A Funny Thing Happened
On My Way to Old Age

Life Changes After 50
Stanley C. Baldwin
Despite the thirty-five photographs of geezers dancing cheek-to-cheek, throwing their arms in the air, Stanley C. Baldwin, it turns out, is not a happy camper. He reveals, in A Funny Thing, several facts-of-life in the darkening world of Wrinklelandia not often highlighted in the mailings we get so regularly from the AARP.

His primary beefs are the usual ones: getting things tangled up (like extension-cords), dropping things, fretting over whether to buy butter rather than oleomargarine. There is as well a hint of anger over the most heinous sin of them all: being shoved off to the edge by a society that does not value our wisdom nor our years.

The author turns out to have another cross to bear. He's a practicing Christian. Despite his "walks with God" and his personal ship-of-state "under the command of the Lord Jesus Christ," there is a note of despair in his writing, even a touch of blame. Thus, when he finds himself in a pickle, who does he finger? Satan.

Fighting with Satan is not easy, he says. In fact, it's total war:

    I can never retire from it [the battle], because Satan's minions won't let me. They are on the attack, and I have to be ready to fight back or I am at their mercy of which they have none.

You may ask what temptations do those of us who are so antediluvian have to battle. "Almost everything I face daily," he reports, "carries potential for victory or defeat."

He lists many problems: an aching back, high blood-pressure, rapid heartbeat, fear of calling a doctor late at night. But as real as they are, problems not unfamiliar to many of us, we find ourselves wondering at the choice of words. Must we call it "the fight?" Must we dwell on "the enemy?" This posturing seems a tad dramatic, perhaps even touched by self-pity.

There is, too, a note of dismissal in his writing, scorn for those of us who, because of age --- or disease, or both --- are partially or fully dependent on others. After an especially hard fall, Baldwin found himself in just such a place, but, he assures us, "the dependence was temporary."

    For some people, it is the rest of their lives. That seems like one of the hardest scenarios I can imagine.

The word he uses for those of us who need help from others is "a burden." As in "I don't want to be a burden to you." Thus he sees us, his disabled brothers and sisters, as pitiable on our walkers and in our wheelchairs. He is certainly setting himself up for a sorrowful old age.

Finally, the book shows an implicit prejudice against women who are free [see photo of lady with mop below], and an explicit fear of older women who have lost their husbands. Baldwin writes, reasonably, "I don't want to be the man Job described, who 'dies in bitterness of soul, never having enjoyed anything good...'" But then, in a peculiar twist, he adds:

    But neither do I want to forget that, as Paul wrote, "The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives." You see, a widow could take the attitude that she has served her time. Now with no husband to accommodate and children to rear, she can just have fun.

§     §     §

Bless me if I can figure out what to offer Baldwin for his pique. He's stuck with a bad deck of cards: women may forget him after he has popped off; the devil gets on his case nightly; and he can't even expect the extension cords to lie straight or people to get out of his way when he's shopping at the 7-11. His life is turning so sour that the only thing I can suggest is that he consider trading his shop-worn and obviously unserviceable religion in on another --- one that is more gentle, less onerous, less hag-ridden.

Quakerism would be a good possibility: an hour or two a week of silent vigil in the meeting-house; enforced kindness (no battling the devil in this one); calling friends and strangers alike "thee" and "thou;" avoiding animal flesh (no struggle between butter and oleomargarine).

Another possibility is Judaism. It utilizes the very same Bible (at least a major part of it) that he is so familiar with. There is an emphasis on ceremony and the one god. Most of all, it is a religion rich with tradition. If he sets his mind to it, he could --- over the next few years --- make an engrossing (not to say therapeutic) study of the Torah, the Mishna and the Kaddish. This would reward him with a vast new field of thought and discipline, if not personal comfort.

He might even consider giving Buddhism a whirl. It's an intellectual religion which could help him rid himself of the ruinous expectations that plague all of us, young and old. It would also give him a solid foundation on which to build for dotage, utilizing the four verifiable truths: Life is a royal pain; pain has but one source; that source is desire; and there is a way beyond that self-destructive desire.

Once he came to see the truth of this, Baldwin could begin to free himself from the never-ending treadmill of birth and rebirth, could become part of a more forgiving faith --- one that has, at its terminus, a veritable jackpot: that he would never have to go through suffering, aging, dying, death again. Moreover, he would never have to deal with tangled extension cords, hungry widows, and --- best of all --- would never ever have to fight Satan again.

For, as the Buddhists have known for the last 2,500 years (but have scarcely discussed --- they don't like to talk bad about other religions), the fallen god that the Christians know as Satan does not lie without, he lives but within the depths of the human heart.

§     §     §

For the real skinny about getting old, the essence of geezerhood (not the caramelized Hollywood version), one book stands out: The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. It tells of Gulley Jimson, sixty-seven years old, a low-life, a scoundrel, a thief, and an unrepentant scam-artist. He is also a raconteur, a charmer, a master painter, and a kick-in-the-pants. The Horse's Mouth has recently been re-released by the New York Review of Books Classics.

One other novel worth trying --- again, not namby-pamby stuff --- is Muriel Sparks' Memento Mori. New Directions brought out a new edition of it in 2000, and we believe it is still in print. For those who are fond of Middle English, there is always the "Prologue" to the Wife of Bath's Tale.

--- A. W. Allworthy
Go to a
from the author of this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH