Wednesday, July 09, 2008

OLD COOTS

In her always stimulating column on Salon, Camille Paglia has a back and forth with a reader who’s not sure he likes the phrase ‘weird old coot’ “Who are you calling a ‘coot’?” (http://www.salon.com/opinion/paglia/2008/07/09/russert/).

In light of what I’ve said in the immediately previous Post, let me add this: coothood is not primarily a matter of age. If you’ve been doing your homework as a growing adult over the course of your life, then (barring some catastrophic event like a stroke) you don’t suddenly become a cranky, half-witted, small-souled, mean-spirited, small-minded pain-in-the-stern-tube. You have to work at that, over the course of a life-time. But it doesn’t just happen as a function of inhaling too many years’ worth of birthday-cake candle smoke. As Fielding observed (more or less): ‘It is said that alcohol will dull the passions – and so it will, in a dull man’.

America has always had a bias against age, although not as clearly as you might think. Even in frontier times, a certain age – properly made use of – enabled one to see or carry out options that might be invisible to the inexperienced or emotion-blinded eyes of a younger man. We recall John Wayne’s aging cavalry captain in “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and his even wiser, less shooty ex-gunslinger in “The Shootist” (his last film, perhaps not coincidentally). These characters were not competent just because they were old, but the character derived a certain heft, a genuine gravitas, from having paid attention to his years as they presented experience to him, and from having then had the gumption to incorporate changes into his way of going about things. This is called ‘maturing’, once considered an important part of Western Civilization. Perhaps it can be rehabilitated on campuses that cost north of 60K a year if we also point out that many non-white and non-European societies have also had a demonstrated respect for the process.

The Awful ’68, coming as it did so quickly on the heels of the Glorious ’65, continues to plague Us. For that the too-easily satisfied “Greatest Generation” can be given a good swift thank in the butt: they were adults in ’68, and they yielded their positions without really much of a fight at all. (Of course, they weren’t just up against ‘the kids’; they were up against the entire weight of the Democratic Party, which had quietly concluded that women and youth and whatever else came down the pike were their ticket to continued political control).

It stuns to think that so many of those millions of fresh-faced kids came back from the War with the queasy feeling that they’d never feel so alive again. Even though they all felt the soldier’s relief at going home and ‘getting back to normal’, it seems that they left something back there on the fields of Europe and the Pacific. Nor did it help that the whole country’s effort to ‘get back to normal’ included a hefty – and hardly unsurprising – dose of peace and quiet, purchased by a certain ‘conformity’ that itself was partly just the natural outgrowth of habits learned in military (and naval life): there’s a right way to do things, and if you just pay attention, you minimize the chances of getting yourself and your pals blown up – and the better you are at this, the fewer ‘emergencies’ you and your unit will have. ‘Emergencies’ – sorta every schoolkid’s favorite rush – were not really appreciated at 20,000 feet or 2500 miles from nearest friendly land or 60 seconds before the advance elements of the enemy assault made contact with your picket line. “Oops” was not often an apology that you got to make twice in the unforgiving world of a military at war.

‘Emergencies’, after all, had gotten the Germans a government that plunged them, Europe, and just about everybody else into a war that flattened them as a nation. In a way, it was kinda good, because it’s harder to stampede folks who have ‘managed’ themselves and their lives on the homefront or on the battlefront. The ‘50s were kinda quiet because folks had had a bellyful of ‘emergencies’ and because they had in some very real ways ‘grown up’, matured, to the point where they neither craved ‘emergencies’ nor went all kablooey if one came up.

But somehow We got to ’68. And got stuck there. Until We started going downhill.

Back to ‘coots’. If you do your job right all along as an adult, you can wind up as something of an Obi-Wan or one of those sage older women on Masterpiece theatre. And if the ball takes some bad bounces, you still remain ‘you’ with the gifts of maturity that nothing (barring those nasty cerebral catastrophes) can take away from you.

Even if your culture doesn’t appreciate maturity, or wouldn’t know it if it tripped over it. Even still, maturity brings its own rewards. And actually, in relational circles, its heft will sooner or later, quietly make itself felt. Maturity has a gravitational pull like a black hole: even if it can’t be seen, things around it move in response to its effect. The ‘strings’ that are the building blocks of material reality (material used figuratively, as the big picture theorists use it) respond to maturity’s ‘vibes’ (and thereby ’67, if not ’68, finds some vindication!).

So avoid coothood by embarking on the journey toward maturity now. And with some luck, the combined maturities – at whatever stage each of Us manages – will exert enough gravitational pull to restore the common weal and preserve the Republic.

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