Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including “Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures.”
Among all the books published in recent years about old age and dying — and there have been plenty of them — it would be hard to find one that is more fun to read than “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide.” In it, Michael Kinsley, a political columnist and founding editor of Slate, dryly advises baby boomers: “What you actually really want, or should want, is long years of good health, not long years of simply breathing in and out.”
It’s an adage that could apply to anyone, really, and coming from Kinsley, it’s especially poignant. In 1993, at age 43, Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “Having Parkinson’s is very much like growing old,” he quips, and a “pretty good joke on someone who used to like being thought of as precocious.”
Kinsley is both realistic and remarkably cheerful in writing about aging, death and his own health in this brief collection of essays, some of which have appeared in Time, the New Yorker and elsewhere. The book is framed as a guide to old age for Kinsley’s contemporaries. “Sometimes I feel like a scout for my generation,” he writes, “sent out ahead to experience in my fifties what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their sixties, seventies or eightes.”
And what has Kinsley, now 65, found out on his early expedition to the latter edge of life? For one thing, it’s not a place where achievements and acquisitions matter much. “You’d happily trade them for more time with the grandchildren, wouldn’t you?”
Perhaps the ultimate prize for boomers — a group likely to be remembered “for being especially ambitious and competitive” — is longevity, he writes. But at what cost? Do we really want to live on and on, especially if we, like so many other old people, might outlive our mental capacities? “So the real game is cognition, isn’t it? Who can keep their marbles the longest?” Or should this generation take a longer view and strive for a noble reputation after death? That’s fine, Kinsley observes, “But start now, because if you’re a boomer, time is running out.”
Whether offering a final set of goals for achievement-oriented boomers, describing his DBS (deep brain stimulation) surgery, debating stem-cell research or defending his decision after the Parkinson’s diagnosis (“I chose denial”), Kinsley, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, is refreshingly straightforward and often wickedly funny. “Even the most successful people die eventually,” he writes, “and they spend more time dead than alive.”
Even for those who distrust generational labels — the Greatest Generation, baby boomers, millennials — and those who have a very different perspective on old age, this book is well worth reading. It offers bracing humor about the inevitabilities most of us find hard to contemplate at any age, and it encourages us to keep on thinking about the future while we still can.
As Kinsley notes: “Decades before the nursing home . . . we all cross an invisible line. Most people realize this only in retrospect. If you have a chronic disease — even one that is slow-moving and nonfatal — you cross the line the moment you get the diagnosis. Suddenly, the future seems finite. There are still doors you can go through and opportunities you can seize. But every choice of this sort closes off other choices, or seems to, in a way that it didn’t used to. . . . Each change feels like an unexpected gift, or a coupon I’d better redeem before it expires.”
By Michael Kinsley. Foreword by Michael Lewis.
Tim Duggan/Crown. 155 pp. $18