Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be

The last of life for which the first was made."

Robert Browning

I know of an old man whose compelling ambition it is to desecrate Robert Browning's grave. In no other way, he says, can he satisfactorily express his contempt for one who has perpetrated the falsehood that old age is rewarding. Having survived into my upper 70s, I understand his ambition, even though I don't quite share it.

After all, Browning was young when he created Rabbi Ben Ezra. He was anticipating, not experiencing. That is an extenuating circumstance. Moreover, age has certain compensations. Not only resignation to one's fate but, with any luck, a degree of comfort. Ambition no longer itches. What has been has been, and it is unprofitable to nurture guilt or regrets. One can forgive oneself a little smugness.

When I awaken early, observe that it is snowing, gather in my newspaper, soggy but still readable, I settle back in the pillows with a cup of coffee but no longer a cigarette (surgeon general, please note) and Luxuriate while listening to my young neighbors grinding their starters and whirling their wheels getting off to work. If they live lives of quiet desperation, they will be condemed by medical science to go on living them for a long time. They have my sympathy, but not enough of it to ruin my morning.Ultimately they, too, will be lying abed.

Until I get up I won't hurt anywhere. Give or take a pain in the head, the neck or the small of the back, I will even then have no serious complaint traceable to physical discomfort. In that, I am lucky. What is more disturbing is a sense of disorientation, a feeling that the world around me is so disjointed as to be almost unreal. What is to be made of an environment in which some people seriously suggest that the birthday of Elvis Presley be made a national hiliday? Either these people don't belong here or I don't -- probably the latter.

I go belatedly to the hit musical "Chorus Line" and enjoy it thoroughly, even though it isn't "Oklahoma" or "My Fair Lady." But thinking about it on the way home, where it takes a half hour and much cursing to find a parking place, I wonder what it was that made me laugh so hard. The dancing was spirited and some of the biographies touching. But what was so funny? The wit? Not really. It was the device of putting a lot of four-letter words into the mouths of pretty young women. That is amusingly incongruous to a Victorian like me. I have known those words since the fourth grade -- but not out of the mouths of innocent-looking girls. So I laugh.But so do the young people in the audience to whom this use of language is familiar and therefore not in congruous. It is puzzling.

It is not the only thing about the young that puzzles us. We keep being told that to stay young we must associate with the young, understand them by sharing their moods and their fashions. These change so rapidly that they would be hard for us less nimble, mature types to follow even if we wanted to, which most of us don't. Why try to stay young? I can think of nothing more uncomfortable. Riotous today and studious tomorrow. Baby, baby, baby.

Having the time, I read a lot of novels, some of them called trashy by the critics, some called rpofound. What both kinds seem to have in common is explicit sex. Hemingway was content to stuff his hero and heroine into a sleeping bag. His successors give you the anatomical details of what happens inside the bag. Nothing is left to the imagination. I keep wondering whether some of these books should be left lying around the house lest they be picked up by one of the grandchildren. This happened recently, and she said: "I liked it, grandpa. Did you?"

Deciding that I must be, after all, an aged prude, I started doing what I had always said I wanted to do but didn't have the time while I was working: I went back to the classics. I read Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," but the touted parallels between the Roman experience and ours somehow escaped me, lost in the detail. Something else bothered me, too. Finally, I discovered what it was. The pear-shaped syntax sounded Churchillian. Had the sequence of their lives not denied it, I would have sworn that Gibbon's style was plagiarism of Churchill's. I didn't get very far with my review of the classics.

A friend of mine has observed that even nostalgia isn't what it used to be. I feel a little that way about sports. Although a life-long football fan (fiend, my wife would say), I have had enough by the time the modern season is over. It is not the game I played at school. At my best, I was never strong enough to shoulder the pads worn by today's behemoths. The "little men" of the game now measure six feet, two inches and weigh 225 pounds. And all those rules, like the one allowing only a single bump against receivers and that close to the line of scrimmage, confuse me. The officials, not to mention the announcers, are too much in the way. If I outlive Howard Cosell, I, too may be tempted to desercration. Not fancying either the Steelers or the Cowboys, I had rather wished that both could lose the Super Bowl game.

As for politics, whatever happened to the New Deal dream, which I shared, that government intervention in economic management could so moderate the historic economic cycle that a reasonable level of prosperity could be perpetuated? Or to the post-World War II expectation that we were entering upon the American Century or to the post-World War I promise that the world would thereafter be safe for democracy? Now what we expect is constant cumulative inflation unchecked by periodic recessions. And in the world at large, we appear all but powerless.

Defeat in Vietnam cost us what was left of our poise as an international power. American confidence is broken, even, it sometimes appears, American pride. The result is that we watch the spread of Soviet imperialism with a kind of resignation bordering on indifference -- this, even though we must see that a primary source of our indispensable energy supply is immediately menaced. And in Southeast Asia we see what was once regarded as the domino myth become the domino reality.

Or maybe things look this way to me only because I view them through tired old eyes. I hope so. Sometimes I venture to think so. I remind myself that we as a people have met and faced down adversity before. Our vigorous young people will no doubt do it again -- before they grow old along with me.