Leeward of Christmas
Get Busy Living, Or Get Busy Dying
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, December 5, 2006
Near the beginning of his “Travels With Charley,” John Steinbeck explains why, at 58, he interrupted his comfortably rich and famous life to make a taxing solo trip across the United States. “I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap,” he wrote. “I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway.”
He lived just eight more years after his trip, dying at age 66, which is to say barely past middle age by contemporary standards of what’s expected of us: Life expectancy (77 years and aging) isn’t just a demographic statistic anymore. Living long is the unspoken obligation of every American, if not for one’s own sake then at least for the sake of appearances (and, obviously, the health-care industry). Other people’s long lives make the young feel better about their hope of scraping immortality.
The soldiery duty of old age brooks no dodgers, either. Late-age suicide, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable way to call it a day on one’s own terms, and probably the single-most courageous act in a life lived to the fullest, is still barely on the fringe of the acceptable—even when dignified assistance is available. (Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1997 but has averaged just 31cases a year since). It’s not the young and virile whom armies should send into battle, but the old. Give them a last crack at a more meaningful exit. If it was a choice between assisted living and a war theater, there’s no question which I’d rather be condemned to. Nothing approaches the conscious vegetative state of assisted living.
That, I think, is what Steinbeck meant when he said that he “did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage.” His willingness to live with abandon and take his hangovers “as a consequence, not as a punishment” even in his late age would be an affront to the way we’re required to plod toward our inalienable expectancy now. It’s not just about living long, but living quietly, carefully, battling risk, cholesterol and blood pressure like they’re the true axis of evil. Those 50,000-odd Americans past 90 who still draw a paycheck because they reject the frankly absurd notion of retirement are like the John Glenns who hop on a space shuttle in their mid-70s—heroic curiosities for the chat shows, but not models. It’s not as if corporate America or NASA is recruiting from the over-70 set.
As luck had it, my paperback copy of “Travels With Charley”—itself aged way beyond its years after two cross-country trips and several readings—was resting the other day on top of a magazine whose cover story was about that emerging craze of the post-Adkins age: the “Calorie Restriction” diet. Or what it’s like to spend “a lifetime lived as close to the brink of starvation as your body can stand, in exchange for the promise of a life span longer than any human has ever known.” Every meal has to be calibrated against the week’s intakes, every cheeseburger paid for with sacrifices before and after, invitations for drinks and dinners declined for the sake of the righteous path. All for a longer life. It seems to me a one-way ticket and self-booking into a Siberian prison would achieve the same result, more cheaply and less miserably.
It’s early December, that leeward part of the Christmas season when everything blows the way of excess and indulgence: food, drink, debt, sex, even good will and piety—a month of life lived more than endured. Gluttony of course isn’t love of life. It’s just embracing citizenship in “Fast Food Nation.” And if guilt is the Christmas season’s fourth law of physics (for every pleasurable action there’s a ladle-full of remorse), there’s no point to it all. But long before Christianity co-opted the season there was about this time a celebration common to cultures pagan or devout from here to Bengal: The celebration of light as life-giving, of life worth its excesses. The cynics and puritans will read hedonism into this. Not at all. Hedonism is the sweet trap of “spiritual and physical semi-invalidism.” It’s life for Medicare’s sake.
For God’s sake, there’s more to life than mere living, as Steinbeck and Christmas are here to remind us.