“I don’t know if I can trust you,” says to me one day, this very tiny, witty and very wise 19 year old student, a young woman.
She’s in my office for our weekly, hour long meeting. It’s near the end of the fall term’s 12th week, 2013. We speak about her magnificent writing, about writers and their lives – until life itself comes into the fold, something that always happens with this particular student. She’s always digging deep, searching.
When speaking about life – her view of it based on her experiences – she likes resting her head on my desk, crossing her arms and resting her chin on the backs of her folded hands. She slows down, becomes more contemplative. The sides of her long, black silky hair, carelessly pulled back and held by a band, fall over one side of her face or another. She leaves it, as if she hasn’t noticed it cascading over the side of her mouth. From here, this position, she comes up with the most uncanny of things.
“I don’t,” she repeats – and grins sardonically, a hallmark of hers when she’s lining me up for something. “I don’t know if I can …”
“After all this time, this is what you say to me? Why not?” I ask somewhat confused, wondering where this was coming from – and where we’re going.
“Well, the other day the girls in our class, we were like talking, you know. We were talking about you. And one of them said that you’re hot,” the hot rolling off her tongue as if suffering from too much neon, almost an accusation. “I don’t know if I can trust a hot, old professor,” she says – and laughs, sits up and leans back, hair in her face, which she pushes back behind her ears.
What does one do with something like this? When I was her age it would have never occurred to me to speak to a professor like that – but the audacity of today’s students is incredible. No fear. They don’t hold back. Titles, status, age – nothing phases them. We, the gray-haired, old professors live in a world that doesn’t exist to them, the young students of today. What does hot even mean in her vernacular?
There I sat, somewhere between a momentary dalliance with vanity and the treacherous phenomenon of aging. And here I am. 60. That which has been kept at bay has leaped onto my back and won’t let go. Hot quickly dissolves into dark irony. “Old man,” my youngest son calls me. “El viejo,” say my kids mirroring the term of affection that is so much the idiom of the Spanish and I used for my father. Like father, like son.
In Men Over 55 I lamented how we men exist in a kind of fog; in Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help), I bemoaned the mathematical conundrum: there’s less time. Now 60, I’ve signed my AARP card, charmed by the organization’s promise: “Real Possibilities.” Another 30, 40 years? I’m reaching for anything – what the hell.
The young student rattled this old man. Hot points back to time gone – if there ever was a time when hot was real – while signaling less time to come. A slow, long sunset. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick,” says W. B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium.
Paltry: ridiculously or insultingly small; utterly worthless; mean or contemptible – minor, slight, insignificant, inconsiderable.
Did the student tell me the story to make me feel small – to have me come face-to-face with my insignificance? Or was it to make me feel better about feeling slight, utterly worthless? Was it a kindness?
Tattered: ragged, torn to pieces – hanging loosely from the main part.
Is a 60 year old man a ridiculous thing barely hanging on – loosely – to life itself? And so the “hot” problem doesn’t make you feel better or good, rather it accents the ragged part, the insignificance I’m becoming until, well, I am Nothing – a page left for posterity on Facebook.
A prayer at 60: Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.
“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing,” Yeats says. Of course not – how can that be possible today when we’re already so far from – and out of – Nature that we are confused – and battered – by mere snow storms and Arctic blasts, surprised by their voracity? We’re left pining for something else – something “Of hammered gold and gold enameling,” perhaps, that will take us into posterity and be worth something.
How far will hot take me – not even “hammered gold”?
The student’s story is “Of what is past, or passing, or to come,” as Yeats says. Once, maybe, you were hot, she may be saying; there’s an inkling of it, she says. Barely visible. But it’s the past and the fact that at least one of the students recognized this, it’s passing, transitioning towards the Nothing. The hallowed nothingness “to come.”
This is why men over 60 grab at straws – the end is near and the way there is a dramatic decline, a decay visible before our very eyes. Hot is not even a straw to grab at since vanity is fleeting and you’re left recognizing that the decline has come about slowly, assuredly, strong – a mysterious animal hiding in the high grass, waiting, time on its side. Until time no more.
Somewhere inside this confusing noise is the truth; somewhere here is the story of the hot, old professor, I think. Hot means virile, too, no? But uncovering the truth about one’s own sense of self while aging is difficult – and not just because the noise is deafening; it’s because no man raised in a culture like ours, where the male is privileged and lionized, can actually conceive himself unmanly, not virile. Hot.
Men’s virility is today’s problem du jour, says Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor of livescience, in “Low T: Real Illness or Pharma Windfall?”. My young student perhaps knew this, heard this in the noise, and she made light of it. Men are teased, even admonished, for having too much testosterone; now we’re told we don’t have enough T – either because we’re facing the winds of our misfortune or because of real biological challenges. Hypogonadism, testicular cancer. Not pretty.
I’m listening more intently to issues concerning us older guys. But when you hear hot, you lose sight – a momentary reprieve – of being “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal” that “knows not what it is.” Yeats again, perfect on aging.
And perhaps that is the moral of the little funny story: I don’t know what I am. I don’t what “it is,” this “dying animal,” looking back, taking inventory, seeing what’s amassed – if anything.