Escalating the Lease-on-Life

Author of many light pieces, Weare Holbrook was the creator of the comic supplement feature “Clarence” for the New York HERALD TRIBUNE syndicate.

by Weare Holbrook

The drawback to living on borrowed time is the feeling that the loan has to be paid back with interest. I speak from experience, having turned seventy with something less than a cartwheel. And it wasn’t at all what I expected.

In my hometown sixty years ago, we didn’t pay much attention to the old men. There weren’t very many ol them, and their behavior was predictable. In good weather they sat around on the steps and ledges of the storefronts. In bad weather they moved into the back rooms of the drugstore and the hardware store. Nobody went to Florida for the winter.

The old men didn’t seem to do much except sit a lot, talk a little, and spit now and then. If there were chores at home to be done, they did them as expeditiously as possible and without enthusiasm. They were unconscious of the therapeutic virtues of exercise. Walking for the sake of walking would have been considered ridiculous.

Although there was no social security or Medicare to relieve them of financial responsibilities, the G.A.R. was a political power, and the veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War had their pensions. But the term “senior citizen” had not yet been coined, and a man’s sixty-fifth birthday did not automatically unveil a vista ol unlimited leisure.

The Eskimos, according to a legend which I never quite believed, used to haul their old folks out on the ice and abandon them when they had outlived their usefulness. Freezing to death seems an uncomfortable way to end one’s days; but it also seems rather peaceful compared with some of the programs of activity now forced on our senior citizens.

In the South and the Far West there are entire cities populated by so-called retired people, who live in rows of bungalows of uniform design. But except lor the fact that they no longer earn wages or salaries, are they really retired? No. They are under the supervision of bouncy young characters like cruise directors who see to it that there is something going on every waking hour to keep their aging minds and muscles busy. Against a background of Bingo and B movies, group therapy flourishes in the form of classes in woodworking, rug weaving, ceramics, flower arranging, and pyrography.

Though I am not an inmate of any of these beehives, laughingly known as “leisure villages,” wellmeaning friends and relatives have repeatedly urged me to take up various hobbies. It started way back when I was in my sixties. One ol these well-meanies, apparently just to make conversation, would ask, “Well, what have you been doing lately?” And when I would reply, “Oh, nothing much,” the wellmeanie would say, “Listen, why don’t you take up . . .”

During the past couple of years at least half a dozen time-killing occupations have been recommended to me on the assumption that without them I might go nuts from utter boredom. Every spring Cousin Edgar invites me to go fishing. I tell him that I have already been fishing. I went fishing before he was born, and discovered that the unpleasantness of putting a worm on a hook is only equaled by the unpleasantness of taking a fish off a hook.

Inspired by Winston Churchill and Grandma Moses, several dogooders have suggested that I devote my few remaining years to painting. Even my doctor recommends it. “It’s a great tranquilizer,” he asserts owlishlv. “Whenever I can get a day off I go out in the woods, set up my easel, and just relax among my tubes and brushes.” (He is not alone in his avocation, cither. Every so often in New York there is a large exhibition of painting and sculpture created entirely by members of the medical profession. Like the cigarette manufacturers who have seen the handwriting on the Wall Street ticker, I am all for diversification; however, I hope the day never dawns when abstract artists decide to be Sunday surgeons.)

When it became evident that the arts were not for me, strenuous efforts were made to interest me in the crafts, such as basket weaving, birdhouse building, and rug hooking. It was simply more occupational therapy — and though all ten thumbs were in it, the heart was not.

Nevertheless, my conscience tells me that I ought to be doing something constructive with what little future is left, and I haven’t forgotten what my grandfather said to me some sixty years ago. “Sonny,” he said, “if you learn just one new fact every day, and remember it, by the time you reach the age of three score and ten, you’ll be the bestinformed man in the neighborhood and people will go blocks out of their way to avoid meeting you.”

Well, here I am at three score and ten with a bevy of sociable neighbors, a mind like a sieve, and the attention span of a canary. So in a heroic effort to make up for over half a century of misspent youth and middle age, I am embarking on a crash program of adult education — namely, to read the encyclopedia from beginning to end. There are twenty-four volumes, and at the rate of a volume a month I can run the gamut of the world’s wisdom in a couple of years.

In fact, I am already well into the first volume, entitled “A-Ara,” Unlike the dictionary, it does not start off with our old friend the Aardvark, but with Aa, which seems to be the name of a number of small rivers in Europe. The Aardvark is there, all right, just a few pages farther on, but practically treading on the “long, tapering, naked tail” of this “burrowing, nocturnal, insect-eating mammal" is a Danish poet named Carl Ludvig Emil Aarestrup, of whom you have probably never heard because he was “little regarded during his lifetime (1800— 1856) although since the publication of his collected poems with a critical essay by Georg Brandes he has been deemed one of the first lyrists of Denmark.”

And I’ll bet you don’t know that a religious sect known as the Abecedarians, despite their alphabetical title, “believed that it was best not to learn how to read, since the Holy Spirit would convey knowledge of the Scriptures directly to the understanding and, as education might be a hindrance to salvation, they encouraged pupils to leave the schools and learn trades.”

It must be admitted that there are moments when, drowsing over the encyclopedia in the small hours of the afternoon, I feel that the Abecedarians had the right idea, and that it might be better to stop reading and take up some simple manual pursuit. Making hammered copper ashtrays, for instance, would keep me awake, and alertness is supposed to be one of the primary qualifications of senior citizenship.

Elderly alertness can be overdone, however. Only the other day a young lady named Barbara informed me that her great-aunt, at the age of eighty-three, was about to have an appendectomy. “And she wants a local anesthetic so she can watch everything that’s going on,” added Barbara indignantly. “The old busybody!”

Moderation in all things, I say. Therefore, it is quite possible that having become the world’s greatest, or at least oldest, authority on everything beginning with the letter A, I may decline to read the rest of the encyelopedia. And why not? These are my declining years.