Saturday, February 19, 2011

Enough Money for Oysters

"My hopes of being a little old bald tubby man with money enough to eat oysters every day are shot."
                                                                                             - Richard Selzer, "Diary"

I could picture myself eating oysters every day. I probably have pictured myself doing just that, but like the diarist I suspect my modest stipend may not support my inclinations.

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

I could even picture myself "being a little old bald tubby man," although I've never really pictured myself as tubby. Nor bald either, come to that, when I was younger and wondered what age would bring; but baldness comes or not, no matter what our senescent self-portrait. The choice is no longer mine whether to picture myself that way or not. I suppose, if pressed, I had pictured myself something like this:

When I was much younger I pictured myself in old age smoking a pipe, sitting in the sunlight and (finally) reading Kant through from beginning to end. I may yet do that if I can stay awake, but surely without the pipe. I've smoked a pipe enough in my time to know that while the idea is pleasant enough the fact is repellent. My grandfather smoked a pipe of "Half and Half" which was fragrant through the house, but his empty pipes in the rack were rank and evil things. Whatever I decide about a pipe, though, this isn't quite what I have in mind:

"The chart, dammit - who smoked it?"

But picturing myself, eating oysters every day or not, bald or hairy, tubby or lean, not much in fear of what's to come, it occurs to me that one of the blessings of an increase in years is that giving a fig becomes a less pressing affair. The onset of age means that there is a sort of geological settlement in the character, and that it, like my tonsure, will be what it will be.

The irascible old fart is a cliche, a stock character, common enough but by no means inevitable. Ill-temper can seem to be a right earned simply by having survived long enough to have seen it all and lost all patience with the human comedy. Perhaps it works that way, but irascibility when it occurs in middle-age, can make the person preternaturally old - an "old soul," as they say. Max Reger, dead of a surfeit of beer and sausages by the age of 43, was an accomplished composer and organist at the turn of the century (the one before last), as memorable for his loutishness as for his music. To the critic on the Munich newspaper who had given his recital of the previous evening an unfavorable review, Reger wrote matter-of-factly: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

Max Reger

In the circumstance, when attended by a quick wit, irascibility has its undeniable charms (speaking for myself). It is Reger's quick-wittedness I imagine having, which of course assumes that I will have wits in the first place. But then it's nearly as difficult to imagine oneself devoid of one's wits as it is to imagine oneself devoid of vital signs.

One must always bear in mind the Aristotelean mean to be rigorously hewed to when behaving irascibly, as in the exercise of any virtue. A deficiency of the quality makes an old man bland, anodyne in company, dull and overly forgiving of neglect or impertinence.  By contrast I remember a story in the local paper many years back - an elderly gentleman whom time had passed by found himself embattled in his own house by the deterioration of his neighborhood. Schoolchildren, to his deep chagrin, made his yard their regular shortcut, whether because of or in spite of his harangues and fist-shakings. When the police finally carted him away he had just run a group of the young interlopers off his property with a hatchet. Heroic in a feeble way, plainly exceeding the bounds of a dignified irritability. Perhaps a claw hammer would have preserved a morsel of respectability.

As for a ready wit, it is the sauce of conversation so long as it is not continually at the expense of another's dignity, propriety, amour-propre and good humor. The admonition of my alter ego serves as the surest bound of taste in exercising wit: "We are as able to be laughed at as we are able to laugh." The older we get, the truer that becomes.

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