Baseball for the Thinking Fan

Login | Register | Feedback

btf_logo
You are here > Home > Baseball Newsstand > Baseball Primer Newsblog > Discussion
Baseball Primer Newsblog
— The Best News Links from the Baseball Newsstand

Monday, February 17, 2014

Angell: This Old Man (Life in the Nineties)

Required reading.

Let’s move on. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. If friends had come for dinner, he’d arise from an evening nap and leisurely tour the table in imitation of a three-star headwaiter: Everything O.K. here? Is there anything we could bring you? How was the crème brûlée? Terriers aren’t water dogs, but Harry enjoyed kayaking in Maine, sitting like a figurehead between my knees for an hour or more and scoping out the passing cormorant or yachtsman. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day. I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.

Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.

A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.

These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel. Home movies are killers: 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. Take us away.

My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving? ...

I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. “I’m tired of lying here,” said one. “Why is this taking so long?” asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.

JE (Jason) Posted: February 17, 2014 at 10:59 PM | 33 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: death, old, roger angell, sportswriters

Reader Comments and Retorts

Go to end of page

Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Steve Balboni's Personal Trainer Posted: February 18, 2014 at 08:23 AM (#4658355)
I read this piece last night - that he continues to write this way at 93 is stunning. Actually, to write this way at any age is quite stunning. Great piece.
   2. hardrain Posted: February 18, 2014 at 08:47 AM (#4658356)
The first paragraph of the article is gold...I think Roger is the Shelby Foote of baseball.
   3. hardrain Posted: February 18, 2014 at 09:07 AM (#4658360)
just finished the whole tragic and beautiful article. damn.
   4. asinwreck Posted: February 18, 2014 at 09:15 AM (#4658366)
Fastball remains an 80.
   5. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 18, 2014 at 09:22 AM (#4658370)
hard

what's tragic about it? outliving everyone? save for my wife and kids all of my close relatives and friends have been dead for more than a decade minimum

goes with the territory..................
   6. Drexl Spivey Posted: February 18, 2014 at 09:49 AM (#4658376)
what's tragic about it? outliving everyone? save for my wife and kids all of my close relatives and friends have been dead for more than a decade minimum


His wife died. One of his kids committed suicide.

   7. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:00 AM (#4658379)
drexl

ok. the suicide is tragic but at 93 you have to expect outliving even your kids in whatever event transpires.

I think this is a great article and don't associate tragic with any element of it.

but then like the writer death is pretty second nature in my world. funerals are a primary form of social activity (not stated for humor)

if I read as callous I will accept the accusation though deem it unfair.

   8. TDF, situational idiot Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:14 AM (#4658386)
I look at my mom and wonder how she doesn't feel crushingly old at times:

Dad died 35 years ago.
3 of her 4 siblings are dead (she's the oldest).
The last of her friends from high school or college died over 5 years ago.

The only person anywhere near her age that she has any contact with is her brother.
   9. Drexl Spivey Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:16 AM (#4658389)
I think this is a great article and don't associate tragic with any element of it.


It is a great article. But he writes about living alone, after his daughter commits suicide and after his wife dies. That is what's tragic about it.



   10. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:21 AM (#4658393)
All rationality aside, I'll be surprised if Angell doesn't write this well at 103. Of course he's no more typical of 93 year olds than Tiger Woods was of four year olds, but it's always nice to know that it can be done.

   11. dlf Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:22 AM (#4658394)
I understand Drexl's point, but I'd put the emphasis on the other word Hardrain used, "beautiful." Clearly, Angel is still enjoying life and, while no stranger to it, in no hurry to rush along to death. I hope that I can have that attitude for how ever much longer I am granted here.
   12. Bitter Mouse Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:29 AM (#4658399)
I agree with Harveys. Having everyone you know is sad, but death is inevitable, no one gets out alive. If you live long enough, obviously, you outlive everyone you know. I don't want to outlive my friends or my children, but I am in no hurry to die either.
   13. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 18, 2014 at 10:54 AM (#4658409)
Dad died 35 years ago.
3 of her 4 siblings are dead (she's the oldest).
The last of her friends from high school or college died over 5 years ago.

The only person anywhere near her age that she has any contact with is her brother.


not knowing the family dynamic but knowing how most of us oldsters regard things it's the connection to kids/grandkids that help the most in getting through the days

so it's all on you! (posted goodnaturedly)
   14. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:03 AM (#4658418)
as a follow up to 13, assuming the spouse is gone.

I don't know if it has been articulated but from what I can determine folks focus on those relationships they believe they CHOSE

so we chose our spouse. we chose (more often than not) to have kids.

we chose our friends

siblings are nice but you got stuck with them. in a manner of speaking. you can be close in some ways but the connection is different

hope this makes sense
   15. rufus was here Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:03 AM (#4658419)
If you liked this from Angell, you must read Let Me Finish, a superb book of his with a similar reminiscing tone. There's some baseball in there too, but only obliquely.

I'd have put the Amazon link here, but feel queasy about it after reading the piece in the same issue about them!
   16. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:08 AM (#4658421)
Wow. This is the best thing I'll read all year...
   17. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:10 AM (#4658423)
Three of my grandparents and both of my parents are still alive, but both of my siblings are dead. These days that's a pretty unusual situation. They died a year and a half apart and it has just utterly ruined my parents (who are in their mid-fifties). I had heard many times from people who had experienced it firsthand that outliving a child is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, but I never imagined just what a nightmare it is, and then to have to go through it twice. My parents' friends try to be there for them, but no one ever really knows what to say. What can you say? I've had two years to think about it and I don't know what to say.
   18. The kids disappeared, now Der-K has too much candy Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:13 AM (#4658425)
I hadn't read Angell in a long time; that was my error.
Really, really nice work.
   19. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:17 AM (#4658426)
Three of my grandparents and both of my parents are still alive, but both of my siblings are dead. These days that's a pretty unusual situation. They died a year and a half apart and it has just utterly ruined my parents (who are in their mid-fifties). I had heard many times from people who had experienced it firsthand that outliving a child is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, but I never imagined just what a nightmare it is, and then to have to go through it twice. My parents' friends try to be there for them, but no one ever really knows what to say. What can you say? I've had two years to think about it and I don't know what to say.

first, I am sorry for the loss experienced by you and your parents.

a long time ago my wife and I lost a baby girl but I am certain that in some ways that is 'easier' (challenged to find an appropriate word) than losing someone with whom you have made a longstanding connection over a period of years. that can only be described as devastating.

people have their own path for grief.

but YOU are still there. it is to be hoped that they understand they still have a child (assuming no other siblings) in their life and he needs his parents in some capacity.

it's hard to put anything to a timeframe but they cannot remain in shutdown mode forever. there may come a point where you say, 'hey, you have a life to live'

not trying to be a professional counselor but seen a lot of this over the years. whatever impatience I exhibit here I have some modicum of restraint. but even so if the person or persons cannot seem to regain their footing an intervention of some kind may be needed.

good luck.
   20. A big pile of nonsense (gef the talking mongoose) Posted: February 18, 2014 at 11:59 AM (#4658454)
Three of my grandparents and both of my parents are still alive, but both of my siblings are dead. These days that's a pretty unusual situation. They died a year and a half apart and it has just utterly ruined my parents (who are in their mid-fifties).


Good lord. My sympathies to you & to them.

In my case, my parents died when I was 7 (my father, at age 34; he was hardly ever around before that) & 24 (my mother, a day before what would've been her 57th birthday; she'd been mentally ill for years, unfortunately, with what in retrospect was a textbook case of bipolar disorder), respectively, & my mother's parents died before I was born. My father's father I don't remember at all; Google tells me he died when I was 5, shortly before I started first grade, & from what I'm told he was pretty ill for awhile before that. My dad's mother died 6 weeks after I turned 13 (&, in turn, about 4 weeks before the great-aunt on my mother's side who more or less raised me). Add to that the fact that my one sibling has a rather profound case of Down syndrome, which of course has always acutely affected our relationship, & in many ways the concept of family has long been alien to me, & one with which I don't feel particularly comfortable. Which probably didn't help prolong either of my marriages, come to think of it.

On the one hand, sometimes I feel lucky to have gotten parental death & such over sooner rather than later. On the other ... well, it's not like I had a choice, anyway, so I might as well (ir)rationalize the situation, I suppose.
   21. Tree Posted: February 18, 2014 at 12:06 PM (#4658459)
RTFA. Profound
   22. Heinie Mantush (Krusty) Posted: February 18, 2014 at 12:10 PM (#4658462)
I once asked my great-grandmother what it was like to be so old. She was about 98 or 99 at the time. She replied that "the bad part is that almost everyone you ever liked or loved is dead." I asked what could be good about it. She said, "Everybody you hate is dead, too. Usually badly."

...Despite being very popular, my great grandma was not you might have termed a "people person."
   23. bobm Posted: February 18, 2014 at 01:17 PM (#4658507)
E. B. White:

Two years ago [at age 84 in 1983], after he had begun to slow down, he typed, with his usual good humor, a long letter to a friend:

''I have a first degree heart block, have lost the sight in my right eye because of a degenerated retina, can't wind my wrist watch because my fingers have knuckled under to arthritis, can't tie my shoelaces, am dependent on seven different pills to stay alive, can't remember whether I took the pills or didn't.

"On the other hand, I am camped alone, here at Bert Mosher's Camps on the shore of Great Pond which I first visited in 1904; I have my 15-foot green Old Town canoe with me, which I brought over on the top of my car; I sat out a New England boiled dinner this noon by anticipating it with martinis and cheese-and-crackers before walking up to the farmhouse, and after dinner (or lack of same) went fishing for bass in my canoe.

''There is a certain serenity here that heals my spirit, and I can still buy Moxie in a tiny supermarket six miles away. Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life. This was known in the second century before Christ, and it is a boon to me today.''


http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0711.html
   24. JE (Jason) Posted: February 18, 2014 at 01:27 PM (#4658512)
I find myself spending considerably more time up in Brooklyn to hang out with my dad and other elderly relatives on his side of the family. He will turn 92 in August and although he's very healthy -- he still uses the chinning bar and walks over the bridge to check out what's new at J&R -- a recent pacemaker insertion alerted both of us that he's just as mortal as the next guy.

I hope to find the time in the coming months to sit down with him at the local diner to record some of his thoughts. Mind you, I've heard all of them 100 times over but want to torture my future offspring....
   25. Morty Causa Posted: February 18, 2014 at 01:43 PM (#4658525)
23:

It's not often that someone gets such genuine feeling from a NYT's obit. Many sources would attested that White deserved it. A wonderful writer and a really nice man. I like that simply quote about how his wife's (Angell's mother) death affected him: "Life without Katharine is no good for me."I especially glad that it was mentioned that White did most of those newsbreaks. Things like that (as well as Peter De Vries's facility with cartoon captions--indeed he wrote a novel, The Tunnel of Love, about a frustrated cartoonist who was terrible at drawing but great at captions) are a big part of what made the old New Yorker very special.
   26. Howie Menckel Posted: February 18, 2014 at 02:31 PM (#4658548)

"I hope to find the time in the coming months to sit down with him at the local diner to record some of his thoughts."

I did this when my father was 90, two years before he passed on. Do it NOW. You'll never regret it.

........


"Three of my grandparents and both of my parents are still alive,"

I'm 52 and I still have never met another person who grew up in a non-dysfunctional household who has no memories of a single grandparent because they all died before I could remember any of them. No great tragedy involved - I'm the youngest of 5, my mother was the youngest of 7, the 1950s were still a point at which old people of the time didn't live forever, etc. My grandmothers actually were still alive when I was born, but I was a toddler when each died of old age so I don't remember either.

I understand that people may find that somewhat sad or something, but I can't grasp it emotionally. I guess I can't miss what I never had. Or something.

   27. Lassus Posted: February 18, 2014 at 02:38 PM (#4658551)
It is a great article. But he writes about living alone, after his daughter commits suicide and after his wife dies. That is what's tragic about it.

The inevitable does not always contain tragedy. I don't see it here either.
   28. madvillain Posted: February 18, 2014 at 02:56 PM (#4658556)
Time is a flat circle man.

And because it seems to fit, here is DFW, talking about a different sort of tragedy, not death, but death in living:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.


From his Kenyon college commencement speech. Man, I graduated a not quite as highly ranked liberal arts school in 2005, we sure as hell didn't get DFW, we didn't even come close. I can't remember who the speaker was, but I think it was some corporate stooge, a big donor.

   29. Morty Causa Posted: February 18, 2014 at 03:55 PM (#4658593)
That sounds a lot like Walker Percy, especially in The Moviegoer, where the protagonist reflects people are living a life that's like death:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.


He writes about how you can have the most life-changing experience, receive a revelation that explains All, and you still have to decide what to do next. It doesn't seem to make a difference, not a profound one, anwyay.
   30. GregD Posted: February 18, 2014 at 04:53 PM (#4658646)
lker Percy, especially in The Moviegoer,
Is there a more perfect novel?
   31. Morty Causa Posted: February 18, 2014 at 05:14 PM (#4658663)
It's like a piece of music where every note is excruciatingly felt.
   32. GregD Posted: February 18, 2014 at 05:29 PM (#4658670)
What are your feelings on his other books?

None of Percy's other novels did all that much for me, though I guess I liked Lancelot well enough. I know other people who loved Last Gentleman and Second Coming but not for me.

But if I had one evening before a life-threatening surgery or execution or something like that, there's no question in my mind that Moviegoer would be the book I'd want to read.
   33. Morty Causa Posted: February 18, 2014 at 05:54 PM (#4658698)
I like all Percy's stuff, even his excursions into philosophical mulling, but a lot of my immersion in Percy predates my entry into adamantine materialistic atheism. The weakest novel is that last one, The Thanatos Syndrome. I was really taken with Love in the Ruins when it came out, and the couple of times I re-read it, but it's probably been 25 years since I've read it. Lancelot is still plenty powerful. As a novel of ideas driven by the story, it ranks with Fowles's The Collector and John Barth's The Floating Opera. By that I don't mean just that ideas are discussed, but that the plot embodies a philosophical scheme. The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming are really fine also.

You must be Registered and Logged In to post comments.

 

 

<< Back to main

BBTF Partner

Support BBTF

donate

Thanks to
Sheer Tim Foli
for his generous support.

Bookmarks

You must be logged in to view your Bookmarks.

Hot Topics

NewsblogESPN Suspends Keith Law From Twitter For Defending Evolution
(99 - 3:12am, Nov 23)
Last: cardsfanboy

NewsblogCashman in wait-and-see mode on retooling Yanks | yankees.com
(18 - 2:55am, Nov 23)
Last: Pat Rapper's Delight

NewsblogOTP Politics November 2014: Mets Deny Bias in Ticket Official’s Firing
(4169 - 2:28am, Nov 23)
Last: Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip

NewsblogOT: Monthly NBA Thread - November 2014
(966 - 2:27am, Nov 23)
Last: Random Transaction Generator

NewsblogDeadspin: Curt Schilling’s Son Accidentally Brings Fake Grenade To Logan Airport
(12 - 1:50am, Nov 23)
Last: ptodd

NewsblogOT - November 2014 College Football thread
(553 - 1:35am, Nov 23)
Last: Howie Menckel

NewsblogRays name managerial finalists: Cash, Ibanez, Wakamatsu | Tampa Bay Times
(12 - 12:17am, Nov 23)
Last: rLr Is King Of The Romans And Above Grammar

NewsblogPrimer Dugout (and link of the day) 11-21-2014
(48 - 11:13pm, Nov 22)
Last: Sweatpants

NewsblogBraves shopping Justin Upton at a steep price | New York Post
(28 - 11:04pm, Nov 22)
Last: Squash

NewsblogFemale Sportswriter Asks: 'Why Are All My Twitter Followers Men?' | ThinkProgress
(134 - 10:49pm, Nov 22)
Last: Howie Menckel

NewsblogMike Schmidt: Marlins' Stanton too rich too early? | www.palmbeachpost.com
(24 - 10:32pm, Nov 22)
Last: Moeball

NewsblogFriars show interest in dealing for Bruce | MLB.com
(19 - 10:19pm, Nov 22)
Last: Moeball

NewsblogPirates DFA Ike Davis, clear path for Pedro Alvarez - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(4 - 10:00pm, Nov 22)
Last: jingoist

NewsblogMLB.com: White Sox Land Adam LaRoche With 2 Year/$25M Deal
(19 - 8:03pm, Nov 22)
Last: boteman

NewsblogKemp drawing interest, raising chance he's the Dodgers OF dealt - CBSSports.com
(9 - 7:26pm, Nov 22)
Last: PreservedFish

Page rendered in 0.5231 seconds
52 querie(s) executed