A chunk of Penelope Lively’s memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites deals with the challenges of being over 80 years old. In addition to advanced aches and pains, Lively writes about how the rest of society deals with the elderly, and how it feels like the world is leaving one behind.
As if jinxed by Lively’s memoir, yesterday I felt like I was 47 going on 80. I decided to take advantage of John being out of town to go have a nice long dig through ‘the annex’ at a local used bookshop. I was stunned, however, when I showed up and the formerly chaotic annex had been sorted and organized and priced. Previously the annex was a large space with tall shelves with three rows of books on each shelf, absolutely no order whatsoever, and a pricing scheme that put all paperbacks at $2 and all hardcovers at $4. And it was a glorious. The thing I loved best was not the prices, but the fact that the books were so not sorted that there was often treasures lurking for those of us who like unwanted, forgotten, probably never very popular books that aren’t even all that pretty to look at. When it sunk in that the chaotic mess was a thing of the past I got deeply sad. Not only was this fun (for me) activity now impossible, but it became clear that there would no room in the newly organized shelves for those books that I love to find. They recognize the classics, and the modern classics, and the popular, but the possibility of coming across an R.C. Sherriff, or a Cecil Roberts, or a D.E. Stevenson or even lesser known authors than this esoteric bunch was all but zero. The staff was completely incapable of understanding what I was looking for and pointed me to Victorian-era books no one wants to read but that have pretty spines. And they pointed me to the rare book room. And they pointed me towards the fiction section. It flashed before my eyes that all those books I hope to stumble across would end up as pulp, or as props at a furniture store, or sold as books by the foot to decorators.
I didn’t leave empty handed, it was a bookstore after all, but I did leave feeling like a little bookish part of me had been dulled and a tad depressed. Flashing forward a hundred years I decided to drown my sorrows in Dairy Queen at a nearby mall and thought I would take the opportunity to upgrade my smart phone. I was first a little annoyed by the fact that shopping malls no longer seem to believe in directories or garbage cans. Both were few and far between. Then I get to the Apple store and the 12-year old working there made me feel about 500 years old. I could feel the old man shame creep into my face as I gave him my Hotmail address. I might as well have told him my phone number was KLondike 5-3452. When we discovered that my 8,000 digit Verizon password is not one I have memorized, he suggested I go to the Verizon kiosk and upgrade my phone there. At Verizon, the 16-year old working there made me feel not only old but really dumb. Do they have to talk that fast? Do they have to assume that everyone knows everything about everything about telephony? I might as well have offered him a Werther’s Original as I stuck a used Kleenex into the sleeve of my cardigan.
Perhaps I shouldn’t use the average age of the typical mall employee as a reference point for my own place in the world (don’t get me started on my misadventure in the food court or my failed attempt to buy running shoes at the Foot Locker). As I thought about it later, one of the things I found troubling was the fact that in none of these interactions were any of the people engaging with me aware of anything about me. They all misunderstood or didn’t hear what I was saying. They couldn’t recognize anything emanating from me: hope, friendliness, confusion, frustration, resignation. I’m not trying to make a comment on the state of customer service or the youth of today, or anything like that (that would make me sound like a cranky old guy). But I really do feel like got a glimpse of what life is going to be like when I really do get to old age.
To cap the day off, I had a bit of a nightmare last night. I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but it was one of those situations where my mind wakes up before my body does. Where I am aware that my body is asleep and that I want to wake up but as much as I try and call out (scream) or move my body, my vocal chords and my body won’t respond quickly enough. If it goes on too long it begins to feel like being buried alive. As I was struggling to make my limbs move and my voice audible, I kept thinking that surely John, lying next to me, would wake me from my disturbed dream–a comforting thought in my panic. When I finally did wake up with a shout I realized that I was in bed alone. Remember, John is out of town. As I stumbled to the bathroom I was relieved to be awake, but also haunted by the notion that isolation, both literal and figurative can be a big part of old age. Invisible during the day and trapped in a nightmare at night.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
There is nothing in Lively’s memoir of old age that is as depressing as what I have written above. Lively is a delightful writer who puts a spin on her past, present, and shortish future that is humorous, enlightening, and comforting. Like much of her fiction, this memoir dabbles in the vagaries of memory, personal history, History with a capital H, and includes a the musings of a highly literate, creative, thoughtful mind. She makes me wish I were her friend. I will forgive the fact that she writes that she once enjoyed Pym’s novels, but now can’t stand them.
Judgment Day by Penelope Lively
One of my reading resolutions for the year was to read every month an author bio/memoir/diary/etc. and then follow it with one of their novels. There were only 2.5 days left of January when I remembered this was one of my resolutions and grabbed an unread Lively off my shelves. Judgment Day is basically a slice in time of village life. A group of lives that intersect in mundane and profound ways. Not only does the cast include the interesting-to-me newcomer to the village archetype, but it also includes one of my favorite situations: the closed off/hardened heart open/melted by unforeseen circumstances. I enjoyed every minute of the book and got emotionally caught up in the characters’ lives. And on top of that, it made me want to be a better person–a little more giving and forgiving.
That’s a very good idea for a reading challenge. And does she say WHY she doesn’t like Pym any more or just drop it in?
Sad news about that book shop – I understand completely. I need to read more Penelope Lively.
That is so sad about the book shop. There’s nothing like finding a literary treasure!
And I actually just picked up a copy of Judgment Day in the free book cart at the library a couple of weeks ago! It’s an orange-spine Penguin from 1980, I wonder if it’s the same edition as yours.
I have to get restarted with Penelope Lively, although not in order to get jinxed. I feel old enough already in the morning! I had to laugh, though, at all your frustrating encounters. Probably not so funny for you at the time, but you got good mileage out of them.
I’m adding Penelope Lively to my reading list. It’s disappointing to hear about the bookstore like that. My favorites also tend to be older, unpopular books of a relatively ignored genre. Last time I was in a regular bookstore I asked “do you have a section for nature writing?” and the employee pointed me to the travel books. I said no, I mean about animals and she looked at me kinda funny…. There is an upscale antique bookstore nearby that I go to occasionally just to see what old books they are using for props- I have bought quite a few!
Great post. Thanks!
Actually made me laugh out loud with the Werther’s Original and the used Kleenex – you are Not Safe For Work, Mr Hogglestock!
My husband is away at the moment and I, too, am imagining a lonely old age. Seems I’m always thinking ‘if only I had more time I’d read more’, but now I imagine that if I was on my own and lonely, maybe I wouldn’t find the thought of reading so enticing?
I took my 17 year old son out to dinner as hubby is away. He should work in a mall, as dragging a conversation out of him was like the metaphorical blood out of a stone, and I of course wished I’d have gone alone and read a book. He refused wine (kids today…) and to be fair he did manage to only look at his phone intermittently, but still.
I really like your idea of reading a memoir/bio/diary and a novel by an author and am going to try that next year. I will include the Lively memoir as I really like her work. This year my goal is to read Trollope’s Palliser novels (among many other books).
This made me so sad. Why? Because I can relate to it so well. 47? I am 20 years older than you and I am not completely invisible to the younger generation. They bump into me and don’t say sorry, they cut in front of me in lines “Oh I didn’t see you.” I am fighting back now. With words like “Oi” and “Excuse me” like Germaine Greer would say. I go right off when a messy book store cleans up its act. Fortunately we have a lot of second hand bookstores that aren’t too neat and of course the Tip shop is a total mess with books even when sorted. I’ve been with Mr. P for 52 years and I often what it will be like for us when the one left behind has to deal with it. But we will persevere. After all that is what Baby Boomers do. Read on.
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Snorting out loud in laughter at:
“I might as well have offered him a Werther’s Original as I stuck a used Kleenex into the sleeve of my cardigan.”
Just today I tried to order a plain coffee at a coffee shop…”no thank you, no cinnamon, no foam, just the plain, regular small coffee that’s already clearly overpriced”.
The 20 something barista was not amused
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Your rant about how old people can make you feel hit home. And I’m older than you are. It was so funny that I had to read part of it to my husband at breakfast. Thanks for a morning laugh!
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What a day…I can see how you might have felt jinxed! But thankfully, Penelope Lively is appreciated in the end :) I love her books so much, and yes, even enough to also overlook the Pym statement.
I read this with sinking heart recognising so many things that I know are not too far away in my life. I used to be amused not that many years ago when my mum asked me ‘what is a fax’ but now i feel the same when confronted with any sales person dealing with technology. Why is it all so mystifying???
Oh, this made me giggle. I’m just slightly ahead of you age-wise so this really resonated with me.
I feel your pain. I wasn’t aware of the age issue until I was 45 and found myself working with a group of people who were at least 20 years younger than me. I remember the visceral horror I felt when a rumour went around my campus that one of the students had lied about her age and was actually…27. The horror! What must they have made of me?
Now that I have reached a point where I could actually be the biological grandparent of the young assistant at the Apple shop, I feel as if I’m on a little iceberg, floating off into the Ocean of Irrelevance, becoming increasingly invisible. But on the plus side, I feel more able to be myself without worrying what anyone thinks.