In his darkly humorous moments my father put forth the notion that human beings amounted to little more than an elaborate alimentary canal. Our task, he maintained, was to worm our way though an embarrassing quantity of food until we, in turn, became food for worms. Of what people referred to as the higher faculties, he had little to say and, I suspect, less regard. Dad was no Pollyanna. It will not surprise you that he was not a churchgoer.The other day I turned 68, a cause for celebration, to be sure. People my age like to observe on the occasions of birthdays that having one is better than not. Well, we all clamor for more time and that’s true even if my father was right. While we may bear discouraging similarities to the worms, we also have these big brains, which are a curse and a blessing.

Lately, and not just because of the birthday, I have been thinking of myself as an old animal, which may be simply another version of my father’s conception. The comparison occurs to me, I believe, because as I age, I spend an increasing amount of time and effort on body maintenance: regular sessions at the gym, occasional physical therapy, visits to the cardiologist, the dermatologist, the primary care fellow, and, of course, hours in various dental chairs. (This last so that I can continue to worm my way through all that food.) Like an old and worn out family pet, I seem to require an increasing amount of physical care. We don’t put our dogs or our retirees down without good cause.

This isn’t self-pity, or if it is, it’s not personal. If you are not an old animal right now, with luck you’re destined to become one. Eventually, something will betray you: the knees will fail, plaque will clot your arteries, you’ll need to have the cataracts removed. The list goes on and on and on.

Still, despite the undeniable, if limited, truth of my father’s depiction, and despite our vulnerability to afflictions, the prospect is not entirely dark. Unlike the worms or that grey-muzzled dog asleep in the corner, we make things. If we turn all that food into shit, we also turn it into airplanes, cities, cameras, kitchen utensils, computers. This list, too, goes on and on and on. Look around you. Of all those things, to my mind, among the most encouraging are our artistic productions.

Right now the radio is playing something by J. S. Bach. It’s remarkable that I can be tapping away on my computer while listening to Bach. But the real wonder, of course, is the music itself. And Bach is merely one example. Think of the compositions of that child, Mozart or the symphonies of deaf Beethoven or, in a similar vein, the poetry of poor blind John Milton. Any artist or artisan is or becomes an old animal, an alimentary canal, as my father would have it, but those whose bodies or minds are afflicted—Van Gogh comes to mind—underscore the miracle. It’s as if, despite the fact of our being a fragile construction of bones and blood, we squeeze from our bodies the most remarkable creations. Who says you can’t wring blood from a stone? Of course you can. We do it everyday.

I am considering here those higher faculties about which my father was, in my presence at least, silent. He’s long gone now or I’d send these musings to him. I can only speculate on what he might say about them. I will observe that he, too, was a maker. A welder by trade, he spent each day of his work life—or most of it—building things. We, his family, never got to see much of it, but there was one occasion where we did. For a brief time, our neighborhood organized itself into an association of some improving kind and one of the projects was to build a ball field for the hordes of children who would come to be called baby boomers. We had the land and it was easy enough to mow it, level it, and pace out the base paths. My father’s contribution was an immense backstop, a three-sided welded construction of pipe and chain link fence that turned our field into something genuine, something in which the neighborhood could take some pride.

When I think of him dismissing himself and the rest of us as a can of worms or when I find myself feeling a little discouraged by the way the animal continues to age, I console myself with thoughts of that backstop. Yes, Dad, we are hopeless consumers and in the end it might not come to anything but pain and dust, but even you were a maker, a guy who built things, made something from nothing.

My own constructions can be found at:…