Friday, November 16, 2007

old guard

Morning Glory 'Heavenly Blue' (Ipomoea tricolor) in my neighbor's garden last week, very easy to grow from seed. The color is so intense, almost too much for me, but maybe I will try to combine it with some Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batata) next year.

It is so rewarding to see something grow that you nurtured along for a change. All that academic reading and writing, maybe it will be printed in the one or other form, but then what? A moment of joy to see it printed? If it even can be called joy, maybe more a sigh of "finally," sometimes (or often) paired with uneasiness, because you know what you probably could have done better, or you have moved on to other projects. On the other hand it is always rewarding to see how what I planted or grew from seed takes off. Maintaining a garden is a great way to unwind, but also a lesson in life. I am not a fan of the cold, when the plants die or go dormant. It is a sign of winter to come. But then again everything will spring to life in the new growing season. Death and rebirth are inevitable, and my garden keeps reminding me of that. Everything dies at some point, so do not forget to live!
The younger you are, the more death exists only in theory. Death and old age have become taboo in our society, and we refer to responses from those in years more experienced often as to the “old guard.” What does this say about us? That we assume that older people are stagnant in their thinking, and have nothing new to contribute? That they only want to keep the status quo alive? That we see ourselves in opposition to this “old guard” since we are younger? That we are naïvely forgetting or denying that we will turn old and be part of this “old guard” ourselves, unless we die before that, and that is a thought even further to be put away…
Susan Sontag’s essay “Illness as Metaphor” comes to mind, the way we interact with someone who is possibly marked by death due to illness, such as cancer or AIDS. Often we do not even interact but only react, removing ourselves from that person, out of our own subconscious fear of death, but in the end denying the sick person even the possibility of a fulfilled life in the end, even if sick. The "old guard," even if not sick, is undeniably closer to death. Simone de Beauvoir’s "The Coming of Age" puts the finger where it hurts the most, how we treat the ones older than we are without necessarily realizing it. The materials she presents to illustrate how society conceptualizes old age speak for themselves. Do those older than us like to be called "old guard"? They probably do not see themselves as old. Then who is old? The answer is fairly simple: Old is the person who is older then you are. It is a matter of perspective. When you are ten, your fourteen-year-old neighbor is soooo old. When you are seventeen you cannot wait to be twenty-one, alas, finally grown up, an adult. As if age has to do with being grown up. I still feel and behave in many ways like a child, not adult at all. In your thinking you can be young with one hundred. And you can be old with thirty, just think of all the young conservatives. I remember a faux pas I committed several years ago by referring to a colleague in his presence as to a "middle-aged man in his best years." Dr. Hat must have been around fifty-eight at that time, and was he hurt by my words! I had been unknowingly too blunt, maybe to be excused from other country over there. With my cultural background I would think of someone between roughly forty-five and sixty-five as middle-aged, and I tried hard to explain what I had meant, but even though we had a friendly and good-humored conversation, my words had stung. It could be that "middle-aged sounds" too much like Middle Ages, but all that matters is the pain these words caused. I definitely learned my lesson – do not talk about the age of a person, even if meaning well.
What hurts is the way we treat older people, even if not on purpose, and I say, it hurts, because sooner or later we will be treated like that. At the same time we must be aware of our age and our experiences; if we are not, the gap between those who are younger, like our students, and us will widen with every day. Signs that you are getting old are you begin to whine that students learned more and better when you were at that age, in short everything was better in the past. Take of those pink glasses, memory is playing a trick on you, life was not better, it was just different. At a New Years party in Big City several years ago, now teenage daughter saw for the first time a manual typewriter, the preferred medium of the writer using it. She looked at the machine and asked innocently, what is this? These are great moments of realization in the difference of sensual experiences kids grow up now. How long is the average scene in a movie today? How long was it twenty years ago? No wonder kids have a hard time concentrating on long lectures. These moments of realization – remember? According to teenage daughter I am part of living history myself since I experienced the Cold War – can take us by surprise. We are all turning old, but we are not ceasing to think, nor do we necessarily guard old ideas. Gadamer was sixty when "Truth and Method" appeared, and he continued to be actively engaged in philosophical discourse until his death with hundred and two. (What a relief! This means I still have time to come up with at least some ideas. Luckily I am not in math, I think they peak in their late twenties and early thirties! One thing going for the humanities!)
Being less afraid of death will help us to accept old age more easily. So I will plant some flowers, see them grow and go dormant and die, but then enjoy new growth in spring. I highly recommend that to everyone in academia or education in general. Gardening reduces stress, and is much cheaper than anti-depressants, as long as you do not go overboard or start out with collecting orchids or bonsais. A flower pot in the window sill with some herbs is a good beginning.
Squirrel update: Inspection by tall person revealed no sign of a squirrel invasion in the attic, no traces, nothing, not even of a single squirrel. Looks of disbelief were exchanged and I swore that I do not have any bats in the belfry.

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