I stroll out of my house in St. Paul, head up the street, and am passed by runners – first one, then a string of them, loping, lumbering, stumbling; skinny ones, burly ones; all hoping to extend their lifetimes towards the century mark, something I could talk to them about, being 73 and all. But they’re breathing hard and they’re plugged into their clip-on gizmos, listening to music, which puts the kibosh on conversation, and anyway I can see pity in their eyes. Look at that shuffling old codger. Hope I don’t get to be like that.
They are in their thirties, as nearly everyone is nowadays, and what I’d tell them is that longevity is an excellent thing, but only if you become kinder and more thoughtful with age and don’t disdain those who walk cautiously but look charitably on your fellow passengers. And why shouldn’t you? Life is good. Your overweening ambition burns off as your future diminishes. You learn to proceed slowly; why get there sooner when it’s not that far away? And scarcity makes your days more and more delicious. Instead of nostalgia, you feel the love of right now.
Of course, you’re going to learn more about medicine than you want to know. You’ll learn that cardiology is miraculous and they can pop your heart out of your chest and sew it like an old shoe. Anaesthesiology can make you blissfully content. Radiology can find a needle in the haystack of your mind.
Urology can do miracles. I had a prostate the size of a pomegranate – I could’ve entered it in the county fair – and a urologist did a laser procedure on it and injected brain tissue, and now my cerebellum can talk to down there and I can piss like a palomino. Ask me; I’ll show you. (Neurology, on the other hand, is more like astrology and water witching.)
You learn that many medications promise vague benefits but make you feel lousy. You learn that pain is hard to ignore and talking about it makes it worse and that a cheerful heart is a good strategy. It sounds trite because it is, but nonetheless it’s true. When you feel down, meditate on the following ordinary little blessings of today and let them buck you up. To wit:
1 Cash Card
You slip it into an ATM in Minnesota (or Malmo or Marrakesh) and punch in four numbers and money jumps out. Back in the day, you had to write out a cheque to “Cash” or carry traveller’s cheques and present an ID to a hatchet-faced clerk who looked you up and down and then disappeared into a back room to confer with someone, and the whole procedure made you feel like there was Something Wrong with you. Tell me you miss the personal contact? Ha! There is nothing sociopathic in a magnetic strip, and when the computer says you have money coming to you, it pays you the money, no hesitation.
2 Grief counsellors
Back then, the only way to deal with grief was to Get Over It. Now there are grief professionals who can help you get through it – not over it but through it, because you can never get “over” some wounds. I dropped an easy fly ball in fourth grade and I was scorned, derided, marginalised, diminished. They called me a wiener, and ever since then, any sort of sausage has been a trigger for me. Or such words as “cleaner”, “misdemeanour” and “Pasadena”. Because there was no grief counselling then. Now there is.
3 Kids named Olivia and Isabella, Aidan and Liam
I come from the era of Karen and Joanne and Larry and Gary. Gone. Now, you will find little Avas and Sophias, Lutheran kids with Mediterranean names, boys called Caleb and Elijah. Literary names: Nora, Harper, Scarlett, Zoe, Emma.
4 Words like “synergy” and “transparency”
Back in the day, two and two was four, never more, and we lived in a world of shadows. Today we have “totally” and “awesome”. We didn’t dare think in terms of totality. We were sort of interested, slightly amused, the movie was okay. Now it is possible to be totally into it. Awe was what you would feel if the clouds parted and angels descended with Jesus in their midst, the radiant brilliance of his holy light: it would be awesome. Now you might apply the word to a song or a term paper.
5 Seat warmers
I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. My wife’s car has seat warmers; mine does not. On bitter winter mornings, she often drives me to the office. Half a mile from home, my butt is warm. It’s like falling in love all over again.
They’re everywhere. On your phone, your computer, not that you ever use them. The average person’s need for maths was overemphasised in school. They lied to us. I have never had to multiply fractions. No need for maths unless you were going into engineering, and even then there were calculators. And GPS: the pleasure of driving is enhanced enormously by this anonymous woman, a woman you are not married to, telling you to turn left. If you don’t, there are no recriminations: she simply recalculates.
7 Soft butter
It’s aerated, sometimes mixed with olive oil to make it soft, not like the hard bricks of yesteryear. You scraped off thin shavings of butter to put on your toast, and even so it tore the toast to shreds – it was not artisan bread but Wonder Bread, which was like Kleenex – and there you stood eating torn toast, and it gave you the feeling that life would be full of small disappointments.
8 Performance art
Back then we had performance – Rubinstein playing Chopin, Brando playing Kowalski – and we had art: Matisse and his collages, Chagall and his fiddlers and angels. But we didn’t have performance art – a woman in a black dress walking in a circle in a train station, murmuring and making people uneasy as her colleague films her from behind a pillar. A naked woman sits on a chair in a doorway and visitors must squeeze past her, thereby gaining some sort of ironical postmodernist insight. My people were pre-postmodern. Irony we didn’t have much of. We thought beauty was truth; that’s how smart we were.
Back then, you ordered something out of a catalogue; mailed the order form; and waited for a week, two weeks, three, with no idea where it was. Now you order your socks and underwear online and they arrive the next day or the day after, and you can track them hour by hour using your phone. This gives you a sense that Things Are Under Control. If workers are able to monitor the locations of millions of shipments, then surely the government has its eye on evildoers.
10 Craft beer
Beer has become a gourmet item. Beer. Back when, you were loyal to a local brew, the same one your father and his brothers drank. Or if you had a degree in the liberal arts, you swore by an import. But you didn’t talk about “oak flavours” and “breadiness” and “finish” as now some people do. Now then, if beer can be elevated from mere beverage to Work of Art, then why not soft drink? Floral notes and lemon peel sprinkled with vanilla play off earthy cinnamon to give this Coca-Cola a big, boisterous finish. Why not your oatmeal? Your toothpaste? The quality boom continues. Artisan toilet paper is not far away.
11 The frequent-flyer credit card
I love this credit card the way Wordsworth loved daffodils. Poets don’t consider a credit card to be suitable subject matter; they’re still stuck on lost love and ageing, but if you have upgraded to business class on a flight to London using mileage you earned at petrol stations, you are contemplating a miracle.
12 Cordless phones
Once you were on a short leash when your lover called and the whole family could hear every word, so you couldn’t say what you really wanted to say, and now you can step outside and say whatever you want. It’s all about freedom of speech.
13 Health care
It’s become fairly fabulous. Lasik eye surgery. We didn’t have that, and so we’d go around with pop-bottle glasses, blinking like lemurs, unable to read street signs. Every kind of surgery has advanced. Stuff they used to have to cut you in half for, now they run a tiny tube up a vein and snip-snip as you read the paper. Back in the day, people had surgery scars like Frankenstein’s monster, big zipper marks that meant you could never model bikinis again. Now? No problem.