Take a look at grandma’s rocking chair, handcrafted by her grandpa when the first Johnson –Andrew–was president. A collector might pay thousands for that chair and its memories, but there’s no bidding for grandma. Elderly chairs can be worth a lot of money, but elderly people are harder to invoice.
Priceless antiquities in Syria and Iraq are damaged and destroyed by the Islamic State, works of art and architecture already ancient when Columbus cast off. The loss of the old and irreplaceable saddens and enrages people everywhere, even as it forever denies youths from now on an encounter with their ancestors. Age is everything, highly valued in auction rooms, even as people are massacred along with the artifacts. It can seem that to some persons, venerable columns and statues are more valuable than the people who live in their shadows.
The other day I received an email with photos of famous women and men of the theater, close-ups of their familiar faces at ages 70, 80 and more. The sender invited me to look at the pictures, then look in the mirror. That was a nifty idea, but when I looked in the mirror for wrinkles I found that I have grown dimmer. A dim and foggy face looked back at me. Whom should I see first—the ophthalmologist or the dermatologist? Whom is a word used by retired editors and others of that sort.
Some things are valued because of their age, including people, except maybe when they are being surveyed. One reason why some online pollsters get folks to tell their age up front is to spare themselves the trouble of reading responses from the elderly.
In his latest book, “The Stranger,” Harlan Coben introduces his readers to a lawyer who specializes in eminent domain cases. The Supreme Court has allowed governments huge leeway in their seizure of private property for public purposes, but when I read the eminent domain reference in Coben’s novel I thought it could describe MSA at work. Multiple System Atrophy exercises a sort of eminent domain on the bodies of its hosts, as I noted when I looked into that mirror. As the poetic scholars of the King James Bible wrote in First Corinthians, seeing through a glass, darkly, is nothing new.
Drinking through a glass, even lightly, is another matter. When I was given hiring and firing responsibilities at a daily newspaper I was told that many personnel issues would involve drinking, that journalists who favored foamy drinks and peppermint candies seldom got over it. I was disappointed that the alcoholics I talked with were sometimes shunned by their churches. While some churches were tossing these folks out of their congregations, Alcoholics Anonymous was taking them in, praying with them, giving them hope.
The kind of eminent domain MSA invokes is a seizure of a patient’s property one piece at a time. It seizes the brain, then uses it to break up the rhythm of walking. It extends its domain into the swallowing apparatus, sometimes like waterboarding the patient, sometimes fiddling with the vocal cords. Then it grabs the control tower and trips its victims, causing falls. MSA applies eminent domain wherever it chooses, from aches at the top of the head to twitches at the end of the big toe.
MSA pokes around in the brain, but most of its damage is physical. Patients tend to keep their identity intact, to avoid or defer dementia. G. K. Chesterton, a friend of George Bernard Shaw and wiser, said this a long time ago: "The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.”
There’s talk about recognizing Chesterton, a convert to the Catholic Church, as a saint. This is astonishing, not because Chesterton is being considered for sainthood, but that a journalist is being considered.
The fictional crime-solving Father Brown entertains on television, which had not been invented when Chesterton wrote the stories. The saint-makers know who wrote the Father Brown books, even as they argue about authorship of ancient books, how much of them is fact, how much fiction, how much the words of a journalist who liked to write mysteries.
Old merges with new. Families probe the Internet for information about ancestors they never knew they had. One generation births babies, and adopts them. Another generation sits babies. Tom Brokaw called people of the World War II era the Greatest Generation. We who arrived between 1925 and 1942 comprise the Silent Generation. A demographer at the Census Bureau said that the “oldest old” are 85 or older, while more Americans than ever are in their 90s.
Some folks get agitated as they move upward in the generation scale. They worry about old age because, of course, they haven’t been there before, and don’t know exactly what to expect beyond the menu of personal disasters laid out on TV screens. Some worry about a future in Hell, even though there’s no evidence anybody has ever been in a hell that has a capital h.
Others may see old age as the normal living of life, and see life as a largely unknown adventure, maybe like a first trip to Hawaii, London or Melbourne, Australia. You know what they say about that: Bon voyage.