Maximizing at an age of minimization

I've always had a soft spot for older people. Which is a good thing since I am rapidly, if grudgingly, approaching old-guy status myself.

I have children older than the newest "hit" rappers.

My first teenage-girlfriend is a 50-year-old grandmother.

So you could make the case that my affection for the graying among us is simply a display of tactical smarts - Love the one you're soon enough going to be.

I'm the guy at a party who, if there aren't any pretty women paying attention to me, will seek out the old guy in the corner other people seem to be avoiding.

Now there's no denying this particular social maneuver can backfire: "And then I turned 15, blah, blah, blah." Yes, Virginia, some older folk are pretty boring.

But most, I've discovered, have learned a lot about life along their lengthy way and, if talked to nicely, will share some of their experience and sometimes even their wisdom.

And lots of older folks no longer seem to suffer from that ego-driven, self-involvement gene the rest of us have trouble controlling. They want to tell you about their successes, sure. But they also often have their lives shaped into some perspective, a skill that is harder than it looks, at least for me.

Another related pleasure I am more and more indulging is the pursuit of wisdom through maxims and aphorisms.

I've never cared much for television and have always preferred reading. But as I age, I find I don't have the patience of my bespectacled youth. I don't want to wade through 400 pages of Tolstoy to find that one sentence which sums up life so aptly. Such diversion more and more seems like looking for the hunk of meat in my Aunt Ellie's stew - Ellie was notorious in our family for scrimping on dinners served to all but her hubby.

In my quest for brevity, I've lately been reading Goethe's maxims and reflections. After all, he was the greatest German who ever lived, and Germany - more notorious than my Aunt Ellie's dinner menu lately because of The Little Corporal - did give the world Kant, Hegel, Lichtenberg and Schopenhauer to name just a few philosophers quite a bit deeper than Oprah, George W. Bush or Tom Brokaw.

But the King of the Maxims is, of all things, a deceased Frenchman.

Fran├žois duc de La Rochefoucauld (no, I can't pronounce it; I went to a Franciscan-run high school for God's sake), a 17th-century nobleman, published the first edition of his maxims in 1665 when he was 52.

He continued to refine his gift to the world for the next 15 years, until his death.

De La's maxims are chewy and full of juicy fiber for thought. I have pored over his 641 pithy points to live by for the past few weeks and still haven't run out of things to consider.

For example: "It is easier to fall in love when you are out of it than to get out of it when you are in."

You can have your soap operas and Julia Roberts' flicks. I've got De La on my team.

Or how about this: "Love may most aptly be compared with a fever, for we have no more power over one than the other, either in its violence or duration."

In fact, with the advent of antibiotics, love may even finish a distant second to the flu as far as our control is concerned.

De La was an intriguer at the King's court in his early life and so suffered for his failings. But unlike most of us, he seemed to learn from his mistakes. And he eventually took a dim view of the standard way most folks operate.

Hence: "Little is needed to make a wise man happy, but nothing can content a fool. That is why nearly all men are miserable."

I'll take that over an entire wall of puerile self-help tomes.

But my early favorite in the De La sweepstakes - after all, I've been reading him for only a few weeks - is this clever play on the old saw about the pot calling the kettle black: "The world is full of pots jeering at kettles."

Those nine words sum up every political debate I've ever covered more aptly than 100 pages of analysis in newspeak could ever manage in either or both of our daily papers.

And for me, a guy who for better or worse has often strayed from the beaten path, there is this, my second-favorite De La pearl: "We are held to our duty by laziness and timidity, but often our virtue gets all the credit."

That describes every unspiritual religious person who has ever preached to me.

The only sad thing about finding such a kindred spirit, in this case, is that De La has been dead lo these 300 years and change.

I find myself wishing I could call him up and offer to buy him a glass of cabernet. Just imagine hearing this stuff as it came straight from the mint of his once-febrile brain.

But somewhere in De La's thin but powerful opus, I'm sure there's some pointed comment about wishing for what can't be. Some witty advice about accepting those things we cannot change.

So as it must be, it's once again, the book, "Maxims," for me.

Freelance writer Dennis Wilken is a Queen Anne resident. He can be reached at

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