December 12, 2016
MONTPELIER – “Who in the world,” I asked myself, “would leave a laundry basket in the middle of the hall, right where somebody is likely to run into it?&rd
The question percolated through the depleted grounds of my brain for several seconds. Who, indeed? There’s only one person here who could run into it. And thus only one person who could have left it there. But why? Is it a random act of carelessness, or an anomaly purposely created to catch that one person’s attention? If it’s intentional, what’s it supposed to remind him of?
I’ll tell you: It’s not hell to be old, but it is kind of hellish to get old. Things you once did without even thinking become conscious efforts, then more difficult, and, I presume, eventually impossible. Your memory, which perhaps can call up thousands of lines of verse learned in childhood and youth, begins to falter as you descend the driveway, wondering which way you’re going to turn at the entrance to the road. Let’s see...where was I going?
Mother, in a cruel twist of fate related to age, has been out of the house and in hospital or nursing home for about ten months. This has given me an uninterrupted opportunity to test an old theory of mine: that organisms need conflict to remain competitive. Over almost six decades of married life I’ve come to believe that we whet our wits’ knives best on the stone of an intimate, but usually diametrically opposed significant other. That may be difficult to prove scientifically, but I can tell you that those years have stropped my argumentative skills to a razor’s edge.
That theory, about mental disintegration in the absence of controversy, was conceived in this way: During earlier and shorter absences over the years – a couple of weeks’ winter vacation in France or Florida, for example – she typically left frozen dinners, composed of leftovers, in the freezer for me. I find in my journal that twice during those vacations I took a dinner out of the freezer, loosened the Saran wrap, and stuck it into the microwave oven, only to discover, when the oven beeped, that the dinner had evaporated. A thoughtful search discovered it back in the freezer.
The first reaction to that phenomenon is, “Uh-oh. Is this the beginning of the final decline?” It has turned out it wasn’t – it happened over 30 years ago – but you never know. And you can’t be too wary.
In addition to the hardening of the cranial arteries, our cultural and social environment is an additional challenge. A quick look at the news reveals changes that even a young mind must find difficult to deal with. Old ones can be swamped. While we have to learn to use and interpret whole new sets of acronyms (LOL, PLOS, SCOTUS), our old familiar words and expressions have been superannuated or even forgotten. A friendly server at Panera asks me how I’m doing, but when I say, “I’m in the pink,” the smile turns to bewilderment. “That won’t cut any ice” gets an even more bemused response. Our old familiar language and idioms are dying or are already dead.
Very few of us take the trouble anymore to add columns of figures. It’s not that we can’t; we just don’t bother, now that a pocket adding machine takes up less room than a poker hand. In the same way, sentence structure and spelling have fallen victim to the need for brevity and the use of spell-check. Spell Check has no brains. As a result, “your” and “you’re,” and “its” and “it’s,” get used interchangeably. And don’t even get me started on “their.” Trouble is, it’s impossible for the critical reader to discern whether the errors are the result of the stupid computer program or the ignorance of the writer. Either way, both the message and the writer’s image suffer.
So age creeps stealthily in. In my youth, I took a fancy to T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” and even memorized it, though I can’t imagine why. It must have been prescience, for now, most days, it seems appropriate. To paraphrase: “an old man in a quiet house in a snowy month, reading New Yorker, doing crossword puzzles and getting ready to visit his wife.”
There are anomalies scattered all around the house: the wash basket in the front hall (empty the dryer); a shovel propped ungainly on the back porch (turn off the dryer if you’re leaving); a pill bottle by the back door (get a refill); a pair of creepers in the pocket of my warm jacket (get the winter tires on the truck); and a camera tripod in the living room (I haven’t the faintest idea, but it’ll come to me eventually).
Ancient maxims drummed in by ancestors have become important. Like “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I have hundreds of objects, from mailing labels and postage stamps to a circuit tester and emergency flashlight, and I sometimes practice looking for them in the dark. I got in trouble one morning when I took a pair of shoes off the high closet shelf before dawn and discovered later that I had on shoes from two different pairs, and both on the wrong foot. Then there was the time I stored my wrist watch in my shoe to prevent its being mislaid, and found it when I stopped to see what was wrong with my foot.
I can’t lock myself out of the car anymore because it won’t let me lock it with a key inside. But I can manage to mislay my wallet. I took it out to get a bill for a guy standing on a street corner with a sign, and that evening couldn’t find it. Distraction, panic; I hadn’t put it where it belongs, you see. Visions of it lying under a snowbank till spring evaporated this morning when I spotted it down beside the car seat. It’s back in the old man’s pocket as he writes, aggravating his sciatica.