The British novelist L. P. Hartley is remembered chiefly for the novel and movie version of “The Go-Between,” beginning with “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” True enough, as we old-timers gaze back into our memories. We may dimly recognize ourselves in them, but tend to be surprised by what we discover, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, most likely as in a foreign country.
So we can view retrospect either nostalgically or shamefacedly, perhaps recalling Jonathan Swift’s comment upon viewing some of his early works: “What genius I had then!” We may never have had genius, but surely greater mobility, flexibility, enterprise, and relationships. In short, what did “old” mean in contemplation of it, and what does it in experience of it.
I was, as a boy, enormously fond of the novels of the German author Karl May, and owned a good many of his numerous volumes in the original German. The stories took place either in the American Wild West or in the no less wild Arab North Africa. A prison term for some kind of fraud clouded May’s name, with the work, however, remaining irresistible to young adult readers, though, more damaging yet, his books were favorites of Adolf Hitler, who even instituted an outdoor theater for dramatizations of it.
The plots attested to remarkable imagination, what with tremendous seeming authenticity coming from one who did not leave Germany. The characters, mostly trappers or hunters we assume, are called things like Old Firehand, Old Surehand, and, greatest of all, Old Shatterhand (which I, having little English at the time, blithely mispronounced). Shatterhand, May’s alter ego, was of course really German, and blood brother to the noblest of Indians, the Apache chief Winetu (to be pronounced Win-Net-Too). Together, they civilized the West.
The last-named principals owned fabulous horses and superb shotguns, all in the service of justice. I tried to emulate them, owning a great, German-fabricated realistic toy handgun, called the MG, as well as lesser weapons to proudly brandish. This earned me the sobriquet “the boy with the pistols,” from Sinka Nikich, Crown Prince Peter’s beautiful and polyglot girlfriend, particularly amused to hear me refer to myself in English as a “poetist,” and none of it making me, as I hoped, look or be older.
The ages of May’s characters were not specified, but they surely weren’t old, the term being one of affection and admiration. Admiration because old imputed wisdom gleaned from long and varied experience and staying power, as in the phrase “good old so and so,” a kind of verbal smile of approbation. Renaissance images of philosophers invariably showed them as bearded and thus old, and the rare depictions of God always featured a full and well tended white beard on a seemingly ageless being, old if you like.
Then, too, things like wine and manuscripts do indeed profit from extended survival, so that old easily became some sort of honorific, like gallant or noble. Triumphant warriors, too, were often portrayed bearded, but that managed to look like suggesting rather than having endured old age, a good kind of oldness. The very word, however, may nowadays be shunned. Thus TV commentators on tennis almost never refer to a player as so many years old, but always “of age,” as in, say, ““thirty-seven years of age,” apparently meant to extend their youthfulness by avoiding the word “old.”
“Old,” the term, has many uses, so let us consider them. Historicity (Old English) geography (Old Lyme, Old Dominion), religion (Old Testament), sociology (old families), familiarity (old friends), old masters (art), publishing (old type), charm (old English sheepdogs), natural wonders (Old Faithful), commercialism (old, tried products), legends (myths of various civilizations). experience (old hands), fashion (old costumes), patriotism (Old Glory, Old Ironside) and literature, selectively (Old Mortality, Old Wives’ Tale, Old Fortunatus, Old Man and the Sea, Old Curiosity Shop, Old Familiar Faces, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), etc. etc. Sometimes also in putdowns: Old Hat, Old Crow, Old Jokes, Old Fool, Old Stories, etc.
But never mind the nomenclature; what does being old these days really entail? Or, specifically, how am I doing as I approach my 94th year? As I have mentioned already often, the one nearly surefire positive thing is that, seeing my cane, many bus or subway riders yield me their seat, women more often than men. Still, getting around with the help of a cane isn’t wonderful—I would have preferred an Abel (or able, please note the pun).
Then the obvious disadvantages. Long walks can be painful, and even short ones are essentially slower than a rapid walker such as my wife appreciates. There are problems with blurred sight at a distance, and decreased hearing at, say, the theater, a problem for a drama critic. Even assisted hearing devices are ultimately unhelpful, as they merely increase volume but not comprehensibility.
One is supposed to have a good long-term memory, but not so much of a short-term one. Let me enlighten you: one forgets old things too. The short range obliviousness may be more troubling, as one forgets why one has gone into the next room, or even what is or isn’t in the fridge. It is both frustrating and humiliating how much one struggles with forgotten things, some of which one eventually recalls, others not at all. In rereading my published doctoral thesis. I came across an impressive-sounding word whose meaning I could not puzzle out. (If you ask me what it was, I’m afraid I can’t remember.)
Recently I could not come up with the formerly cherished word for a thousand-year span; I had to call my linguist friend Bryan Garner, who promptly supplied “chiliad.” This relieved me from a prolonged agitation and sleeplessness. I can find little quite as exhausting as fruitless cogitation.
Still, I am thankful for being basically in good health, suffering from none of the lethal ailments I read about in the Times obituaries, nowadays part of my regular matutinal perusal. Interesting how many of the deceased made it to the advanced nineties, and some even into the hundreds, leaving me to wonder how much I have yet coming to me, and if so, whether without pain. That is one of the worst things about growing old: one’s provision of hope becomes daily more sparse, my mnemonics faultier, and some of these blog spots perhaps less reliable. But I carry on, faithfully, I hope, to the end.