Leonard Quart: What it means to be old
I will be 75 at the end of August -- three quarters of a century old -- and I suffer the usual fatigue, bathroom problems, backaches and leg pains of aging. I have recently experienced a few instances of vertigo and muscle weakness that ominously sent a shudder through me, moving me to construct worst-case scenarios. But I am still relatively healthy. I work out each day at a gym, walk miles at a regular pace through city neighborhoods during the week, and still hunger to live as productively and fully as possible.
That need to be alive in the world and make the most of the time left has intensified as a number of friends have become seriously ill, and a few have died in recent years. As a result, hospital visits and constant phone calls, especially to a very close friend who just had major surgery and is taking a long time to completely recover, and memorial services have become part of my everyday life. It all leads to having dark disturbing thoughts about my body’s ultimate decay and the inevitable -- death itself. Even my annual trip to London has been affected. Suddenly, I find fewer people with whom I can drink in pubs, attend theater or go to museums, as good friends become ill and incapacitated. We can continue pretending it won’t happen, but none of us avoids the ravages of age.
Given the advent of my old age, whose reality I have long attempted to ignore, I turned for solace to an essay about aging and mortality, "This Old Man," by the 93-year-old long time New Yorker editor, and arguably our best living baseball writer, Roger Angell.
He writes he "feels great" except for macular degeneration, a couple of arterial stents, shingles, and a congenital hole in his heart. And though "decline and disaster impend, my thoughts don’t linger there."
Angell is not the kind of writer who indulges in self-pity or conveys despair, instead he is wry and ironic about death: "There’s never anything new about death, except its improved publicity." But he is aware he has become more invisible as he has gotten old -- people may love him but they don’t feel he’s "quite worth listening to anymore." There is also the emptiness caused by so many people close to him having died. But basically Angell approaches his end in a matter of fact manner, one that I think worth emulating.
However, I am neither sufficiently stoical nor ironic to be as cool about mortality as he appears to be. I now sometimes may forget the names of people I just met, and even familiar nouns (such as "ramp"), but the more distant past has become more vivid with each passing year. I always carry that past around with me, and continue to revisit those aspects that helped make me what I am today.
I remember City College, because it took me out of my parochial Bronx milieu, and offered a touch of both real and illusory cosmopolitanism. Graduate school in rural Ohio gave me a feel for the nature of America (both as alien and welcoming) outside of New York, and turned me for a brief period into a civil rights activist. It also provided an arena where I could convincingly play the role of New York intellectual, giving me a bit of self-confidence that I sorely lacked.
The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a heady time for me, for I came of age professionally as a teacher, embracing the young and much of the era’s radical spirit (though always with some skepticism) and at times absurdly dreaming that some communal utopia was in the offing. A little later my wife and infant daughter and I spent an exhilarating sabbatical year in London.
Despite claustrophobic flats and a winter where the chill and damp seeped into our bones, we found an alternative culture we felt at home in. I was moved to explore in depth England’s traditional past, its semblance of a welfare state and its rich literary and theatrical culture.
There were many other experiences that shaped me -- including becoming a film critic and writing this column, which grants me a means of self-expression and self-definition, and has allowed me to evolve into a minor league version of the writers I always admired. There are also those recurring images of my pitching a softball, running for a touchdown, hitting a high arc set shot -- the athletic feats of a decent schoolyard ballplayer, which I resurrect to provide a serene moment of escape whenever I feel too anxious.
Of course, memories of defeat, failure, and emotional trauma co-exist with the positive ones. But I will reserve most of the distressing memories for my nightmares and leave them out of the column.
When I was young I felt I’d be happy if I could live to the year 2000. But now that I have survived into the 21st century, I want to go on forever, and experience all the pleasure and pain that will bring. As that is just a a fantasy, I do the next best thing, and try not to slow down despite the feeling that my body has begun to crumble.
Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com
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