On Saturday I thought to ignore my birthday, this recurrence having lost its novelty value, but I was saved by the kind cards and solicitations of friends, and ended up in the Whiski Rooms on Edinburgh’s mound with an old buddy from New Zealand, a nurse and midwife on a pilgrimage and on her way to Iona. This assignation had the ghostly, hallucinatory quality of Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song:
For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die, I tell you we must die…
It was an opportunity to grow maudlin and re-evaluate the past. Thus we compared and contrasted our varied and respective lives. Spontaneous or ramshackle? Would we have done it any differently? My friend spends a lot of her time working with the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Northern Territory. In stark contrast, she has spent the last six weeks mixing with people in grand villas on the outskirts of Edinburgh, wondering if, in not pursuing the archetypal middle-class nice husband nice job nice home nice family nice schools she has missed out on something.
It is a forlorn pursuit, Robert Frost’s contemplation of the road not taken. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera muses that you can never know if the decisions you take in life are the right ones because there is no opportunity to make the other choice; you only get one shot at it. It occurred to me that many people experience a kind of Grand Fulcrum of Middle Life, un point d’appui. You spend, indeed you are encouraged to spend, a large part of your early life planning for the future. You conjure in your head an ideal of life – ideal vocation, ideal location (location location), spouse, lifestyle, social milieu… You strive to make it happen. Maybe you fall short. It doesn’t all work out the way you’d planned. Events, dear boy… Yet you do your best; you do what you can. You compromise. You come up with a result, whatever it might be. You evaluate it. This is the Grand Fulcrum. A swing of the pendulum. Now the future, whatever it may be, appears to have narrowed down. You cease to conjure the future because the future has become immutable. Rather, you conjure the past. What if? Your memory of all that teenage angst is gone, and all you can remember is the sense of possibility. You would trade the certainty of what you have achieved, for the mere possibility of youth. Thus you abandon the quest for a fanciful future and gain consolation from the recollection of a past that has been expunged of its agony. Or, as Shakespeare put it in Measure for Measure,
Thou hast not youth, nor age,
But as it were an after dinner’s sleep
Dreaming on both.
Sometimes I play a mind-game; scientists call it a “thought experiment”. I’m given a one-way ticket on the Tardis and William Hartnell (long before he developed gender dysphoria) says testily, “All right, where do you want to be dropped off?” Do you ever play this game? You say to yourself, if I had it all to do again, would I do it differently? Knowing what I know now… So you ask to be dropped off, on a particular path, a road, a corridor, moments before you reach a bifurcation of ways, so that you may make another choice.
No thanks! I have a sense that my first shot was my best shot, that it wouldn’t be wisdom that I took back with me, but rather a tempered appreciation of my own limitations. Who knows, I might even whinge in a pathetic way, “How can I play for a Grand Slam when I’ve been dealt a chicane?”
Anyway, even from a practical point of view, it would be a nightmare, to be an aged man trapped in a pubescent body. You’d be arrested before midnight. No. It’s not an option. Think of yourself as a snooker player in one of these frames in which the cue ball has become constipated within a cluster of reds, and, amid the stalemate of endless safety play, the players ask the referee to rerack the balls. But the ref says no! You got yourself into this mess. Play yourself out of it. That actually is a much better mind-game to play – the here-and-now game. You want to go back? Okay. Abracadabra, you’re back. If you still have passion, if you still have hopes and dreams, consider yourself to be back. Take yourself along that self-same corridor, if you will. Make that change, if you dare. Effect that volte-face.