The melancholy truth of the matter is that history has now taken us all quite beyond the tranquil days of fountain pen and writing paper and quiet hours at one’s desk. One has to have that gray machine, with all of its ancillary machines, dominating one’s study. I have managed to limit things to a small laptop on a corner of my desk, and a demure little printer in a corner behind a door, but there is no going back. I am still typing this on the laptop.
With the vanishing of paper-and-ink letters to one’s friends, we have the culture of technology, which it is fashionable to lament, but we all fall in line nevertheless. One of the hazards of this culture is the matter of advertisements, which have taken on a particularly sinister aspect now. They not only appear on your screen unremittingly: They unfurl themselves in all the margins; they wink and flash, and dance forsooth; and worst of all, they plant themselves on top of the letter you are reading or writing. They invite us to look young, or join a scheme that will offer your photo to long-lost friends, or gain a B.A. with no work, or skirt the economic slump and amass a quick fortune.
I find myself particularly nettled in this connection with an offer that comes from someone called Dr. Oz. He smiles from the screen. He has developed a nostrum that will reverse the deathward plunge of your cells and thereby restore your youth. He tells us that we will look like teenagers. (Sans pimples?)
At least two questions present themselves here. For one thing, do we believe the man? Does anyone believe him? Can anyone believe him? For a man to have found the Fountain of Youth, that hidden spring sought with tears and high hopes for millennia, and to have bottled the water, is surely news next only in importance to the Trump of Doom.
But obviously such questions are frivolous. The only worthy question here is the one that inquires into the desire that prompts the offer. Advertisers have to offer products that we want — cars, cruises, laxatives, hair oil, fried chicken. What wish of ours stirs Dr. Oz to work up his elixir?
We mortals don’t want to grow old. That’s patent. Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” comes to mind, ending with the lean and slippered pantaloon and second childishness, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything. We scarcely need to descant on the topic.
Or do we? Is there an alternative to that sort of lament?
My wife and I visit some cloistered Carmelite nuns from time to time. Many of them are aging now; some are bent over. And of course every one of them has given up father and mother and houses and lands, so to speak, and certainly nearly all of the distractions that the rest of us have at hand. Death is not far off for some of them. We go to their funerals when that arises. But nothing but delight, intense interest, eagerness and great cheer, pour through the grille that separates us as we sit and talk.
We also knew a local man — an energetic saint, a great sailor, and, like St. Barnabas, an encourager. I went to see him in the Veterans’ Hospital in Boston as he lay dying. He was “way up in his eighties,” in my mother’s phrase. When I appeared in his door, he raised his arms into the air and said, “Thank the Lord! Thank the Lord!” I knew him well enough to know that this wasn’t merely an enthusiastic, much less pious, way of assuring me of a warm welcome. He was just saying that, since that was all he had left to say. It was a general salute to the situation.
We had a cook when I was young, an old white woman, widowed, with one churlish and ungrateful son who never visited her. She lived alone with a moldy and decrepit dog and a great forest of potted plants in an ice-cold flat on the ground floor of a house straight out of Poe. She was stone deaf and greatly crippled with heaven knows what all. I liked to ride along as my father drove her home on winter nights. As I would take her up the steps to her porch and front door, she would get the key into the lock, and, pushing the door, unfailingly say, “Oh! All to the good!”
Dr. Oz would have trouble getting up much business from any of these people. Something had long since summoned them from the common state of affairs where a man is, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Such a man might be attracted by the notion of regaining his teenage years. But why? What does he want? What is he afraid of?
Ad te omnis caro venit. Unto Thee shall all flesh come. That note can be either a grim one, if I have opted for a life of distraction, or, if I have come out of the jail of myself, it can be a sweet trumpet call from the precincts of Joy itself.
The nuns, and our old cook, and the man in the Veterans’ Hospital hear it as that sweet trumpet. My teenage years, my young adulthood, my middle life, and my creeping old age will decide how I myself may hear the note.