Retirement is a two-edged sword: there’s more time available, but less time left to use it. And yet, age wears perspective on its cuffs and dresses in knowledge if we are lucky. And even from its recently shrunken pedestal, it still offers a unique view of the variegated panoply of progress. We can observe the problems in which we were once enmeshed, but from a safer distance; and we can grasp that although they are different, they are really the same. It is feeble comfort, perhaps, but it is Wisdom.
And yet there is a catch: for Wisdom to flower, for enlightenment to blossom, for Pattern to emerge, there must be the weft and warp of things past. Aye, there’s the rub: having survived to experience Retirement, what shadows lurk in still, dark corners? Is crippling mental decline the comfortable chair beckoning from across the room? Or, as with Othello, are we already so declined into the vale of years, we head towards it for relief?
One of the few perquisites of Age, is the permission to wander short distances from the heavily trodden road under the guise of hindsight. It is, however, a balancing act: stray too far, and it’s dementia; tiptoe only circumspectly, and it is a forgettable idiosyncrasy. But, after travelling all this distance through the years as an eccentric and then arriving unscathed at the nether end, am I only to be tolerated –or worse, institutionalized? It is not the epitaph I had in mind. Rather, I wish it to be acknowledged that, unlike many, I was able to floss to the very end -although I’m not sure how that would look on a tombstone.
Perhaps I should explain. Flossing –for those of you not old enough to remember- was a meditation technique reputedly invented in 1819 by a dentist in New Orleans, but I think the practice has been around for a lot longer than that -as long as we’ve had hair, anyway. In fact, I remember seeing it in action by some women on a bus in Bolivia years ago. Hair was merely a dross waiting for a need –waiting for evolution.
Of course, flossing is something that requires a fair amount of coordination and ontogenesis; it can be done without an opposable thumb, I suppose, although it’s hard to tear off the string from the little container without one. Thus it is rarely observed in rats or beavers despite the need, and I’m given to understand that chimpanzees will not do it while they are being watched, so we don’t know about them. Neither will I, for that matter.
Flossing underwent a bit of a decline during the war years, probably because all available string was shipped overseas for the war effort. It made a spectacular resurgence in the affluent 1950ies, however, when actually keeping an intact set of teeth became a distinct possibility. Who can forget that black and white TV commercial sung by my mother’s favourite -Doris Day: ‘Floss your teeth today, in your Chevrolet’? Oh, the memories! Maybe it’s still on YouTube…
Nowadays, flossing has become so important, it’s almost New Age in the intensity with which its spirituality has been espoused -although not quite so hokey. We flossing aficionados have long been aware of the underground data linking filthy gums to health risks. Flossers, it was hinted, lived longer, more productive lives than those who just watched TV before they went to bed –String Theory it’s called in some circles, although they may have borrowed the term. At any rate, I am pleased to report that my retired sources think they remember reading that there is new evidence that flossing may help stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Or maybe it was arthritis -they weren’t sure.
A little background. Most of us by now are steeped in the preventative lore of Sudoku, crossword puzzles, dietary strategies, and even exercise to ward off cognitive decline. We have become sifters through health promises, traders of articles -Googlemasters. All for that elusive lottery of memory -for what are we, really, without memory? It is what knits the ravelled sleeve of who we are. That I wake up each day convinced I am the same person who went to sleep, and that I recognize as friends those faces which appear before me, is what validates a life. I take no comfort in Nietzsche’s jibe that ‘The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.’ That is the urbane rationalization of one who thinks the exact opposite… Of one who thinks.
I suspect the root of the problem of cognitive decline is that Science is still unable to pinpoint a cause or -at the level of neurons and their increasingly dysfunctional connections with age- a way of preventing the degeneration. Of course it makes sense to provide adequate and appropriate nourishment to them (dietary management); make sure they stay well oxygenated (exercise); and with the increasing awareness of the plasticity of the brain for laying down fresh neural pathways, to continually challenge it with new material (socialization, games, etc.). But why this is more necessary as we age, is problematic. There have been various theories throughout the years as to the effects of such things as arterial narrowing and inflammatory processes in the cerebral blood vessels, but the issue of whether or not it is inevitable still remains.
So, is there anything more we can we do about it? String Theory may offer some hope. Suppose that flossing does get rid of the plaque that inflames gums which otherwise, ISIS-like, would have sent terrorists far and wide to wreak havoc? Suppose that, in the end, it all comes down to clean gums? Maybe I can die with a good memory, recognizing who I am until the very last syllable of my recorded time.
And yet, and yet… I am still haunted. Do I really want to be bright and clear until that last breath, aware that I’m about to tumble off the edge? Maybe there’s a reason for pre-terminal forgetfulness -a numbness that we tamper with at our peril… Maybe we shouldn’t be flossing too close to our dies mortis…
Are you allowed to fake stuff on your epitaph?