Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do. ¶ Golda Meir
How easy it is, how tempting, to overestimate one’s competence in any one area of life or human affairs or even simple biomechanical patterns. For my part, i clung to a baseless inner certainty that i would sail through my science orals in early december. Such false imaginings usually have a build-up: earlier, easy successes in similar areas, a Panglossian perspective [which i usually welcome], as well as a false sense of safety when one misinterprets anxiety-reducement-statements of one’s colleagues and friends for a realist account of whatever predicament one finds oneself in [no worries ≠ do not worry].
The fundamental screw-up: thinking that it would all somehow fuzzily go well, that the luck of the draw was going to be such that covering 95 percent of the material would suffice [i mean, what are the odds, come on]. Then getting the shitty luck of the draw and struggling, mightily, to explain what safety measures are to be taken in order to conduct in-class electrical experiments [rubber gloves, surely…..uhm, maybe some kind of failproof switch?]. And feeling four months’ worth of studying slide south on the unknowing, flailing tip of my tongue, the examiners’ questions seeming to get either easier or more absurd, i wasn’t able to tell.
Second time was the charm though; the charm needed to be moved forward as there would’ve been no third time. I could’ve even explained some intermediately basic concepts like how and why a changing magnetic field-flux can induce an electrical current in a ferromagnetic conduit. The different modes of speciation and meiosis. Even the fundamentals of a Redox-reaction; knowledge i expect to hang around my cortex for another few weeks before deteriorating into toxic half- or quarter-knowledge, while i attend to more literary matters.
It seems as though the natural sciences have a special relish to come bite me in my gluteus maximus when i least expect it. During the last year of my B.A. work at Knox [anthropology, mind you] my advisor, quite suddenly, gravely turned my attention to the fact that i was missing an elective and that it would have to be in the hard sciences. I recall hearing something heavy thud to the ground inside my head.
Thus, during the last term, while plodding away on my B.A. thesis [which needed to be a big production because i’d chanced on this research grant] i also had the extraordinary joy and privilege and altogether fun experience of blazing through an expensive 500-page tome of biology. And now this whole business of taking the orals twice and the second time basically deciding if Yours poorly [aka i] has to put in another 1.5 yrs at the dearly beloved, soul-shattering PH LU in some other didactic area of his extremely reluctant choosing [history, physical ed, whatever], realizing, wholly, even woolishly belated, that the strategy of picking a subject that seemed job-market-oriented and “fascinating” was a spectacular misdecision. Perhaps on a level with not blindly pursuing an unwholesome, pointless academic career after busting his intellectual balls in the city of flatulence, Paris on the Prairie. Which is an occasional, not altogether unreasonable, chorus amongst his [my] loved ones.
The test-passing was accompanied by a surprising, even if stereotypical, deluge of relief. Unfortunately it has played on my always-at-the-ready, base instincts of chilling-the-fuck-out-to-the-max, as witnessed by the few and paltry entries on this blog and the sheer dearth of job applications put into writing ever since i sailed out of that science classroom on a high tide of serotonin, the experts’ radiant smiles at my back.
Truly have i chilled. Me’looketh to my future days and see a sea of calm, undemanding tasks, pacific obligations. Though, naturally, unfortunately, it is time to get the bottom back into gear, sailing or even rowing, as there are some distant, Pessoan shores i should very much wish to gain: Isola d’Acceptable Inntekt, the Atoll of Shǒucì Chūbǎn and probably, if feasible, regaining the long lost lands of Kwelinye Izwe. Oh man, to voice one’s intentions for the future, what an ill-advised thing to do, what a bad way of going about matters! Thus now silence.
These past few days i learned two vital lessons [lesions] about becoming, or rather, being elderly and its associated motor deficiencies. Maybe it was a few weeks but in the jumbled temporal space of non-writing one is as good, as unreal, as the other.
Lesson one was that there is a stage of motor-skill degeneration when going about your business in public all alone is a very bad idea for all parties involved: the old person, the circumambient society. There was this woman of extremely advanced age who was making for the checkout-counter of our spatially highly constricted Migros. By means of a cumbersome walking frame. The WaFra of course is totally legit; we also call it the old people’s Lambo [which, as soon as you think of it one thought past the nice ring it has in German, makes no sense at all]. The WaFra permits old people to stay on their chosen path of forward progression, while allowing for some much-needed extra strength via their arms. Not that octogenarian arms are anything super-strong to be relied upon in times of need.
Good lord, this comes of as agist but i’m actually trying to depict the context of the situation here. Anyway, this grocery store is not only spatially constricted, located near the station and open at all hours, it is also frequently overrun by the hungry multitude. Meaning it is generally not an ideal space for the mutually inter-coordinated mass motion of human bodies.
To continue with the WaFra’s benefits: it allows, in times of crisis, for the golden ager to turn around, then sit down for a quick resuscitative breather. The old woman under observation needed none of this and jerkily arrived at the counter where, neither briskly nor excessively bradykinetic, she paid with what amounted to a war-cache of small change. Seeing her extremely convoluted posture and desiccated face and expressionless, watery eyes inspired visions of mortality. Then strangeness ensued. The old woman moved a couple of steps and came to a jerky standstill between the counters, her face twitching, the affect deadlined. This looked very much like a petit mal. The cashier looked at her slightly alarmed as she was blocking the double stream of consumers’ advance out of the purchase point. In fact everybody’s gaze was partially fixed on the mummy-like lady, fixed in time and space, jerking little jerks of what had to be assumed was imminent departure. Nobody dared approach her either, either thinking that she would recover from her stasis or should be allowed the dignity to keel over of her own accord. The walking frame which maintained this pre-deluvian female upright was now a kind of encumbrance to the multitude’s assessment of her health condition: a toppling to the ground would have had great informational value! Instead she lurched and started.
In place. Pause, exhail, wait.
Also, there was an air of defiance about the old woman, a sense that the last thing she wanted in this universe or the next was any kindred spirit‘s spurious show of compassion. After all, at 90+ years of age, 7/8 dead to the best of anybody’s telling, she had had no compunction whatsoever to venture into the people-cluttered core of town to do her groceries and discombobulate gents with her semi-mummified presence. The woman just wanted to be left in peace/place or be carted off in a coffin if in fact she did… decide to drop dead. After an eternity, I had enough time to steal glances at her and fill my plastic bag with food and drink, she then gave a start and briskly doddered towards the sliding doors; where once again she yanked to an abrupt, stationary petit mal.
It was a true spectacle of ancient idiosyncratic will versus physical ruin, neither compassion nor grace seemed adequate concepts for which to come to terms with what was happening. You could almost sense the biomolecular havoc inside the senescent lady’s body, the way the 50 trillion cells struggled mightily to do their day’s work.
The woman manning the last counter got up out of her seat as if to rally to the rescue, a violation of the script as it had thus far been established. The dying woman must’ve noticed this from out of the watery corners of her eyeballs and marshalled her remaining strength once again to careen out of the Migros. 5 meters outside of which came another halt & jerk.
To claim that there was a specific lesson in this episode is perhaps too confident an assertion but it did show, little me, that no matter the state of bodily disrepair, the human form can and will always struggle to obtain the relevant nutrients, the means of its continued existence; even if only to display the horrors of old age and mortality. It was the old lady‘s big V%ck–Off to any garden variety Nihilism or the Bourgeoisie’s dictum of public continence: Ahhhhh, but to exist! What a state!
The second lesson almost escapes me. It was a few days later or on the very same day; possibly even some time before the prior episode. Who remembers this type of shit? Mom&Dad-bound I pedalled up the Bodenhofterrasse that steep incline which makes Bireggwald look like a forbidding fortress of a forest lording it over the hill top.
There was this other old lady locking up her bike. Good for her was my thinking or i suppose i was thinking something along those lines as bike-usage usually fires up my optimistic spirits. She then made for the sidewalk right next to the bicycle-stand, downhill from where stood a friend of hers. Maybe she forgot something, maybe a noise caught her ear but just a step short of the sidewalk she turned around uphill. This was enough time for her left foot to catch on a little ledge separating the pavement from the bike-pad. She swivelled back around as if to attend to this new complication underfoot, somewhere below where her mind and head was. Though, speaking from the position of a moderately young person and examining the senior lady’s posture at that point in time [one leg slightly raised, the body tilted slightly down hill], the body geometry was not by a far cry catastrophic yet, i felt pretty confident in my prognosis that the situation was deteriorating rapidly and would eventuate in what life all too often eventuates in: suffering. I believe her friend downhill, too far away to usefully intervene, must’ve been rooted into place by the exact same thought: Oh shit! Fortunately for all involved there was none of the lugubrious number seven buses winding its way down the hill from just around the corner. The trolley-driver would’ve been supremely badly placed for either seeing the woman or for making an emergency break.
Hmmmmm, i believe that you dear reader can already see what a neat little diptych this is turning out to be: The standing lady & The fallen woman.
So what happened is that the woman’s dragging foot was still somehow attached, in fact kind of pincered, to the ground by its strange forward motion, while her point of gravity had escaped downhill to a point beyond the geometrical middle between her feet. Which, if you’re not sprinting, is all-around bad news for upright locomotion. Her proprioception evidently was quick enough to kick in and set off the alarms that signal impending perambulatory catastrophe. However, maybe from old habit or maybe from a lack of knowledge of her aged body’s capacities, the lady focused on the wrong counter-measures. In other words she initiated rotational movement along her vertical axis combined with ineffectual leg-flailings to regain her footing.
I watched. Between one revolution of the pedal and the next it seemed i had hours and hours to watch how this silver-ager was in the process of falling to the ground. It seemed like from one of her helpless postures to the next might’ve been enough time to wrap up my M.A. thesis if I hadn’t done so already. Cycling uphill, observing, moments began their slow flow toward eternity or infinity.
What the woman should have focussed on is getting up her arms, again those unreliable superannuated arms, to break her fall. And probably also those very same arms. Regrettably by the time she initiated any brachial-type movement the time-window for this face-saving gesture had already opened and shut again.
Neither of the two silver ladies was very interested in saving face, it seemed.
Anyway, the woman then fell like a log, fully outstretched, her face smacking into the gravel-strewn pavement of post-winter. Her cry was a weak yelp of surprise echoed by her friend who had now finally begun moving uphill.
Instead of compassion, i felt a bastardly sense of relief that i wasn’t the one who had to rush to her help, as i had other things planned. I am young and hale, for now, hale above all.