A friend I have known for 60 years once told me that in relation to cold weather he had never heard me say anything more startling than “it’s a bit nippy out there.”
Well, today was a bit nippy, minus 18, feeling like minus 25 with the wind chill, but I have never liked surrendering to the cold, and I pulled on my winter coverings, adding for this slightly extreme occasion my old ski mask that I hadn’t worn in years, and set off to walk the three-quarters of a mile to my favorite coffee shop, and back. It was invigorating, I’ll say that.
As the great Irish journalist Claud Cockburn once observed, a fact, such as the one above, attains meaning only when picked up by someone who places it in the context of his or her own outlook on life.
So here is the context to give my unremarkable journey on a cold day some meaning: almost ten years ago, when I had passed 80, I decided to write a series of pieces called Chronicles from the Ninth Decade. I wrote 20 or so of them before they petered out, to join that vast assembly of begun-but-never-ended articles, books and plays that repose in various drawers and files around what is left of my dwelling space (that is, a one-bedroomed apartment, on the 15th floor above downtown Montreal.)
I am within three months of reaching my tenth decade, and although I don’t want to tempt fate, I have begun to think about reviving my old idea, of constructing a chronical from --- wait for it! --- the tenth decade. First, I looked for what I had written to begin this ninth decade series: after a lot of back and forth, clicking on this and that I found them in a file called “Archives”, that I didn’t even know existed.
Here is the first of them:
In the second decade of their lives, most young men and women are expected to be --- and usually are --- bursting with life and shining with good health. Nowadays called teenagers, these young people know nothing about things that by the ninth decade of their lives will have become wearisomely familiar to them --- post-nasal drip, hearing loss, deviated septums, enlarged prostate glands, eye cataracts, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis and so, on and on without end. Or I should say, until the inevitable end that even they, the young, will eventually come to.
If one works at it, however, even in the ninth decade one can show occasional bursts of life, ignoring all the ills that man is heir to. To come through life more or less whole requires a willingness to curse, to drink, and even (in rare cases) to go on screwing, as if one were still in his --- shall we say? --- fifties.
I am writing this in my son Ben’s house in Austin Texas, after spending most of my day hanging around in Dulles International Airport, Washington DC, waiting for a plane to arrive from Providence that had not been able to takeoff because air traffic over New York was stacked a mile high following a storm. This is the kind of thing --- a mere storm --- that exposes the extent to which we have all become victims of these huge, lunatic, centralized, electronic systems of governance that we take so much for granted nowadays: one hitch anywhere, one switch thrown by accident, or one airport thrown off its stride causes immediate repercussions everywhere in the continent. And that is why I spent six hours yesterday talking to an old lady who had flown in from Rome and was waiting vainly to get to Philadelphia on scheduled planes that just hadn’t arrived; and to a young girl wearing a Universita Roma sweater who was actually attending the University of West England in Gloucester and was hoping to get to Indianapolis. (Like most old ladies this one simply assumed I was interested in her grandchildren; but there were some snippets of useful social information shared as well: her daughter and son-in-law arrived back in the family home in their thirties with five children, and spent a whole year under the maternal roof. Oh, those Philadelphia stories!)
Ben had been tracking the progress of my flight throughout the day by computer, so the variations in schedule did not discommode him in the slightest. He picked me up and suggested I might like to go to the Continental club, where, if we were lucky, we might hear the last set by Ephraim Owen, a superb jazz trumpeter I had heard a couple of times before.
I say it frequently with pardonable exaggeration, that the Continental club is the world’s greatest night club, a scruffy old place whose walls bear the detritus of half a century of ceaseless devotion to live music. It is owned by Steve Wertheimer (who bought it when the street was depressed 20 years ago, a condition he has almost single-handedly reversed), and is managed by a couple of beautiful young women, Celeste and Kelly, who are my favorite Americans. The upstairs gallery had been closed for several months to conform with various city ordinances, but in my absence the bar had been moved three feet to the right, clearing the exit of encumbrances, and Ephraim, a modest, cheerful type, was back at the old stand with his trio. When his set was over I went up and shook his hand, telling him I was Ben’s Dad. “Oh, yes, Ben’s dad, I remember you, I remember you! I am honored you have come back and are here with us again,” he said (tending towards one of those American show-biz overkills. But, you know, the guy did sound genuinely pleased that I was there). We had some drinks, and when we came to settle up, Kelly, with whom I struck up a warm friendship on my first visit a couple of years ago because of her fearless denunciation of Dubya, charged me the minimal total of $6! That’s Texas, or more precisely, Austin, hospitality and warmth: or maybe it could be respect for those who are sear and yellowed and gradually withering with advancing age.
Then Ben and I sat in the open air on his verandah until after 4 a.m., deploring the temper of our times, and, true to my recent form, I got hammered without its having the slightest effect the next morning on my head. The advantages of old age are few, but occasionally worthwhile.
Comment after ten years: These disquisitions on old age have been modified only slightly as the result of the passing of ten years. My major discovery has been that after one reaches the age of 80, the rate of physical decline is exponential. I wasn't quite prepared for that, to tell the truth. I thought, since everyone used to congratulate me on how I didn't look anything like my age, that I would never be one of those old people one sees dragging themselves painfully around the street. But the fact is, I have had a couple of serious old-age health incidents that have very much slowed me down: the first happened two years ago when I snapped the Achilles tendon on my right leg as I was trying to mount my bicycle. The second was an incident in which my bladder became so full of blood clots that I couldn’t perform my normal functions. That introduced me to the delights of the catheter, and the cystoscope. Two marvels of technology that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
The Achilles has never totally healed, and I don’t see myself ever riding a bicycle again, something I hate to admit, but it has slowed me down and reduced the amount of walking I used to do. Then to these unexpected delights, nine months ago was added a mysterious attack that felled me in the street, shivering and trembling from head to toe: the next thing I knew I was in a hospital, surrounded by people whose language I could scarcely understand, which I attribute both to my failing hearing, as well as my inadequate knowledge of French, and subject to antibiotic treatment for nine days that appears to have cured me, but again has had the effect of making my general speed around the world much slower than it used to be.
Another effect of the passing years has been that I am no longer able to sit up until 4 am getting hammered. In fact, I can hardly abide any alcohol unless it is accompanied by collateral sips of cold water. So gone are those delightful pub crawls in Austin with my eldest son.
I think the major effect of this physical deterioration is to have turned me into one of those old bores whose primary topic of conversation is their ailments. With which I sign off this first piece celebrating my approach to the tenth decade, with a vow never to mention my physical condition in this chronicle again.