Deep wrinkles and deep thinkers unwanted

Getting old has never been easy. And being even semiliterate in Amer-ica has never been a cakewalk, either. As a culture, we worship youth and distrust thought.

Reading some of the fine 19th-century novelists, or viewing a performance of "King Lear" for that matter, makes it pretty clear that aging without collapsing into a bitter little puddle of regrets has always required great effort.

Until recently I never was much concerned with getting old. Like many Americans in this media-driven, media-saturated, pop-culture mishmash that has replaced thoughtful discourse, I knew unconsciously that feeling young was an essential requirement for enjoying daily American life, which is lived more and more on a painted, unwrinkled surface.

Nobody fills up space in USA Today or People magazine or the airways of "Inside Edition" with questions about Paul Newman or Robert Redford's love life.

It was Benifer I, then Benifer II, and now it's Brangie. Even Billy Bob seems to have been forgotten except as a relationship footnote.

Ms. Spears somehow got both fat and haggard, but Lindsay L. is looking good.

The undeclared war in Iraq isn't what's important. The fluctuating poll numbers of King George the Second, brother of Future King Jeb the Portly, is the real news.

And to digress, how seriously can we take a discussion based on how 500 hairstylists and computer programmers in Des Moines feel Li'l Spoiled, War-Dodging, War-Starting Georgie is doing?

The real question, devoid of partisanship, should be: How is the economy doing at the ground level? (Badly.) How are we as a country perceived in the world since Iraq blew up on us? (Badly.)

But in this cellphone-overrun, iPod-dominated place, everything is image and its daddy, public relations, and what image is less to be desired than the wrinkled face of age? Or the wrinkled brow of deep thought, for that matter.

All the skin care products in the world can't change 80 into 40, or a 140 IQ into the more comfortable pre-cincts of 110-115 where King Georgie frolics in the pasture of make-believe that Ronnie Reagan cleared of un-pleasant complications 25 years ago.

So let's not think about that too much, despite the fact that America was once a place where (some) deep thinkers prospered.

Whatever your stand on Thomas Jefferson, say, there is no denying that he was one smart hombre.

He managed money about as well as I do, and so at one point he was forced to sell a big portion of his home library.

He sold it to the country, and those books were the foundation of the Library of Congress.

Think what the Library of Con-gress would look like if it depended on King Georgie's books.... I don't think a crayoned-over copy of "The Cat in the Hat" and four picture-Bibles would be much of a start for a country's reading road.

On a trip to Thailand a couple of years ago, I couldn't help but notice that every other family had a grandparent or an elderly parent on the scene, living with the rest of the family, and being consulted about everything from the biggest issues (money, jobs, upcoming nuptials) to the little things like what street-level food stand should the kids be sent to for the fixin's of the nightly dinner.

I was immediately flooded with memories of Aunt Anna, my German father's elderly maiden aunt, who came to live with us at the age of 83.

Anna was in the throes of what we now call Alzheimer's; when asked, my father would say she was "senile."

Semantics or a real factual difference I cannot tell ya. I am not a doctor, although I played one occasionally when my kids were little and came to me with the non-life-threatening cuts and bruises of an active childhood.

We kept Anna for quite a while, until late one night she came after little me with a butcher knife while I was making a late-night bathroom run.

Even then, after my father dis-armed the poor old woman, there was a lot of talk about hiding the knives before reality was finally faced and Anna was sent to a nursing home.

But in the fragmented culture we've built since I became a facsimile adult around 1970, older folks, once they can't keep up, are supposed to be neither seen nor heard.

For any family that actually has kept an elder around, or helped them stay in their own place, there are five families shunting folks off to "independent living" places, assisted-living facilities or, alas, warehouses for demented oldsters who have lost the ability to take care of themselves.

My mother, 87, who still lives in the house my stepfather died in 13 years ago, tells me during our frequent phone chats - she is back in Cincinnati, where a sister and stepsister visit her almost daily - that she doesn't want to die, but doesn't really fear death, either.

"I still enjoy life," she has said more than once since passing 85. "I just pray I won't lose my faculties."

Her fears and life's inevitable rush to obsolescence are forcing me to look at where we are going as a culture, and especially how we treat, or don't treat, our elders, in a way I managed to avoid looking, or even questioning, for five decades.

A recent poll (that ever-present word) has discovered that Americans are lonelier and more isolated than they have ever been in the history of the country. Contributing factors are said to be the increased use of computers, a stark rise in the already-high number of hours the average American watches television (six to seven daily!), and longer and longer commutes to jobs that in many cases pay less in real dollars than they did 15 years ago. This had led to the creation of a state of loneliness where one in four people polled says they have no best friend they can take their troubles to.

I don't know where it fits in, but I'd be willing to bet money that the shunting aside of the elderly, and the marginalization of the politically intelligent, is another big player in the dumbing-down fragmentation of American public life.

I'm not sure of any of this, of course; this little screed is anecdotally diagnostic in nature, not remedially prescriptive. But I can say with 100-percent truth that I understand and empathize with my own culture less and less as I grow older, not, sadly, more and more.

From our rich-boy, do-nothing president to our group dismissal of the elderly as significant players in our social and cultural life, we are going in a direction that seems to be a long road to no place, where the rich own 80 percent of everything and deep ideas are considered treasonous or at least "negative" instead of food for thought.

Of course, in a place where one in three people is now obese, who needs to eat thoughts? Or put forth any type of extra effort?

But that is yet another screed of dismay better saved for another Wednesday.

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