The Look & Feel of Age

Much is written and spoken of the sometime and special regard in which the community holds its elders. Sometimes it feels a little patronizing. So, I love the sarcasm that drips in this piece from The Onion, blasting this occasional empty empathy for folks in the Third Act.

Community Devastated By Sight Of Old Man Struggling To Walk Up Steps
By The OnionSeptember 10, 2011

UNIONTOWN, PA—An elderly man currently struggling to walk up a flight of steps at the local post office has rocked this community of nearly 12,000 people, leaving many shaken and devastated by the slow-moving, wheezing octogenarian’s inability to perform what was once an effortless physical task, sources confirmed Thursday.
Described by onlookers as both hunched over and more than likely racked with thoughts of how much his body has deteriorated over time, the man began his ascent to the top of the 9-foot staircase at 9:45 a.m. By the fourth step, the man reportedly started using the handrail to stabilize himself—a sight that emotionally crippled the already grief-stricken community.

At press time, crushed town sources said the image of the man stopping on the seventh step to catch his breath would forever be seared into their brains.

“The elderly man’s lack of stamina and mobility has left all of us in a state of shock,” said Uniontown mayor Ed Fike, who added that watching younger people swiftly pass the senior on the steps has only exacerbated an already terrible situation. “Unfortunately, the worst has yet to come. He still has six more steps to go, and I don’t see him becoming any more limber or getting any sort of boost in energy during that time.”

“Until he reaches the top, this town needs to deal with the likelihood that this gentleman is currently wondering how much longer he’ll be able to use staircases unassisted, or worse yet, if there’s any point in being alive if you can’t even walk up 13 measly steps,” he added. “Christ, they’re pretty shallow steps, too.”

According to residents, the town has been demoralized not only by the sheer amount of energy the man must summon to make it up each step, but also by the man’s near inability to lift his knees high enough to place his feet securely on the edge of the next stair, and then the next, and then the next.

In addition, sources confirmed the elderly man periodically removing his handkerchief to wipe away sweat from his forehead has taken a significant toll on the community, as has his weary yet stoic expression, which passersby said indicates the man long ago accepted, with humility and grace, the fact that he will have to repeatedly endure humiliating physical hardships every single day for the rest of his life.

“My God, it’s going to take him five minutes to get up there,” said real estate agent Michael O’Connor, who later speculated that if the old man has such extreme difficulty walking up steps, he more than likely can’t even walk on flat ground without tiring easily. “I bet 50 years ago he was bounding up steps two at a time, and now look at him. He just glanced up at the top stair as if to calculate whether or not he has enough energy to actually make it. I can’t watch this anymore.”

“Why is he carrying those bags?” said distraught 42-year-old resident April Carlson, referring to two Rite Aid bags the elderly man is holding in each hand. “There’s no way those bags are making this any easier for him. Doesn’t he have anyone to help him out with stuff like that?”

Further adding to the community’s distress is speculation that the man probably once led an extremely active life, fighting for his country in World War II, playing high school football, and taking his loving wife out dancing. Citizens later concluded that the man’s wife is most likely dead, that he lives alone, and that his inability to get around is a constant reminder of everything he’s lost.

While residents said they would try to recover from the sight of the man looking back at the bottom step as if he might quit altogether, the majority noted it would be impossible to forget his ordeal.

“I have encouraged our citizens to continue on and live life as normal,” Mayor Fike said. “But I feel like that is going to be impossible. The truth is, at some point, no matter how healthy you eat, or how in shape you are, there will come a time when your body simply stops working. It breaks down. Muscles become weaker. The simple act of standing becomes nearly impossible. So if there is any lesson to be learned from today’s events, it’s that all of us, every single one of us, will suffer.”

Encounters in a Wintry City

Though Leonard Quart expresses disdain for the infirmities of old age, his determination to march on and prosper — in spite of the time of year and of life — show us the way forward. Don’t die till you’re dead!

I am suffering from neuropathy. Since last June my feet have been giving me a hard time. Walking long distances has turned out to be more arduous than it once was. And the bone-chilling, snow-ridden harsh winter has only added to the strain of getting about.

But I am not yet ready to become a recluse. I don’t hide away in my too-warm apartment screening DVDs or watching repetitious news analyses on CNN or MSNBC for hours, while periodically peering out at the unrelenting horrific weather through a blurred window.

On the contrary, I persist in roaming around Manhattan, observing the state of its various neighborhoods — the parks, street life, shops, and housing. The walks provide me aesthetic pleasure, insight into the nature of the city’s constant flux and drama and, most importantly, a sense that I am still physically able, slower pace and all, to move about with some ease even in dreadful weather conditions. There has also been encounters with strangers, mostly idle talk about exercise bikes and broken elevators, but a few can be revelatory in some way.

One bitterly cold but sunny day my wife and I set out to visit the Chelsea art galleries. Before we arrive there we have two chance meetings with strangers — one with a waitress after escaping into a small SoHo café to get warm, the other with an old woman at a bus stop as the brutal wind whipped around us.

In a brief conversation about the great Czech filmmakers of the ’60s, she also spoke without affection or nostalgia about the grayness of Czech cities. Her memory of the exquisite Prague, with its medieval Old and New Towns, was primarily focused on the neighborhoods outside the center filled with grim, characterless apartment buildings. The waitress, a smart, articulate woman in her late 30s, turned out to have come to the U.S. 21 years ago from Ostrava, a large industrial city in the Czech Republic. That’s about all the personal detail we gleaned, except that she attended CUNY and lives on Staten Island.

I too remembered as not so different from a large portion of the ’50s Bronx. It was also clear that she had embraced America and an “exhilarating” New York, and had lost interest in visiting the Czech Republic to see her family, who instead came here regularly to visit her in the city where she had re-established her roots as a New Yorker and American.


The old woman we waited for a bus with was a funny, feisty native New Yorker, who still lives in a rent-controlled, third-floor walk-up apartment in the South Village near St. Anthony’s Church (once the center of the community) that she has inhabited for 60 years. For many years she was part of a thriving community of Italian and Irish families, but her husband died a long time ago and that working class, ethnic world has almost disappeared. They were bought out, left for Florida or the suburbs, or died — replaced by overpriced, tarted-up tenement apartments filled with young singles and couples.

But she conveys a strong life force and isn’t planning on being pushed out yet. She also speaks in a tough, knowing New York vernacular about how landlords and developers have made it impossible for people who are not affluent to live in the Village any longer.

It struck me that a vital, smart woman like her was once the backbone of the city, but has little place in a New York where the big money has triumphed.

The Disappearing Face of New York, 2009

She is not the only victim of gentrification. It’s clear that in recent decades small mom-and-pop and small specialty businesses are disappearing, replaced by ubiquitous drug store chains, banks, and big-box stores.

The issue is how to save these stores, and maintain some of the unique character of the city. It wasn’t always this way. From 1945-1963, New York City’s businesses had rights and protection when they went to renegotiate their commercial leases. This occurred because of excessive speculation in commercial real estate caused by WWII. So, it’s possible. More on this in another column.

Our third chance encounter of the day took place at Pace Gallery in Chelsea on one of the last days that a striking Louise Nevelson exhibit entitled “Collages and Assemblages” is being shown. It’s rare that strangers speak to you when wandering around an exhibit, but this time a personable, art-aware black architect began to share with my wife a mutual sense of astonishment and joy about this exhibit of some of Nevelson’s mostly late-life small collages — brown and gray wood pieces on wood, delicately composed. He also had memories of Nevelson dramatically dressed and theatrical looking (her face a mask), scavenging for materials near her home in Nolita years ago. We all shared our excitement about her work and the pleasure of encounter.

These accidental meetings would never have occurred if we had allowed the weather to stop us. I feel a need to repeatedly murmur the mantra that I won’t allow either age or illness to prevent me from living as fully as possible. Up to this point, it has worked.

This column was published on March 19, 2015, in The Berkshire Eagle.

The Winter of a Healthy Old Age

Orson Welles depicted here in the 1956 film version of Moby Dick

Old age is not always a portrait of decrepitude and a signal of imminent death. Ishmael’s description of Father Mapple in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is in my mind the most celebratory depiction of “the winter of a healthy old age” – the possibility that one’s vitality may survive well into old age.

“Yes, it was the famous Father Mapple, so called by the whalemen, among whom he was a very great favorite. He had been a sailor and a harpooneer in his youth, but for many years past had dedicated his life to the ministry. At the time I now write of, Father Mapple was in the hardy winter of a healthy old age; that sort of old age which seems merging into a second flowering youth, for among all the fissures of his wrinkles, there shone certain mild gleams of a newly developing bloom- the spring verdure peeping forth even beneath February’s snow. No one having previously heard his history, could for the first time behold Father Mapple without the utmost interest, because there were certain engrafted clerical peculiarities about him, imputable to that adventurous maritime life he had led.”

Youth and Age – “Never Worry About Your Heart Until It Stops Beating”

Here is a poem by E.B. White, in which he frames the profound difference between the mysteries of youth and the virtually impossible cross currents that old folks must swim through. Namely, we who are gaining in age are in some way neither here nor there, he says (“the going and not going”), a state of precarious consciousness regarding what yet remains to us, and the final curtain to come. Yet he can blithely step back a bit from the edge of the “unbearable knowing and knowing”, as we all must to stay sane, when he says elsewhere, “I am reminded of the advice of my neighbor – ‘Never worry about your heart until it stops beating.’”

Youth and Age, by E. B. White

This is what youth must figure out:
Girls, love, and living.
The having, the not having,
The spending and giving,
And the melancholy time of not knowing.
This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going,
The loving and leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.

Artists in Later Life, Part 2: Updike Inspired, Too

John Updike’s work in later life is the focus of this chapter of Nicholas Decarlos’ Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Old — a book the author says focuses on the “tribal elders of art.”  In the first part of this series, we looked at how Claude Monet worked through near blindness at the end of his life, melding his notion of impressionism with what he was actually able to see through the cloudiness of cataracts. The author, a former student of Updike’s at Harvard and a life-long friend thereafter, was able to ask the writer about the process of his art over time. Here is a brief introduction by Decarlos followed by the interview.

When John Updike died at age seventy-six, on January 27, 2009, it was with work still to be published and some sixty volumes in print. He was my teacher at Harvard in the summer of 1962 — the only time, to my knowledge, he taught. (He did once substitute for the indisposed John Cheever, but ours was a course he had signed on to offer; thereafter he removed himself from academe.) Updike lived on in Massachusetts as a private though increasingly public citizen, and we stayed in touch. I continued to admire him, to solicit his opinions, and therefore asked him the following questions on the topic of this text:

  1. How have your work habits changed at present from the days when you were an apprentice to the trade?
  2. How have your aspirations changed; do you think of a day’s work as “more of the same” or have you set yourself different goals?
  3. Can you point me to a passage — or passages — in your own writing which deals with these issues, either head-on or obliquely?

From a letter dated August 26, 2007, these are John’s replies:

  1. When I was still a college student and then an employee for the New Yorker for twenty months, I of course fit my poetry and fiction into what gaps the traffic allowed, evenings or weekends. But once I left New York, in 1957, and set up shop as a free-lance writer in Massachusetts, with no other job, I tried to work faithfully, from breakfast to a late lunch, producing at least three pages a day, with whatever afternoon labors needed to be added. Fifty years later I am on the same schedule. In fact I seem to work longer hours, perhaps because I am slower and/or more careful now, or more is asked of me — certainly book reviews did not take much of my time or energy until the 1960’s. I don’t have much advice to offer to younger writers, but when asked I do suggest setting a regular schedule and a modest daily quota, even if the day is low on inspiration. Make it a habit. The pages do accumulate.
  2. The aspirations have not been dulled, but after years in the mines I am aware that my major veins have probably been dug out, and the urgency of my youthful “news” presses less groaningly. In the beginning, you are full, as they say, of yourself, and when elderly somewhat less so, having dispensed yourself through so many books. Still, each day slightly changes your angle on life, and the blank page remains a site of hopeful possibility. Some sentences as they take form still give me a frisson of pleasure. When the words quicken into what seems to be life, the writer is doing useful work. The little inspirations that used to feed poems and short stories don’t come as often as they used to; I tend now to think in terms of books, each one possibly my last. The image at the end of all those hours with pen and pencil/typewriter/word processor is that of a finished book, with its beautiful trimmed edges and scent of fresh paper and binding glue.
  3. The long essay on “Late Works” . . . dealt with the issues of longevity if not with lastingness. The way the individual investment in entertainment shapes up these days, the author does best who travels light — The Great Gatsby over Dos Passos’s USA. But then you don’t want to cater to a high-school reading level, and a certain capaciousness, involving the passage of time in its fabric, seems intrinsic to the novel. By and large what lasts best is the most concrete, the most actual, delivering to the reader a piece of earth and humanity. Aesthetic flourishes fade and wrinkle, though they may get attention when new. A blunt sincerity outlasts finely honed irony, I would think. An ability to see over the heads of important contemporary issues into the simple truth of daily life is what we can respond to a century later. . .. My own continuing to write at the age of three score and fifteen is a matter of genetics, long habit, and concrete aspirations. I set out to make a living with my pen, in privacy, in the commercial literary world as it existed, and am grateful that I managed. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure, and it goes without saying that I’ve been lucky. No impairing disease. No war I was asked to help fight. No stupefying poverty yet no family wealth or business to limit my freedom. No appetite for fine living and racing sloops to assuage. Lovely bright loving parents, then good loyal women and healthy children living with me. The New Yorker when it still published many pages of fiction and Alfred A. Knopf Inc. when publishing was still a gambit for sensible gentlemen who trusted their own taste. A world where books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry. Who wouldn’t, thus conditioned, want to keep writing forever, and try to make books that deserve to last?

When Did You Become Invisible?

At a certain age you become invisible, your mojo springs a leak, that sexual scat you give off lessens, that lust the opposite sex felt for you begins to dissipate and turns into something else your ego must endure, with or without the aid of antidepressants.

Now invisibility is related to the aging process and in the good old USA the loss of youth and the youthful look is an unforgivable sin that leads to sexual invisibility and this process starts at a younger age each year. Now many men and women choose not to go quietly into the night and battle their unavoidable invisibility, and I’m not talking exercise and good diet here. I’m talking about the mutants that have been created by plastic surgeons who will nip and tuck from your asshole to your upper lip for the right price. Who the hell do these people think they are fooling? Sure, they are no longer invisible, but their lack of invisibility has nothing to do with sex appeal but rather freak appeal. Now I don’t know what it feels like being looked at by “these eyes” — maybe the tradeoff is worth it for some, but for me I’m becoming more and more invisible every day. It started for me when my youngest son was a junior in high school and I noted how some women started looking at him with lust in their eyes and had stopped looking at me that way. In the beginning I thought I was imagining things — these dirty old women. I wasn’t looking at their daughters that way. But the more I observed them, the more I found this fact to be true. I had reached the top floor on the sex appeal elevator and was now starting on that painful ride to the basement. Now, the ride car can be slow or fast. You get on the elevator in your early 20’s or 40’s, but make no mistake about it, eventually you are going to get on the elevator and end up in the basement, unless you die before you get there. This is not a happy thought, not something you sit around meditating on because it makes you so happy.  I personally wish there was away around it. I personally liked being noticed, having women desire me.

Now if someone is overly interested in me, I’m a little suspicious. I wonder about her psychological profile. Are there any skeletons in the closet? Knives under the bed? — Stuff like that. Not that I would act on the occasional overture back then because I was happily married, but I do wonder, something I never did before I started to become invisible.

Now when did you start to become invisible? Don’t want to talk about it? In denial? Fine. I understand. I totally understand. It’s not something we want to talk about. But hey, take a look at some pictures of yourself when you were younger, when you were hot. Now tell me truthfully, can you blame them? There’s no comparison. If you have a choice between looking at that guy (or girl) or yourself today, who would you look at? I rest my case. Cut, maybe plastic surgery is not such a bad idea after all.

Winter Dawn

Tu Fu (713-771) was the leading poet in the T’ung Dynasty of 8th century China. In this remarkable piece called “Winter Dawn,” he captures a moment of flashing epiphany with language, so simple, that speaks from another plain and another time, decades earlier, about the swift flood of life rushing by — as John Prine wrote, “like a broken-down dam.”


The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottle and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.

Translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth

Featured Photo by Zimari Dimitrov

Who’s Worth It? – Deciding Who to Spend Our Time With During the Apocalypse

Of course, the video’s a joke, an easy mark. Kind of like the old chestnut, if you want to know who loves you more, put your husband and your dog in the trunk of your car, and see who’s happy when you return.

But seriously, do tell us how and with whom you’re spending your time in quarantine, what’s working, what isn’t. We’ll start a series and post them on the Third Act Project website. Feel free to submit photos, video, music, whatever.