Essays - Winter 2009

A Country for Old Men

Having reached the shores of seniority himself, the author finds a surprising contentment in the eyes of his fellow retirees

By Edward Hoagland | December 1, 2008

More and more I’ve been concluding that by middle age most people in this country have sculpted their lives so they’ll land about where they aimed to. The few who genuinely aspired to be rich or famous will probably become so for a spell, and those who wished for comfortable stability will find themselves with tradecraft competence, a web of friendships, grandchildren. The pleasures of versatility are their own reward for “well-rounded” folk, much like committing a couple of decades to the responsibilities of raising kids. You acquire traction and smile lines, with perhaps a well-grooved marital banter. Two by two, Noah’s Ark is said to have been boarded—pairings being the easiest equation for many of us to handle, after all. And in an era of chaotic governance and commonplace mendacity and meltdown, the ambition to excel seems a bit stunted. Hoe your own row is more the message than grabbing for a brass ring, though self-expression can become as crosswise as the old children’s game of pick-up sticks. While the country splits, compounding its fractures left to right, we accommodate ourselves to zany loads of debt, outlandish overcrowding—trading trains for planes, for example, till both are drastically less fun and the roads alternatively an anthill, as blue-collar as well as white-collar families look for a hideaway, a second home.

In pick-up sticks the player plucks colored sticks singly from a pile of 40 dropped helter-skelter on the table, down to the last, but without ever displacing any he isn’t immediately after; if he does, the other player takes over, himself attempting to score. It resembles negotiating traffic, or the ballet of the sidewalk, threading throngs. Pedestrians finesse potential collisions by swinging slightly sideways, smiling distantly, parting the phalanx by body-language adjustments. There’s nature; and then for phenomena like crowds, our second nature.

Homey imperatives such as steering kids through school, wage haggling, and good-neighborliness keep us from obsessing about what may be unraveling elsewhere: that plus our widened sense of travel—Florida, Calabria, Pata­gonia, Indonesia. There can be a knockabout anomie to shuttling around, and the density of our egos remains a problem, the clamoring holler to build McMansions. People wished to flaunt their first million, nibbling holes in any town, and our tribalism historically has wanted the other guy clamped underneath a heel, not just to stay in his own valley. Though tribalism lies in shards in this global epoch, the shards are still sharp, when you consider that nearly 3,000 New Yorkers, dying in an act of war earlier in this decade, received a thousand times as much attention as the five million or so killed in Congo’s wars.

A cross-stitch of mercenary and sexual greed has marked the opening of the new century, plus a flight toward cyber-reality, which is to say the notion that I think, therefore I am. Such an idea has seemed absurd to me since I was in college, taking a first philosophy course but spending part of each day outdoors, where the seethe of life still swamped merely thinking about it. It continues to, or every library or movie or chatroom screen. We are dragging our anchors, whatever they happen to be—landscape or literary, folklore or ethical. Dick Tracy, Natalie Wood, and Babe Ruth morph into Sweeney Todd, Britney Spears, and Barry Bonds. The new fluidity, air-conditioned, unhinged from nature, cracks open opportunities for entrepreneurial idealism as well as greed, perhaps, in response to rolling famines, flood zones, mud zones, and the scalped forests and subsiding aquifers. Youngish activism rather than rootless self-exploration. The dwindling contexts that we operate in—whether it’s water tables, tree cover, religious deference, historical reference, family continuity—makes for a kind of Queen of Hearts croquet, where the wickets, balls, and mallets all dash around in goofy, friendly-fire exchange. When Biology eventually has her say it may no longer simply be something, like cancer, we fight against; there may be hell to pay; the gamble is how much we can destroy without triggering an abyss of consequences. Extinctions—do they matter more than aesthetically? A warming climate? We truly don’t know what’s about to become the bottom line of that. And will the damage remain as constrained as along an avalanche track, or be multiplex? You might as well ask Thomas Jefferson or Johnny Appleseed, outdoorsmen both. If they thereupon sniffed the wind and looked for birds—What happened? Is no space left?—and you showed them instead the marvels inside a digital box, would they feel reassured that democracy had worked?

It has in the sense that I don’t know a lot of older Americans who didn’t get just about what they genuinely sought. Most of course set the bar pretty low—from modesty, timidity, inconsistency, indifference—or else were pursuing normalcies like love and family, children, friends and sports, which good humor can obtain without one doing too well on exams or achieving the stratospheric business success that risks a Humpty Dumpty fall. Life is going to go okay when rapport serves as well as sleepless ambition and if the person can weather the occasional divorce or job loss. Indeed, we seem to be engineered for it, and our setting the bar customarily low explains why human nature, human history, don’t significantly improve. Yet by not expecting much, most of us age with considerable contentment—I’ve been noticing lately at senior-center lunches and church suppers—and even die with a bit of a smile, as I remember was often the case during a year I worked in a morgue in my 20s. In that era I might hitchhike across the country with a $20 bill for emergencies tucked into my shoe, whereas half a century later, when in reality I go almost nowhere, I carry at least a thousand in cash in my wallet about this small town where I live.

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