Reading Matters

On aging, falling, balding and denial

“It it a treasured corollary of the American Dream that most people who are successful in midlife were losers in high school,” writes Michael Kinsley in his lively, provocative new book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide.”

Kinsley is a Vanity Fair columnist, a contributor to the New Yorker and the founder of Slate magazine. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was in his 50s. His illness has given him a certain advantage in the age game. In these cheerful, upbeat essays, he tells us what he’s learned about life and the aging game.

The odds at work: “As you enter adult life, values change and the deck is reshuffled. You get another chance and maybe, if you’re lucky, the last laugh. But it isn’t the last laugh. The deck is shuffled again as you enter the last chapter. How long you live, how fast you age, whether you win or lose the cancer sweepstakes or the Parkinson’s bingo -- all these have little to do with the factors that determined your success or failure in the previous round. And there is justice in that.”

On falling: “Sometimes (aging) is even instantaneous. Fall, break your hip, and add ten years. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

On the disparity in aging: It’s easy to imagine two sixty-year-olds, friends all their lives. One looks older because he’s bald -- no big deal. Ten years later, when they’re seventy, the bald one has retired on disability and moved into a nursing home. The other is still CEO, has left his wife for a younger woman, and, in a concession to age, takes a month off each year to ski.

On a posthumous reputation: It’s hard to think of any way for a normal, middle-class person to establish a good reputation as quickly and efficiently as you can establish a bad one. The best way to gain a healthy posthumous reputation is to get rich and then buy one. In ancient cultures you built a memorial to the gods, which was actually a memorial to yourself. In modern America you achieve the same thing by seizing on what is called a “naming opportunity.”

On denial of Parkinson’s: For eight yeras, between my dianosis and my self-outing in an essay in Time magazine, I was in denial. During that time I tried not to tell outrightlies, but there was an undeniable effort to deceive others in order to help deceive myself.”