I’ve reached the age when for many reasons it’s necessary to admit the things I will not live to see and bid farewell to goals I can’t possibly accomplish. As an American born in the decade after the second world war, who came of age in the 1960’s, I find I’m struggling with this pragmatism born of aging. It feels like fatalism, that most decidedly un-American characteristic. I should, according to all the glossy magazines be preparing to run a marathon at 90 or perhaps buy a villa in Costa Rica. But I will not be doing these things. Nor will I be tricked into imagining whatever time I may still possess is—well—timeless.
I’m not going to be reading contemporary American fiction anymore. I need to delve deep into Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which has always been the most important book on my shelf.
I don’t have time for novels with titles like The Summer Girl from Uppsala or The Big Rock Candy Mountain Breakdown. I might re-read The Adventures of Augie March.
I certainly don’t have time for middle brow books about aging like Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide. Here’s the publisher’s happy synopsis: “Vanity Fair columnist Michael Kinsley escorts his fellow Boomers through the door marked “Exit.”The notorious baby boomers–the largest age cohort in history–are approaching the end and starting to plan their final moves in the game of life. Now they are asking: What was that all about? Was it about acquiring things or changing the world? Was it about keeping all your marbles? Or is the only thing that counts after you’re gone the reputation you leave behind? In this series of essays, Michael Kinsley uses his own battle with Parkinson’s disease to unearth answers to questions we are all at some time forced to confront.”
What’s next? Gumby’s Book of the Dead?
I of course salute anyone who ruminates on disability and Michael Kinsley is certainly right to wonder what physical difference may mean both in personal and collective terms. But then one encounters prose like this:
Decades before the nursing home, though, we all cross an invisible line. Most people realize this only in retrospect. If you have a chronic disease–even one that is slow-moving and nonfatal–you cross the line the moment you get the diagnosis. Suddenly, the future seems finite. There are still doors you can go through and opportunities you can seize. But every choice of this sort closes off other choices, or seems to, in a way that it didn’t use to. In every major decision–buying a house or a car, switching your subscription from Time to The Economist–you feel that this is the last roll of the dice. It needn’t be this way; in the more than twenty years since my own Parkinson’s was diagnosed, I’ve moved half a dozen times, changed jobs even more often, gotten married, let my New Yorker subscription lapse and then renewed it. Each change feels like an unexpected gift, or a coupon I’d better redeem before it expires.
This terror of being written off prematurely (like being buried alive) makes it difficult to write about a medical condition that may linger and get worse slowly for decades while you try to go about your life like a normal person. People say, in all kindness, “Hey, you look terrific,” which leaves you wondering what they were expecting, or how you looked the last time you saw them. They seem taken aback that you are around at all. The first time you hear or read a casual reference to “healthy persons,” it is a shock to realize that you are permanently disqualified for that label. And then you realize–even more shocking–that you’re the only one who’s shocked. Everyone else has adjusted, reassigned you, and moved on. Even if you feel fine, you walk around in an aura of illness.
One wonders if Kinsley has any idea what a trite and singularly dull volume he’s written. Probably not since he’s busy redeeming coupons and buying another car.
No. I won’t be reading boomer books about aging.
If by chance you’re in the market for a great book about growing old, the best one I know is by the late Jungian analyst James Hillman, entitled The Force of Character and the Lasting Life which contains these splendid lines:
“…let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years conform and fulfill character.”
As does disablement itself.
Meanwhile, back to my abjure-ment list.
I’ve given up on the National Football League.
I no longer believe we will conquer global warming.
I generally think identity politics is not politics at all but a soapbox for grievance. Marxism is right about the class struggle. My disability and your life on the reservation should be vehicles for marching side by side.
I can’t read any more confessional poems.
I will never go on a cruise.
I won’t be swimming with dolphins.
I can’t read any more short stories about sad middle class Americans and their divorces.
I’ll never go to a Disney theme park.
I don’t think technology will save us.
I certainly don’t think religion will save us.
I have no time for Rudyard Kipling.