Le Vieillard Gros

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (September 18 2012)

Gelii Korzhev, 1925-2012

My doctor wants me to live to be a hundred. During a recent check-up she asked me how long I want to live, probably as a way of telling me that I should listen to her more carefully. I said eighty, because that’s how long men in my family generally live (unless there is a revolution or a world war); the women live a bit longer than that. She then said that eighty used to be considered good longevity, but that one hundred is the new eighty. Well, that certainly explains all the old people I saw in her waiting room! I told her that I do not view aging as a competitive sport, and that I do not aspire to smashing any records in the longevity department. She seemed a bit confused by this response and changed the subject.

I had a neighbor once, who was perhaps just over a hundred years old, perhaps just under – it doesn’t really matter, because he himself probably couldn’t remember how old he was, so why should anyone else care? On warm sunny days he would sometimes stand on his porch, squinting at the sun through dark glasses, wobbling and shaking. The rest of the time he lurked inside, doing who knows what. Eventually I found out what he was doing there: he was growing mushrooms. He was growing mushrooms on his person. When he finally died and his possessions were disgorged onto the sidewalk in front of his house for the neighbors to pick through, there were boxes and boxes of antifungals (Miconazole, Clotrimazole, et cetera) – enough to treat an entire football team for both jock itch and athlete’s foot. I specifically don’t want to turn out to be like that man. I am much more afraid of becoming like that man than I am afraid of death.

I understand that there is a certain large number of people who aspire to being “forever young”. This seems like a truly bizarre aspiration. There is a certain symmetry between the young and the old: both tend to be stupid, the young – from inexperience, the old – from being old. In the bygone days when a spade was called a spade they were called “a young fool” and “an old fool”, respectively. These concepts could be dressed up with scientificky-sounding words like immaturity and senility, for the sake of the scientifcky-minded. Nowadays the term Alzheimer’s gets thrown around a lot, and is being researched at great expense in search of a cure. But it was previously well known that “There is no fool like an old fool”, and the treatment was to ignore him. That’s because a young fool might grow up and stop being a fool, whereas an old fool would eventually just stop being. The aspiration to be “forever young” is, to my mind, equivalent to wishing to remain “forever stupid” – to never grow up.

But if I am expected to reconcile myself to growing old and stupid, I might as well start now. I am already quite excellent at forgetting birthdays and anniversaries, with little room for improvement. I have also never been particularly good at remembering names, but I still remember a few, so I can improve on that. I’ll start asking “What’s your name again?” – of people whom I’ve known for years. I could also develop some annoying old man mannerisms, such as insisting on returning things I hadn’t borrowed while calling everyone “kid”. This may surprise them at first, but then later they won’t realize that my mind is gone, because I’ll just be acting as peculiarly as ever. It takes time to adjust to being stupid, and the older one is, the harder it becomes to make the adjustment, so I better start practicing while I still have my wits about me. “Hi mom, what’s your name again?” Now that is sure to produce a reaction!

I suppose I should also start thinking about a new career suitable for an old fool. Since retirement is quickly becoming a thing of the past, anyone who wants to live to be a hundred will also have to continue working all the way until death. But since people who are that old aren’t capable of much physical or mental exertion, the work would have to be dead (no pun intended) easy. Perhaps I could start a chain of fashion boutiques that cater to centenarians. It would sell specialty items such as rainbow-colored ear tufts and nose-hair extensions. While there, you could pick up a packet of liver spots, some pants that you can pull up all the way to your armpits, and, piece de resistance, a bottle of our special eau de cologne, Old Man Smell. There would be commemorative plaques for customers who dropped dead right inside the store. The chain would have to have a fashionable-sounding French name … how about Le Vieillard Gros?

But maybe, just maybe, none of this will be necessary. Just imagine, half a century from now: the fossil fuels are gone, the oceans are too acidic for shellfish, the icecaps have largely melted and coastal cities are under water, and the entire continental interior is a parched desert. It is unbearably hot and ridiculously stormy all the time, and the surviving humans, now numbering well under a billion, are all preoccupied with trying to gather or grow enough food to survive. And there I am, deep in my dotage, proudly mouldering with my rainbow-colored ear tufts and nose-hair extensions, smelling of Old Man Smell, calling everyone “kid” and trying to return a book I hadn’t borrowed? If that happens, then just bury me, preferably at sea. Put me in a dinghy, hand me a bottle of rum, and set me off on the tide. I promise I won’t protest.


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