My birthday is this week, which I mention by way of saying, “Please. No gifts.” My love and I went through major downsizing in January and we are pretty much done with Things now, even a picture of a wilderness lake taken by you or an inspirational book that could change our lives. My life is good enough. Every day is precious. When you reach 77, you’ll feel the same way. It’s a shame that a con man is in the White House as the Arctic is melting and white nationalists are shooting up our cities, but we’ll be okay, we just need a Trexit vote next year.
I reached my present age thanks to medical advances that didn’t exist for my uncles (than whom I am now somewhat older) nor for Dostoevsky (59) or Thoreau (44). Pharmaceuticals would’ve enabled Dostoevsky to retire from writing agonizing novels and switch over to light comedy in his old age and Thoreau to leave Concord and move to New York and find a girlfriend. He went out on a cold rainy night to look at trees and caught bronchitis, which agitated his TB and he went into a steep decline. As he lay dying, his aunt asked if he’d made his peace with God, and Henry said, “I was not aware that we had ever quarreled.” So he had a good last line, which many people don’t, but think what he and his girlfriend could’ve done with thirty more years. Go into the canoe business, buy a house with a lawn, beget kiddoes, enjoy evenings at home, Isabelle lying with her head in Henry’s lap, reading “Walden,” laughing at the funny parts.
Life is unbearably precious. Two heroes of mine died in car crashes when I was in college, and yet I myself, a couple years later, driving north on Highway 47 in my 1956 Ford, on a straight stretch in Isanti County, gunned it to 100 mph just to see what it felt like. It felt good. Then a pickup truck eased out of a driveway and onto the road. This was before seat belts. In a split second, I swerved to go behind him and it was a good choice — he didn’t back up — otherwise he and I would’ve been forever joined in a headline. I hope he has enjoyed his survival. Whenever I relive those fifteen seconds, all regrets vanish, all complaints evaporate.
I am now older than my older brother, who died ten years ago at 71. He slipped while skating and fell backward and hit his head. I think of him often. He was a scientist and engineer, a problem-solver, a sailor, a family man, and when faced with a personal dilemma, it’s good to ask, “What would Philip have said?” He tends to recommend patience, attention to detail, and taking a break for a few hours, perhaps on a boat, during which the answer may suddenly occur to you.
I don’t brood about death as the actual date approaches. My mother (97) enjoyed herself into her mid-nineties, flew places, saw her ancestral Scotland, cruised the coast of Alaska, and seemed, all in all, happier than when she had six little kids to worry about. We grew up near the Mississippi and she thought extensively about drowning. When cousin Roger (17) drowned, trying to impress his girlfriend Susan, Mother sent me to swimming lessons at the Y, but I couldn’t bear it, the instructor was such a bully, so I went to the library instead, a wise choice on my part, and I grew up to earn my way as a writer rather than as a professional swimmer.
Nature is not interested in my twilight years; past 30, semen develops problems, man becomes irrelevant in the furtherance of the species. God created erectile dysfunction because old men can’t be trusted to raise kids. Living past 70 is an artificial idea, a lovely idea, like flying or anesthesia, but still. So an old man needs to justify his continuance, taking up space and being a traffic hazard on the freeway by driving the speed limit. My reason for living is simply this: I am still working and my best work may be yet ahead of me.
I say, 77 is a fine age, way beyond 17 or 37 or 57, but take your time getting there, and remember to marry someone who is good company and can carry one end of the conversation and sometimes both. There’s the real message. That’s worth reading to the end of the column to find out.