22 May 2012

What deer?

I am turning sixty-five years old this summer, and I think that this is one of those birthdays of equal cultural importance to those that occur at ages thirteen (Bar Mitzvah); twenty-one (legal drinking age in the United States); thirty (above which one can’t be trusted); fifty (half a century); and now sixty-five (the age set by Bismarck for workers’ retirement). My friend turns seventy-five this June, and though I recognize that this, too, is a significant milestone, I am not yet close enough to define how it might feel.
Of course, when retirement was established by Otto von Bismarck in 1883, few people actually lived to that advanced age, and so Bismarck’s offer to the workers was only a specious one: I doubt that he ever intended to pay much on his promise but the offer of a pension did quiet the political unrest then threatening Germany. Now, however, sixty five is the new forty and many of us anticipate not a few years left of productive labor. Alas, in this economy, many are forced to remain in the work force beyond their earlier expectations. As for myself, I cannot imagine what I would do in retirement that I don’t already enjoy doing in the work force, and so I do not anticipate any imminent departure from my labors. Dewey long ago suggested that if I enjoyed the work I did then it was not necessary to consider my effort work. I will continue, then, to play for several more years: as long as I continue to live and they continue to have me. I know not a few friends and colleagues (not always the same thing) who are beyond seventy and who still daily, productively and contentedly (despite the meetings) go to their offices.
Nevertheless: Seneca complains to Lucilius: “Put me in the list of the decrepit, the ones on the very brink!” Seneca sounds as if he is in serious decline and appears to be (uncharacteristically for the Stoic philosopher) fretting about it. I read on: in fact, this is not the case. Seneca continues, “Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life.” I suspect that Seneca refers in his mention of his decline only to the state of his physical robustness, and indeed, from his report it sounds as if though his faculties remain vibrant and intact, his ability to engage in sexual activity has been affected. Alas for Seneca, he lived a millennia before Viagra! But stimulated (a cruel word here, I think) by his physical state, Seneca reports in this letter that he intends to investigate with some care “what things I really am refusing to do and what I’m simply incapable of doing,” and then “to accept that those things that he is no longer capable of doing are really those things he no longer chooses to do.”
A great strategy I’d say. Turn the weaknesses into strengths, and pretend that what I can no longer accomplish I have not wished to accomplish. And to pretend to know the difference!  Of course, Seneca’s use of the verb ‘accept’ might be a bit misleading, to transform seems more in line with Seneca’s purpose, but then, I am reading him in translation.
I have spoken of a related concept in Symphony #1 when I  consider the effects of aging on my memory. There I wrote: “There are things I don’t remember, and I can’t remember some of the things I’ve forgotten. And I consider that I am not so much forgetting my life as conserving its energy: there are things I need not now recall to maintain the narrative of my life . . . I know how to recover what I think I’ve forgotten; I have the capacity to maintain the integrity of my narrative. Perhaps,” I considered, “forgetting is also a letting go: there are things that are no longer basic to instant recall. Memory here is not a quantity but a process of organizing what one requires into some narrative. One needn’t be suffering from dementia to lack narrative power, and loss of memory doesn’t necessarily mean dementia. Sometimes it might be characterized as wisdom. So with Seneca: he is measuring what he no longer can do and that which he no longer chooses to do! There might be wisdom in age.
But for some reason, Seneca reminds me of a joke I’ve included in the Third Movement of Symphony #1. Seneca would make disappear not only what he would not own but also that which he might claim. The joke, a bit more harsh that I consider Seneca’s reflections, portray the hubris (unwarranted though it be), the presumption of power (fascist though it seems), the subterfuge daily practiced by our government officials, and the subservience of those with less power to those presumed to have it. As with all good jokes, it is truer than it ought to be. Which is to say, I guess, that in a better world it would not be a joke!
A story is told: Vice-President Cheney and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield, were out hunting one day. Perhaps it was a weekend when fortunately the world was at rest and there is not much to read in the newspapers. Suddenly, a deer saunters through a copse of trees and the two men fire almost simultaneously. Bambi slumps to the ground dead. The two men turn and slap each other on the back as men would do. Rumsfield, resentfully of slightly lower rank, tells the Vice-President to wait with the deer while he goes off to find someone to help them carry their trophy back. Not a few minutes later, Rumsfield returns with some under-secretaries, but Cheney is standing alone and the deer is nowhere in sight. “Where’s the deer?” asked Rumsfield. “”What deer?” said Cheney. “Wait a minute,” says Rumsfield, “didn’t we both come out here to hunt together?” “Yes, we did, my friend.” “And didn’t we both see a deer coming through that copse of woods?” said Rumsfield. “Yes, we certainly did, Don.” “And . . . and didn’t we both shoot that deer?” “Yes we did.” “And didn’t I say I would go and get some help, and didn’t I leave you here for just a few minutes to guard the deer?” “Yes, you did.” "So," said Rumsfield, “where’s the deer?” “What deer?”


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