BY DAN COFFEY
What is a midlife crisis, anyway? If I had one, it was 15 years ago. That’s when I suddenly realized the autumn days of my youth had grown very short indeed, and endless winter was fast approaching. I dated a woman 20 years my junior, bought a speed boat and a bigger motorcycle. None of those acts changed me, and after I lost the girlfriend, and sold the boat and motorcycle, I was left realizing that I was the problem.
I don’t know what to call my present state of affairs, where the TV shows I cherished and venerated during my and TV’s childhood suddenly seem trite. Now that I can once again watch those old 1955 Steve Allen shows on DVD, I realize they were good, but they weren’t that great. Even the amazingly performed Amos n’ Andy TV shows sported a horribly annoying laugh track. The fashion photographer played by Bob Cummings of Love That Bob was not a ladies’ man at all, but just a slimy, fey “bachelor.” These were my earliest heroes, but now, even if they were still alive, I wouldn’t cross the room to shake their hands.
I no longer go to church, nor am I convinced digital is better than analog. I don’t trust our leaders to be smarter or better informed than the general public, much less more honest. I’m not at all convinced that success lies just around the next corner, nor do I assume it remotely possible that I will ever be “discovered” by Hollywood talent scouts. In fact, this is probably as good as it’s going to get.
There’s a fine line between having the courage to treat life like an adventure in progress, and deciding to pull what recovering alcoholics call a “geographic.” Rather than face yourself squarely, you pull everything down around you and run away as far and as quickly as possible. Then, after the dust settles, you try to notice what’s changed for the better. Usually the answer is “not much.”
Truth is, I’m just another human being whose seemingly unique personality is actually just a drop in the collective unconscious, the product of countless hours of entertainment broadcasting. Throw in a heavy dollop of medieval Roman Catholicism, and some generic Missouri stubbornness, and you’ve got a somewhat accomplished teacher and writer who suddenly looks around and realizes he’s out of touch with everything.
Like all newspapers, the Des Moines Register is in trouble, because young people have failed to develop the habit of reading newspapers. In the Register’s inadvertently comic attempts at cultivating a younger readership, they publish articles by young Iowa writers in order to attract young Iowa readers. As far as I can tell, the only thing these articles have to recommend them is the youth of the writer. Last time I checked, the opinions of 20-year-olds were no more interesting, prescient, clever, or apt than those of any other demographic.
I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t care what’s happening in popular culture. Unless you’re pandering to a young audience in hopes of helping yourself to some of their parents’ disposable income, you probably don’t care either. So not only do I not care what cynical grownups are concocting to sell to young people, I don’t care what young people think about these concoctions.
Literary history records a few young people who poured their hearts and souls into the pursuit of Beauty. Shelly, Keats, and Shakespeare come to mind. Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson were once young, though it’s hard to imagine them as such, because they became famous as geezers. I don’t know if, young or old, these writers could have taken time away from the pursuit of Beauty to check their Facebook page every 15 minutes. When I walk through a college library, I see every computer in use, and at first I’m impressed by the diligence of our students. When I get closer, I see they’re all instant messaging each other, or reading a short blurb on some minor celebrity’s latest scrape with the law.
At one time in my life, I was in love with Art and Beauty for their own sakes. Sure, I led no more virtuous a life than most of my peers, but my real passion was to create Art. To express myself and whatever insights my life had given me in a way that would be understood by and benefit others. I didn’t even care much about money.
I sometimes wrote for ten hours at a time! Now, I’m afraid to write anything longer than this column for fear that no one would find the time to read it. I guess I’m the one who has changed more than has the world. Now that I’ve already experienced most common or probable experiences, I no longer crave new ones. Just let me sit on a shady park bench, smoke my cigar, and watch the world pass by. Unless it’s in Iowa City, or Fairfield, where cigar smoking is prohibited by law.