The secret of eternal youth, according to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is arrested development, and the penny dropped last week. The mountains were misty, snow was falling and I went to the dojo for some karate training. I was sparring with a tough, fifth-degree black-belt instructor, Roland, and kept nailing him, something I hadn’t been able to do previously. That’s when it dawned on me. Respecting my advanced age, he was taking a dive. ‘If you don’t stop this crap, I’ll beat the crap out of you,’ I threatened. He didn’t — and nor did I. We ended up laughing and doing kata instead. I felt great after 45 minutes of punching and kicking, but what a bore old age is. The last time somebody pulled his punches on me was 50 years ago when I was a white belt. I can see it now, being escorted across the street like some old ladies are — when they’re not being mugged.
Never mind. The heartlessness of youth, the selfishness and cluelessness are zero compared with creaky old age. They say that wisdom comes with age, but does it? Karajan was greater when his hair was pitch black, as was Mitropoulos when he still had hair. (I was happy to read in the Telegraph that the Greek was included among the five greatest conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan, Klemperer and Kleiber.) Both Alexander the Great and Napoleon erred late rather than early on, but it was Plato speaking for Socrates who nailed it best in the Republic. He’s great on sex, although the word is never mentioned. This is Cephalus talking to Socrates about old age: ‘I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.’ Well, maybe Cephalus felt like that, but I sure don’t. Neither does Jack Nicholson, who announced five years ago that he was through with chasing pussy but has kept on chasing, maybe not as desperately as before, but the hunt is always on. Cicero recycled Plato without attribution, but what the hell, the Romans always copied us Greeks, so what else is new? (And they will again, in the near future, when Italy turns into the basket case that is modern Hellas.)
Character is very important in old age, according to Cicero — I agree with him — and he also mentions happiness from within. (Until now, happiness from within meant going to bed alone and finding Ava Gardner in it.) Basically, old age is not for sissies, and those who complain non-stop about it are silly and very boring. Yeats was muscle-bound and would-be heroic, but he was a bit strange about old age. To make up for it, he wished to collect mechanical songbirds that a Byzantine emperor once possessed. (I’d rather have a cut-out of Betty Grable in a bathing suit circa 1945.) Philip Larkin, who never reached old age, is very depressing and bleak about it. Senility in an old people’s home is so depressing that it calls for a stiff drink and some soft porn.
But enough about a subject that only old people can take seriously. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature about a fisherman who was old and powerless against nature. I’ve read quite a lot about Papa’s last years, and he never felt sorry for himself. He was cantankerous and weary at times, but never passive or accepting of fools. That’s what I liked about him, and, come to think about it, my old man was also like that at the end. Fear of death should make one defiant, not cooperative, but it’s usually the other way round. Moral exhortations to rise above the humiliations of old age are hooey, but they can provide a good living for those who make them, especially in America.
I know this is hard to believe, but a great Olympic decathlon champion, Bruce Jenner, gold medalist in 1976, is in the process of becoming a woman. He is the stepfather of the Kardashians, which perhaps explains it. Mind you, if I had the ghastly luck to be the stepfather of those grotesques I wouldn’t change sex; I’d commit suicide. What does changing sex have to do with old age? Nothing much except that only old fools do it.
And, speaking of very foolish people, mostly men, of course, the New York Times — the paper that it is more embarrassing to read than it is to soil one’s trousers — recently ran a two-page diatribe headlined ‘Searching for sex’ about, among other things, how men search on Google for information on how to make their penises bigger. Now I ask you, dear readers. Is it possible that a newspaper whose reputation is built on its hatred for white middle-class men can run a long, boring piece by a man called Davidowitz about angst and confusion about willy size. It’s as boring a subject as the excuses for rioting, looting, burning and killing in the Muslim world. In its insatiable appetite for trendiness, the NYT has become a joke, although an intelligent old boy like myself always knew it was a joke, and a bad one at that.
Writing about that old hag makes the subject of old age a pleasant one. Instead of getting mad, I now laugh out loud. Reading the NYT is as funny as those threatening scowls and bad-ass stares that some Muslim punks direct at old ladies and not at men who might retaliate. I’m heading back to the gym and this time I will really beat the crap out of anyone who pulls his punches.