Back in my college days, the summer of 1968 it was, I spent some time on a Greek island. Wonderful experience. Bright sun. Blue ocean. Whitewashed buildings. Laid back.
I just finished a book by Daniel Klein, "Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled life."
Reading it also was a wonderful experience, in large part because I could relate so easily to its central themes.
Klein is nine years older than me, in his seventies. He went to the island of Hydra, armed with a bunch of philosophy and psychology books, to ponder what it means for a man to grow old. Which, he says, is different from growing old-old.
Old is when you're still pretty much the person you've always been. Just, well, older. You likely have some physical problems, but they're not incapacitating. Your mind isn't as sharp as it was before, but you're still in command of yourself.
Old-old is a whole different aging animal. That's when you're on the steep descent that leads to your demise. Your body and mind are failing you, big time.
Klein wants to better understand what it means to be old, with the goal of enjoying this stage of life as much as possible before that damn old-old stage takes most of the joy out of living. He learns a lot from some old men he gets to know on Hydra.
They spend much of their time sitting at an oceanfront taverna, eating, drinking, talking about this and that, admiring beautiful women. (Here's a photo of such a scene I cribbed from Google Images.)
There's a lot to like in "Travels With Epicurus."
Klein doesn't come up with many conclusive answers about how a man is to grow old gracefully. His Greek experience leads him to find some persuasive guidelines, though, which I might talk about in another blog post.
Here I wanted to share some excerpts dealing with the above-mentioned group of old men who hang out at the taverna. I found these parts of the book highly appealing, probably because I also like to talk, eat, drink (especially coffee), and ogle the ladies.
Seems like a great lifestyle for an old man to pursue. Of course, my wife just had to come up with a killjoy remark after I'd read some of the passages below to her.
Laurel said, "So who is doing the laundry, cleaning, and other household chores while the old guys are chatting away at the taverna? Their wives! Sure sounds like a typically sexist society where the elderly men sit around enjoying themselves while the women do most of the work."
To which I replied, "And that's a problem? Doesn't sound like one to me."
Not to Klein either, who pleasingly ignores practicalities such as how the men at the taverna get their clothes washed, groceries bought, and food prepared when they're not hanging out together. Hey, this is a book about how old men should grow old gracefully.
(Which probably includes, though Klein doesn't say this, find a good woman to take care of you.)
Read on for several taverna-related passages from "Travels With Epicurus" that offer a good feel for how Klein approaches his search for a fulfilling old-man life. Tasso, as should be evident, is a Greek local.
His name is Tasso and he is seventy-two years old. I have known him for many years now. Although Tasso looks every year his age -- his face and neck are covered with a fine crosshatch of deep lines -- here he is still considered a handsome old man.
He is said to "wear his age on his face," a compliment... The islanders say that on a man who has weathered challenging experiences, a finely seasoned face will emerge in old age. It is the face he has earned, and its raw beauty is in the fully lived life it expresses.
I eavesdrop on Tasso and his companions. As is their habit, they sit side by side and speak loudly to one another, so I have no difficulty hearing them.
Although my Greek is rudimentary, I can catch the drift of their talk, a conversation that began before I arrived and will continue until the sun begins to drop behind the Peloponnese, just across the sea. It is aimless, cheerful chat, for the most part mundane.
They talk about the sunlight, which is unusually hazy today, the new owner of a cheese stall in the port market, their children and grandchildren, the state of political affairs in Athens. Occasionally one tells a story from his past -- usually one his companions have heard before.
The talk is punctuated by leisurely, comfortable silences as they gaze out at the Peloponnesian straits.
...He and his friends are again seated at their table, chatting amiably, so far exclusively about the weather and what it portends. Then quite abruptly, they all go quiet. To a man, they are gazing up at the top step of the stone stairs that lead down from the coast path and past the taverna's entrance.
A young woman has appeared there, and the wind is pressing her blouse and skirt against her splendid, voluptuous body. For a moment, she pauses there, perhaps enjoying the warm breeze, but more likely enjoying the effect she is having on the men looking up at her -- her personal sirokos-effect indulgence.
A few seconds later another woman appears, an older woman swathed in the traditional black garments of a reverent widow. She sizes up the situation immediately and brusquely grasps the young woman's arm and leads her down the steps.
The young woman is named Elena. She is nineteen years old and is a classic Greek beauty with lustrous jet-black hair; clear, light olive skin; and large, dark, flashing eyes. The matron is her grandmother.
The old men unabashedly keep their eyes on Elena as she and her grandmother draw near to where they are sitting. When Elena and the old woman are directly in front of them, all the men rise slightly from their chairs and greet them.
While saying, "Good day," Tasso offers an elegant bow from his none-too-supple waist. It is clearly a bow of admiration and gratitude for Elena's beauty.
A moment later, grandmother and granddaughter gone, the conversation at Tasso's table resumes, but it is no longer about the weather. Flushed and animated, the men talk about beautiful women they have seen and known in their lives.
Tasso takes the lead this time; he has traveled the most and married later than his companions. He begins by declaring that there is nothing more beautiful than a young woman and that is because youth itself is incomparable in its beauty.
There is more than a hint of the philosopher-poet about Tasso on this subject. I am reminded of a friend of mine who, in a similar situation, riffed on Keats, saying "Youth is beauty and beauty is youth."
...I am not suggesting that any of us are "dirty old men," still preoccupied with sexual fantasies and future exploits. The closest Tasso comes to that is when he confesses to his friends that for a brief moment while gazing at Elena at the top of the stone stairway he felt a tingling in his groin; said Tasso, smiling, "The sleeping giant awakened. But then he yawned and went back to sleep."
No, I will leave such lusty, virile fantasies to my seventy-three year-old friend who wears a testosterone patch and consumes seventy-two hour Cialis.
Thinking again about this forever youngster with the testosterone patch helps me sort out my evolving philosophy of a good and authentic old age. It is one thing to have an active libido but a listless phallus; in that case Cialis seems like a perfectly wonderful solution.
But it is quite another to don a testosterone patch for the express purpose of reactivating one's libido. Th latter amounts to wanting to want something that you currently don't want. And that is a very peculiar mind-set in which to be.
...I suppose a testosterone patch advocate could argue that the hormone supplement will not turn him into someone else but will simply add vigor and vitality to who he is now, much as an energy drink might. In fact, he might even contend that choosing to become horny again is a supreme act of self-creation, the height of authenticity.
But I keep thinking that there are discrete stages of life, each with its own qualities, and that fudging these stages is to fudge the inherent value of each of them. It feels more authentic to me to recognize that human desires and capabilities change from one period of life to the next, and that to deny that they do is to miss out on what is most fulfilling about each stage.
I am not about to try out for the role of the local young lothario; that would make about as much sense as trying out for third baseman in the local Little League --even if I were on steroids.
Why Cialis, yes, but testosterone, no?
I admit I am making a somewhat arbitrary distinction here -- generously, Sartre leaves loads of room for arbitrary distinctions -- but taking Cialis seems more like getting treatment for a broken bone, so to speak, while the testosterone patch seems like tampering with what makes a man who he is at this particular point in his life.
His libido isn't broken; it has run its natural course. Wanting to want something that he doesn't really want that much, and in his eighth decade, no less, just seems counterfeit, untrue to himself.
I don't know what to make of my sixty-eight-year-old friend who had her bosom beautified. Heaven knows, her surgeon did an impressive job. This friend told me that she now feels younger and more attractive, both of which make her happier, and it is always hard to argue with happiness.