A Diary of My Sixty-First Year
When I was going through one of my typical nervous breakdowns, a friend told me to keep a journal. So I went out and bought a fat accounting book from the august firm of Boorum & Pease and started in on writing about The Miseries.I know, I know. Your problems are really distracting. Really.
That heavy, elegant journal gave much weight to my words, became a tropical flowering of my ever-growing solipsism. Religiously, every morning, I poured what I thought was my heart into those carefully lined and numbered pages.
Like all habits we buy into, the account book started creating its own rules. At first it was limited to merely The Blues and, with advice from my friends, my dreams.
I wrote these notes on the right-hand pages and began to use the left-hand side for addresses, mots, quotes from books, Wise Thoughts, and an accounting of my financial ups and downs. At one point my dreams took a leaf from my book and referred to it as "The Wall Street Journal."
Many years after, after the dark moods decided to move away for awhile, I thought that, like Lightnin' Hopkins, my blues would make me famous, so I asked my friend Jane to transcribe them for possible publication. She, being a fast typist, good at translating scrawls, started right in. She made it through three months of Volume I, and then presented me with several dozen typed pages.
Mama mia! After reading the first few pages, I immediately cancelled the project, dubbed the whole set "The Whine Book" . . . and managed, thank god, to lose many of them between my different moves in those peripatetic years.
What I learned that day was that one who presumes to spill all the beans on the page has to be an elegant stylist, a veritable Dickens or Cheever or Nabokov, to write misery in a way that others would want to read. For most of us - - - and I include Ian Brown and me in this company - - - it's best neither to publish nor to perish.
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My three or four days with Brown and his diary of his sixtieth year (February 4, 2014 - February 4, 2015) invoked some of the same feelings, and damn near drove me nuts. His laments are heavy going, both for the reader and, apparently, him. If he tells us once more how burdensome this year, he will tell us again, and again, and again - - - a buzzard circling about the body of his days in an endless gyre.
- "In the past year or two, I've clumsily realized that my ability to write or not to write, think or not think, drool or not drool, is largely out of my hands."
- "I feel like a dried pepper, old and flaky and hung in a corner. Seriously, it's depressing. I've already lost my Tuscany serenity, and climbed on the old see-saw: since there isn't much time left to accomplish anything. I might as well not even try to accomplish anything. Anyway. There you have it. Obviously dying."
- "Getting older is a process of getting lonelier and lonelier until, at the end, you are completely solitary, and then you are officially dead."
- "The attendant washes my hair. I used to luxuriate and look up at the woman doing the washing. Now I am chaste, keep my eyes closed, and try not to think of her horror at bathing my balding scalp."
- "The year I won this prize . . . someone at this very luncheon walked up to me and said, 'How does it feel to know you'll never write anything that good again, that your best work is behind you?' I should have replied, 'It made me feel like punching you in the face.'"
- At a party with his daughter's friends: "They look at me as if I am a thing from Mars. Maybe they don't want to talk to me. They're not talking to anyone else, though. Maybe they don't like talking? Maybe there's no point in talking to a relic like me?"
- On his biking to work, stopping to meet an old friend. "She patted my hand on my handlebars once more and said, "Good for you! The male cyclist going to work!" It was one of those things you say to an older person who is doing something zesty for their age, like riding a bike to work. I felt like pulling my cock out and saying, "I still have one, you know."
- On buying a cottage for retirement: "So it won't be a cottage by the sea, but it might be a condo in Leaside. Whereupon, some days, I think: you can still write in Leaside. And on others I think: where can I buy a bottle of arsenic."
Freud said that depression is anger turned in on the self. We have here an example of ageism turned in on the self. Brown shows himself to be virulently ageist, and not merely against himself. This is his sketch of an older woman on the beach:
Her skin had zero collagen left; in her eye-encasing glaucoma goggles, she resembled a sack of skin that would burst through its bottom if it got wet. All her mass was hanging low off her bones.
I'm not sure who this book is aimed at. One reviewer wrote that this is something "that other sixty-year-olds can keep on their bedtables." Fine, as long as we don't have to open it.
If we are to believe what he writes, Brown is an active - - - possibly overactive - - - overachiever. He writes for the Globe and Mail, has programs on the CBC, flies all over the world to give speeches on the craft of writing and reporting.
When he isn't busy being busy, he is skiing in far off places, playing golf with friends, mountain climbing, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean (diving off obviously dangerous rock ledges), biking - - - alone or in races - - - doing all the things that we geezers are supposed to do to keep sane and sound. But, judging by the indelibly sour tone of Sixty, the message is that all this hyperactivity might not be worth a hill of beans.
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If you have any doubts about this self-pity business, start off by reading the memoirs of business mavens like Ray Croc, Donald Trump, Conrad Hilton or Peter Prichard. Like Brown, these last two even published books to give us the message straight. In Be My Guest or The Making of McPaper, you'll be told how much they suffered to make their first million. Twenty-four hour stints, mockery of friends, but bullying ahead; stoically, staunchly, braving the tide of the "experts;" heroically, in the Biblical phrase, kicking against the pricks.
If Brown had been intent on doing his homework, he could have looked into the writings of others who he believed might (or should) contemplate his arsenical exit.
He would have learned how and why and the way they chose not to do it, for these are books by those who live their every day immersed in an ultimate existential dilemma, body vs. mind. Or, same thing: hope against reality.
Like Christopher Reeve in Still Here, or John Hockenberry's Moving Violations, or the riotous Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot by John Callahan. Then there's the masterful (and very funny) cynic who calls himself "Smart Ass Cripple." Look at his day-to-day, Ian, and then tell us, perhaps, when you are on your next rock climb, what life is really all about.
Alternatively, you could spend some time with Helen Keller, America's most famous blind deaf mute, in her gentle autobiography, The Story of My Life. She can't hear, Ian; she can't see, Ian; she can't ski, Ian.
Or perhaps you might want to take a moment with some less well known survivors, like Robyn Michele Levy - - - perhaps a neighbor of yours in Canada, one who wrote a terrific book on cancer, which turned up right after her diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. It's called Most of Me, Surviving My Medical Meltdown. Two ghastlies, Ian: on top of another. How's that for a double whammy?
Then there's Meredith Norton's terrific Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting.
But I am not so sure they demand all the Götterdämmerung you seem to feel they deserve.--- L. W. Milam