I turned 75 the other day, which just seems normal to me. But apparently old age is not normal to everyone. There’s a stupid, obnoxious article in today’s Globe and Mail by one Patrick Luciani, who begins by criticizing Bill Clinton’s style of retirement. Not that Bill Clinton is old — or maybe 60 actually does seem old to Luciani, for Clinton turned 60 a couple of weeks ago. He is going around celebrating his birthday by raising money for his Clinton Foundation which helps AIDS victims. Luciani thinks this is unseemly. Retired peopleshould keep quiet and do nothing notable. He specifically admired Eisenhower for retiring into discreet silence by doing nothing much besides play golf in his post-presidential years. Pierre Trudeau was also singled out for keeping his mouth shut after his prime ministerial stint.
So today I’m seeing other people finish their careers and wondering whether there’s a good way and a bad way to surrender to the claims of time. The Globe also shows Andre Agassi, the tennis star, weeping as he finished his last game yesterday. Holy smokes, he is only 36. I had actually wondered about his age yesterday when I saw a picture in which he looked really old. He has a bad back; maybe that’s the problem. Besides, he has a shaved head, which never helps. But this week both Agassi and Premier Ralph Kleinof Alberta have both taken their final bows while weeping. I never wept when I retired. I just thought: Well, now, what shall I do next? But the weeping must have been an emotional response to the adoration surrounding these guys. I felt recognized, but nobody gushed over me and I’d have felt embarrassed if they had.
Not that I am bragging about my style of retirement, but I am not ashamed of it either. So far, I’m enjoying life more now than during my years of professing. Maybe it’s because I’m freer to avoid the tasks that aren’t fun. Also, I’m surprised to find that I like being alone most of the time. If I have any strong opinion about how to grow old properly, it is a slight disdain for the way many people seem to cling to their children and grandchildren. I think that amounts to a narrowing of one’s interests to the merely personal sphere, which is a real pity.
I admire the continuation of engagement with big public issues as long as possible. And the average active political leader is actually about Bill Clinton's age. I was reading a blog called "Political Dogs" by a guy named Dave, who calculated the ages of a selected list of leading American politicians. The average age of the Democrats was 64.6, while the average age of the Republicans was 58.7. In case you want the details, here are the specifics:
(Democrats: Barack Obama (45), Ned Lamont (52), Robert Menendez (52), John Edwards (53), Russ Feingold (53), Howard Dean (57), Al Gore (58), Hillary Clinton (58), Dennis Kucinich (59), John Corzine (59), Dick Durbin (61), John Kerry (62), Joe Biden (63), Joe Lieberman (64), Barbara Boxer (65), Harry Reid (66), Nancy Pelosi (66), Barbara Mikulski (70), Carl Levin (72), Diane Feinstein (73), John Murtha (74), Ted Kennedy (74), Charles Rangel (76), John Conyers (77), Frank Lautenberg (82), Robert Byrd (88)Those two guys Frank Lautenberg and Robert Byrd must really shock Luciani.
(Republicans: Thomas Kean, Jr. (37), Ken Mehlman (39), Rick Santorum (48), Condoleeza Rice (51), Jeb Bush (53), Lincoln Chaffee (53), Bill Frist (54), George Allen (54), Karl Rove (55), Haley Barbour (58), Lamar Smith (58), Tom Coburn (58), Chuck Hagel (59), Mitt Romney (59), Tom DeLay (59), George Bush (60), Rudy Giuliani (62), Newt Gingrich (63), Dennis Hastert (64), Trent Lott (64), Dick Cheney (65), Dick Armey (66), Elizabeth Dole (70), John McCain (70), Orrin Hatch (72), Arlen Specter (76)
There’s another article in the Globe today by a woman whose father had turned 80 and had failed the driving test imposed on old people. She wanted to scream at the examiner lady, but her father had shaken the woman’s hand pleasantly and accepted with dignity her verdict that he should “retire from driving.” She was proud of him – rightly, I think. When it’s time to stop playing tennis or driving, whether at 36 or 80, it’s great to be able to do finish off with grace. If Agassi’s tears were of gratitude, that’s graceful. If they were tears of regret, that’s not quite graceful.
The other evening at dinner with my friends Jack and Jo, I mentioned being mystified by my failure to mourn very often. Partly, this is because most of the deaths around me have been of old people who were ready to go. But I think it’s mostly because death is unavoidable, so it doesn’t reflect on our relationship. By dying, they didn’t abandon me deliberately. But then, on the same evening, I got pretty angry at Jo and Jack themselves for choosing to move away to New Zealand. The ending of our active friendship in such a manner is deliberate, hence something I resist. I might not mourn them if they were to die, but I’ll be mad at them for cutting out on me. That's intentional.
But sometimes I impute intentionality wrongly, which is sheer projection on my part. This is already September, and the flowers on my balcony are just reaching their crescendo. I think of it as their way of defying the onset of autumn. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I admire their spirit. Make a good end if you can, darlings!