Thursday, April 10, 2008

Survivor: Death Edition

There was an interesting story about aging and dying in The New Yorker this week. Michael Kinsley talks about boomer fascination with living the longest, and living the best, and about his own changed perceptions of aging and dying since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Actually my favorite part of the story was the anecdote at the very beginning, which I felt captured something very common that hardly ever gets properly described. Kinsley is at the pool, and there's an older guy swimming, and the older guy is boasting about being 90, and then the older guy says, "I used to be a judge."

Kinsley describes how it slowly dawns on both of them that saying this has exactly the opposite effect of the effect it's intended to have. It's intended to say, "I'm a player." But having to explain it, obviously, you're not. It's intended to say, "I'm with it." But given the first blunder, obviously, well, you're not.

Kinsley describes it much better than I can. I found myself wondering what Kinsley said to the guy next. Because sometimes in that sort of situation you feel all sorry for the person and you try to change the tone of the interaction back into one in which they can make their statement mean what they meant it to mean. Other times in that sort of situation you feel the person's being a pain anyway, and you sort of quietly let the sorry effects sink in.

Although the article is thoughtful and interesting, it didn't really resonate with me much. I felt like I was reading about the mortality of some other kind of person, not much like me.

He talks about how, no matter what forms you're competitive in, the only competition that matters is how long you live. This, he says, can be inferred from the fact that most people wouldn't a few good years for any material good or wealth.

Hm, maybe. But people trade good years for all sort of other pleasures, like smoking and drinking too much and having unprotected sex and riding motorcycles and climbing mountains.

I'm a freak about death, but to be honest, once we know it's going to be finite and relatively short, I don't find myself obsessing about exactly how many years. I mean, what's the difference? When are you going to die? "Soon," is the right answer, no matter what your age or health status.

Kinsley didn't really seem to share this feeling of "Soon" until he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. There's a vivid and moving account of having the disease, and of the treatments, and of the outlook it gives you on life and death.

He says for the ill person, the future seems finite, something people who aren't sick only feel later. Every new thing feels like the last roll of the dice.

I believe it. But I feel like I've had that feeling forever. Really, since I can remember. I remember being 17 and thinking, well, you'll be young for a few more years anyway so there's a bit of time. I guess if you're not comparing yourself to others, just being human is like having a chronic disease, since we're all on a steady march toward death.

Maybe competition is the thing here. I'm not really very competitive. I just can't get really engaged by competition. What with life being so short and all, I always figure, what's the point? In the long run, as they say, we're all dead.

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