Roger Angell: This Old Man

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 6.31.53 PMRoger Angell, longtime writer and editor for The New Yorker, just wrote an essay in the Feb. 17 & 24 issue entitled, “This Old Man.” Read it there, and you also can online, unless you are extremely young.The author, age 93, introduces the subject of old age by listing his physical insults and infirmities, which are numerous, and more than enough to extinguish a less bright flame than his.

And then he goes on to discuss loss. His wife Carol, recently dead, visits him for a while as he awakens from an afternoon mini-nap, sitting in her own chair, “Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again.”

His fox terrier Harry had personality and dashing good looks, and stepped out of a front window left a quarter open when he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm. “I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.”

The list of loss becomes as long as the list of diminished physicality, but the denouement of the article is anything but pessimistic. Angell states that, “Recent and not so recent surveys confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness.” We outgrow our ambitions and find comfort in ”the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories and mossy opinions.”

Death terrified him when he was younger because he had so many engagements, but now the spectre seems more like a “waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show.”

He doesn’t practice Mandarin or take viola lessons to retain his high level of hope and energy. He doesn’t read Scripture or cling to any life precepts, save for Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men. “Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.”

He concludes that, “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing.”

“For us and anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing,” he offers counsel by John Updike. “Sex or death: you take your pick.”

Walda Besthoff

One Response to “Roger Angell: This Old Man”

  1. A beautiful description of an intimate, moving and memorable essay.

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