Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/06/2011

Drinking largely on Epiphany (I don’t mean to be corny)

 
Dancing at the Pierian Spring

Dancing at the Pierian Spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian* spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again (1).

*Pierian spring: In Greek mythology a spring at Pieria near Mount Olympus, sacred to the Muses.

A long-time friend (published writer, well-known editor) kindly critiqued some of my poetry she read with poet friends of hers. She commented that I include too many biblical references, that her friends did not understand them. An incongruity: my friend and her friends read my poetry while they were together for Christmas (if they don’t understand biblical references why are they celebrating Christmas?).  One should not quote Alexander Pope because hardly anyone knows what the Pierian spring is?

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

I say, if you don’t understand a reference in something you read, look it up. I tell my students that all the time. It’s my Pavlovian response. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

(Another obvious aside: one should not quote Alexander Pope not because of his reference to the Pierian spring. One should not quote him because virtually none of us has enough “learning” to understand his writing–regardless of his allusions.)

Sixty.

Try sixty-six.

Sixty is not the new forty. I wonder who coined that phrase. It’s a “shallow [draught that] intoxicate[s] the brain.”

Sixty is not the new forty.

Those of us who are sixty will never have the brain development of a twenty-year-old who has spent her entire life zipping around video games–or of the forty-year-olds trying to emulate her. Ain’t gonna happen. Sixty isn’t the new anything. It’s sixty! Let me tell you a little secret, however. Those of you who don’t play keyboard instruments are way behind those of us who do in the brain development arena.

A friend from a former lifetime (I lost track of him years ago), a concert pianist and medical school professor of neurology, helped me understand the music of J.S. Bach. I’ve never found the medical writings that support what follows. Given the talk about how my teenage nephews are training their brains by playing video games–even changing the structure of the human brain [for the better?]–I think the musical neurologist’s explanation of Bach makes sense. He said:

Our “opposable” thumb has more of our brain dedicated to its operation than any other movable part of our body. Before Bach, keyboard playing was done with the four fingers alone, the thumb dangling useless below the keydesk because it was too short. Bach (or someone contemporaneous with him) discovered the thumb could do marvelous things in playing, and keyboardists pulled the thumb up onto the keyboard. Voilà, a whole new style of playing–and of writing music for the thumb–came into being. The best keyboardists are people whose thumbs are the most gifted. Makes sense to me. (Mine is not the smartest, but it’s smarter than most, even than some of those video game-players, I’ll bet.)

Horowitz: opposable thumbs at 70

Horowitz: opposable thumbs at 70

My dad is 96 and lives in an assisted living facility. When I visit him, I eat with him in the common dining room. Margaret, one of his table mates, is 97. She graduated from the Julliard School of Music as a piano major seventy-five years ago. The Sunday before Christmas she played a piano prelude at her church. More importantly, I met her on December 23, and she remembered our conversation on December 28.

Most people who talk about 60 as the new 40, I think, mean something like

[I] don’t want to be old longer. [I] want to be young and middle-aged longer. And [I] would prefer to live [a] long, healthy [life] without being any particular age at all, reflecting a new kind of ageless aging (2).

I don’t want to be ageless. It would be nice to be healthy and happy until I’m 97, and to be able to play the prelude at my church at that age. But I don’t want to be forty. My God! When I was forty, I was an active alcoholic. My attitude about my career was, “If THEY only knew who I was, I’d be the organist at St. John the Divine in New York.” I was living in an abusive relationship. I was a drunk and arrogant son-of-a-bitch. I would have been an arrogant son-of-a-bitch even had I not been a drunk (perhaps I still am). I have aged. Not well, but better than it seemed 26 years ago that I might.

One of the most prominent questions of my life these days is when I will retire. I think about it, and other people ask me. After all, my first Social Security check will arrive on the 10th of next month. The fact is, I see no reason (today) to think about retirement. Oh, I’m trying to plan how I will eat and pay the rent in my “ageless aging.” I rather expect I will follow the model of us baby boomers who will “render obsolete the traditional ‘linear life’ paradigm, in which people migrate in lockstep first through education, then work, then leisure/retirement,” for whom it will be “normal for “70-year-olds to reinvent themselves through new careers. . . and “rehirements” will become common options for elder boomers who’ll either need or want to continue working” (3).

But I worry with Dychtwald that “Most discussions about increasing longevity have been focused on how to live longer rather than on why. I worry that without envisioning a new purpose for old age, we could be creating a future in which the young are pitted against the old.” I want to be part of an aging population that “can learn to exemplify a new kind of wise, mature leadership, [so that] when the boomers’ time on earth is over, perhaps they will be remembered as not just the largest generation in history, but also the finest” (4).

This, however–at least for me–will not happen unless I avoid the “shallow draughts [of inspiration that] intoxicate the brain, and [remember that] drinking largely sobers us again.” When (or even if) I retire is beside the point.

Ultimately personal identity and self-esteem are closely bound up together, and derive from a sense of personal value, of personal worth, of being needed, of being loved for what you are, not just for what you do. This is true health and wholeness, and. . . .It is also a spiritual issue [that is, the] belief that each individual human being has intrinsic equal and great value (5).

Fryers points out that all three parties in the British 2005 elections “insisted that they serve the interests of ‘hardworking families’.” He says our political life is not geared to an understanding that what (if anything) I continue to do for “work” as I age is not important. I’m not defined by how I support myself.  I realize that not everyone has these options, but I’m going to look up Biblical allusions in poetry I read (I’m going to keep reading poetry). I’m going to keep using my opposable thumb to play the organ and piano. And next Wednesday I’m going to start square dance lessons–without even a friend to go with. You can hold me to it. I’m going to try to “drink largely” of the Pierian spring.
_______________
(1) Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism” Part 2 (1711).  Representative Poetry Online. University of Toronto Libraries. 2002/4/13. Web. 06 Jan. 2011. Original: Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism. London: Lewis, 1711. Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970.
(2) Dychtwald, Ken. “Ageless Aging: the Next Era of Retirement.” The Futurist (July-August 2005): 18.
(3) Dychtwald 19.
(4) Dychtwald 21.
(5) Fryers, Tom. “Work, identity and health.” Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health 2 (2006): 17.

Dancing at the Pierian Spring

Dancing at the Pierian Spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian* spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again (1).

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