Over the hill, under scrutiny
A couple of views on getting older
For most of us, the process of aging arrives in what the showbiz folks call a soft open: You don't feel it in a grand thunderclap, but in a gradual series of small incidents. When you rise from a chair, you utter a small grunt. Recovering from a sprained ankle takes twice as long as it did when you ran the bases in grade school. You squint to read the fine print.
But you don't have to travel alone. In new books, William Ian Miller and Patricia Cohen each provide a consoling insight: Age is what we make of it. And different eras and cultures have, as it happens, made very different things of it. Contemporary research into middle age demonstrates "just how malleable this cultural fiction can be," Cohen writes in "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age," scheduled to be published in January by Scribner. "The definition has been stretched and massaged over the last century and a half, and bears the fingerprints of every generation through which it has passed. ... Middle age may seem like a Universal Truth, a fundamental law of nature, like the Earth's rotation around the sun or the force of gravity, but it is as much a man-made creation as polyester or the rules of chess. ... Life stages are all invented."
And in "Losing It" (Yale University Press), Miller notes, "Youthfulness is somewhat relative and the stage of life is partly in the eye of the beholder."
Some people seem old at 30; other people seem young at 75.
These two very fine books feature vastly different styles and strategies for getting their points across. Together, they demonstrate the glorious versatility of nonfiction, the flexibility and spaciousness of fact.
Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, is witty and intimidatingly well-read, a man whose references move smoothly across Icelandic folklore to biblical exegesis and then circle back around again to the Green Bay Packers.
Cohen is a veteran New York Times reporter. Her style is lucid, straightforward and conversational. She provides a thorough — and thoroughly fascinating — cultural history of aging, along with a report on how brain science has changed our understanding of the maturation process. One of her most intriguing chapters explores the way popular culture — magazines, movies and TV — has depicted middle age. She ends on a note of optimism: "Middle age can bring undiscovered passions, profound satisfactions, and newfound creativity. It is a time of extravagant possibilities."
To which Miller would reply: Horsefeathers.
The professor may not be quite as pessimistic as he pretends to be in this book, but his real attitude is irrelevant. His shtick is so marvelously entertaining that you're willing to listen to what is — by his own admission — a grumpy diatribe over all that's lost by the relentless ticktock, an overlong dirge, a whopper of a whine.
The book is fussy and the book's contents are fussy and charmingly ornate, with Elizabethan echoes: "Losing it in the sense of a general decline of abilities," he writes, "is about seepage and slippage, slow, inexorable decay, that steady shrinkage of the brain already under way in your early thirties." Miller goes on to reflect on contingent issues such as the rich literary history of complaint, or revenge, of what constitutes a "good death."
For his own deathbed, he offers a modest forecast: "Make a few ironical remarks, to prove I have not lost it all, and then draw up my feet and breathe my last."
Both books have important things to say about time, about change, about the inevitable crumbling of the body and calcification of the mind. And both owe a little something to Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" (1969), perhaps the best song ever written about getting older: "Well something's lost, but something's gained in living every day."