Read Old Man Scanlon

The Next Generations

09 July 2008

Last Thursday, while my cousin and I were having coffee, we happened to talk about sensing the temper of the time and knowing when it was appropriate to pass the baton on to the next generation. As is often enough the case, I found myself floundering, groping frantically for a metaphor adequate to the situation. As a card-carrying Pisces I fished for a maritime metaphor. I caught and released Shakespeare ("There is a tide...") and hooked and landed Endless Summer: surfing a wave until it drops you. The wave metaphor seemed to serve; it certainly could describe the career vicissitudes of a lifetime. You find an opportunity, exploit it as long as possible with whatever skill, luck, and artistry you can muster, until you and it part with more or less grace — again and again. But we weren't talking about knowing how to quit at the top of your game, or a career's progress so much as its cessation (or, God forgive me, a paradigm shift), and the wave seemed less and less suitable as time passed. Relying on memory, always a risky undertaking, I had rejected the tide as too starkly dichotomous, leading on one hand to fortune and on the other to disaster, as applying only to beginnings, and to tell the truth, I could come up with only the first line. It's easy enough to dispose of the "only beginnings" objection; all I needed to do was look forward from the paradigm shift instead of back — you know, "today is the first day of the rest of your life." To dispose of the last objection, let Brutus speak:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar IV, iii, 218-224

I had remembered that tide-catching failure was inevitably catastrophic, and on that faulty recollection based my central objection, having learned from experience that things in real life tend not to be so dire, nor so halcyon. But Shakespeare is much less black-and-white than I am — "Bound in shallows and in miseries" hits the nail on the head, and certainly doesn't preclude the occasional catastrophe.

It didn't pay to sell Shakespeare short, and this loss was galling since I had only days before had an especially gratifying encounter with the man on Block Island. Our grandchildren were spending a week there with their father, and Grammy and I took their cousin over for a three-day visit with them. One evening we passed through a video arcade without playing a single game. It's now the morning after that small victory and Grammy, Jordan, Briana, and I are sitting on the porch. Our view commands a backyard vineyard, a small pond, and boats in New Harbor, and there's a light, refreshing sea-breeze. It's still a couple of weeks too early for cicadas to complete the idyll, but the gulls are an acceptable island substitute. Grammy and I are feeling even more pleased with ourselves since we're all playing Quiddler, a rummy-like game in which you play your cards to form words, and not a Game Boy in sight. It is at this moment, in the clear eastern sun, that great Shakespeare's ghost, a scintillating gaseous vertebrate, appears before me to indicate what to play. I slap down "kin" rather than "ink"; others attribute the move to my proclivity for the more-obscure. This is Grammy's cue. "A little more than kin, and less than kind" gets its full due from her, followed by the play-within-the-play and a slightly abridged version of the rest of Hamlet. Then it becomes magic: "Another one, Gram!" Grammy serves them the Scottish play, and when even that is not enough, Julius Caesar. The kids lean forward, transfixed. I smile.

If only the ghost had granted me a moment of clairvoyance so I could have asked about timing the tide. Brutus says only that such a tide exists and that the one they're taking is it. I'm willing to accept the existence part as axiomatic, but Brutus gives no hint of how he's determined that this is the one. It's left as an exercise for the reader. Brutus seemed to be off by just a hair; on the other hand, maybe every other possible outcome would have been worse. My suspicion is that you might as well just roll the dice, but I would have been more than happy to hear Shakespeare explain the criteria.

Although I certainly don't know how I'm going to be able to tell when the time is right, when and if I need to cross the give-it-to-the-next-generation Rubicon, the decision will be all the easier because I have few qualms about those generations. They will certainly have their work cut out for them dealing with the social and political wreckage left for them by those avatars of the Boomer generation, the dishonorable President Clinton and the apparently clueless President Bush the Younger. My flabbily self-indulgent and spineless generation, addicted to bread-and-circus government, has been seduced and corrupted by the vast prosperity our Depression-tempered fathers sweated and bled to make, keep, and give to us. How disappointing to them that we don't even have the will to recognize and confront evil, as they did. Even though we are going to hell in a handbasket, as society always has, I feel strangely optimistic, as old guys perhaps always have.There are dangers ahead for the next generations, not the least of which are rappers' trousers, but I have hope for these kids — how can I not when my grandson wants Shakespeare? How can I not when I see the accomplishments and potential of my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, and my friends' children? I admit to loving them beyond any rational bounds, but, blinded therefore as I may be, there are other powerful indicators. I met three polite and well-spoken teenagers on bicycles at the Attleboro MBTA station who asked me to take their picture, and I've seen more than one Massachusetts driver behaving civilly, though not at commute time. Anything is possible. Do not despair for our children.