Article - Spring 2022

On Aging

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Taking measure of a life well lived

By Edward Hoagland | March 1, 2022
Alberto Bogo/Stocksy
Alberto Bogo/Stocksy

Aging is slippage. Wax, then wane, toward humble pie, another day, another dollar. I was born a month after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. So I clean my plate at meals and follow that famous bit of fatherly advice, Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Wry but spry, I never mortgaged my future and though I pee more often now, my wallet, at least, is tumid. When dressing, I may forget my second shoe; I wear long underwear for half the year. Sightlessness has various effects. If you’ve driven for almost 70 years, shouldn’t that be enough? So many worries hitch a ride on your car. Oil change, check the tires. The BBC will give you world news when you can’t read the Times. Exercise cautiously, not to slip or pull a ligament. Tamp down one’s crabby self. The luxury of shedding a rigid daily schedule should be solace enough. In a free country we each have written our own script for decades, and patience is a craft we ought to have mastered long ago. Pop-up memories produce the names of five girls from my eighth-grade class. God bless them if they’re okay. A lot has changed for girls since 1945, and for someone headed for the writing game as well. My first agent and my best publisher were handling William Faulkner at the same time as me. That is, it was possible then to be William Faulkner—a towering genius in a now-eclipsed field. I didn’t know him but did meet two other Nobel winners: Steinbeck and Bellow, whose careers would seem miniaturized nowadays.

Dale Somebody was the first real cowpoke I ever knew; Trevor Bale and Mabel Stark, the first tiger rasslers. Eric Robbins, Time’s man in Africa, introduced me to that fabled continent. Old age generates a jumbo screen inside your brain on which fitful memories vividly flit. Himalayan rope bridges; Rome in the ’60s versus 2013; the Matisse Chapel in Vence shown to me by the beauteous Countess Karolyi of Hungary—an intimate friend of Bertrand Russell’s—and her houseguest Ralph Hotere, the Māori painter. Big Apple scenes on Delancey Street and Yogi Berra’s first at bat in Yankee Stadium. Joey Giardello, the middleweight champ, on First Avenue, and Jessica Lange tending bar on Christopher Street. Being a downtown person, I didn’t know a lot of fame hounds but did have neighbors like Grace Paley, Philip Glass, Donald Barthelme, and Seymour Krim.

In Iowa’s Amish country, I lunched with the faithful, in San Francisco with the Beats. I never had a bad romantic relationship, so no street anywhere would be painful to revisit except in the sense of a comrade gone. But loss becomes ubiquitous as the years wane—friends of both sexes and more than just the human species. My setter, Flash, at Taggart’s Pond; my chums Tom Hunt and Jimmy Dunn at our school-bus stop; then Rutger Smith, another classmate, bloated with cancer in middle age. Gone is the me who used to walk 50 blocks for a lunch date in New York, and the journalist who shouted at the president of South Sudan back when he was just a murderous warlord in 1993. I’ve boarded ships near Nome and Ushuaia, loved the Nile and the Nulhegan, and watched my daughter’s birth in New York Hospital, so groping for a curbstone with my cane feels less like a comedown than a phase. White hair isn’t ugly, nor a hobbled knee. Your posture may resemble another animal’s on occasion, like a spider or a goat, as you age. Emergency and common-sense responses kick in.

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