish lists abound with technology-related items.  For the younger children, Santa will bring lots of plastic gadgets which light up and make noise and require frequent battery changes. Santa’s helpers would do well to buy stock in Duracell.  For the older kids and adult children, the requests often involve gift cards so they can replenish their games (or whatever).  It all got me thinking about how Christmas has changed over my lifetime.  I found it a useful exercise to go back through the years (71 in my case) and try to remember what Christmas was like and how technology has affected it over the years.

My early Christmases were simple – in retrospect, we had few presents and little technology.  There were the lights on the tree and the impossible task of determining which bulb was causing the whole string to go out.  There were the amazing bubbling bulbs, and the cardboard villages with lights in each little house. (Why weren’t there more fires?) An old electric train chugged around the base of the Christmas tree. Presents were not complex or technical – dolls, sleds, cowboy outfits.  If the toy moved or played music, it was because you wound it up.  The highlight for me – up to the age of about eight, when we moved far enough away to end the tradition – was an extended family carol sing on Christmas Eve.  All the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at one of our homes, and people would take turns playing the piano while we sang every verse of all the carols, which were printed in little booklets that the banks gave out in those days.  No presents, lots of food, not much drinking (for the most part that was a tee-totaling crowd).  Pleasant memories though.  Christmas morning was exciting but not extravagant, and not shared with anyone but immediate family.

My first Christmas present that involved any technology at all was a wristwatch in my teen years – not too exciting.  But this was followed the next year by a transistor radio – a radio I could listen to all by myself.  It only got three stations but was a joy to keep under my pillow and listen to surreptitiously when my parents thought I was long asleep.  In a way, the transistor radio was a turning point.  It was personal technology, personal entertainment.  In an era when homes had only one TV (black and white in our case), one phone, one stereo, and one radio (in the kitchen), it enabled my teenage self to sequester in at least one tiny respect. But transistors (and then the far smaller transistors on silicon chips) were not done with us.  

As a young married adult, I longed for a color television.  We bought one for Christmas in 1976, just in time to watch Centennial and Roots.  For reception, we had only an antenna with a rotor – which was high technology in those days.  For those of you who never had a rotor, it was an electrical gadget that enabled you – on a limited basis – to turn the antenna on your roof from inside the house.  Each channel (all three of them) had a preferred setting, and much time was spent watching a snowy screen and trying various locations while listening to the motor on the rotor hum.  No cable for several more years.  With the advent of the new color TV, however, we moved the black and white television to the bedroom, which began the proliferation of screens in the house.

When I had children, toys with batteries were more common – talking dolls, beeping robots.  The sea change, however, came in about 1983 when, since we now had a personal computer in the house (which I did not know how to use), my eldest got a copy of King’s Quest for Christmas.  For the rest of the day we could not tear his seven-year-old body away from the computer – except with force (parents) and tears (child) – for a family Christmas dinner.

The link between Christmas and technology has snowballed over the decades, with capitalism keeping right up with the trend.  In fact, I would say that Christmas has become a well-meaning celebration of capitalism.  What was once a tradition rich in ritual has been stripped to its most efficient return on investment.   It has been compounded, in our and many other families, by our adult children foregoing church.  When visiting at Christmas, we bundle up for the Christmas Eve service and ask if anyone wants to go with us – and for that moment only we have a completely “silent night” as everyone tries to avoid eye contact.  So be it.  Their Christmas ritual now includes a compulsory zoom event where we watch the kids tear open dozens of packages on Christmas morning.  I love the children and grandchildren, but the holiday has started to make me shudder.

I must pause to mention another truth, however.  My own children’s best Christmas memories include and cherish the technology I abhor.  I have lived long enough to see my son try to recapture the Christmas magic of King’s Quest for his own children.  So it goes.

Technology has come to bear on Christmas in other ways, of course.  On the bright side, we can stream Christmas movies and concerts without commercials.  But we are not sitting near our extended community when we watch them.  And maybe that is the main thing that has happened.  We no longer do things as families, as communities, as a people.  Technology can cater to the individual and it does.  From King’s Quest to virtual reality, we think we don’t need others anymore.  Maybe that’s true if we are determined to “do what we want,” but maybe we need others in order to figure out what it is that we really want.

I know I sound like a nostalgic old lady.  I am.  When I tell my children and grandchildren about these old Christmases, they look at me with pity.  In truth, I can remember my own mother telling me that Christmas used to mean just some candy and a piece of fruit in her stocking, and I found her story hard to believe.  How could Santa be so stingy? Maybe it is just a normal disjunction between the generations. However, I am determined to spend my remaining Christmases in the way that means something to me.  So, I’ll attend Christmas concerts in person, go to church on Christmas Eve, and burn real candles.  And I’ll rant a little.  Thanks for listening.

I have written a number of Christmas stories over the years, and if you are looking for something appropriate to the season, you might try “Cookie Crumbs” or “Epiphany.”  Or look at one of my old blogs about Christmas.  And if we can’t do anything about “Peace on Earth” after all these years, let’s at least try to find a little inner peace.

 

Crowing Cocks, Barking Dogs, and Artificial Intelligence

I recently read Jeannette Winterson’s book on artificial intelligence (AI), 12 Bytes: How AI will Change the Way We Live and Love.  Winterson believes that comprehensive AI is inevitable (surely she is correct in this), but that the perfect “AI Mind” could be structured to be free of bias, prejudice, illicit or mercenary purpose.  This beneficent intelligence could replace God for us as the “all powerful” solution – or so hopes she.  Winterson produces little evidence that it is going in that direction – mostly she just scares me and makes me glad I am at the end of life, rather than the beginning.

As has often been noted, technology, in itself, is amoral, leaving it open to good uses and atrocious uses.  But it will be used.  John von Neumann warned us decades ago: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  It is true that we have the atom bomb and have never used it since Hiroshima and Nagasaki– but that is a technology with obvious risks, while AI is much more subtle.  And seductive.

Winterson recommended Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which I am currently reading. The question again is whether we control the technology or it controls us.  Zuboff tells us that “surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.”  And with the behavioral data, surveillance capitalists (think Google) can predict and manipulate our behavior – think of Skinner (ugh).   I am not happy with the thought of becoming “raw material” – it was bad enough when we were just “markets.”  Zuboff posits that we all have an “unbearable yearning” for the old world that is slipping away and gives us a Portuguese word of homesickness and longing to capture the feeling: saudade.   I have saudade– I imagine all old folks have it.  I have saudade for the way life used to be, and I have it increasingly as we race further and further from the world I grew up in – that imagined Eden.

The question that keeps being posed is: whether technology can be slowed down or redirected? As far as civilization and culture goes, technology seems to be a juggernaut.  No one seems to be willing or able to stop it.  But can an individual step aside?  Not easily of course.  There is still the need to interface with the computer to make travel reservations, with AI to get through to my doctor, with e-mail to keep in touch with children who seem to have forgotten that the postal service exists.  But can we carve out a place where we, at least, do not feel assaulted?  Our virtual Walden where we are not checking for messages or responding to beeps all day long?  Winterson herself has written forcefully about taking the importance of asking the question  ‘How shall I live?’ and describes that question as being “fierce.”  It is.

The premise that we do not have to use all the technology that is invented and marketed sounds self-evident, but it is not that easy.  Like Swift’s ancient Struldbruggs, we soon feel like we are not speaking the same language as those around us.  What is the answer?

The answer, for me, is that I do not speak the same language anyway.  And in my more pessimistic moments I think of another quote from Von Neumann’s discussion of how humans will use the technology at their disposal: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

 And yet, I still have hope.  There is the model of the Tao.  I post the eightieth section of the Tao here (“Crowing Cocks and Barking Dogs”).  Written two and a half millennia ago, the Tao addresses technology, over-population, peace:

A small country has fewer people.

Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster

     than man, they are not needed.

The people take death seriously and do not travel far.

Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.

Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.

Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.

Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,

     their homes secure;

They are happy in their ways.

Though they live within sight of their neighbors,

And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,

Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

One is reminded of some fictional utopias – notably those of William Morris and Samuel Butler – where technology is suspect and carefully controlled. In Butler’s Erewhon, society determined to make the cut-off point for technology 271 years before the present time.  The Amish sometimes use newer technology (like phones) for business, but not for other parts of their lives.  Why does it seem so difficult to do this in our own lives, especially since older people do not have to face the demands of a job or career?  At least, we  might disregard the machines that “are not needed” and the absence of which might contribute to our peace as we “grow old and die.”  I know, easier said than done.  Any assistance in where and how to draw the line would be greatly appreciated by this old lady.

If you would like to look at a piece of my fiction that considers the challenges of technology to life, you might try “Two New Apps.”

Planned Obsolescence – Appliances, Knowledge, People

We just had a lesson at our house about planned obsolescence.  After struggling to replace a range in a width no longer manufactured (one form of planned obsolescence), we finally gave in and had a new kitchen counter put in to fit a standard size, then bought a new range.  Three years later, the warranty had expired and so had something in the oven, for it now had no idea when to stop heating – rather scary.  Unplugging it and forcing a computer reset worked for a while, but soon there was no controlling the demon machine.   Because computer boards were involved, the cost of fixing the “new” range was $600 – just a few hundred dollars less than we paid for it.  Our repairman sympathized and told us (after the fact) that we should have just kept repairing the old range, which – although twenty years old – was probably superior in every way to the new one.  We have all been told this about cars, refrigerators, dishwashers – and yet…

Even knowledge seems to have an expiration date.  Like many of our generation, I spent most of my working life learning to use new computer programs – programs for communication, finance, planning.  I would just begin to feel proficient with a new system, and another one (better, faster, and supposedly necessary) would come along.  One of my greatest joys on my last day at work was to put that all behind me – or so I thought.  Little did I know that even in my old age I would have to learn how to use social media, stream movies on my smart television, and deal with the replacement of real people with AI in almost all my encounters outside the home.  For the very old or computer-averse, life is very difficult these days.  From the outside, we are also an example of planned obsolescence, time-dated from the previous century.  Not a pleasant feeling.

All of which reminds me of two elderly characters from literature – one from Gulliver’s Travels (almost three centuries ago) and one from Fairy Tale, the most recent novel of Stephen King.

In the third book of Gulliver, we find the heroic Lord Munodi, who counts himself among the “very few, such as were old and wilful, and weak like himself.” These “old and wilful” are not caught in the movement to put “all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and mechanics upon a new Foot through an ‘Academy of Projectors.’” But, “that, for himself, being not of an enterprising Spirit, he was content to go on in the old Forms.”  For his recalcitrance, and despite earlier service to the government, the aging Munodi is “universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid Person among them.”  Munodi is pressured to tear down his gracious and functional house to make way for the more modern, and to replace time-tested farming methods with new ones that deplete the soil.  But under the pressure of science and technology, he knows he will lose and is just trying to hang on to what he can of the old world until he dies.  His is a sad and hopeless case. Later in Gulliver, we meet the immortal and pathetic Struldbruggs, who have fallen so far behind the times, so obsolete, that they can hardly understand the language spoken around them; they have become “foreigners in their own country.”  I think I know how they felt.

In the first portion of Stephen King’s latest fantasy, Fairy Tale, we meet Mr. Bowditch, who is very old indeed, and lives with his ancient dog Radar in a rundown Gothic house.  Since he keeps to himself (think Boo Radley), scary myths about him abound.  The main character, a young man named Charlie, finds himself in Mr. Bowditch’s story.  The novel is too large to talk about in depth here (and I don’t want to give any spoilers), but what Charlie discovers – to his own awe and incredulity – is that not only does Mr. Bowditch not have a cell phone or a computer, but he has a television with vacuum tubes and does most of his business (including ordering new tubes when the television malfunctions) by mail and without a credit card.  Charlie is mystified: Mr. Bowditch is perfectly happy with things as they are.  I loved Mr. Bowditch.  But Charlie is never quite persuaded that, perhaps, there is much value in longevity – of things or people.

This is how Wikipedia defines planned obsolescence: “The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as ‘shortening the replacement cycle’). It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force people to purchase functional replacements.” We are in an era of such comprehensive and rapid planned obsolescence that people begin to feel obsolete too.   I don’t know about you, but whether I am capable of adapting or not, I do not want to spend my remaining years trying to figure out new ways to listen to my favorite symphony or communicate with my bank or carry on a conversation with my grandchildren.  Or repairing appliances.  But it doesn’t look like I’ll have much choice.

If you want to think about what refusing to accommodate unrelenting change might look like, you might try my story, “Nothing New,” or my earlier blog post, “Possessing That Which Was Mine.”

Missing the Escape of Work – Musings from Camus and Yehoshua

I have been retired for a number of years.  I have never admitted that I “missed” work; I have acknowledging regretting the loss of regular personal interaction, perhaps missing the structure, slightly missing the challenge.  I had reason to bring this all to mind when I read an essay by Camus and a current novel by the Israeli author, A. B. Yehoshua.  First, consider this paragraph from Camus’s “Love of Life.”  He starts by talking about travel, while comparing the escape of travel to the escape of work:

For what gives value to travel is fear.  It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have.  One can no longer cheat – hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone).  I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.”  Travel robs us of such refuge.   Far from our own people. Our own language, stripped of all our props, our deprived masks…we are completely on the surface of ourselves.  But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value…,(54)

What Camus says about travel could also apply to retirement.  Work gave us an excuse to be tired, distracted, absent.  I know someone who continues to work well past the standard age for retirement – he admits that if he were retired he would have no excuse not to spend more time with his elderly mother.

Work also often gave us a sense of place, esteem, belonging, structure.  Of course, once we retire, it can be disillusioning to find out how little we were needed and how seamlessly we were replaced.  Many retirees initially respond by filling their lives with volunteer work, clubs, book groups, exercise classes, travel – anything to replace a work-like structure and feel like there is a place we belong.  There is nothing wrong with any of that, except perhaps the escape from the soul-sickness that Camus describes – the dropping of the “deprived masks” that restores the real world to us.   Perhaps, in retirement, we should let ourselves get “soul-sick” enough to revert to the “miraculous value” of the world that we might have felt as children.

Yehoshua’s novel, The Tunnel, is about a retired engineer experiencing some mental confusion. The main character, Luria, and his wife meet with a neurologist about Luria’s brain scan, which shows a “spot” that may be the reason Luria is losing his memory.  (This has come to a head when he takes the wrong child home from the daycare center where his grandson is enrolled.) When Luria refers to himself as having “dementia,” the doctor objects:

“Please, why dementia?  We’re not there yet.  Don’t rush to claim something you don’t understand and don’t raise unnecessary fears, and above all, don’t get addicted to passivity and fatalism.  Retirement is not the end of the road, and so you need to find work in your field, even part-time, private work. (3)

Luria used to work for the state designing roads and tunnels, and at the urging of the doctor and his wife signs on as an unpaid “helper” to a young engineer in his old department.  This has its ups, downs and adventures, but he finds that when he is actually working at his old desk (now possessed by the young engineer), he slides right back into his old persona – at least for a while.  Of course, this temporarily relieves his anxiety and distracts him, but he soon realizes that he cannot go backward.  Somehow he needs to go on.  Though the “spot” on his brain will grow, so will his appreciation of a world beyond roads, tunnels, and logic.

Retirement need not mean “addiction to passivity and fatalism.”  It is an open door – but an open door can be scary.  Both Camus and Yehoshua realize this.  And some sense of purpose and structure is necessary – but for many of us, retirement is the first time in our lives when we can design our own structure, set our own goals.  Simone de Beauvoir said that every old person needed their own “project” in order to stay sane. (See my earlier post about de Beauvoir, “Projects of Our Old Age.”)  We should just hope to be strong enough to choose that project rather than succumbing to distraction and expectation. And it is only to ourselves that the project needs to have meaning.

This week’s story, “This Little Light of Mine,” is about meaning that a woman carves out of her widowhood and old age.  From the outside it is silly, but…  think hard.  It is perhaps no more ridiculous than some of the ways we spend our precious last years.  It is not intended as a model, but just a reminder that we should make meaning in our life in some ways.  Hopefully, yours will be a little less far-fetched.

The Archangel Michael Gives Advice on Death and Old Age

The Biblical news on old age is mixed.  Patriarchs like Abraham were rewarded with long lives – yet the very mortality of man was bestowed as a punishment. Of the many penalties that women (pain in childbirth, enmity with the snake) and men (living by toil) incurred in the Garden of Eden, the last one is death: “to dust thou shall return.”  Old age is not explicitly mentioned, but the story of the fall of Adam and Eve was read throughout the Middle Ages as the beginning of degeneration for both the world and the individual.  In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as in many medieval and Renaissance depictions of this event, the post-lapsarian couple looks much older once they step out of Paradise.   St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both posited that Adam was kept from decaying by his pure soul until he sinned; once he had eaten of the forbidden fruit, decay began.

Milton extended this long tradition in Paradise Lost.  The Archangel Michael explains to Adam that he has lost immortality through his transgression and must accept that, if he lives a temperate life and doesn’t succumb to plague or violence, he might live to be an old man (from Book XI):

There is, said Michael, if thou well observe                            530
The rule of Not too much; by temperance taught,
In what thou eatest and drinkest; seeking from thence
Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,
Till many years over thy head return:
So mayest thou live; till, like ripe fruit, thou drop
Into thy mother’s lap; or be with ease
Gathered, nor harshly plucked; for death mature:
This is Old Age; but then, thou must outlive
Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty; which will change
To withered, weak, and gray; thy senses then,                           540
Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forego,
To what thou hast; and, for the air of youth,
Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign
A melancholy damp of cold and dry
To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume
The balm of life.

Milton, whose own old age was pretty miserable as he ended up both blind and on the wrong side of the king, did not glamorize mankind’s end years in any way; “withered, weak, and gray,” we will become if we’re not unfortunate enough to get leprosy or to be impaled first.  Adam takes fright and decides he would rather die than end in the “melancholy damp” of old age:

Henceforth I fly not death, nor would prolong
Life much; bent rather, how I may be quit,
Fairest and easiest, of this cumbrous charge;
Which I must keep till my appointed day                                 550
Of rendering up, and patiently attend
My dissolution.

The angel tells Adam when he dies needs to be left to heaven; but he does have a choice about how he lives:

Michael replied.
Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou livest
Live well; how long, or short, permit to Heaven…

C.S. Lewis gave similar advice when writing an essay about how mankind could bear to live in the “atomic age,” with the overhanging threat of incineration at any minute. (It is interesting how immediate the threat of nuclear annihilation was to the writers of the mid-twentieth century.)    Lewis points out that there has always been a threat of death – from the plague, war, cancer – and it was the inevitable ending of old age, but he goes on, like Milton, exhorting us to “live well” in the meantime:

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

The proximity of death is part of being old; I remember the story of an old man who, every time he had to see the doctor, wondered if this was the day that he would find out which disease would kill him.  Some of us fear death as an ending; others have fears about the way in which we will die.  Most of us, I suspect, fear both.  When my mother died after a horrible couple of years with an extremely paranoic version of dementia, I told myself I would no longer fear any other kind of death, as long as I could keep my mind. But time passes and old fears (including the atomic variety I wrote about a few months ago) creep in.

The protagonist in “A Perfect Ending” is pleased with the way she completes her life, but not because she planned it that way.

Accepting the Season – Autumn Leaves

For millennia, the season of fall has been identified with, been a metaphor for, old age.  The Greeks did it, the Romans did it, the Bible does it.  Poets do it.  And there is a correlation; as the leaves get old and change color and fall, so do we age and wither and fall.  There is a difference, though, isn’t there?  The trees will bud up again in the spring and new leaves will replace the old.

For me, the new year begins in the fall. I grew up in an academic family, and I spent my working life on one college campus or another.  Labor Day signaled the start of a new year.  When I was young, I got new clothes and new textbooks.  A fresh start.  But of course, fall is when nature (at least in the northern climes) starts winding down.  And in New England where I grew up and (a little less so) in North Carolina where I now reside, the woods pass into mellow golds and flaming reds and oranges.  The air gets crisp and cool, the air conditioning gets a rest, and I feel reinvigorated.

In his “Autumn Day,” Rilke reminds us that the fall of our life means “it’s time”:

Lord: it’s time.  The summer was magnificent.
Lay your shadows upon the sundials
And o’er the isles allow your winds to vent.

Command the final fruits to be full and fine:
Give them two more days in the southern sun,
Push them to completion and then run
The last sweetness through the heavy wine.

Fall reminds Chesterton that the gold of old age is easier to find than the gold of youth:

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold [moor],
But I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold.

When “all the leaves are gold.”  If we could only think of old age that way.  If, at least, old people could look at autumn that way.

In “Spring and Fall” Hopkins gives us the “golden groves” through the eyes of the young.  He sees the “unleaving” season through the eyes of a girl, a girl with a name – Margaret – who grieves for the leaves without realizing that she is really grieving for the mortality of all things including ourselves.  He starts:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

And ends:

It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The losses of autumn can make us, like Margaret, melancholy at times.  As Robert Frost says in his poem “Reluctance”:

Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

And yet I love the fall with its final gasp of color and last flutters as the wind fills the air with the weightless corpses of the verdant summer.  As the wheels swirl and crackle, I am reminded of the end of Rilke’s Tenth Duino Elegy: “And we who always think of happiness rising would feel the emotion that most startles us when a happy thing falls.” (Trans. By D. Young).  Yes, we must “accept” the end of a season, of our youth.  And yet, if we are willing to be “startled,” we may find happiness in the falling, I think.

There are many ways to handle the “end of a love or a season.”  My story for this week, “Livability,” looks at one (somewhat humorous) way of making a new life when an old one ends.

 

Lastingness – In Fact and Fiction

Lastingness, by Nicholas Delbanco, may be a book whose title is better than the book itself.  The full title, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, has a double meaning, presumes two questions: What kind of art is made in the artist’s old age?  What is the art of growing old?  I am interested in both questions.

Delbanco writes an interesting but very subjective book.  He is most concerned with how the author himself will fare in his own old age, which he is just entering.  Delbanco describes bright young lights that fizzled, artists who bloomed late, and others who improved steadily throughout their lives.  There are very few of the latter; it goes without saying that most of us have our ups and downs regardless of age.  There are also those who have what Thoreau calls “two growths like pear trees” – one earlier and one later.  Old age does not have a singular effect.

The area of the book that most interested me was how lastingness, in some cases, involved a change of form or expectation by the elderly artist.  Novelists sometimes switch to shorter forms like poetry (think Thomas Hardy), or artists limit their subject matter (think Monet); musicians change their repertoire, and some artists retire to solitary seclusion.  Many artists repeat themselves trying to rekindle past glory (almost always a mistake), and some go on to do what perhaps they should have done long ago – work only to please themselves.  This last, of course, is one of the greatest gifts of old age.  According to Delbanco, though, “lastingness” can only be determined by “assess[ing] the effect of works on others.” Maybe.  And it is doubtful that artists can always trust “others.”  Again, one of the pleasures of old age is self-evaluation, cultivating inward assessment, and discarding dependence on “the effect on others.”

John Updike’s wonderful article “Late Works: Writers and Artists Confronting the End” was published in 2006, just a few years before his own death, and posits that perhaps lasting is not so much to be valued as a new “senile sublime” that can only be seen in old age.  He defines “senile sublime” in the words of Eve Sedgwick:

…various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people, whether artists, scientist, or intellectuals, where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense.

Oh, that we live long enough to shed our “puppy fat”!   Updike also points out that writers at the end of their lives often realize (and help their readers realize) that there is much about life that is “irreconcilable” with other parts of life.  Miranda, young and about to step into her “brave new world,” and the retiring Prospero have occupied the same stage. Billy Budd with his youth and integrity falls prey to the machinations of the evil Claggart and the dilemma of Captain Vere – and yet serves as a symbol of hope.  Old age seems to accept this opposition.

One novelist who writes about the old and lastingness and irreconcilability is Elizabeth Strout.  I recently read her Oh William!, which focuses on Lucy Barton (again) and her seventy-year-old ex-husband, who is about to become an “ex” again.  One thing that old age brings (particularly in this age of divorce and migration) is a trail of undefinable human connections, which seem to last in the mind if not always in actuality. The relationship between William and Lucy Barton surely endures in both ways.  Lucy is recently widowed by her second husband and feeling her age; William has been “left” by his latest and is refusing to acknowledge his own senescence.  Strout’s books are more about life than about plot, and particularly about the lastingness of relationships.

At the end of the book, Lucy realizes just how corralled William is by his past, and this makes her realize that she too is still moved by history she might not even remember:

And then I thought, Oh William!

But when I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too?

Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves?

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

We are all mythologies, mysterious.  We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Those last lines ring true for me.  Old age is about acknowledging the mysteries.  We know everything when we are eighteen; when we are seventy, we finally acknowledge that maybe there is almost nothing that we know.  Yet, I think if we are lucky – and if we last long enough, we come to love the mystery.

For a tale about the parts of ourselves that last into old age (if we can only respect the mystery), you might try my story “Needs of the Living Organism.”