Friday, November 9, 2012

“Don’t ever get old…but I guess it’s better than the alternative”

The demands and expectations of the young and old alike are nearly identical.  Both demographics can use their age as an excuse to validate their devious acts and blissful ignorance.  The young use their parents to finance their lifestyles and the elderly live off a combination of the government, their own wealth, and their children’s goodwill.  Young and old people stress about trivial matters that do not have long-term impacts.  Dwelling on wether or not correlation implies causation when applied to the effects of yellow-5 intake and testicle size can hardly be considered a life altering event for a young person.  Likewise, old people only busy their minds with inflation statistics, weather, and the implications of Hi-Def televisions.   Stress, in its most refined form--the kind that can make you prematurely bald, or punch out a Starbucks Barista--is only really felt by people between the ages of 25-65.  These folks work for a living so that they can subsidize the lifestyles of their dependent children and parents. They spend the best part of their lives worrying about everyone but themselves.  As they drink an immense amount of coffee to artificially stimulate their enthusiasm for making money and acting like an “adult” everyday, they ask themselves iterative, ulcer inducing questions like: How is my 401k looking? Is it possible to be TOO diversified? Does it make me a bad parent if I let my children eat McDonalds once a week?  Am I the reason my child was placed in the slow reading group? What are the long-term impacts of drinking soymilk? If my wife were to divorce me right now, would I ever find love again? Am I having enough sex? Should I be prescribed Xanax? How is the economy doing?  Surviving 40 solid years of this mind boggling, selfless purgatory is a major accomplishment in and of itself, and I really do not know how people do it.  The first 22-25 years of your life, you can be as selfish as you want and then suddenly—almost all at once—people start depending on you to be something you have never been before. The next 40 years of life scare the shit out of me and I have begun to realize the closest I will come to being young again….is when I’m old.

“Don’t ever get old…but I guess it’s better than the alternative”

I’ve lived at my grandparent's house for almost a month now and my grandpa finds a way to work this phrase into a conversation almost daily.  Usually the statement follows a long-winded story about how he cannot eat and talk simultaneously because his hearing aid amplifies the sound of himself chewing.   I’ve become fascinated with the context in which he delivers this message, it’s not necessarily the raw meaning of what he says but rather the way he says it.  Generally, he looks out the window at the dawn’s early light where a pack of geese defecate on his kingdom, exhales deeply, and says, “Don’t ever get old Son…but I guess it’s better than the alternative”. He says this in a tone laced with a feeling of deep remorse, leading me to believe that he doesn’t believe what he is saying at all.  It's almost as if his grandpa used to utter this banal platitude in his waning days and my grandpa has since adapted it as his mantra so that he has a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Is getting old really better than the alternative?  He must ask himself this question everyday.  Watching my grandpa gaze out the window while he thinks (as I fictional his thoughts) about a different time when he had the sonar hearing of a bat, the looks of a Sinatra, and the durability of a European immigrant, all I can think about is this quote from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road:

“The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.” 

Life is filled with transitions that make us question our learned identities and force us to become something else.  At each of these touch points we lose something within ourselves.  As we learn, and become exposed to adult themes and consequences, we lose our sense of curiosity.  As we begin to fear failure, we abort the youthful method of trial and error, positioning ourselves to exert effort only when we know we will succeed.   The most painful transition is when we reach the realization that there is nothing left to lose and begin to question if we ever had anything to lose at all.
As I walk into my grandparent’s house, it is clear to see that they gave up on modernization around the time that my grandpa retired.  Every room is stocked with at least one—if not two—pullout couches that are as uncomfortable folded up as they are pulled out.  Manual “tick-tock” clocks line the hallways and general living spaces.  On the hour—every hour—the clocks gong with precise unity.  In the basement, my grandma has a sewing room where she spends countless hours assembling an array of quilts, novelty holiday sweaters, and crocheted dog beds.  Between them, they have assumed traditional gender roles that would have modernist clamoring for female empowerment.  My grandpa refuses to let my grandma drive anywhere, driving is a man's job.  The other day my grandma called my grandpa and I into the kitchen for dinner.  To my grandpa’s surprise, his wife had already cut the roast she had been baking all day.  You would have thought she had slaughter his first-born son the way he reacted.  Throughout 60 years of marriage, his job as a man has always been to cut his wife’s roast.  Any change—even in the slightest—threatens his stability and understanding of his role in the world.  
As a casual observer of his lifestyle, I have developed an internal laundry list of ways that I could make his life easier and more efficient with the application of technology and modern logic.  A smartphone could alleviate the stress of looking at a map while driving, likewise, applying simple scientific reasoning could free up hours of worshipping a false deity.  However, he is always resistant to change.  The question is why?  The simple response is stubbornness but that does not even begin to provide legs to a legitimate answer.  The real answer is fear—fear of having more free time.  He fears that evolutions in efficiency will leave him with long mundane pauses where he is left to contemplate existence and his place within it.  It's not like he has an infinite queue of activities that he has been putting off because of time constraints.  Because of this, I have refrained from asking him "what did you do today?" because I know it is just as painful for him to answer that question as it is for me to listen to it.  When we are young, we are always looking for ways to make things easier.  As things become less strenuous, we have more time for our kids, our hobbies, our deepest desires, and ourselves.  When we age, time is no longer a constraining resource--although it is certainly finite--but there are less dependencies vying for our attention….which I’m sure is met with an ambivalent feeling of liberation and depression.
I’ve had this theory for sometime that there comes a point in every man’s life where he becomes frozen.  Frozen in the sense that he is no longer willing or even able to adapt with the world changing around him.  His thoughts become as stagnant and archaic as his wardrobe.  My grandpa has long been the structural foundation for this theory.  Like most people during his era, my grandpa retired at the age of 55 in 1985.  Retirement on the surface seems rewarding, a luminous opening at the end of a dark tunnel.  Finally, all of the hard work he put into providing for his family and achieving financial freedom would materialize into copious amounts of free time to do the things he neglected for so long.  However, it was at that point that he gave up on being an adaptive human being.  What was left for him to accomplish?  He worked hard and excelled at each transition from college, to employment, to marriage, to raising children, to watching his children obtain a similar continuum of material success.  A man can only play so much golf and vacation before he reaches a vegetative point of no return.  Work—as much as I hate to admit it—forces a person to be engage and challenged on a daily basis.  The workplace is essentially a holding tank filled with people of various demographics, ideas, creativity, and technological advancements.  When my grandpa retired, he was no longer obligated to be around the complicated fabric of a workplace ...which is perfectly fine, retirement is suppose to be a time for relaxation—an escape from the hustle and bustle. Now, the only way my grandpa is able to think about the present is to contrast it with how it is not like the past.  His brain is filled with a finite amount of stories about the musings of his life and he finds it very difficult to make or enjoy new memories.  At some point his ability to do this stopped completely.  
At first I found myself becoming frustrated with my grandpa's complacency.  How could he possibly be satisfied?  Everyday my grandpa wakes up at 5 am to read the Chicago tribune.  At 630 AM he joins me for breakfast where he shares stories about his past or societal observations that bother him about the present.  In the last 3 weeks, he has told me about the time he went to a Cubs World Series game in 1945 for $1.50 at least 10 times...but I never have the heart to tell him "Hey! Granps you told me this exact same thing yesterday."  I thought he might be senile, but I have since ruled that out.  I'm convinced that he tells me these things over and over again not because he is crazy but rather because he can...and I have to listen because his mere' longevity commands respect.  He does not have to be anybody except for who he wants to be at this point.  Isn't that purest form of happiness?  When we no longer have to change to the demands of the world around us or alter our personalities to assimilate to the expectations of others?  When we reach that final frontier the anxiety that greets us at every other transition point is no longer present.  I can't wait to reach that plateau where I can just be content and completely comfortable in my own skin.  
If i've learned anything over the last few weeks it’s that my grandpa speaks a different language than my peers. Sure it’s English, but he speaks with sincerity rather than sarcasm and irony. I've spent the last six years of my life building friendships and relationships by speaking with a snarky ironic tone, which is a tool that is imperative for survival in my generation. Being sincere and direct is not only ridiculed with the label of "uncool" but it’s almost a sign of weakness. From my skewed lens of the world, interacting with people is a constant negotiation. You are trying to see what is on my piece of paper and vis-versa. If I tell you directly, what I have to offer then I give you all the leverage. Irony is a powerful weapon that I use to protect myself from exposing the raw nerve of vulnerability. I feel like everyone around me is constantly being ironic. Has our generation entered a tipping point, in that we spew more sentences laced with irony than without? If the use of irony becomes the implied expectation of every conversation then doesn't the very definition of irony fold on top of itself? Is it now ironic to be sincere? Think about the last time you chewed a piece of Bubble Yum and you bit your tongue by accident--it fucking hurt. You feel that pain, and anguish from your brain to your bowels. Now sink the tips of your canines into your tongue as hard as you can, the reaction isn't nearly the same. In fact, you could probably chew on your tongue all day until it became a bloody mess but the pain would still feel relatively numb. Why? Because you've consciously conditioned your brain for what is to come. That sharp pain? That is what irony used to be. It used to cut deep and make you feel something.  Now, here we are...we have all become figuratively numb tongue'd users of flippant language, where we never really mean what we say or confront what we mean. Now, I'm not removing myself from this equation by any means. I've built my whole persona on irony.  Honestly, I want my wedding song to be "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one your with" By Crosby Stills and Nash. Not because I feel that way about my bride but because if she can appreciate the irony and humor of this, then I've probably found my soul mate.
Anyway, my grandpa is a living artifact. He is a relic of a generation that is no longer embraced by the masses. Soon, to the grave he will take with him...sincerity.  His value in the world—though he may not be consciously aware of it—is to prolong a lifestyle that will soon be scrubbed clean from humanity.  At some point, I, like my grandpa, will become a man frozen in time.  My children and grandchildren will nag at me and try to force me to adapt.  They will guise their disgust for my obsolescence with "thoughtful" Christmas gifts filled with the cutting edge technology of time that I will subsequently store somewhere in the basement, unopened.  They will role their eyes as I tell the story about my white eyebrow for the 100th time at Thanksgiving.  I will undoubtedly resist them like an index finger wrestling its way out of a Chinese finger trap, but my hope is that they come to the realization that I have in the last month, that even though my bones are brittle, my take on social progression is a little too conservative, and my ironic tone seems presence has value, because soon I, and the micro-culture that I inhibit, will cease to exist.
Without fail, my mind forces me to perpetually contrast the ways I see my grandpa dealing with his destiny with my own transition.  I’ve been working a real job for exactly three weeks now and I feel like I’m being forced to relearn my identity.  Every morning I dress in a way that I never have before, as I meet and greet my superiors with banal pleasantries so that I am perceived as a diligent worker.   Sure the structural elements of my personality remain, but I am in a foreign place where I am forced to adapt.  My "go to" crutches of sarcasm and irony that have carried me this far in life are useless in a corporate setting.  However, in my work environment there is a silver-lining…if I stand up and prop myself on the tips of my toes, I can see out a window that over looks highway 294.  I look out this window and let my mind wander to another place and another time.  A time when I was not necessarily happier, but different, less inhibited, the word reckless comes to mind.  And, even though I am content with certain aspects of my current surroundings, I wish I could reach back into my past and stay up until dawn drinking, laughing, and clinging to the metaphorical night that is my dwindling youth, or accelerate thru the next 40 years of stress.   In the midst of this bizarre nostalgic/futuristic reflection, I exhale, think of my grandpa, and say to myself “I may be getting older…but I guess it's better than the alternative”.