“Accept modestly; surrender gracefully”—Marcus Aurelius
I celebrated my 60th birthday the other day, and find this fact amazing, appalling, and strangely life affirming. Cheerfulness is the first sign of wisdom, and to quote Hubert Humphrey: “I’m as pleased as punch” to still be here.
This last is no idle notion. Thanks to social media and googling the obituary pages of the local newspapers back east where I grew up, I’m discovering that I’m outliving increasing numbers of familiar contemporaries. I’ve counted a half dozen in just the last year. Sic transit gloria mundi. This is sad and weirdly refreshing at the same time.
Sixty is the borderland of old, but it’s strange that as one ages the general feeling of the same old self is always present. Despite the aches and pains, we are still the people that we were fifty years ago. As we approach the gate of the grave, we are likely to still possess the same cognitive awe of life (though seared by experience, skepticism, and cynicism) that we felt in childhood.
While thinking about writing this piece I flipped through a few odd books on my shelves for an insight or two. In my Viking Portable Edmund Wilson I find his essay: “The Author at Sixty,” which the great critic wrote in 1956, when he was hard at work on a multitude of projects including Patriotic Gore, his monumental opus on the literature of the Civil War, and pursuing such avocations as teaching himself Hebrew and Russian while sipping Scotch in the evening. In “The Author at Sixty,” Wilson wrote: “I have ceased to try to see at first hand what is happening in the United States, and my movements are all along a regular beat, which enables me to avoid things that bore or annoy me…. I make no attempt to keep up with the younger American writers; and I only hope to have the time to get through some of the classics I have never read. Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.”
At the risk of sounding like an old fogey myself, I’m finding it more and more difficult to “relate” (a word Wilson would have abhorred) to young people. As we know, they’re rather self-absorbed, what with their obsession with gadgets. Even rudimentary conversations with them are rare, and their familiarity with their elders strikes me as rude, even if they personally are not. We’re all the same people now, dude. And, of course, we’re told that they’re the smartest generation (I’m talking about the Millennials now) to have yet existed, even though they think Abe Lincoln signed the U.S. Constitution, or “The Great Gatsby” was a magician. Though as I watch Jay Leno’s man-on-the-street quizzes, it might not actually be a bad sign that a majority of 22-year-olds don’t know that Joe Biden is the Vice President because maybe Joe Biden doesn’t know that Joe Biden is the Vice President. But this ignorance will leave them susceptible to demagoguery (as we already saw in their enthusiastic embrace of the current president through two election cycles) and maybe savage dystopia later in their lives.
On a more cheerful note, I went to the movies on my birthday, seeing — oddly enough — the delightful Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson playing Walt Disney and P.L. Travers respectively, as Disney struggled to get Mary Poppins made, while cajoling and battling the prim and proper Travers (a stickler for artistic control) for the rights to her children’s book. The film was set in Los Angeles in 1961, and as I watched it — with its cars, clothes, and plain speech and mannerisms of the time — I was filled with nostalgia. Not just for the Disney zeitgeist of a baby boomer American childhood, but for America circa 1961. This is how it was.
People talked on rotary dial telephones that were plugged into the wall. Walt Disney’s screenwriters banged away on noisy, portable typewriters. Cars were big. Men wore suits; women wore fashionable dresses, their hair smartly styled. I didn’t see any tattoos. People practiced civility in conversation and argument. Popular culture as manufactured at Disney (and in Hollywood in general) was designed to feed an ingrained sense of wonder and possibility; the Disneyland experience itself a reward for family hard work and probity. One of my takeaways from the movie was that this was the last time that America — despite the specter of the Cold War — stood in the warm sunshine of optimism, the Reagan 1980s notwithstanding.
Needless to say, our own time is not given to such optimism. And, per Wilson, the older I get I try to ignore the nihilistic aspects of a popular culture that not only bores and annoys me, but mostly nauseates me. As for the writers, Wilson and his Lost Generation alumni are dead (not to mention the amazing literary talent that emerged from World War II), but speaking as a man of the 1920s, he can have the last word: “When, for example, I look through Life magazine, I feel that I do not belong to the country depicted there, that I do not even live in that country. Am I then in a pocket of the past? I don’t necessarily believe it. I may find myself here at the center of things — since the center can be only in one’s head — and my feelings and thoughts may be shared by many.”