Nov. 21, 2007

When I Am Old

by Ray Nargis

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Poem: "When I Am Old" by Ray Nargis, from Almost Tomorrow. © Raven Productions, Inc, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

When I Am Old

When I am old I shall wear a ball cap
From the St. Louis Browns
Because my grandfather once played in their farm system,
Or maybe a John B. Stetson hat, three-corner fold,
Four X and black chinos with both suspenders and a belt
And the knees ripped out, not as a fashion statement,
But from work.
And black biker boots and a T-shirt with the slogan
"I'm Working On My Issues."
I'll use a walking stick and not a cane
And have a key ring with about a hundred keys
And I won't know what any of them open and I won't care.

When I am old I'll drink whiskey in the morning
And coffee at night
And laugh and spit and swear wherever I want.
When I am old I'll help Girl Scouts across the street
Even if they don't want to go
And I won't have a car
And I won't have a bike
And I'll walk everywhere.

When I am old I'll have a dog named Sam Peckinpaw
And some summer's morning I'll lock up the house
And old Sam and I will walk over to see to see one of my sons
Even if he lives two states away.
When I am old I'll tell people exactly what I think of them
And surprisingly, most of the time it really will be good stuff.
When I am old I won't have a TV
And I won't have a radio
And I won't have a computer or a clock or a phone in the house.
I won't read books and I won't read magazines
And I won't read newspapers and maybe, finally
I'll learn something just watching the birds and the weather.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1877 that Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a new device for recording and playing back sound, which he called the phonograph. His hope was that it would replace stenographers in business offices, and that it would allow people to preserve the voices of family members who had died. He wrote, "It will annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man."

But most people who saw the early demonstrations of the phonograph found it spooky, as though it were playing back the voice of a ghost. Edison demonstrated it for the editors of Scientific American magazine, and the magazine later wrote, "No matter how familiar a person may be with the modern machinery, or how clear in his mind the principles underlying this strange device may be. It is impossible to listen to this mechanical speech without experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him."

For the first 10 years or so, most people remained uneasy with the phonograph. In order to help American customers feel more comfortable with the idea of playing back sound, the Columbia Phonograph Company commissioned a recording of marching music by John Philip Sousa's U.S. Marine Band. The idea was that Americans couldn't be spooked out by patriotic music, and those recordings became some of the first successful musical recordings ever sold.

But John Philip Sousa did not like the phonograph. He said, "The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards."

Sousa was right. In 1900, most American homes had at least one musical instrument, and instead of buying records, people bought sheet music. But by the 1950s, almost all of the music being made in this country was being made by professional musicians, and few families gathered around pianos any more. Recording devices preserved the American folk music that by then had begun to die out, but it might never have died out at all if it hadn't been for recording devices.

It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the Enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire, born Francois-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He was already a well-known playwright and poet when, in 1725, he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched. Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his defense after the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of the aristocrats he spent all his time with, but apparently he was still a second-class citizen. He began publicizing the incident and calling for justice, and he was thrown into the prison at the Bastille. He was released only on the condition that he leave France, and so he went to England. He spent most of the rest of his life in exile, and his writings built up support in Europe for what we now think of as basic human rights.

Voltaire said, "Let us read and let us dance — two amusements that will never do any harm to the world."

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