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10 things you can learn from Roger Angell’s “This Old Man”

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The story of the week has been Roger Angell’s “This Old Man” (The New Yorker). Angell is widely revered for his body of work on baseball, but in this piece he writes about what it’s like to be 93. As James Fallows put it, in The Atlantic:

You don’t often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell’s remarkable “Life in the Nineties….” Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work.

Ten admirable attributes:

Felicity. See how he moves? “Check me out,” to open. “Cheer up already,” when things are getting a little grim. “Put me on that list,” when talking about how “people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness.” What a relief and a pleasure, to read:

Spinks Award Baseball

Roger Angell

“How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”

A comforting pat; a devastating blow. The latter needs the former. Underlinings ours:

“If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.” And, “I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility,” a sentence made terrifying by its humor and calculated vagueness.

Repetition, but not the usual kind. The first three grafs end in a single word or a sentence fragment naming a physical condition. “Arthritis.” “Macular degeneration.” “Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.” Carrying the device any further would have been overkill.

Otherworldly imagery. Underlinings again ours:

“Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries.”

A SEX JOKE!

Unexpected ideas and verbs. The spine “twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road.” To cover for a cognitive lapse or two the writer has “learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there.”

Little (big?) recognizable truths: 

All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity.

Gutting detail. The transcribed memories are made all the more devastating by their specificity. “Zeke, a long-gone Lab, alive again, rushing from right to left with a tennis ball in his mouth; my sister Nancy, stunning at seventeen, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette aboard Astrid, with the breeze stirring her tied-up brown hair; my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again, waving her hands in front of her face in embarrassment—she’s about thirty-five. Me sitting cross-legged under a Ping-Pong table, at eleven.”

Light instructions:

“More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.”

Crisp transitions:

“Let’s move on.”

 

 




3 comments

  1. Carla Jardim
    posted March 25, 2014 at 9:56 pm | permalink

    This is the piece I mentioned. I had the same reaction to it as James Fallows — a ‘remarkable’ essay.

  2. john miles
    posted April 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm | permalink

    In 5 days I will be 84 years old. The essay “this old man” by Roger Angell made a large impact on me. Somehow knowing how another
    man is experiencing aging with all it carries with it is comforting.
    I wish I could tell him thank you.

  3. Sheryl Boucher
    posted May 13, 2014 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    I have read out loud “This Old Man ” by the venerable Mr. Angell, several times to the residents of “a community of seniors” in Mill Valley, CA, and everyone agrees to its brilliance! All recognize that he captured ourselves and life’s journey
    with pathos and humor. Thank you!

One trackback

  1. [...] and I talked in his office at The New Yorker, a couple of weeks after the publication of “This Old Man,” an extraordinary essay about life in his 90s. Asked what he is working on now, he showed me [...]

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