4 min read

Okay, so maybe I won’t win the Booker

Okay, so maybe I won’t win the Booker
Photo of some old bird by Jennifer Bishop

Or, where did this skin on my neck come from?

There is a sentence that keeps sneaking into my mind: I wonder if I’ll live to see that? Do not be alarmed or cheered by the possibility that my life’s wick is guttering. I am fine, in slap-happy good health and living the sort of days I have always wanted. But I am 69 years old, will be 70 at November’s end, and more often now it occurs to me that there are things I will never do again, fantastic science that will not happen fast enough for me to read about it, art I will never savor, and various salubrious developments that will arrive too late.

There are stories I will run out of time to write.

I am not morbid about any of this. I do not know why, but I am actually looking forward to turning 70 in November. That feels like a cool age. I imagine myself coming through the door of my favorite coffeeshop with a vigorous stride and saying to myself, Look who’s 70 years old, bitches!

For at least the last 30 of those years, I have been taking those goofy online tests that claim to predict your life expectancy. I fill in all the numbers and check all the boxes with complete candor, and the test usually says I will live to be something like 94 or 96. And deep in some nook of my frontal cortex I do believe that. Hell, I might make 100. But I have read too much in my first 69 years to not understand that as I scribble this line, some nasty little fucker of a cancer cell may have divided for the first time in my pancreas, or an artery in my brain may have bulged a fraction of a millimeter, or some kid just got his first job as a bike messenger and is 10 days away from running down some old bird who never heard him coming. (That old bird would be me.) But I do not really believe it.

I do not fret much about the things I expect never to do again. My days of hiking 12 miles in the Montana back country or climbing a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado are probably long gone. I am no longer a hiker. I am now a city walker. Running my fifth marathon? Perhaps, but probably not. Sing and play guitar before an audience again? Stay up half the night with friends listening to records and sipping bad red wine? Would be fun, but not likely. Knock in two runs with a timely double in a softball game? That ship has sailed, along with a measure of my night vision and numerous high frequencies I can no longer hear.

None of that is cause for regret. I miss some of the high frequencies, but hearing aids help, and I can afford conveyances that still get me into beautiful wilderness and in front of wildlife with more camera gear than I would ever want to lug around on a steep trail. I can still walk eight or ten miles in New York or Washington without resort to ibuprofen or ice packs. Most of my neurons seem to be functioning. The realization that I will never drive the streets of Barcelona with Penelope Cruz in the passenger seat causes me no distress, which I think is a good indicator of functioning neurons.

Nor do I regret letting go of the more fanciful dreams I have entertained. I no longer anticipate winning the Booker Prize or a Pulitzer, or foresee a MacArthur fellowship, an invitation from the Aspen Ideas Festival, a contract as a staff writer at The New Yorker, or a note from John McPhee that begins, “I wish I had written that.” For any of those things I needed to make a better start, and I have proven to be a late bloomer who lacks urgency. No tears.

Besides, there are rewards for having logged almost seven decades. An increasing number of young waitresses call me “sweetie” now, and I do not mind that at all. I wear mostly black jeans and t-shirts these days, and if you think I look like an aging rocker who has not had a hit record since 1984? Fine by me. Hand me my scuffed boots.

Sure, it is selfish, but rising seawater swamping Lower Manhattan? Happy to be dead before that happens. And before half of the U.S. runs out of water, and hordes of climate refugees overwhelm borders, and the covid-43 pandemic locks us down, and Ivanka Trump runs for U.S. president. With any luck, before any of that my ashes will have been scattered.

My cranky lower back, saggy skin, incipient cataracts, and occasional failure to remember why I came downstairs is a small price for all the people I have known and liked, known and loved, for 40 or 50 years now. Those relationships are rich beyond comprehension, even for a solitary crank like me, and you do not get them without putting in the time. There are a lot of you out there whom I love; I hope you know who you are. If a few of you have put yourself on that list without checking with me first…that is no problem either. What the hell. Break out the cocktail shaker.

I used to run into the superb classical pianist Leon Fleisher in the grocery store. He was in his late 80s. We liked each other and enjoyed our little chance encounters, which always started with the same dialog. Me: “Leon! How are you?” Leon, smiling with a hint of bemusement, “Still vertical.” With so many more sentences to write, so many more books to read, so many more friends to hug, so many more walks to take with my wife, I am looking forward to being vertical for a long time.

The biggest downside of my grand plan will be losing too many of those people I love and gazing into all those black holes. But life is a toll road and we just have to pay up. I hope I will have the resilience when I need it.

I predict that when I am, I dunno, 97 and have one more moment of clarity before my ticket is punched, my last thought will be, I love you, Marian. My second-to-last thought will be, I cannot believe I am dying before Keith Fucking Richards.