Late one night a few weeks ago, I wrote a note on a scrap piece of paper that's been in my pocket, wadded up with my money. I gotta get it out of there. Okay, here it is. It says:
"Not curmudgeon, Goddamnit. Just not interested in anything that my ancestors didn't experience. Because what's the point?"
"The youngest curmudgeon in the world," Shel Holtz used to call me, until he dropped the "youngest" part.
I know I'm forever naysaying the new and improved by pointing out aspects of it that are actually old and derived.
That's fertile ground, here in what Studs Terkel called the United States of Alzheimer's, where every new bauble is described as if it is the first bauble ever.
I, on the other hand, gargle old words—saloon, sawbuck, probiscus, palaver!—and run around my neighborhood bluring my eyes and trying to make it 1903 again.
What is the matter with me?
It's not that I don't like new things. It's that my life is a continuous attempt at communication, not just with the people around me today, but with everyone who ever was, and everyone who ever will be.
So a hotel opens on Division Street, once the scene of Nelson Algren's gritty, The Man With the Golden Arm, and the proprietor describes herself as a "beauty & wellness alchmist." Is that a new name for a bartender? "Personally," she writes, "my greatest passion (and challenge) is taking responsibility for my own choices and being aware of the energetic wake I leave for myself, others and the world. … I love to create healing tools which help to unlock intiution and inspire people to stay positive, feel beautiful and live fully."
Is my instinct to check into the wellness hotel immediately in hopes that I will learn to feel beautiful? No, it's to turn to the Algren on the next barstool at the Rainbo Club and say, "Hey Nels, get a load of this dame!"
When I see an infomercial on the Golf Channel about a new tool that helps you keep your head from moving during the swing, my mind races not forward to the day when the thing has shaved strokes off my game, but back to the 1920s magazine ad I once saw for a contraption that tied the golfer's head to his testicles. So if the head went up …
And closer to our home and livelihood: If you're telling me that something called "content marketing" is suddenly the simultanous solution to all problems in corporate communication, marketing and journalism … well, I go to the big content marketing conference. But I wear my sepia-toned glasses to the show, and try my best to experience it through the eyes of Edward Bernays, H.L. Mencken and my ad-man dad.
Certainly there are truths and insights that I miss by looking at each new development as something that I must explain to every dead person who ever lived. For instance, I wrote some ridiculously reductionist things about the Internet, when it and I were in our intellectual adolescence.
The Internet went on, without my encouragement, to change life in ways that are actually hard to explain to other generations. We had a phone book delivered to our front porch the other day, and nine-year-old Scout asked me what it was for and it wasn't easy, trying to describe a world in which a phone book was useful.
It wasn't easy, but it was fun.
It's always fun, communicating with the dead—and communicating for the dead, with the living.
It's also something close to the meaning of my life.