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PROLOGUE

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Quitting time

When I was growing up among men who earned hard livings doing things one does mainly for the money, I learned to imagine retirement as they did, a place where you read the newspaper all the way through in one sitting, napped in the afternoon, played cards in the evening, ate stewed prunes, and spent February in Florida. It did not seem appealing.

Fifty years on, approaching the age at which many of my forebears began to dream of dreaming in the sun in Miami, retirement seems less a dull though familiar neighborhood and more a foreign country, like Bhutan or Palau: a place where I could never be quite at ease with the breakfast offerings, the monsoon season, the radio music, the reliability of the phone system; a place in which my imagination cannot imagine me except as a tourist.

I can afford the luxury of that reverie for several reasons. One is that I work in an industry that, by the will of Congress, is unable to compel the retirement of its employees until we drift into senescence or decrepitude and are caught at it. A second is that unlike the men from whom I learned the meaning of retirement, I don't walk a beat for a living (an uncle), weigh up chicken parts (my father), balance a large and malevolent corporation's books (another uncle), or drive from strip mall to strip mall through seven states with a sample case and a new dirty joke for the buyers (yet another uncle). Rather, I sit by a sunny window and drink coffee and imagine things I would like to do or say or write or think about a bit more. And sometimes I look up and discover that I have spent an hour reading for pleasure, and it happens that this was my work. And I feel, even after all these years, surprised and guilty of something.

Whether I'll be able to keep this up until I've crossed the bar to the light is the question whose answer will determine whether I eventually enter Bhutanese exile. Instruction for achieving a good old-age is a species of wisdom literature that seems to have begun with Cicero's essay, De Senectute, and hasn't changed much since. One is advised to work at something that engages, walk briskly, eat slowly, remain married, and take the pills and purgatives advocated by the local medic. "We must stand up against old age and make up for its drawbacks by taking pains. We must fight it as we fight an illness," Cicero writes.

But fighters fall. Edges dull. A man goes in for a minor procedure and doesn't come out. To every inspiring reference the literature makes to Titian splashing away at canvases in his nineties, or Goethe wrapping up Faust at 82, or Marianne Moore taking up Hebrew in her eighties (preparing herself to greet God "in His native tongue," she said), or Jack LaLanne, at 90, pulling a tugboat across San Francisco Bay by a rope in his teeth—to each one of these, any person my age can respond with 10 counter-examples, many of whom worked at something that engaged, et cetera.

So I may yet end up in Bhutan, where the first thing I'll do is look for work. I mean "work" here broadly, as in what you do to be virtuous and happy even after they've taken your window and coffee away. In his final illness, the writer Paul Horgan wrote a poem called "Credo," that was found among his papers after his death. He told himself, "Believe in God. / Worship art. / Love as it is given to you to love. / Foster life. / Cherish children. / Work to the limit. / Submit with courage. / Amen." Horgan was a prolific worker: historian, novelist, essayist, librettist, and twice a Pulitzer Prize winner. But type inches or awards weren't his measure of "work to the limit"; rather, the limit to be achieved was disciplined labor, one of very few good justifications for time, and particularly, as he knew, for time that is running out. Like Cicero's essay, and like every honest statement about old age, Horgan's credo is not about defiance, but defiance made wise and supple by humility.

There are plenty of honest gerontologies around (and shelf loads of dishonest ones). The Psalms are good. So is Montaigne ("I want Death to find me planting my cabbages"), and so, latterly, are such folks as Doris Grumbach, Alfred Kazin, Donald Hall, and May Sarton. My own favorite, though, is One Hundred Poems From the Chinese, Kenneth Rexroth's translations of T'ang and Sung Dynasty verse. This slim volume, disguised as an anthology of brief poems, is in fact a gerontological theme park, where the season is always autumn, the sound of the village bells is always fading, the mists are always low on the mountains, and the weary traveler is always becoming aware that he passed along this same lonely road when he was a young man full of hope (since dashed) and vigor (since dispersed). And yet it is poetry of enormous consolation because its responses to quitting time—like "Credo"'s—are modest, as befit mortal creatures, and true. And so "Quail Sky," by Li Ch'ing Chao (1081-1140), in which the poet gazes at an icy sun, breathes the aromas of wine and "black frost," and concludes, "I refuse to be burdened / By the yellowing heart / Of the chrysanthemum / along the wall." Amen.

Our story on other gerontological challenges begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

 

 
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