Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Le Vieillard Gros

Gelii Korzhev
1925-2012
My doctor wants me to live to be a hundred. During a recent check-up she asked me how long I want to live, probably as a way of telling me that I should listen to her more carefully. I said eighty, because that's how long men in my family generally live (unless there is a revolution or a world war); the women live a bit longer than that. She then said that eighty used to be considered good longevity, but that one hundred is the new eighty. Well, that certainly explains all the old people I saw in her waiting room! I told her that I do not view aging as a competitive sport, and that I do not aspire to smashing any records in the longevity department. She seemed a bit confused by this response and changed the subject.


I had a neighbor once, who was perhaps just over a hundred years old, perhaps just under—it doesn't really matter, because he himself probably couldn't remember how old he was, so why should anyone else care? On warm sunny days he would sometimes stand on his porch, squinting at the sun through dark glasses, wobbling and shaking. The rest of the time he lurked inside, doing who knows what. Eventually I found out what he was doing there: he was growing mushrooms. He was growing mushrooms on his person. When he finally died and his possessions were disgorged onto the sidewalk in front of his house for the neighbors to pick through, there were boxes and boxes of antifungals (Miconazole, Clotrimazole, etc.)—enough to treat an entire football team for both jock itch and athlete's foot. I specifically don't want to turn out to be like that man. I am much more afraid of becoming like that man than I am afraid of death.

I understand that there is a certain large number of people who aspire to being “forever young.” This seems like a truly bizarre aspiration. There is a certain symmetry between the young and the old: both tend to be stupid, the young—from inexperience, the old—from being old. In the bygone days when a spade was called a spade they were called “a young fool” and “an old fool,” respectively. These concepts could be dressed up with scientificky-sounding words like immaturity and senility, for the sake of the scientifcky-minded. Nowadays the term Alzheimer's gets thrown around a lot, and is being researched at great expense in search of a cure. But it was previously well known that “There is no fool like an old fool,” and the treatment was to ignore him. That's because a young fool might grow up and stop being a fool, whereas an old fool would eventually just stop being. The aspiration to be “forever young” is, to my mind, equivalent to wishing to remain “forever stupid”—to never grow up.

But if I am expected to reconcile myself to growing old and stupid, I might as well start now. I am already quite excellent at forgetting birthdays and anniversaries, with little room for improvement. I have also never been particularly good at remembering names, but I still remember a few, so I can improve on that. I'll start asking “What's your name again?”—of people whom I've known for years. I could also develop some annoying old man mannerisms, such as insisting on returning things I hadn't borrowed while calling everyone “kid.” This may surprise them at first, but then later they won't realize that my mind is gone, because I'll just be acting as peculiarly as ever. It takes time to adjust to being stupid, and the older one is, the harder it becomes to make the adjustment, so I better start practicing while I still have my wits about me. “Hi mom, what's your name again?” Now that is sure to produce a reaction!

I suppose I should also start thinking about a new career suitable for an old fool. Since retirement is quickly becoming a thing of the past, anyone who wants to live to be a hundred will also have to continue working all the way until death. But since people who are that old aren't capable of much physical or mental exertion, the work would have to be dead (no pun intended) easy. Perhaps I could start a chain of fashion boutiques that cater to centenarians. It would sell specialty items such as rainbow-colored ear tufts and nose-hair extensions. While there, you could pick up a packet of liver spots, some pants that you can pull up all the way to your armpits, and, pièce de résistance, a bottle of our special eau de cologne, Old Man Smell. There would be commemorative plaques for customers who dropped dead right inside the store. The chain would have to have a fashionable-sounding French name... how about Le Vieillard Gros?

But maybe, just maybe, none of this will be necessary. Just imagine, half a century from now: the fossil fuels are gone, the oceans are too acidic for shellfish, the icecaps have largely melted and coastal cities are under water, and the entire continental interior is a parched desert. It is unbearably hot and ridiculously stormy all the time, and the surviving humans, now numbering well under a billion, are all preoccupied with trying to gather or grow enough food to survive. And there I am, deep in my dotage, proudly mouldering with my rainbow-colored ear tufts and nose-hair extensions, smelling of Old Man Smell, calling everyone “kid” and trying to return a book I hadn't borrowed? If that happens, then just bury me, preferably at sea. Put me in a dinghy, hand me a bottle of rum, and set me off on the tide. I promise I won't protest.

22 comments :

Jormama Cockonen said...

Was this intentionally metaphorical for the senescence of that "plus gros des vieillards," the USA? Brilliant whether intentional or not.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Ha! Yes, 80 is my target too, although most men in my family naturally expire at 64, so it might be a bit optimistic.

Death by rum sounds infinitely preferable.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

This reminds me of a favourite business that is sure to stay in brisk business: "The Colt .45 Health Insurance and Retirement Co."

hadashi said...

I've been a young fool (until fairly recently)and I wouldn't want to live on as an old fool. It'd be good to kick the bucket not long after peak wisdom, I reckon.

Andy Brown said...

My plan is to inadvertently scare up a big grouse from underfoot, while walking in the woods at about age 83 - and just blow everything out in one great burst of adrenaline and shock.

Jeff said...

Not bad, you whippersnapper. Reminds me of a story; back when I was young...

nntnddcnsqncs said...

Old fools... From the LA Times:

Nevada recluse dies with $200 in bank, $7 million in gold at home

"Samaszko, 69, was described by officials as a loner who went about his business and had few friends. He had been dead at least a month when neighbors called authorities..."

Martin said...

Re: the question, "How long do you want to live?", no one gets to choose (unless they off themselves).

I'm well past the allotted three score and ten myself - had no idea I'd live this long. And I still enjoy the moment. Heh....

parkslopegigilo said...

I'm heading to 42 and naturally I've begun to look at my elders with new eyes, or old eyes, or....anyway, the point is that I have no interest in turning into one of those rickety skeletons that wander the sidewalks, shuffling from one banality to another while waiting to hear from the doctor what new subsystem of Spaceship Me has gone offline. I'm sure some of those geezers are happy to be alive, a big nest of grandkids or the leisure to fish all day long or whatever but I'm equally sure many are just drawing breath because they haven't stopped yet.

This absurd, Vonnegutian existence has already provided me with plenty of opportunities to throw my hands up in the air and say "What is the motherfucking point of this crazy situation in my life?" but I've always found solace in the fact that there are women to pursue, strange and strong minds to interact with, and of course the inherent beauty of the world to marvel at a bit. But when the time comes that those things fade, the organism has begun to outlive it's purpose as I see it. Why cling to it as it falls away? Get what you can and want from it and then, well, you can wait for Nature or you can willingly take a shortcut.

@nntnddcnsqncs: Up until recently I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn and there are plenty of miserly old fools, there believe me. Two come to mind, a multi millionairess landlady whose loved to dig through her tenants trashcans to see if there were scraps of paper in the garbage that belonged in the recycling, so she could charge them a 100$ fine. Another was my landlord, a millionaire with gold laying about his brownstone and cash tucked into shoe boxes...their common insanity? When handing them a paltry sum such as a 100$ fine or a 1000$ rent check, their hands would literally tremble with excitement at scrabbling a few more dollars from the world. The old woman's joy was such that her tongue would jut in and out reflexively, like some withered lizard woman zapping bugs off of a leaf. Both of these specimens were in their mid seventies and as far as I could tell, their sole and single joy in life was hoarding money. Both could have lived anywhere in the world, both could have traveled or taken adventures or whatever but no, it was sit about rotting until someone handed them more money and the joy in their faces was like a light....I'll never be rich and I'm certainly a slave to my own lusts and hungers but damn I wouldn't want to be that for anything, a desiccated corpse sucking the lifeblood of others in order to toss it into some Scrooge McDuck style vault somewhere.

russell1200 said...

Once the invention-geni is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back in. Whether business is done by electric lights or candle, there will still be door greeters.

Patrick said...

Black humor at its finest! And like most humor, with an element of the rational and sober included.

crespi effect said...

"and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter."
Samuel Beckett

Ien van Houten said...

Have I told you lately how much I love you? I am so with you about the longevity. My next birthday will the old three score and ten. I would like another dozen, but won't feel too cheated if I don't get them. Quality over quantity, definitely. I live in tune with Nature. I have successfully gone to seed. If it is time to let go, I can do that. Meanwhile I am enjoying every day.

Stephen Bach said...

Since I'm in good health at 67, and both my parents lived into their 90's, my chances of living another 25 years are good.
My feelings about this prospect are mixed. I'm curious as to how the world situation will evolve, but I also am a little afraid of how painful and ugly it might be.

Glenn said...

For some reason my wife and I found the painting at the top of the article quite charming. We're middle aged, in good health, and looking forward to growing old, but not idle, together.

Glenn
Marrowstone Island

prince charles said...

It seems like many people are dying at 80-85. My father 84, my mother 83. I am so stupid now at 54, I can't imagine 84. I wouldn't even know my own name since its the only one I can reliably recall now. I used to be a math hot shot-complex variables-and now I can barely do trig. I do know one thing: human did not evolve to live to 80. We are supposed to be long gone by then. Oh I almost forgot-thanks for the laugh.

vera said...

Heh. I hope someone smothers me with a pillow before putting me in a nursing home, to spend my remaining time smelly and incoherent. What a crappy way to go!

(Maybe the doc was really trying to sell you something.)

Dr. Doom said...

When humans turn 40, the muscles in their eyes can no longer stretch or contract to change the lens sack shape and we then need reading glasses or arm extensions to see the fine print. Near-sighted people can keep up the appearance of seeing well up close after 40 by sacrificing their distance vision, for a while.

This is nature telling you that the warranty is up. I'm sure lens grinding will continue for some time, but contact lenses, cataract lens implants and laser eye surgery may be left behind. UV-blocking sunglasses may also become rare, meaning sure blindness for those with inoperable cataracts, which will start at about 40 and will hit for sure by 60-70 with all that UV bouncing about from thinning ozone layers.

No planet for old persons.

vera said...

Hah. Listen to the Doomster... not! My grandmother's vision improved as she went into high old age (she died in her sleep at 93). Imagine how surprised I was to see her not needing glasses for reading anymore... :)

My own vision continues quite good, as I am nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other.

onething said...

I realized some years ago that American longevity had passed its peak. 60 is the new 80. How can it be otherwise when we have an obesity epidemic in children, 5th graders with high blood pressure, middle aged diabetes hitting 23-year-olds, and *h*t for food?

Anyway, recently I came across a statistic that showed just that, a slight decrease in American life span. But it's just the beginning.

thetinfoilhatsociety.com said...

It was perfect serendipity that I read this tonight, about ten minutes after I related to my husband a vignette from my interaction with an elder while at work (I do home health). He is 97, has outlived most of his family including several of his children, lives alone. He told me I was lucky, that I am living in the greatest time in history - that people my age (probably about the same as your age) will live to be 150 or 200 thanks to modern medicine. I remarked to my husband that I smiled and nodded to my client all the while thinking how sad it was that, while he may be right for the multibillionaires, we will not even have medicare for our old age as this man has had. We will have what we have managed to save, and the health we have maintained until now to carry us into our 'golden years'....

Can I borrow your remark that you do not view aging as a competitive sport? That is the most awesome quote I think I have read (other than some Oscar Wilde quotes) in the last several years. And it sums up how I feel. After working in emergency services and health care for the last 20 years, I am of the same persuasion. I'd rather die with my faculties intact than linger for decades after everyone I care about has gone on.

theblamee1 said...

Being a loser or a creep has nothing to do with hard American realities. In a country where you either work or you starve the world is real enough already, worse if you don't mind losing your soul. For decades I did everything I could to remain employed. This was especially hard when the working world kept trying to find ways to get rid of you – recessions, good times, bad times, politics, early obsolescence, out-sourcing, in-sourcing, down-sizing, harassment – whatever you want to call it. Finally, the working world got rid of me in 2007. In May of 2002, I took a fall down a ship's ladder. I broke my foot and had to undergo surgery which was nothing more than some quack (this comment coming from the son of an Ivy League educated medical professional), putting the pieces between two metal plates and saying "Aren't I great?" How successful the surgery was depends on which lies you care to believe, the lies my company told, or those truths left out by the doctors. So many doctors. So many lies; so many liars.

Worse, are the lies one's own family and the Social Darwinists tell you. Especially in the worst of times, when there is this fixation with blaming the victim. This well-worn path of "wish you were dead," taken by the state's physicians, the company's phony insurance company and their representatives, first. Since my accident, my three best friends are my bike, the swimming pool, and chronic pain. I can no longer walk on uneven surfaces. Forget about mowing a lawn, hiking the Grand Canyon or the Adirondack Mountains, anymore. No more jogging for this former varsity track star. No more deep sea or inland sailing. No more iceboating, power boating, or water skiing. My parent's camp on a lake in Upstate New York is useless to me. My sitting around makes everybody really nervous and uncomfortable so, having become useless to them, I don't go back there anymore.

When I returned to work, the company harassed me, probably because they didn't like watching me limp around anymore than my family did. Maybe I made them uncomfortable, too. I was kept from doing my job. I was delayed, held up, harassed by representatives of this company. I was repeatedly threatened. Their security force made me their special project. This company started calling my return to work "politically incorrect." When I questioned them on what they meant by this they said that I would have a job until somebody didn't like me, and then I would not.

In February of 2007, this company banned me from setting foot on their property ever again. And, if my company didn't go along with them, then they would also be found to be politically incorrect, then not liked, until they too were banned. Still, after being made to write a letter of apology and attend anger management therapy sessions the company refused to lift the ban against me, and I was let-go.

I have been black-balled, black-listed, and banned from my previous line of work. I thought this kind of criminal activity had been dealt with in the American Labor Wars of the 20TH Century? I thought that enough managers and workers had been shot in the face and we weren't going to behave this way to each other anymore? But this is about blood, and how I am past my mid-fifties, injured, unemployed and unemployable. This is about how the state says that I must be prepared to work for significantly less than I was making before. This is the America where they say things like to this to human beings with smiles on their faces.

Care to read the rest of the story?