Essay: Old Man At Forty

07Jan14

I like people. When I meet them, I say “Good to meet you,” because my view is that it’s good to meet them, until they prove otherwise. I even like dogs. I never had one until I was forty, and while I initially found a puppy exasperating at times, now I shower him with affection, rolling him onto his back to rub his stomach, and laughing openly at some of his clumsily expressive moments.

But I go out into public and become an angry old man. I sat on a streetcar where a woman – blissfully ignorant of everyone around her – sat on her phone saying, “OK, OK, OK” with a regularity equal to the drip of water torture, so that I had to put on my headphones. I sat in a Starbucks where a man on a phone spoke so loudly he actually penetrated my music, standing at times to adjust his hair in a chrome pillar, and sometimes circling around the tables. He left, and I felt relieved. He came back and sat again, and I started to feel a low-boil of anger. Hugely outgoing people on cell-phones are far too involved to interrupt, but I’ve considered printing business cards that say You’re too loud on your phone, to simply drop on a table and walk away.

In university, I had a brief friendship with a tall, lanky philosophy major of German background. He used to say things like “There’s nothing worse than a fart.  It comes out of someone’s ass and when you’re smelling it it’s going into your face!” The world is replete with people who don’t hate others, but require greater personal space, and our society is increasingly not designed for them. I can relate to David Foster Wallace – writing about the cruise ship experience in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – when he finds he needs to retreat to his cabin to recharge, even spreading work around to give room service the impression he’s not just hiding. Studies are showing this is biological: introverts are more easily stimulated and need to seek out privacy regularly to recharge, while extroverts are the other way around, less easily stimulated and always seeking out ways to engage the world. It could only have been introverts who sometimes gave in and ran from the ongoing clamour of shells during the First World War. There’s a story of a man brought back, sobbing, to be gently tied up and shot. I studied under occasional public school teachers faintly desperate to create a calmer environment, telling us you don’t need to crumple up paper to recycle it, you don’t need to drag a chair to move a chair. It’s only decades later I recognize they were certainly introverts. Wallace has some sharp comments about overly outgoing people that are perfect: one man “looks like he’s posing for a photograph nobody is taking.”

I’m old enough to remember using a typewriter in university. I thought it was the cat’s pajamas because it had a quick-erase ribbon. Of course, computers were around in the early 1990s but I didn’t feel then that I needed one, and I couldn’t have predicted that we’d eventually have devices so small we’d carry multiple ones, making sure we’re equipped as we go out: cell and iPod, check. In a subtle way, taking all these devices from home erodes the barrier between the private and public world. Take this to an extreme – or hand this opportunity to the people who fling the door wide open – and you get people talking loudly in movie theatres, publicly discussing private issues on phones, or eating a sandwich as they deal with a clerk, all of which I’ve seen.

I resisted a cell-phone for years, and became among the converted fairly recently when I met a woman I was crazy about who lived on the third floor of a house with a broken doorbell. That’s all it took. It was either join the twenty-first century, or literally stand out in the cold.

But I do use my cell-phone sparingly, and mostly privately, because while our perception is that we use technology, I think it also changes us, in subtle ways. I stood on a subway platform with my girlfriend as a guy on the opposite platform sang a warbling, off-key version of an old show tunes classic. He was alone, and wandered up and down the opposite platform like it was a stage. He finished to a smattering of applause, and stood there awkwardly. Turning to my girlfriend I sarcastically said, “Nice to see people carry themselves with such dignity these days.” She called me a grumpy old man, and I gave it some thought on the way home, deciding that lack of dignity wasn’t the real issue. The best I could come up with was “It never used to be a culture where people assumed they had the right to impose their lives on yours.”

Aside from a culture dedicated to narcissism while paying lip service to ideas of community and family, there’s a lack of reverence to consider as well. People can never simply be where they are and appreciate the moment anymore. I’ve been on a quiet streetcar gliding through fresh snow, passing straight through the middle of a quiet city when someone two seats behind me makes a call and starts talking about how he got drunk and puked last night. Until the TTC starts equipping streetcars with tranquilizer darts, a trip on public transit can only be as quiet as the least serene person. I’m frequently forced to retreat behind my headphones, where the real world is veiled behind my music, where strangers are even less real to me and I’m more disconnected. The chances of any small moment of community or shared experience – unlikely to begin with – are even more remote.

And these things spill over into communities in subtle ways too. How often, now, do people say excuse me when they bump into you? When a new cashier opens up in a busy grocery store, do they get the next person in line, or do people dart over from the end of various lines? In subtle ways, we’re all diminished when we can’t anticipate respectful treatment in public places. Undoubtedly, people didn’t have perfect manners ten or twenty years ago, but I think there’s a cumulative, ongoing effect when we can’t find ways to embrace technology without letting it define us. None of this means we need to embrace a complete package of dated values, just a framework of civility for our daily lives.

The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), pay closer attention. There are various scenes where people attempting something – from a personal exchange to a bank transaction – are suddenly (sometimes even inexplicably) surrounded and judged. There’s no question the film is almost cartoonishly heavy-handed at times, but try to find a more recent film that takes the point of view of others looking in, and not the main character looking out, or a film that’s unabashedly about community and our responsibility to something other than ourselves.

In high school, I had a math teacher named Mr. Graham, who taught us in a thick Irish accent. He was strict but fair, taking his time teaching us each concept thoroughly before testing us. He stopped class one day to say he could get a discount on a ticket to Ireland if he lied and said it was a family emergency, and went around the class asking each of us if we’d lie for a significant discount. The first kid said he’d lie, and of course there wasn’t a single teenager who wanted to be the first to sound chipper and superior, so we all said we’d lie. He was particularly fond of me, and stood back, hands on his hips to say “Even you, Alex. You’d lie.” To this day I regret what I said. He used to stop class simply to lecture us about manners, saying things like “Manners, class. More important than math, manners!” He’d pick his way through a crowded hallway at the start of the year to put his hands on both my shoulders and say “Great to see you!” Somewhere in the untidy mess of years that I was sorting out what kind of man I wanted to be, I surely saw him for the last time without knowing it. I used to think he was a bit of a dinosaur. Now, I’d say he was on to something.

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One Response to “Essay: Old Man At Forty”

  1. This is a terrific piece. Thanks for it. Let’s hear it for silence. And our right to personal space.


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