It’s true: ’what I want back is what I was’

It’s true: ‘what I want back is what I was’
Barbara Amiel
It's true: 'what I want back is what I was'
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There is nothing wrong with aging except what it does to you physically and mentally. The only solution, as far as I can tell, is alcohol, dope or oblivion. I usually put the issue out of mind until backed into a corner. Which happened last week when we had a helicopter overhead and an armada of police cars outside our house in Palm Beach.

The dogs were crazy with delight. Overhead searchlights are so much more fun than the usual bore of eating night beetles. The currents of the Atlantic merge together in a pattern that makes our location the Alexandrian lighthouse for travellers from Cuba and Haiti who come to America by less orthodox means than an Expedia.com ticket. Rather ironic, all these people aching to get into the United States and landing on our doorstep while my husband is aching to get out of this country and can’t.

I went inside and switched on Malt Shop Oldies to counteract the noise and my unhappiness at people risking their lives on makeshift boats only to be greeted by police dogs. The Malt Shop channel on satellite TV is my latest preoccupation, and it is using up a disastrous amount of time evoking bushels of nostalgia. It’s not just the Platters, though whenever they sing Twilight Time or Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I am plunged into the desperate despair that accompanied dancing with my first real love in Grade 12. The first cut is the deepest, but, at the time, I found it slightly morbid, some 43 years before HBO made it positively glamorous with Six Feet Under, that his father was the proprietor of the local funeral home.

I had a very early horror of growing old. Around 12 years of age, I began worrying about turning 16, which in my mind meant the dreaded 21 was not far off. Adulthood looked like a lot of weeping and worrying about bills. You can probably have a happy childhood or else be a bit ahead in discovering what most people do in retrospect, that getting old and then dying is definitely the wrong direction. But just in case you missed that point, the hills are alive with people reminding us of time’s gallop.

Few things infuriate more than the battalions of perky people discussing the “greying” of our population. They themselves aren’t a bit grey, in fact they tend to be blonds or healthy black males banging on about unfunded liabilities, leisure time and Pilates. (I exempt Canadian actor Donald Harron, who shilled marvellously on TV for funeral insurance when in his seventies.) Almost every week there is another article on Canada’s “demographic time bomb.” The only decent conclusion is that we elderly should all swallow hemlock for the sake of the generations behind us burdened with our care. In the absence of such altruism we must work till we drop while refraining from everything we like, especially gluttony. Apparently as we age we make less stomach acids, uptake less vitamin B, lose muscle mass (plus teeth), and go for raves of carbohydrates. Personally, I think one of the few pleasures of aging is that none of your dear ones are left to tell you no more macaroni and cheese.

The horrors of aging provide excellent material for writers and artists who thrive on lamentation; without it, at least half of mankind’s greatest literature and art would be gone. Fortunately there is also war, sickness and poverty. And let’s be candid, which means let me tell you why you fall short in every conceivable way, the whole aging thing is more difficult for intelligent people who tend to brood on existential questions. We may not be able to experience uninhibited joy but we can explore the wretchedness of the human condition with incredible zest.

The curse of aging, besides losing your looks and the ability to do up a back zipper, is nostalgia. Lots of people write about what nostalgia is, but as far as I can see, nostalgia is remembering something you like. I haven’t ever heard someone remark that they are nostalgic for the time they were hit by a bus. Nostalgia can be evoked by smell, as with Marcel Proust’s fresh baked madeleines (popularized when The Sopranos’ Dr. Melfi mentioned them to an uncomprehending Tony Soprano), or on a more banal level by the Platters.

Nostalgia focuses on youthful times when everything was possible. The imagination had no limits—a particularly joyous feeling for an artist. In later life, short-term memory fades first, leaving us plonked more and more in the past—bad news if English was not your native language. Robert Louis Stevenson is childhood schmaltz’s pin-up: in To Any Reader, which is the last poem in his mesmerizing A Child’s Garden of Verses, an adult sees himself through a window playing as a child:

“But do not think you can at all / By knocking on the window, call / that child to hear…he does not hear; he will not look…/ for, long ago, the truth to say / he has grown up and gone away / and it is but a child of air / that lingers in the garden there.” Proust took six volumes and 4,300 pages to come to the same conclusion in his back-breaking masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Premature death solves aging, as with JFK, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and lesser luminaries. Sylvia Plath said it all when she wrote “What I want back is what I was,” and put her head in a gas oven at age 30. This solution seems something of an overreaction. Though perhaps not. One wonders, on hearing yet one more doomsday scenario about the rising costs of health care and the difficult “choices” to be faced, if the greying society may yet be corrected by a kinder form of PlathCare: free hemlock on prescription, courtesy of the caring state.