Saturday, November 15, 2008

As civilization winds down

The ancient Chinese had the sensible belief that when unexpected unnatural events occurred, they could be taken as a sign that Heaven was angry and that the government should be overthrown by the people. Comets, eclipses of the moon, calves born with two heads or five legs and prolonged droughts (or serious floods) could all be taken as signs of a need for regime change. (I suppose melting polar ice caps, huge accumulations of plastic junk floating in the middle of the ocean, and the extinction of large numbers of flora and fauna might also qualify.) Native peoples in the Americas often have stories of warning signs of the end of human civilization and impending doom, many of them involving erratic animal behavior.

To me one of the clearest signs that civilization is coming to an end is that old people no longer act their age. When I was a child, old people acted old. They dressed like old people. They sat in rocking chairs. They laughed at the antics of kittens and grandchildren. They recited Biblical passages they had memorized. They wheezed. Their hair was grey, and then white, if they had any at all. Their hands were cold. Women had moustaches. Hardly anyone lived much beyond 70. Old people started to smell funny, and then they got weak and spent most of their time in bed, and then they died. That, it seems to me, is what being old should be like. I do not like the way old people are nowadays.

When I was huffing and puffing (and, yes, wheezing) on an elliptical trainer at the local YMCA yesterday (something my grandfathers never did when they were 63, because in their day the YMCA was an association for young Christian men), I happened to see a news story on the television that the YMCA puts in the gym to help people avoid looking at the beautiful mountains through the huge picture windows as they exercise. The story claimed that the Mexico City government has passed a new policy to give free Viagra to all men over 70. When I saw that, I muttered my favorite prayer: “Oh, for Christ's sake!”

When men get old they don't need to have erections. Not having an erection is not a dysfunction. There is no such thing as erectile dysfunction syndrome. It is just being old. It goes with wheezing and having white hair and needing suspenders because you can't find a belt big enough to go around your waist. It's normal. Like having wrinkles and sagging cheeks and a double chin. That's part of being old. Viagra, Botox and Grecian Formula are signs that people have forgotten that they really should be acting their own age. They are signs that human civilization is coming to an end.

Cell phones and iPods are also signs that human civilization is on its last legs. Earlier this week I was a little late getting home and decided to take a bus rather than walk. As I sat on the bus, I noticed that I was the only passenger who wasn't fiddling with a cell phone or an MP3 player. Everyone else had plastic stoppers in their ears so they could hear the music being played by their iPods. Everyone looked pretty much like a corpse from the neck up: expressionless faces showing no sign of life. The only signs of life were fingers and thumbs frantically and impatiently pecking at tiny keys. Now young people being impatient are showing their age. That's a good sign. But they are not talking to each other or trying to get the attention of the opposite sex or making rude comments about the old men on the bus. That's a very bad sign.

Given what I have seen of what people seem to think civilization is, I will not miss it when it finally falls. I already have a couple of good rocking chairs. And I have a teapot. That's all an old man needs in the way of material possessions. The only thing else he needs is to remember to zip his fly now and then, just in case a visitor comes around.