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.

Why? To bribe the Grim Reaper or maybe merely an EMT as a cushion against indignity? In theory it could purchase the freedom to flag down a taxi and hire a ride of a thousand miles, or enable me to give away tons of money impulsively (not that that’s in the cards either). As your legs lose their spring, money becomes mobility, whether locally or to change the climate for a season. Money can lend woof to life’s warp if the weeks grow monochromatic—greenbacks are “salad” once you have filled the freezer and the furnace or looked for tolerable old-age accommodations. Women with their own careers can move out comfortably on an exasperating husband, like men seeking an autumnal bachelorhood. Nearly any mother’s son descends into a constricted level of activity before buying the farm, as the saying goes. However, people don’t need to join the faithful minority who acknowledge a spiritual presence in their daily rounds to make life work for them. The sunrise blazes as trumpet-colored for the doubters, and nothing prevents them from swinging their young sons and daughters up to straddle their shoulders for the morning strut to school. They can smile up their sleeves at the absurdities of the workplace, as much as any churchgoer, and wind up rather like that particular grandparent one is especially fond of.

We’ve got the option of duplicating qualities we admired growing up, like the generosity of a certain teacher, the loyal, lifelong craftsmanship or professional affiliations of another. Balance tends toward moorage in a safe harbor—and perhaps that smile in old age on a gurney. I’ve seen famine in Africa, Asian poverty, deaths in my own family, but never regarded life as not worth living for mine or other species. In hardship we squint a while, but green and cerulean are the colors of the world and lift our spirits by and by, with energy the syrup of life—which is why I’ve loved cities so much, Cairo and Calcutta as well as Paris and New York. Once we’ve abandoned the notion of channeling Elvis or Einstein to whittle a stance for ourselves, our quotient of contentment is likely to rise. I have public benches on Main Street to sit on or can walk around to the library, not to mention the county courthouse, where I sometimes rubberneck on trial days, observing the sorrowful mishaps individuals blunder into, imagining that maybe a lady wishes to see their private parts or that shoplifting wouldn’t piss off a storekeeper. The parade-ground regimentation of the legal system after an arrest is dwarfed by the byzantine tangle of rituals regarding sex and property it regulates.

I was too afraid of women as a youngster to bumble into trouble by crossing forbidden boundaries. Before then, scared enough by the Sunday school story of the boy Benjamin, in Genesis, chapter 44, ensnared because a “stolen” silver cup has been deliberately planted in his belongings, that I never committed the petty thefts of candy or whatnot my classmates did. But coveting was not a major problem for me. Nor did I later want a jumbo car or house. Cultivating anonymity was better for a writer whose bread and butter was asking questions and watching others inconspicuously. With a few exceptions the masterpieces I admired had not been written by authors of peacock fame. Publishing what I wrote and keeping it in print was my aim, which over the decades I managed to do—as, without feeling like a Pollyanna, I’m inclined to think that others, in different avenues, often parallel. Not so many put all of their eggs in one basket, but that quotient rivals mine. I rarely meet somebody over about 30 who has set his sights upon a goal so front and center that he might irreversibly fail. Instead we retool, “reinvent,” ourselves. Like a bird twitching its wings or a fish its tail, we switch directions in order to upgrade our prospects. Engineers describe becoming marketing executives, science teachers turn to employment as corporate chemists (or vice versa), a backhoe operator is licensed for real estate appraisals, a truck driver puts on a trooper’s uniform, an office manager launches a business of her own, pumping out proposals. My father recalibrated his legal career after being refused a partnership at the firm where he had worked his first 10 years; and in my 30s I realized my aptitudes were better suited to essay writing, after publishing three early novels. Flexibility is the stuff of life. Life is an arc.

At those senior lunches, church suppers, midmorning diner confabs, I hear retirees chatting about the trajectory of their lives, deepening the smile lines they already have. Hindsight logic seems half the fun. Who would have guessed you’d end up selling clothes, or as a custom carpenter or court clerk? There’s no exaggerating the role patience may play in living well, or wearing a coat of the proverbial many colors—bold caution and humorous solemnity. You’ve talked to children and to the military, yet sometimes held your tongue, except about McCarthyism and Guantanamo. Balderdash still wins votes for popinjays, but the lag period when an environmental rescue effort, for example, can be mounted has shrunk alarmingly, voiding the chances for a new president to put the glaciers and rain forests back together or reduce sea flooding, restore the vanished galaxies of species. We prefer a president who mirrors us—a lowbrow braggart when we’re in that mood, or a gallant and humane man for World War II and the Marshall Plan. Our frame of mind does need repair, but that’s been true for a thousand years.

Pudgy, we sit in the senior center occasionally recounting the deaths of our spouses, round robin, for solace. How one was trying to lift his legs off the bed when the embolism took him—or a woman’s heart failure, starting on the toilet, that crumpled her at the sink—and my mother, a long-term stroke victim trying to speak, whose eyes seemed to beg for death, after she could no longer swallow without choking. But was she possibly asking something else?—she wasn’t able to write. Agewise, we may all be in the same boat, and yet a healthy sprinkling of us have wrinkle lines denoting repose: not chewing over grievances or kicking ass, even our own. Instead, we enjoyed a good run and now could be an advertisement for life’s beneficence, if the word doesn’t mean you can’t also die of thirst in the desert. You might, but we exerted ourselves not to.

Doing what comes naturally should prevent your children from feeling estranged even if at some point you did get divorced; and keep you from beaching broke on the shoals of old age, unless you never shed a dice-or-drink addiction; and dissolve some of your midlife mortgage anxiety. Paying out mostly balances out, and the kids who ought to land in college eventually make it there. I believed in theory that character is fate but have been surprised a bit, firsthand. Not to find that hustlers beat nice guys, but that it doesn’t matter; they come a cropper, as you can read like newsprint in their faces; the length of life unstrings them. I can go to an Ivy League alumni reunion and meet posh fund managers who either wish they had pursued a degree in ornithology instead of finance or are fretting about a tax shelter gone gravely awry, not to mention a painful mismarriage. An auditor disqualified the shelter and a judge is divvying up their assets as if to provide for their stepchildren as well as the wife: is that fair? Although grads at the Ivy gathering got a head start over nine-tenths of the folks at the senior-center lunch, long before their seventh decade the effects of early privilege had petered out, at least according to the emanations of contentment versus discontent at each location. George Orwell’s last notebook jotting observed that “at 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” (Sadly, he didn’t make it to that age.) And I tend to agree, especially if you advance the criterion to the white-hair phase, when a thousand accumulating decisions at first defined and then achieved our goals. If subliminally we wanted to be couch potatoes, we are—or exercised a real green thumb, cooked delicious pasta, and mastered the organ in the corner church. Perhaps there was a mountain in the Adirondacks whose profile stirred us to drive the Alaska Highway, and later we threw lire into the Trevi Fountain, raised Belgian shepherds, adopted a three-month-old child to enlarge our family, worked in wholesale. Whatever the destination, it turned out not to be Phil Rizzuto’s or Phil Donahue’s or whoever we idealized originally. Life’s gauge was broader than we anticipated. Not in the sense that we batted in Yankee Stadium or chatted up celebs like Montgomery Clift; but our aims multiplied and vicarious satisfactions punctuated our days. A snatch of Scott Joplin on the radio (we don’t need to have composed to exult); a daughter on a winning basketball team; a seagull, surplice-white but primeval in posture, that lands on the lawn to grab food left for the dog.

A certain self-selection of course takes place in who shows up for the monthly Men’s Breakfast at the senior center, for instance—I sat with an ex-harbormaster and ferryman and a crane operator—or college reunions. Welfare clients aren’t as likely as pensioners to come, and loners stay away, or the more deeply discouraged and unmoored. Among the Ivies, high-flying alumni who can talk about which prep school their children got into and about financial derivatives sit together, not with their classmates bemoaning the inequities of health and luck. Veterans who 50 years ago decided not to use the GI Bill to earn a college degree wound up with solid businesses and nest eggs, too, if they wished for that and followed through. But following through does not determine contentment if they also wanted beer chums or love liaisons that might derail their concentration yet engrave those smile lines people wear when reclining on their final gurney. Sly pleasures will do it, as well as the daily straight and narrow and a life of kids dashing around on summer evenings.

Integrity is rarer and doesn’t tell on the face as clearly because, unlike pleasure, integrity involves cost-consciousness, even for the honest soul whose ultimate choice will never be in doubt. Stubborn sacrifice is demanded, which can mark their expressions somewhat in the way attention-seeking eccentricity might. People possessing less will brand it as a quirk. Contentment at the end of life isn’t a kind of be-all, however. Orwell’s criterion didn’t specify what we should deserve. Discontent may be as admirable—although not self-contempt. What has surprised me is the widespread repose I’ve sensed in rubbing shoulders recently with old people, as one of them. In my ’50s college generation, existential pessimism, counterposed to postwar prosperity, was all the rage. Yet I was a dissenter, skeptical of the skeptics because, believing in an immanent divinity, I thought life could be radiant, especially if you got outdoors. Most people aren’t pantheists, though, and, accepting the cranky clichés about geezerdom, I expected they would be unhappier in old age than they’ve turned out. Settling for less than some of their dreams hasn’t seemed such a compromise because the satisfactions from unpredicted quarters have ripened so fully, whether familial—the prodigal grandma—or just waking up each morning with no tasks to trek to.

I’d realized World War II had validated Kafka and Camus as my classmates’ heartthrobs, but was instead a Whitman fan during the 1950s and ever after, loving every metropolis I encountered as well as the thunderous surf, the rolling landscape. Children are born with bursting buoyancy. Give them a few yards and they will start to play. But I didn’t guess that, 70 years on, that artesian buoyancy in subdued form would remain a force. Call it cosmic gaiety, planetary photosynthesis, the Big Bang, or the green thrust. Life is thrust.

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