Fastened to a Dying Animal: Hot at 60?

“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?

The Family

The Family

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.

Life At 60: Looking for Completion

I’m contemplating my birthday this coming year (January), not because I want to, rather because I’m being reminded: You’ll be sixty this year, right? Wow, how does it feel?

I’m being forced into simple mathematics: How much longer do you think you want to keep working? I’ve been asked this past year. Economic outlooks suggest that I better stay healthy because I’m going to have to work for a very long time.

How much longer do you want to stay in your house? someone asked just the other day. What’s that suppose to mean? How much longer? That my house is somehow too much for me? How am I suppose to take this?

My father died when he was 82, almost 83, but he had polio and diabetes, though he lived an extremely disciplined life – much more then mine. My mother, a very independent woman, is 86 and going strong, driving around in her convertible VW, exercising, living right. You come from good stock, said my doctor recently. Now we’re down to stock – supply on hand, outstanding capital, a quantity of something (health?) accumulated for future use. But my stock has been chipped at by different stresses, more powerful forces, those that dictate our methods of negotiating with each other in this common era we like to call the age of knowledge – though I’d call it, in keeping with stresses, an age of transition, an age where we’re learning to understand that change is the most powerful constant and that what we, as humans, have done is accelerate it, though we work very hard — and get more stressed — at denying this.

Just how much of a future do I have – does anyone have? And does knowing matter?

What I have noticed are the people – some my age, some younger – that drop off. James Gandolfini was but 51. Dennis Farina was 69, a recent blood clot in his lungs, says his publicist. Notice these are men. A friend, a bit older, has but a few months to live; another, even closer to my age, Alzheimer’s and soon heading for special care. It’s hard to walk around these realities, especially since the suffering is close, so close that an entire community picks up on it. We want to ask the age old existential questions – why? what for? when? who? and so on – but we don’t dare because they seem so utterly ridiculous. We just go on. People drop off, become relegated to memory, and we move on. As W.B. Yeats says, “A terrible beauty is born.”

I find some solace in Woody Allen, 77, because he is still going strong, his latest release, Blue Jasmine, (July 26, 2013). I go back, over and over, to Henry James’s biography and re-read the chapters about his death and how, at the very last moments of his life, he was still writing, still dictating his next story to his faithful secretary. My mother says we have to die healthy. I think that’s key.

I found The Joy of Old Age, by Oliver Sachs, uplifting and hopeful. He’s still practicing at 80. “Eighty!” exclaims Sachs. “I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.” This is exactly the problem – or perhaps the quandary of aging, if done well, I think: when you do the math – what, maybe I have 25 or so years left, on good terms – I can’t believe that it’s coming eerily close to an end, fin, basta.

Psychologically, more often then not, my wife will say, You’re such a child. Will you ever grow up? To which I answer, I hope not. When I look into that damn thing we call a mirror, it’s telling the truth – white hair, almost gone; weird hair growing from the ears and too long out of the nose; shoulders and arms not as defined; paunch. And then there’s the lack of desire to exercise, though I do it, but not with gusto. Younger, sports are the exercise; the team mediates the anguish of hard, physical work. Older, you’re all alone to do this. Younger, the school bell marked the beginning of the afternoon and athletics; now you have to set your own schedule, force it upon yourself.

I’m not a joiner. I don’t like teams, clubs, groups that join up to run, bike and hike and swim. Besides, I can’t understand that strange desire to dress up like you’re in the Tour d’ France, belly over thighs, riding around with a bunch of guys, chatting it up. Just the notion of sliding into those tight, overly colorful – let’s say loud – outfits, is enough to send me running for the hills. I’m not a marathoner. I’m not a triathlete. I prefer to work alone – and I suppose that makes it even harder, to which you, fine reader, might say, Get over it. Join up. I can’t.

I’ve come to realize that part of this “stock” idea has to do with one’s very nature. By nature, I love to be alone. I love to be alone to read and to write. I love to work alone. The only great fun I have – and great interest – is to be among students and my sheep.

I live on a farm, which makes exercising easier. There’s nothing like a shovel, an axe, a mallet to build some strength; it’s natural too. There’s nothing like grabbing sheep, sitting them up, and trimming their hooves. No matter when it’s done, you’re drenched in sweat. Still, though, the question, How much longer do you want to stay in your house?, hangs over my head and sets me off wondering how much longer can I, indeed, do strenuous physical work?

I find myself studying local Vermont farmers, especially the older ones. I know a 78 year old sheep farmer with hypertension, though he’s never taken a drop of medicine. I know an 80 year old that raises Belgian horses – and if you’ve ever been close to one of these 2000 pound giants, you know you need strength and wit.

I see old farmers chopping wood; I see them on tractors, milking cows, gardening commercially. They may be a bit hunched, with gnarled hands, but they have a particular strength in their core. I take it to be a strength that comes from their commitment to stay connected to the earth, to the work of the hands, the challenges of climate change. It’s a kind of life guided by dead reckoning, I think. It’s a frontier spirit: what’s yet left to be discovered in something deep and abiding that remains ever so secret but that, nevertheless, beckons from within.

Oliver Sachs says, “I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.” I feel the same. I feel I have yet to complete my life, whatever completion means. This is why I teach, and why in my teaching I try to be fresh year in and year out, day in and day out. Working with 18 – 22 year olds is refreshing – it can also be frustrating; in it lies a sense of life never ending though, that there’s a spiritual connection between them, my students, and me and that somehow, mystically, they’ll carry me, that they may carry me onward even after I extinguish.

While maybe forced into arithmetic calculations about duration, my hands wrapped around a shovel, digging away, and my mind and soul actively engaged in the creation of identities – not least of which is my own – enables me to keep searching for the ineffable.

The Sex and Love Lives of College Students: Erectile Dysfunction and Other Maladies

In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)

Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.

“I don’t believe it,” said some students.

“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.

“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.

The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.

When living a fishbowl-like college existence, is love possible for the post Sex in the City generation leaning towards Girls?

For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)

Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.

College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.

We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.

Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.

The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.

But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this.  By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.

“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?

Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.

Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?

Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?

Men Over 55: Facing Uncanny Realities

Men over 55 are a strange lot. Now that 50 is said to be the new 40, and we’re all to believe that somehow the inevitable is magically being thwarted by exercise, diet and viagra, men are in a kind of limbo, looking back to what was and forward to what is fast approaching, only to realize what will never be. Men over 55 live in a kind of fog, fluctuating between wonderment and bleakness, surprised by how little we know and confused by the reversal of our dominant and submissive roles. Men over 55 men are confused about who to be. The world makes little sense to us.

I am a susceptible 57, which is closer to 60, and the difference between 55 and 57, psychologically and intellectually, is that you learn that any romantic notions you had when you were 50 or 55 are just that, convoluted ways of lying to yourself. I’ve learned that 57 is the male’s age of reality: the very real sense that you’ve lived and that there’s less time, not more, comes crashing in and you have to wonder, what have I done and what am I going to do with what’s left of me? Is there room for more fantasy? Because fantasy, after all, is essential; it’s how we experience the material world, our imagined selves waving at windmills. Without fantasy, there is no reality. Fantasy enables our sense of limitations. Only at 57, there’s less fantasy, more of a sense of how things are.

Over 55 means that a man is looking at his life through a prism that blurs certain things, but makes others — like the end of things — more acute. Carpe diem takes on new meaning.

Now I sit to pee — not stand. I did start this around the time I turned 50, though, because I figured that I should let gravity help all the way — a prostate is a prostate, something quite vulnerable in a man. Oh, did you hear? Stan has prostate cancer. Prostate and cancer are the most frightening of bedfellows, as breast cancer is for women. Only we men never talk about it and proceed silently into the abyss. Fantasies about manhood die slowly.

At 40, prostate exams began for me, but by the time I turned 50, unstressing the prostate became critical. Testosterone, the fuel of fantasies, becomes an agressor. Over 50, testosterone, once so dear to our souls, turns on us. I realized this when I had my first colonoscopy, that harrowing experience of probing the rectum and colon to detect inflammed tissue, ulcers, and abornormal growths. In other words, the procedure that determines how well you’ve handled processed foods and stress — children, marriage, work, the world coming apart, the ups and downs of the economy, McDonald’s food, one too many beers and too many cigars, and the realization that you have no control over anything. The prostate is not keen on uphevel.

The colonoscopy (women 50 and over also have these) is stressful. It begins with a taxing prep: a strong laxative that forces you on the toilet for most of the night before the procedure. I thought that the prostate exams I’ve had for ten years — basically the doctor asking me to assume the position so that he could do to me what everyone else had been doing to me for years — was it as far as humiliation. But when I saw the pinky size width of the three foot tube with a camera on its end — an eye to probe my inner most secrets? — that was to travel through my intestines, well, I knew I’d reached a new understanding of humility. I knew that I’d reached a new sense of what it means to be a man past a certain age. And I knew, from that day forward, that a man’s life is about everything below the waste — prostate, colon, penis; they all begin to falter and with them goes any exaggerated sense of manliness. Fantasies are effectively killed off at this point. Pragmatism reigns supreme. It’s about survival from here on out.  I take a heaping tablespoon of Green Vibrance, organic and freeze dried grass juices, a superfood, in a tall glass of water — my natural answer to viagra dreams.  With a healthy diet, it works wonders.  And I take a teaspoon of Norwegian Cold Liver Oil to get my Omega 3 fatty acids.

The family medical practice I go to has no male doctors (the only male MD has moved on), so my new prostate examiner is a woman MD. My first ever physical performed by a female was when I entered the Navy. Twelve or so young men in white underwear stood in a line. As the female Naval officer walked by, she checked us out. “Turn your head and cough, please.” When she walked behind us, accompanied by 2 nurses, we assumed the position. I didn’t know it then, but this was a life-lesson, a scene to be repeated over and over throughout my life. I don’t mind that a woman examines me, after all, plenty of male MD’s examine women. My mother’s generation had only men doctors. The tides have turned, and this is fine by me. A prostate is a prostate — who cares? I like the more submissive role we men have to assume.

But I do care that I have to check the unexpected hair popping from the edges of my ear lobes — a challenge to shaving. I do care that I have to manicure my nose hair that apparently grows at alarming rates. And recently, weird eyebrow hairs twist and turn and curl into exaggerated lengths, which then I crop. I’m losing the hair on my head, but new hairs are popping up in the strangest of places. It must mean that with age there’s less strength to push the hair up through the head, so what’s left grows in weaker extremities. Submission means acquiescing to deterioration, I suppose. When I’m but a corps I’ll be nothing but hair, the final joke.

I have to spend longer hours in the bathroom before an uncompromising mirror. But when I glance at my wife next to me, she actually looks better, as most women over 50 do — healthy, energetic, sexy. College kids, young men and young women, take second looks. No such luck for us old men, los viejos in a new America where we find that we’re not as important as we used to be. We’re more vulnerable, more pragmatic, adjusting reluctantly to our new locations in the world that is slowly balancing our roles, slowly enabling us into more convincing understandings of our sensitivities. We’re less dominant and more confused.