Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: The importance of being ancient.

I do this very seldom. This week's Wednesday Weekly doubles as my weekly column submission to the New Albany Tribune, and I've waited until it was published on-line to reprint below.

BAYLOR: The importance of being ancient ... "Did road rage exist in ancient times? Just ask Ben Hur."

Here's the full text.


To be ancient is to be venerable. Ancient items are very old ones. In historical terms, ancient refers to dates and times long passed. In short, there is nothing novel about being ancient.

However, when considering the very concept of ancient, there are aspects of relativity and nebulousness. In the current era, ancient history generally is taken as describing periods in human civilization prior to the fall of Rome. Will this assumption still be accepted a thousand years from now?

Precisely when will our here and now become the ancient epoch of tomorrow?

It remains that an original Model-T is an ancient automobile, "Justified & Ancient" was a song performed by a defunct band called The KLF, and Ancient Age© was and is a Kentucky bourbon whisky, so called because it supposedly spends more time aging in charred oak barrels than competing brands.

Long ago, during the remote, ancient history of my life, I was infatuated with Ancient Age©, although not the firewater itself. Back then, the merits of bourbon flavor mattered far less than the imperative of masking it with cola and quaffing huge quantities through the inevitable grimacing. In this manner, Ancient Age© somewhat ironically became a rite of youthful passage.

Actually, it was the name itself that always appealed to me. Ancient Age© implied experience, dignity and respectability, but eventually I matured just enough to realize that while the words captivated me, the experience of consuming whisky did not. It’s probably been thirty years since I tasted Ancient Age© -- although only thirty minutes since my last beer, which is where I stake my personal claim to knowledge.

In this quest for the higher ground, it’s time to revert to the lower case.

Only one additional letter is required to render ancient age into ancient sage, no longer a trademarked bourbon, and well beyond mere chronology, passing into the wider realm of pure wisdom: Sage as practitioner of sagacity, the quality possessed by the impossibly gnarly old man atop the high mountain, greeting exhausted searchers with impenetrable quasi-Delphic instructions for living, commandments regarded as all the more brilliant for being utterly incomprehensible.

One might turn the page, earn a wage or rattle a cage, but take away the “s” from sage and insert instead the consonant coming just before it in the alphabet, and the game changes dramatically, from ancient sage into ancient rage.

Did road rage exist in ancient times? Just ask Ben Hur.

As we commonly use it today, the word rage conjures images of furious anger, passionate intensity, and violent depth of emotional feeling. Rage comes from the same Latin root as rabies, not a condition to be confused with calm and deliberation. Whether enraged or outraged, we are primal.

Rage deriving from far-off places and times might legitimately be termed ancient rage, and for all the reasons listed here, brewer Jared Williamson of the New Albanian Brewing Company created a special edition beer for release on August 3, my 50th birthday: Ancient Rage, a Smoked Baltic Porter.

As a genial and trusting sort, I persist in believing that the half-century mark will prove to be a milestone more than a millstone. Just the same, there is the creeping perception of impending menace as calendar dates slip away and the actuarial tables inexorably turn against me … sadly, against us all.

At 40, there’s a plausible argument to be made that half your lifespan has yet to pass. At 50, that’s no longer the case. Throughout human history, life expectancy has been far shorter than today, and the age of 50 indeed has often qualified as ancient. Some days I feel that way myself, others not so much. Mostly, in a condition embracing both exhaustion and bemusement, I’d like to think of whatever length of time remains as a triumphant sprint to the finish, not a downward spiral.

What does ancient rage have to do with my 50th?

I concede to seldom being an exemplar of peace, love and understanding. Since childhood, prime motivators have been indignation, disgruntlement, exasperation and annoyance; it says something when one’s favorite writer is H. L. Mencken. I’m neither proud nor ashamed by this. It’s my psyche, nothing more, nothing less.

During hormonal days of youth, I often felt consumed by anger to the exclusion of placidity and thoughtfulness. These episodes never manifested in physical violence; rather, my verbal and written abilities evolved in accordance with a compelling need to express previously inexpressible rage.

These outbursts have been directed against stupidity and cupidity, naked power and destructive greed – against fascists and corporations, despoilers of the environment and enslavers of peasants, chain restaurants and nasty light beer, and the sadness, superstition and desperation in life itself – and maybe, on widely scattered occasions, against my own fear, impotence and inability to go a bit further than fulminate against injustice and actually offer something to the wider world in return.

Self-doubt and inner turmoil are pitiless taskmasters, and I suspect they’ll always be unwelcomed companions. Yet, there is considerable happiness in arriving at 50 in good health, working in a growing business, enjoying the company of my mother, friends and family, and eager to give profuse thanks to my wife, my partner in life, who has been both tenderly loving and unsparingly honest in helping propel me to a new place where the rage seemingly recedes.

The principles and motivation haven’t subsided, and will not. There’ll be lapses, but “mad as hell” is a poor recipe for living. I don’t look back in anger at my ancient rage. Today is the best day, and tomorrow better still.

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