I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.
What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.
All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead.
All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.
My photographer friends are a happy gang. It’s a collegial world, unlike the factionalism of fiction, the pitiless competition of poetry, the assassins of the essay. Poor focus and off-kilter framing are considered creative choices. But in my course, “The Art of Aging,” I shall guide my students toward a late literary career. You begin by writing comedy, the hardest field of all, and you write a devastating satire of whatever you did for a living, medicine, academia, the ministry, public radio, sanitation, and rip it to shreds, infuriating your colleagues who vote to take away your plaques. Then you turn out a heroic memoir, then write scandalous fiction.
The point is to stay busy. You rise in the morning with stuff to do. Work is a necessity of life. Serious work, not standing in a group of slim silent people with binoculars staring at a whippoorwill, which contributes nothing to society. Crimes occur daily that if birders had devoted themselves to watching the street rather than the sky, suffering would’ve been averted. Electric scooters go racing along the streets, ignoring red lights that if the Audubon-bons served as crossing guards instead, they could save lives rather than impressing each other with their knowledge of wrens.
I am a journalist and our role is to stir up trouble. Television is a deadly sedative: hundreds of channels are streaming thousands of shows and a person glued to it loses cranial sensation. TV is a big blur, like a day spent driving across North Dakota. Rachel Maddow helps, Tucker Carlson, Morning Joe, they try to raise the blood pressure and so does the newspaper. You glance at the front page and find three famous people to despise and your day is thereby given purpose and meaning.
Meanwhile, the disciples of Roger Tory Peterson disperse into the parks and ravines, looking up at the flyways, competing to be the first to distinguish the Canada goose from the Quebec condor and the Vermont vulture, and they feel ignored, having no natural enemies. That is my role. And so I come into their bird blind and scatter seed soaked in hallucinogens that condors and vultures snarf up and minutes later Mildred and Gladys and Marvin and Gordon are under attack by sharp-beaked fowl, waving their parasols in defense, shrieking shrieks the attackers recognize as mating cries and they spread their wings and attempt inappropriate things.
You do not fully appreciate a creature until you are attacked by it. This is what I do for the ornithology gang. I go for the throat, I make them feel like part of the natural order. Birds are real, they’re not a cartoon, and when a drug-crazed bluebird flies up in your face and pecks at your eyes, it’s something you never forget.