A friend from Los Angeles visited the other day. We hadn't seen each other for nearly ten years. Now, any ten years are significant in a human life, but the ten years I missed with M. were those between his mid-50s and mid-60s. This is a time of life that some of the most ingeniously cruel jokes are played on us. M. missed my mid-40s to mid-50s; and I got a chance to see, with him, a possible variation on what I might expect on this patch of road ahead. Weight is always a variable, so I won't count that. And I'm not concerned with hair loss either. But just walking down Adams Avenue proved to be an example of what I mean. M., a guy who used to make me feel like a total dipstick because I wouldn't join him on the court for a game of B-ball at the Hollywood YMCA, was now asking me to slow my pace on the way to a pizza joint. I was walking too fast. Just a few short years ago, I was walking with a cane, and I was forced to sit down somewhere, anywhere, every block and a half. This was a result of my heart failing and my thyroid crapping out -- probably after being drowned with whiskey repeatedly.
Another thing. I've heard it said that "we all become parodies of ourselves eventually," and I thought this was sagely stuff when I was younger; but there are so many qualifying exceptions that it has become, to me, meaningless as a generality. But to become a parody of something you have despised or said you despised for years, now that's interesting.
I took M. to hear a friend of mine speak, a guy who works in the ghetto and, although white, has picked up a lot of ghetto mannerisms as a matter of course. Over pizza that night, M. said, "I can't believe that guy acting like a black person. I was shocked. Shocked!" And at first I thought he was riffing on Claude Raines learning that there was gambling at Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca; but M. was serious. Absolutely serious. Just the idea that my old lefty friend could be shocked by anything was enough to make me look at him askance, as it were; but I was overcome with the conviction that he was objecting to my friend's implicit endorsement of black/street behavior. This was coming from a man who used to shoot hoops in Harlem with Quincy Troupe.
I think I was angry with my friend for getting old, or at least for succumbing to obvious pitfalls like intolerance. That may well be because I've allowed it to happen to me in more than a few areas of life. I've become less patient with what I call the Militantly Stupid, like those who don't have the common sense to stick their heads out the window and acknowledge global warming or allow the possibility that man might be responsible for it. Why? I don't get it. Old age does come with the fringe benefit of no longer suffering fools gladly but not the luxury of becoming one of them. "There's no fool..." etc.
Among the things I suspect are lying in wait for me in the not-too-distant future is what I'll call the Day of the Locust Factor, after Nathaneal West's novel. In this story of Homer Simpson (yeah, that's where Matt Groening must have gotten that tag) there is the idea that immigrants to California ultimately feel they've been horribly cheated out of something, like the American Dream or the California Dream. My borrowing from West has to do with chronology and not geography. It is, again, very American and very Californian -- having achieved what (pretty much anywhere else) might be considered an elder status, you find that status has transmogrified itself into having a kind of rug pulled out from under you, relegating you (one) to the status of a doddering joke.
My friend, after a long career in Hollywood, feels this sharply. In that town, as Steve Martin had it in one of his movies, Bowfinger, "They can smell 50 on you." My friend, ten years ago, would go through figurative barrels of metaphorical social deodorant in order to disguise the odor of 50. I am proud of my old friend in that he no longer takes any measures in this direction whatsoever.
I have not yet formulated any philosophy of old age for myself. I never thought I would have to, of course, but the same could have been said for middle age and even most of adulthood. When I do come up with some sort of credo or desideratum, it will likely have to do with the same things I have valued all along; things like avoiding mediocrity (near impossible) and pretension (a little easier) and adhering to a personal code of honesty that involves a kind of Catch-22: honesty is the last pretension. A cynical thought but not a dishonest one.
One more element, previously of no concern whatever, now rears its head, and it has to do with dignity. First, I'll have to define it and then consider ways to introduce it into a life where it has been conspicuously lacking for almost six decades. I am confident that once I'm within range of that particular brass ring, reaching across the grave for it, in a sense, I'll only have to look down to spot the banana peel.