Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Senior Writer's Thoughts #3

Third in a series of reflections from our writers aged 70 and up, The Permanent Press presents: 
"Senior Writer's Thoughts"

From Daniel Klein: I happen to think a lot about how a person should spend the last chapter of his life.  It's the subject of my philosophy book, 'Travels with Epicurus', coming out in November.  At the risk of the ultimate hubris, I'll quote myself from that book: 
       Epicurus believed that old age was the pinnacle of life, the best it gets. In the collection known as the “Vatican Sayings”, he is recorded as stating: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate  but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
       The idea of being an old man safe in the harbor buoys me up as I sit under an awning, pondering the best way to spend  this stage of my life. It is the notion of being free from vacillating beliefs that gets to me. My understanding from Epicurus’s other teachings is that he also is referring to the young man’s vacillating pursuits, the ones that follow from his vacillating beliefs. Epicurus is pointing to what the Zen Buddhists call the emptiness of “striving,” and in our culture striving is the hallmark of a man still in his prime.
       The same goes for those of us who embrace the “forever young” credo: we don’t give up setting ever new goals for ourselves, new ambitions to fulfill while we still can. Many forever youngsters are driven by the frustration of not having fully achieved the goals they dreamed of attaining when they were younger; they see their final years as a last chance to grab some elusive brass ring.
        I became particularly aware of this phenomenon recently when the fiftieth-anniversary report of my college class arrived in the mail. One classmate, a highly successful lawyer and part-time theater and culture reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wrote: “Every day I think about what I haven’t done and get anxious. That I remain in relatively good health is a great blessing, but it’s also part of why I’m not sufficiently driven to finish the novels, plays, and nonfiction stewing in my head . . .But there’s time, I hope. We all hope, don’t we?”
       This man drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s  “Morituri Salutamus,” the poem he wrote for the fiftieth anniversary of the class of 1825 of his alma mater, Bowdoin  College. In the poem Longfellow urges his elderly classmates to keep busy, very busy: 
Nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his “Characters of Men.”
       That “nothing is too late” refrain certainly is tempting. We septuagenarians just might be at the top of our game, our creative juices overflowing. Would Epicurus have us dam them up? Would he have sacrificed the classical masterpiece Oedipus Rex just so Sophocles could sit happily in the harbor? That sounds like a terrible waste.
       Still, there is no rest for the striver. Just beyond the completion of each goal on our life-achievement “bucket list” looms another goal, and then another. Meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking—quite loudly, in fact. We become breathless. And we have no time left for a calm and reflective appreciation of our twilight years, no deliciously long afternoons sitting with friends or listening to music or musing about the story of our lives. And we will never get another chance for that. 
       It is not an easy decision.

Daniel Klein is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar". He has also written many other non-fiction books, also several mysteries and thrillers, including the Elvis Presley mystery series ("Kill Me Tender", "Blue Suede Clues", etc.). THE HISTORY OF NOW is his first "literary" novel -- at the age of 70.