ON THE AVENUES: The whys and wherefores can drive a man to drink; our lives just ARE, and that’s that.


How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
— attributed to Satchel Paige

For all those years standing behind a bar, imagining I was serving beers to patrons when the process more accurately resembled pushing beers across the bar to paying customers during those rare times when I wasn’t seated on the other side drinking up the profits, the whole of it wasn’t so much bartending as surveying humanity and contemplating life’s most enduring existential questions.

Namely, what sort of raging-beer-geek-sociopath adds berries and spices to a nice, crisp Kolsch-style golden ale?

Didn’t we Americans bomb Cologne into sufficient rubble during WWII to preclude further violence against a city that’s as deserving of recognition for brewing as its gargantuan cathedral?

Aesthetic atrocities aside, on widely scattered occasions during my bartending daze some of life’s deeper questions came to mind. They still do. Among these are the eternal queries pertaining to the inevitability of death, taxes and another Rolling Stones tour.

Given that my last Stones concert was in 1981, at least that one’s off the bucket list.

As for tithes to yonder governments, the tax preparation regimen in 2019 proved to be an 800-lb burden. It necessitated a filing extension, enough gin to float a battleship around, and at least one semi-sleepless night. Don’t ask me why the tax preparation ritual worried me so much this year; it just did, perhaps because I wasn’t about to take at face value Herr Drumpf’s reassurances of beneficial tax reform.

Happily the final reckoning found taxation breaking in our favor, with almost none of it stemming from the oligarch in chief. All due kudos to the efforts of the greatest accountant in the long and storied history of Nawbany: thank you, Marc.

Owing to the unexpected surplus we’ll be able to take a short excursion to Europe later this year, with destinations being Ljubljana and Lake Bled in Slovenia, as well as Trieste, Italy.

Mrs. Confidential hasn’t visited any of these locales. My last visit to Ljubljana came in May of 1987, four years prior to Slovenia’s departure from Yugoslavia after a relatively bloodless 10-day war. I actually passed through Trieste in route to Ljubljana, a story told here.

ON THE AVENUES: Welcome to wherever you are, and come to think of it, Ljubljana will do nicely.

30 years ago today: (May) An introduction to Yugoslavia in Ljubljana, then Zagreb and the way to Sarajevo.

Unfortunately these visits to Trieste and Ljubljana amounted to only a couple of days on the ground, and Lake Bled wasn’t on the itinerary at all. Naturally I’m looking forward to updating the narrative, with reading and research already commenced, books purchased and videos scheduled.

Can’t I just relax and enjoy the trip? Sorry, but no, seeing as I’m the world’s worst leisure traveler. The very concept of a “pleasure trip” in the conventional sense of the concept is tantamount to drinking Bud Light, and purely alien to me. The stereotypically “normal” notion of going somewhere just to recline on a beach or visit an amusement park is baffling.

If this is your kind of gig, fine and dandy, just that I can’t do it. If there’s nothing to be learned from traveling, and little opportunity for life-altering epiphanies, I might as well save the tax refund and stay right here in New Albany, itself one vast tourist exhibit known as the Open Air Museum of Ignorance, Superstition and Backwardness.

Admission is free, so long as you vote for Jeff Gahan — but you have no idea how much that hot dog at the water park concession stand is going to cost by the time your grandchildren get around to being billed for it.

The ruling One Percent of wealth and capital accumulators informs us that taxes can be quite easily evaded, but death’s a far tougher customer. Already this year Rick Lang and Mark Stewart have departed for Bardo, Valhalla and points beyond. They were friends and former Public House regulars from the period of imperial ascendance, and they left us far too young at ages uncomfortably close to my own.

The meaning of life as yet eludes me. It just is, and I’ll do my best to remember Rick and Mark in the years to come.

For those just tuning in, I’ll be 59 on Saturday. I’ve no idea what I did to deserve it, and yet here we are. To me the aging process seems equal parts progress and regress. In an emotional sense my consciousness remains as firmly adolescent as it ever was. I giggle at flatulence, fantasize about my own fictionalized exploits, and indulge a constant stream of internal barbs and one-liners.

It’s a grudging measure of maturity that I understand most of these insults are inappropriate for saying aloud, and refrain from making them public.

If the words I write seem controversial, you should see what bits land on the cutting room floor.

My “feeling” brain may be the same, although my “thinking” brain contains vastly more information now, compared with those barren tracts of wasteland in my cranium as a wee lad. However, it gets increasingly nebulous. Little bits and pieces of photographs and memories become detached and float into the ether, out of view; usually they can be reclaimed and put back to use. For this I’m grateful; nothing is as frightening as the loss of one’s mind.

Changes are more obvious on the physical side. When you’re pushing 60, aches and pains are a constant, and you tend to pick your spots. I can still walk for miles, but the bicycling legs are long gone. I’m hoping to do something about that, beginning later this summer; a belated birthday present, perhaps.

Once upon a time not so long ago it was about staying awake into the night for as long as possible to keep the party going. Mayhem of this caliber is far too exhausting nowadays, and a good night’s sleep has become paramount.

To repeat, the whys and wherefores are absent. Our lives just are. Human beings typically construct elaborate systems of meaninglessness to rationalize hard facts and avoid the myriad difficulties of realism. Cynicism keeps me honest, but no one’s perfect; besides, being a cynic doesn’t imply an absence of heart.

In fact, cynics may have too much heart, having learned through cold, hard experience that it’s better to cock an eyebrow and doubt the panacea rather than take the bait and risk being hurt when it all falls down. Be it youth or one’s dotage, certain defense mechanisms endure.

Books, music, beer and travel remain the major motifs of my conscious world, and while in theory each of these might play a role in the formulation of a grand theory of life, or on a more mundane mercantile level even serve as means of making a living, it’s also true they facilitate escapism, as in reading a book about faraway places while sipping a Pilsner Urquell with classical music piped through the headphones.

History continues to obsess me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been keenly aware of history – or as the long-departed scholar Herbert Muller titled one of his books, “the uses of the past.” Then as now, we can’t know where we’re going without recalling where we’ve been, but there are times when being fascinated by what came before results in being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude.

I plead guilty to periodically indulging in a shadowy netherworld of ghosts, and feeling their presence. Naturally these ghosts aren’t in any way real; they’re self-created to populate mental constructs about the past and present, which is why reading Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem has come to have such an effect on me via the author’s imaginative mixing of past, present and future realms. Being an only child, maybe pondering old worlds and their departed occupants helped pass ample time alone.

All of which leads me to speculate about what it means to be an “old soul,” glib components of which are helpfully gleaned from the internet.

  • You tend to be a lone wolf.
  • You love knowledge, wisdom and truth.
  • You’re spiritually inclined.
  • You understand the transience of life.
  • You’re thoughtful and introspective.
  • You see the bigger picture.
  • You aren’t materialistic.
  • You were a strange, socially maladaptive kid.
  • You just “feel” old.

Helpful truths or malicious consequences?

To begin with, being an “old” soul is irrelevant when you’re old, period. In terms of self-awareness, it’s an exercise for the nation’s youth, precisely because they’re young.

When I was young, did I ever feel like an “old” soul? It’s possible, if unlikely; again, it’s inordinately difficult back-dating one’s reflections to an earlier time, because “un-learning” goes against the way human brains tend to be wired.

Still, at least eight of these nine “old soul” indicators appear to have been written expressly for me, whether 19 or 59. Even the customarily bogus word “spiritual” makes a modicum of sense in the context of its broader meaning (“relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”), and not using the narrower definition involving religious belief, of which I obviously have none, and cannot recall a time in my life when I did.

Life goes on, but the essay must conclude.

Birthdays get piled into desk drawers alongside rusty paper clips, obsolete business cards and bits of senseless plastic that somehow have evaded landing in the ocean. It would be pleasant bonus if the annual birthday observance yielded something genuinely revelatory; to paraphrase Michael McDonald, we’d trade it all right now for just one minute of real insight.

Beats me. I’m just a bozo on this bus, and perfectly content to watch from one side of the bar or the other for so long as Dear Leader rises from bed to flip the switch that makes the sun rise each morning, because the open air museum never looks more fetching than by dawn’s early light.

Recent columns:

July 25: ON THE AVENUES: Until philosophers become kings, beer and food work just fine.

July 18: ON THE AVENUES: I’m a citizen of the universe, but I can’t take a photo to save my life.

July 11: ON THE AVENUES: Trieste, New Albany and the meaning of nowhere.

July 4: ON THE AVENUES: The 2019 remix, “You want some fries with your redevelopment?”