Michael Kinsley’s OLD AGE: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE (Crown/Tim Duggan Books 2016) is another slender book that, like part of Junger’s, was originally published as various magazine pieces.
Kinsley is known for his ‘law’ — “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” — and for being one of the founders of the online magazine Slate. (After that he was an editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times for a while.) He’s well-known for having Parkinson’s Disease, for 23 years now, though he stresses that this book isn’t about that; it’s about the Baby Boomer generation and their ambitions. What were they? To have the most toys? Years of good health? A good reputation? For the latter, just live as a good person.
But he does, first thing, address the strategies for dealing with news of a serious illness: acceptance, confrontation, or denial. Americans admire confrontation — learning everything you can about a disease; fighting back — but in the author’s case denial was easy, given his age and no visible symptons. He just kept working, confiding in only a very few, then a few more. When he finally ‘came out’ he signed onto a Speakers’ Bureau to travel around talking about his illness. Because of his age, or his illness, he found that he fell off the list of potential candidates for various positions. Here’s an example of Kinsley’s self-deprecating wit:
For a while in the 1990s, I was on the short list for all sorts of journalism jobs. After I went public with the Parkinson’s, that pretty much stopped. Maybe I’ had my run. Maybe I fell off the list due to some kind of unwritten term limit under which you can only be mentioned for so long before your name begins to seem shopworn. Or maybe I became radioactive for reasons I’m unaware of or too vain to see. (You’re supposed to say, “On, no, Mike. That can’t possibly be it.” Louder, please.) This is one of those things that happen to everybody in their sixties or seventies but happened to me in my fifties.
The next section talks about a procedure called deep brain stimulation, DBS, involving wires into the brain from batteries implanted in the chest. Author pondered what his first words would be upon awakening, and settled on “Well, of course. When you cut taxes, government revenue goes up. Why couldn’t I see that before?”
Seated on a plane next to Robert McNamara inspires thoughts about how life isn’t fair. Illness or death anywhere between 60 to 90 is considered ‘normal,’ while billionaires like Larry Ellison spend money on life extension. How if you’re 65 now, average life expectancy is 82.9. He discusses the idea of a tontine – a mutual pool that is won by the last surviving member. Social security is like that. If you imagine a group of 100 colleagues your age, how old until on average one of them dies every year? 63. He discusses symptoms of Parkinson’s, and goes on again about stem cells and how those opposed to using them nevertheless don’t lobby to shut down fertility clinics. He feels like a scout for his generation, experiencing the trials of old age when only in his 50s.
And then he talks about the possibility of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, and how you’re the least qualified person to assess your own brain. So the game isn’t about long life, it’s about living long and having your marbles. He discusses famous people who’ve had Parkinson’s, how the disease goes along with socially withdrawn, rigid, introverted people. He has a cognitive assessment, with mixed results.
Then there’s reputation. Author quotes Mark Twain about how quickly most humorists are forgotten. But almost all writers are doomed to obscurity. E.g. newspapermen like Joseph Kraft and Walter Lippmann. How for 40 years some novelist named Mary Brunton was regarded more highly than Jane Austen — but Austen’s family kept her reputation alive. By now it’s assumed that anything popular in its own time *won’t* have an enduring reputation. The test for immortality is perhaps 100 years.
The final section — as Kinsley explores the various options for the goals of the baby boomers — looks back at the ‘Greatest Generation’ who won World War II. The boomers came after the Greatest Generation, and had it relatively comfortable. They ducked Vietnam, engaged in self-indulgence in the ’60s, and cynicism about two presidents spread to cynicism about everything. Some boomers now apologize for their generation—squandering the legacy of the GG. But it can be spun the other way—the GG created problems that the boomers got us out of; the boomers expanded rights and created a culture that swept the world, created a technological revolution, and are now stuck supporting their own adult children.
And now we’re out in the world killing again. American exceptionalism – “the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us” – got us into Vietnam, but this realization lasted only a decade before we started invading other countries again.
So what can the boomers do to redeem its generation? Legalize marijuana? A national service program? Too late for that. How about paying off the national debt? Assume that’s a good thing to do. And invest in research, repair the infrastructure. It would be the boomers’ gift to the country, once and for all.
Americans expect more from their government than anyone—but they don’t want to pay for it. It can’t go on. But how to pay for it? Well, you could tax inheritances. More broadly and at lower rates than current inheritance taxes. Let moderately wealthy couples give back all the social security they took in, rather than passing it on to their kids. Or adjust the health care system to avoid spending so much at the end of lives. It won’t be simple. But it can’t be harder than D-Day.