'This Old Man' Is A Wry, Nimble Take On Life, Aging And Baseball
I hate to make so much of Roger Angell's age, but he started it. Angell is 95, and he's written decades' worth of books and articles (many of them about baseball), humor pieces, profiles, and poems — some of which are gathered in this new collection called, This Old Man.
The title comes from an essay he wrote for The New Yorker in February 2014 about what it's like to live into extreme old age. That essay knocked it out of the park the way only a stellar piece of writing can. It opens on a wry note with Angell cracking jokes about arthritis, macular degeneration and arterial stents, and then fancifully describing his intermittent bouts of memory loss:
My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I've 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. If [the scout] sends back a warning, I'll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.
This is how we like our well-adjusted seniors to sound: self-deprecating and chipper about the whole business of falling apart. But, within the space of a few sentences, Angell's tone darkens. He describes a moment where he and his wife, Carol, find themselves sobbing next to the body of their dead dog; they recognize that they're also finally allowing themselves to weep for the loss of Angell's adult daughter, who'd recently committed suicide.
A page later, and we readers learn that Carol — whose presence we've just been in — has passed away now too. The couple was married for 48 years. Angell comments: "The downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already."
"This Old Man," the essay, is as profound a meditation on time and loss as some of the work of Angell's revered stepfather, E.B. White. I'm thinking of, among other things, Charlotte's Web and the classic essay, "Once More to the Lake." Angell says his stepfather was "a prime noticer"; he could also be describing himself.
The precision, ease, and offhand tone that are part of the cocktail shaker mix of the vintage New Yorker voice are evident all throughout this collection. You hear it on the very first page where Angell uses the quaint phrase, "a dog's breakfast," to characterize this book, meaning that there are tasty scraps of pot roast and ham as well as, undoubtedly, a few limp carrots tossed into the bowl. All the ingredients, Angell assures us, have passed his personal "sniff test," but he urges readers to graze, sample only what appeals to us.
In my case, that's a go-ahead to skip all the baseball essays here, as well as some of the lite verse, and head straight to the moodier pieces memorializing people long vanished, like Jackie Robinson and John Hersey, or times gone by, especially if those times are in New York.
I'm a sucker for good New York stories and, again, like his stepfather, Angell sure knows how to tell them. For instance, in a short-but-nuanced memory piece called, "The Little Flower," Angell thinks back to a high school journalism project where, with a buddy, he waited nine hours outside the office of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in hopes of landing an interview.
Angell says that "LaGuardia ran New York for a dozen years like a manic dad cleaning out the cellar on a Saturday afternoon," and he was certainly manic that day, holding meeting after meeting as the boys waited. As night fell, Angell and his friend were finally ushered into the office. He recalls:
I can remember La Guardia's disheveled black hair, and the tough gaze that flicked over us while he gestured toward a couple of chairs. He was in shirtsleeves. The mayoral feet, below the mayoral leather chair, did not quite touch the carpet.
"Reporters--right?" he said. "What'll it be, fellas?" Whatever it was, it didn't go well.
Angell certainly mastered whatever he was trying to learn through that long-ago journalism assignment. He may be old — ancient even — but his voice on the page is still as nimble and strong as that of the kid who talked his way into LaGuardia's office. As Angell tells it straight, it's not much of a pleasure to be very old, but it is a great pleasure to spend time in the company of This Old Man.
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