“Life’s Illusions”

This was written on March 30, but I was away from my good WiFi connection and couldn’t get it posted.

One of my favorite short stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fantasy, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.” Unfortunately, unless you had an abusive American literature teacher with unrealistic expectations like I was, you’ve probably never read it (or maybe you said you did). This is the same guy who wrote The Scarlet Letter; remember him? That’s another classic work that means you have to think…and probably use a dictionary. The short story, though, has always been one of my favorites because of Hawthorne’s craft as a writer and the theme(s) of the story. It is tightly plotted; the vocabulary that stymies so many readers is stingy in its conciseness—every word helps move the plot along, creating mood, alluding to the backstories of the characters as well as relevant references to mythology and other Western source work, and tying everything together to reach the end. You should read it. I’ll wait. Here’s a link to the full text: (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=HawHeid.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1)

For those of you without the time or inclination, let me tell you that a physician of somewhat ill repute (and rather sorcerous leanings) asks four old friends to join him one evening. He then explains that he has in his possession a decanter of water from the Fountain of Youth for which Ponce de Leon sought until his death in the Florida Everglades. They scoff at him, but he dips a withered rose into the water, and they are astonished when it returns to full bloom before their eyes. Naturally he convinces them to take part in an experiment—drink the water and see what happens. His hope is that these four will return to their youthfulness and then re-live their lives more appropriately than they did the first time around since they will surely have learned from their mistakes.

The three men and one woman are acquainted. All three men at one time or another had courted the lady. Together the four represent most of the Seven Deadly Sins in one way or another. They have known great successes only to be plunged into their dotage tainted by scandal as well as the decay of age. They drink. They seem to become younger. They drink again, and the full blush and vigor of youth returns to each one…they think.

Dr. Heidegger refuses to join in because he says that it was too much trouble to be young the first time around. He is the scientist, observing his guinea pigs. Of course, they become again the philandering, promiscuous, egocentric, greedy, conniving charlatans they were with the same schemes as before. When their frolic becomes combativeness as the men vie for the hand of the “fair maiden” once more, they accidentally knock the decanter off the table and spill the magic elixir. Almost as suddenly as their youth appeared, it begins to fade, and they start making plans to go seek the fountain for themselves.

It’s a hard thing to do—learn from your mistakes. Old age, you will discover, is essentially just the body aging. Ask most of us who have started to wilt, and we’ll tell you we still feel twenty-five until we try to bend over or “run” across the street. Oh, some of us have learned some caution and won’t climb up on a thirty-foot ladder or shinny up a tree until the branches start to bend. But the physical limitations don’t typically extend to prohibitions of dreams or desires or hopes for the future. In fact, the future is still something far away. The castles we want to build in the air are not only possible, but we now have the skill and the means to put foundations under them; sometimes we can even afford to hire someone else to do the work.

Then we are reminded, rather cruelly at times, that the sun is not rising on those castle walls, but setting. If we are able to get the palace built, more than likely someone else will actually live there. In our moments of lucid nobility, we keep building so that our children or their children will be able to start a little farther up the mountain than we did. In our moments of honesty with ourselves, we’re so pissed off by this reality that we can hardly see straight! We want “fair.”

We worked hard. We played by the rules (OK, most of the time). We paid our dues. Our rewards shouldn’t be artificial joints, shortness of breath, insurance premiums, and loneliness. Music still moves us. Life is still sweet most of the time. We still want to matter in the grand scheme of things and make a difference. Lovers’ arms hold more than memories and kisses have more character, like aged wine. We know, now, how to appreciate what is truly good about living.

And that suddenly loud ticking is the clock we hear even with significant hearing loss, counting quick seconds to the stroke of midnight.

Can I get a direct flight to Florida or do I have to change planes in Atlanta?

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