Life in the Fourth Quarter

We spend the first half of our lives wishing we looked like someone else and the second half wishing we looked like our former selves.

Ian Brown has turned 60, and he’s not happy about it. Consulting newsstands and bookstores, he finds a dearth of honest, original writing about aging, “a subject we don’t care to think about when we’re younger and can’t bear to face when we’re older.” And so he decides to make a diary of his 61st year, “to stare in the face of that denial, and keep track, at even the most mundane daily level, of the train coming straight at us.”

His journal is largely a protest against decline. His hearing is fading, along with his memory. His knees ache. His arches have fallen. His face sags, and a patch of hair over his forehead resembles “a random stand of corn that somehow got planted away from the main field.” He has rosacea, age spots and a hemorrhoid. Though he and his friends still hike and ski, it’s a case of “ever-older men doing daring things, to prove we’re still daring, and therefore not older.”

Since he turned 60, he thinks, people look at him differently. If a pretty young woman gives him a smile, she isn’t flirting; she’s taking pity. His neighbors expect him to be wise, cuddly and scrubbed of emotions such as anger or lust. “Sixty may or may not be the age you can start to feel old,” he finds. “But it is certainly the age others begin to think of you as old.”
With every day dragging him closer to The End, he must be ruthless about which book to read, which movie to see, which conversation to have, which story to write. Before he buys anything he calculates whether he will get enough use out of it before he dies. When he has to wait to be served in a bar, he wants to scream, “Don’t you realize I’m dying?”

The problem isn’t death, exactly, since he believes that it will be an anti-climactic nothing, a blackout followed by oblivion. It’s the idea of missing out on life that he can’t bear. That and the “slippery indignity of the stinking slide” into decrepitude. But more than the tick-tock of the existential clock, more than grief for his waning physical and mental powers, more than aggravation at society’s diminished estimation, he is consumed by regret, which he considers the greatest enemy. He is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s line that “sorrow is the rust of the soul.” “And,” Mr. Brown adds, “regret is the oxygen that makes it.”

Mostly Ian Brown regrets not taking more risks. Though he seems a good husband and the devoted father of two adult children, he feels that he could have been less guarded, more loving. Though he is a successful journalist, an award-winning author, and a television and radio host, he is afraid that he hasn’t lived up to his promise. He could have written more books. He could have made more money. He could have worried less about the threat of failure, which kept him from trying harder. Above all, he regrets that he has never had the courage to write what he’s always wanted to write, by which I believe he means a novel.

But if nothing else, his arrival at what he calls the “Decade of Living Precariously” has made him aware of his fears. He expects to live for an additional 25 or 30 years. Maybe there’s still time to write that novel. Maybe he can still “become the thing I want to be, whatever that is, time for another career, another self, another life, time to get it out of me, onto the page, into the air, into the heart.” Unless it is already too late — which, he concedes, “is the other main fear.”

Judging from Willard Spiegelman’s “Senior Moments,” the eighth decade of life is more tranquil than the seventh. Though he is 10 years older than Mr. Brown and, actuarially speaking, that much closer to the grave, Mr. Spiegelman is considerably sunnier about both his mortality and the decline en route. In a way, his book’s title is a misnomer, since the essays collected here are not so much about aging — Mr. Brown’s unblinking focus — as about having aged, about looking back over a long and satisfying life and looking ahead to “more years of pleasure, if luck and health hold out.”

Arranged in loose chronological order, the essays form a kind of memoir. The first reflects on the author’s childhood in a large, voluble Philadelphia family, where he learned early that language “was the best way to make one’s mark.” In time, he would embrace language as his life’s work, as an author and professor of poetry. Whereas Mr. Brown writes in the clipped, propulsive style of a journalist, Mr. Spiegelman adopts the discursive, finely crafted voice of a literature professor, revealing a penchant for aphorism and allusion.

“Here is a formula for staying young well beyond the days of youth,” he offers: “Grow old in a place where you do not think you belong.” He means both his longtime home of Dallas and his new home of Manhattan, where he relocated after retiring. In each city, he can’t escape feeling the transplant he is, but the sense of dislocation makes him feel more vital. The late-in-life move to New York is “an act of bravery,” he admits, but “the anonymity of metropolitan life gets you ready for the anonymity of the grave. I find this assessment comforting rather than macabre.”

Another essay considers how his attitudes have changed toward reading, “the first and the ultimate pleasure.” He finds his attention wandering more now, and he has trouble retaining plot points and dialogue, not to mention complex themes and variations. Like Mr. Brown, he has shed the promiscuity of youth and is now more selective about what he spends his time on. And at his age, he finds, “the sentence matters, perhaps most of all. Lucidity now trumps opacity and difficulty.”

A class reunion — “ Proust goes to the country club” — inspires a rumination on the meaning of nostalgia, or “melancholy without pain, a penumbra of chronic, thoughtless homesickness, a bland watercolor wash of feelings, or a bittersweet longing for auld lang syne that might not have been so good in actuality.” A friend reminds him that we spend the first half of our lives wishing we looked like someone else and the second half wishing we looked like our former selves. As for the reunion, it is brief and cheerful but nothing extraordinary — like life, he realizes, writ small.

Though Mr. Spiegelman may be closer to the end than Mr. Brown, he doesn’t betray dread or regret but a gentle, teasing acceptance. “We come into the world alone, with a cry,” he reminds us. “We exit alone, to confront the final eternal silence. The fun, all the pleasure and adventure, lies in between.” In Mr. Spiegelman I suspect that Mr. Brown would see the embodiment of the scrubbed-up, well-behaved senior that he himself is determined not to become. If he were to begin another diary on his 70th birthday, would we find the sharp corners rounded off, as in Mr. Spiegelman’s essays? It’s an intriguing theory, but I doubt it. In all likelihood, the books’ striking dissimilarities — in content and form but especially in attitude and voice — derive from the authors’ varying views on life more than from their relative ages or their divergent attitudes about the end of life. Whether we are 60 or 70, or 80 or 90, how fiercely we rage against the coming of that good night depends above all on how we have embraced the sum of our days.

This article by Gerard Helferich originally appeared on September 2, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Helferich, 62, is the author of “Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912.”

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