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“I have seen the moment
of my greatness flicker/
And I have seen
the eternal Footman
hold my coat, and snicker.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock, T. S. Eliot.
Aging is like slipping into a very cold swimming pool – first the toes, then the knees, finally up to the waist and, with a shiver and grimace, one takes the plunge and swims. After a few minutes, it’s not so bad.
The age of 70 is past mandatory retirement, past the age of helping friends move or showing how agile one is on the monkey bars. It is time to reflect on life, spurred by the sight of youth glued to their cellphones in restaurants.
First of all, I never thought I would live this long. Five years ago the doctors told me that my prostate cancer had metastasized into my bones and I had two years, tops.
My wife and I promptly bought a dog, signed up for cellphone contracts into 2014 and paid $150 for a rolly-bag for a last-hurrah European holiday. I was investing in a future that I would never enjoy.
Then, at an appointment a few days after the blowout holiday, my doctor sat down with us, her brow knit, her expression troubled, her voice hesitant. Here it comes, I thought.
“What have you been doing?” she asked.
“Holidaying,” I said.
“Well, your PSA levels have dropped to normal. Your cancer has gone into remission.”
Hallelujah! It was a scene out of a bad movie that will end, no doubt, with a twist.
When people tell of an acquaintance dying suddenly, they often say, “That’s the way to go.” No, it isn’t. A lot of people complain about dying of cancer (it’s a battle, I hear) but it is an improvement on dying suddenly. You get to settle your affairs, say goodbye to your loved ones and be wheeled into a final performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. To hell with dying suddenly.
My high school days in small-town Cobourg, Ont., were a groundbreaking array of firsts. It was the birth of rock ’n’ roll, the twist and the family car. My dad’s car was a 1957 Chevrolet 283 V-8 hardtop – a classic. The pure adrenalin of driving that big-engine machine down narrow blacktop roads at 160 kilometres an hour in a deadly race for supremacy killed many, and many future citizens were conceived in those backseats.
Oh, I claim some personal crowning achievements, too. In 1963, at the age of 19, I left school and took the train to Vancouver ($50), where I met real beatniks. On the return trip, I think I was the first person to hitchhike from Vancouver to Toronto for pleasure. In 1965, I was one of the first hippies in Vancouver to take LSD. And in the following years I hitchhiked more than 30,000 kilometres, including three times across Canada and down the legendary coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur, Los Angeles and on to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
I held jobs as diverse as staking claims for a copper mine in northern British Columbia to teaching English for Berlitz in Heidelburg, Germany.
The idea of keeping a job never occurred to me.
Those were the days of free love, free love-ins and free anti-war demonstrations backdropped by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Doors, the Dead and copious amounts of marijuana. It climaxed with the end of the Vietnam War, and, for a final flourish, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, for which my generation set the stage.
But then real life took hold. A degree in English introduced me to thousands of jobs (at the time I was unaware there is a thin line between thousands of jobs and no jobs). But plunging ahead with giddy uncertainty, I got fired from my first job as a copy writer for the Sears catalogue.
I have since had a career as a highly unsuccessful writer. My bookshelf sags under the weight of unpublished novels and plays. Drawers are filled with clippings of newspaper and magazine articles yellowed with age. In my decade-long career as a theatre critic, I sat through more productions than hot meals.
My personal life pulsated with variety. Several wives, one child and many interim girlfriends attest to that. At the age of 60, I finally found love. Had I known in my youth that I would have to wait so long, I might have quit. But success late in life is sweet.
So, today I am looking around at people standing in the street staring at their phones or thumbing them like some casino dealer. There are no big causes, no big ideas, no exciting cars and the music sucks.
Youth are worried about job security and whether they will ever be able to afford a house. Hipsters are a shadowy group that still emulates some Sixties values – art, coffee houses, vinyl records – but they are also obsessed with tiny computers and cellphones.
Electronics is the big story of the day, and although some people are concerned that business and government are tracking their tastes and travels, why worry? We are nothing but consumers now.
While I am disappointed that there are no big issues, I write this article on a computer, check my facts on Wikipedia and visit my friends by e-mail.
The Internet is my eternal Footman.
Randy Brown lives in Toronto.