“He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent.”
Philip Roth, The Humbling
There comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that he is no longer attractive to women. When this realization arrives, it is not with heartbreak or a debilitating bout of depression, instead it settles on him like a heavy coat. In fact, once you settle into middle age you can no longer stand up as straight as you once could. Friends see you shuffling down the sidewalk, shoulders a bit hunched, your neck drawn in, and looking very much like you are carrying the weight of the world on your back. The honest reality is that once a man reaches a certain age, he does carry more weight that he once did.
We hear a great deal about aging and women, and if we are honest, society likes to condemn nothing as strongly as an aging woman. Yet, this does not mean that we should not be unsympathetic to the male as he grows older. The bit where we collectively agree that men age much more gracefully than women, especially when our hair begins to grey, is really nonsense. Aging hurts. It’s a tragic blow to the ego as well as the body. Aging is one of the only things we have absolutely no control over. We all age; we are all heading toward death. That’s a fact; even someone as cool as Carey Grant was forced to wear those ridiculously thick glasses when he was older. What growing older does is reduce us, shrink us, in every conceivable way.
The unkindest cut may be that as we age we become increasingly irrelevant. Our contemporary society no longer views its elders in the same light as it once did. But then, did it ever? Shakespeare knew of this irrelevancy and wrote honestly on the topic. One need only read the first act of King Lear. I’ve been thinking a lot about Lear lately and about his increasing irrelevancy in old age. The play could be a moral tale for how we treat our own elderly in this country. That is, ship them off to homes and out of the way. The elderly have become our shame, a constant reminder of what awaits us all. Therefore, we move them to the background, yet cry over them once they’re dead. But perhaps it’s really our own mortality we are crying over.
Perhaps it’s part of the process of going through middle age, but lately I’ve felt like I’ve been bouncing through time, not like a yo-yo, but more like a pinball bouncing from episode to episode that once occurred in my life. My grip on time keeps slipping backwards and forwards and sideways, not letting up or giving me time to adjust. A childhood memory comes back and totally resituates itself where I am in my head. A song will begin to play somewhere and I am caught in the middle of a memory, increasingly detached from the here and now. I’m beginning to discover that the aging process also constitutes this discontinuity of time. We spend much time bouncing from memory to memory, from place to place, sometimes simultaneously bumping up against the sharp objects of our past, resulting in cuts and scrapes that others tell us is “just life.” Other times we become lost in the mists of the past, nostalgic or bitter for what once was.
“Just life.” What does that phrase really mean when one has crossed the threshold into middle age? John Lennon wrote that, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” As I grow older this statement is not as optimistic as it once was. I have now outlived Lennon by eight years, and I still feel that I will never catch up to his state of wisdom. In fact, I’m still waiting for that moment when I will feel “grown up.” Now that I have children, I know that I’m grown up, which usually translates as having responsibilities, but often I feel as if my life has yet to begin. Perhaps this is a good thing.
I’m sitting alone at a table in an outdoor café in Milan. The weather is warm and the tables are all taken. It’s evening and the sun is starting to set. Nearly everyone seems to be younger than me. In Milan, especially in the evening, people come out to the cafes and the bars to drink and to eat what amounts to discounted appetizers, thus, the crowded tables. There are a number of pretty women surrounding me. They are all caught up in conversations and I might as well be a ghost. But I like it like this. I like people watching over a drink in a foreign city. However, as more women come and go I think: “If I had only come here twenty years ago.” Of course, twenty years ago it might never had occurred to me to stop at this particular café, and I almost certainly would not have known what to say in order to initiate a conversation, but still… Now, with the weight of middle age firmly planted on my shoulders I have a kind of resolve, a peace with the way things are. As Roth writes above, growing old is a humbling experience. But it can also be the greatest gift life has to offer. Nothing can compare with the experience of living for decades.
Two pretty women standing beside me are asking if I’m leaving, thus knock me out of a reverie. I hadn’t noticed that my drink was empty and the bill had been paid. Two coins and a slip of white paper are resting on a black plastic rectangle. I can only smile and say, “Of course, the table is yours.”
“The table is yours.” It’s a powerful metaphor for not being in the game anymore. What we hold onto, however, is a sense of pride for having survived our youth, to have reached the one more corner before it all dissipates into nothingness.