Posts Tagged ‘old age’

The cult of children.

Much of what privileged parents are trying to accomplish, says Wolf, is to ensure that their children do not fall out of the upper-middle class. To that end, parents work on their children’s résumés, almost from birth. As infants, their toys need to be educational as well as enjoyable. Getting into the right preschool is a precursor to getting into the right elementary school, and so on, right up until they are set up to get into the most prestigious colleges and beyond. I believe obsessive parenting, born of insecurity about the future, imagines the world to be more precarious than it probably is for upper-middle-class children……

The consequences of hyperparenting are unknown, since the phenomenon is only a few decades old. My views are shaped largely by observing my own family and friends, and that is not much to rely on, but I will speculate anyway. I see great advantages for the children, but also some warning signs. Young upper-middle-class children are, indeed, remarkably precocious. Since they have been exposed to adult conversations almost constantly from birth, they are much more articulate and broadly knowledgeable than children were a generation ago. They are also remarkably at ease with other people, both adults and children, because they are with them so much—with their parents’ friends, in early preschool, and in playgroups often organized among nannies. And having endured little frustration or isolation, they seem to me happier and more affectionate than children were in earlier generations. They love being with their parents (and why not?). They don’t go “up the street” to do “nothing,” as my friends and I did. They stick close to home, and their best friends are their parents. Of course, as they get older, they are subject to the influences of their peers and wider culture, including the omnipresent social media—a mixed bag.

My concerns are the other side of the same coin. If children are the center of their universe, if their parents’ feelings are so contingent on theirs, will they expect that always to be the case? The risk is that these children come to feel entitled and become narcissistic—while they may have a devastating sense of failure if they don’t meet expectations. Moreover, when parents anticipate and fend off all adversity, children might not develop the resilience and confidence to deal with adversity on their own, or the self-discipline necessary to navigate life as an adult. And they might not have enough solitude to learn to think their own thoughts, a lack that Facebook and other social media exacerbate.

Why speed reading is for fools?

‘There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” – Bertrand Russell

Life is not a race. Speed is good for things you want to get past, not for important things you enjoy.

Intimacy is slow. Depth takes time. If you want intimate thoughts, intimate friends, intimate experiences it can’t happen quickly.  Some people tell me they have great reading comprehension even at speed. They challenge me to test them about information from the book. But I don’t care what they can recall. Being able to recall a fact does not mean they’ve considered it, examined it, or used it to change their thinking or how they feel about the world. Reading comprehension does not equal reading wisdom. Comprehension is for a test, wisdom is for your life.

Good writing, or good anything, offers us the chance to pause and reflect. It’s good to read a good book slowly. To take time to consider the new ideas you’re taking in. To ask questions with other smart people about what you’re reading as you read it. If you’re reading to learn you want to read thoughtfully. If you are reading good books you will be engaged and have little concern about how long it’s taking or how long they are.

Life in the nineties.

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

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Reflections on old age

A long reflection on old age by Penelope Lively. It’s something most of us will need to confront at some point. Some excerpts I like:

But perhaps I have arrived at the state of death-consciousness that he identifies – we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction. Yes, I recognise that, along with the natural human taste for a conclusion: there has been a beginning, which proposes an end. I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch it. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.


And in any case, I am someone else now. There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do, things that are now important. Writing survives, for me – so far, so far. Other pleasures – needs – do not.


You get used to it. And that surprises me. You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment. An alter ego is amazed, aghast perhaps – myself in the roaring 40s, when robust health was an assumption, a given, something you barely noticed because it was always there. Acceptance has set in, somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative – perpetual rage and resentment – would not help matters. ”


Simone de Beauvoir confronted the problem in her extensive study Old Age: “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species: ‘Can I have become a different being while I still remain myself?'” What is at issue, it seems to me, is a new and disturbing relationship with time. It is as though you advanced along a plank hanging over a canyon: once, there was a long reassuring stretch of plank ahead; now there is plank behind, plenty of it, but only a few plank paces ahead. Once, time was the distance into which you peered – misty, impenetrable, with no discernible landmarks, but reassuringly there. In old age, that dependable distance has been whisked suddenly behind you – and it does seem to have happened suddenly. Not long ago, there was some kind of balance – a fore and aft, as it were. No longer; time has looped back, regressed, it no longer lies ahead, but behind. It has turned into something else, something called memory, and we need it – oh dear me, yes, we need it – but it is dismaying to have lost that sense of expectation, of anticipation. The mind does not always keep up – the subconscious, rather. In dreams, I am not always the self of today; I am often young, or younger, and if my children are present they have often become children again, obligingly – we have all jumped backwards. The mind cannot bear too much reality, it seems; in the same way, my husband Jack is nearly always present in my dreams – it is 12 years since he died, but at night he returns, not always recognisably himself, but a shadowy dream companion figure that I always know to be him.


Out with acquisition, excitement, and aspiration except in tempered mode. And, on another front, I don’t in the least lament certain emotions. I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn’t want to go back there. I still love – there is a swath of people whom I love – but I am glad indeed to be done with that consuming, tormenting form of the emotion.


Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in the spring sunshine, and the cream and purple hellebore in the garden; I listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of selective abortion, and chip in at points; the sound of a beloved voice on the phone brings a surge of pleasure. I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new. It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I’ve seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

Here are some beautiful quotes from John Updike on death and afterlife.

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, those disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self — skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school — strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill.


For many men, work is the effective religion, a ritual occupation and inflexible orientation which permits them to imagine that the problem of their personal death has been solved. Unamuno: ‘Work is the only practical consolation for having been born.’ My own chosen career — its dispersal and multiplication of the self through publication, its daily excretion of yet more words, the eventual reifying of those words into books — certainly is a practical consolation, a kind of bicycle which, if I were ever to stop pedaling, would dump me flat on my side. Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.

Talking about work and age, Paul McCartney is releasing a new album in his 70s, while Jiro san is still making sushi day in and day out.

Hope I’ll be good enough at that stage to find my work meaningful. And given I still have hope and anticipations it means there’s still more time. Getting old seems frightening to me now, but I’m pretty sure I’ll adapt to it when it arrives.

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