Bookclub: Donald Hall, Essays after Eighty

Essays after Eighty, by Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin, 2014)

“After a life of loving the old, by natural law, I turned old myself.”

Essays after Eighty is Donald Hall’s second to last essay collection, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety having come out in 2018, the year of his death. The essays are at times poignant, at times funny. Some are ruminations on being old. Some are wistful reminiscences of being young.

He begins with an essay about looking out the window of the farmhouse his grandparents had lived in. He writes about smoking, about giving poetry readings, about receiving honorary degrees, about President Obama whispering in his ear, about crossing Yugoslavia before they had a road across the country, about his family, his wives and his life as a writer. He writes about language slowly leaving him such that by his eighties, poetry had left him and only prose remained.

He writes about the pitiful state of his “physical malfitness.” The physical malfitness is not just a function of age, but of a lifelong desire to avoid physical effort. He explains that he hired a personal trainer to put him through the unpleasantness. “Exercise hurts, as well it might, since by choice and for my pleasure, I didn’t do it for eighty years… Exercise is boring. Everything is boring that does not happen in a chair (reading and writing) or in bed.”

Donald Hall is not exactly my long lost older twin. A smoking, sedentary poet, he grew up not in that grandmother’s farmhouse, but in suburban Connecticut. From there he attended a succession of the most prestigious schools in the world: Philips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Oxford. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He became the first poetry editor of the Paris Review. He was briefly a professor of poetry, but gave that up to focus on being an actual poet. He was briefly and, by his account, poorly the poet laureate of the United States. By others’ accounts, he was one of the greats of American poetry in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Donald Hall is one sort of person I am not to roughly the degree that Marie Kondo is another sort of person I am not. An inveterate slob usually surrounded by mess, I could perhaps become Marie Kondo if only I were perky, obsessive, female and insane. To become Hall, I would need to smoke, stop exercising and become a giant of American poetry. It would be easier for me to become Marie Kondo.

And yet, in his 80s, writing about old age and reminiscing on younger years, his essays resonate with me. Partly they make me think of my grandmother who once told me that her 80s were her best years. She had no pain, she explained, and nobody could tell her what to do. Partly they make me think of my mother who warned me often not to get old and that old age is not for sissies (hat tip: Bette Davis).

Mostly they make me see that though I am not yet old, I am no longer young. Young cashiers spontaneously offer me a senior discount, though I don’t yet qualify in most places. More surprising to me: I do qualify in some places. I am shocked to find that I am now only three years from meeting the World Health Organization’s definition of “older person.” An ominous designation in the age of COVID-19.

I am not entirely sure how so few days added up to so many years. As I ponder my life as an older non-smoker and non-poet, I appreciate the essays from a guide thirty years further down the road.

While I wasn’t paying attention, genuine adults with jobs and cars and apartments, even children, got impossibly young on me. I like the young. I sometimes say that I was a Millennial before the Millennials were born with respect to, say, attitudes toward work. Sometimes I hear them echo back words that I might have said at that age, but which I no longer believe.

More often, though, they simply do not remember the world. My world.

At 20 or 26, they don’t really even remember the twentieth century. I omit the exclamation points (plural) on that observation, because I am philosophically against using any more than three, and that fact seems to call for several more.

Reagan, Nixon and Lincoln belong equally to history, not memory. I remember my grandmother occasionally being dismayed that I did not remember Roosevelt, because, well, adults remembered Roosevelt. If nothing else, they all cried, even Republicans, when Roosevelt died.

When I got my first jobs, some of the men I worked with were World War II veterans. So was my uncle. They spoke of the war in the Pacific or the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle insisted in keeping the house warm even when money was tight. “I never want to be that cold again.” Dominique, a co-worker at my first full-time job, claimed some of the older men in his unit had shot and killed their own incompetent second lieutenant as a way to save lives on Iwo Jima.

Vince was an engineer where I had my first programming job. He talked incessantly about the war. My favorite story was about how while in England waiting to be deployed to France, he was playing what Wikipedia calls the “Chicken” version of mumblety-peg. It’s the only version I ever knew until just now reading Wikipedia. Two boys (always boys) stand with their feet apart. The first boy throws a knife as close to the center as possible. The second boy moves his foot to the knife and then has his turn. This proceeds until one boy no longer dares to let the other boy throw. The game rewards courage and bad aim.

As I recently learned, talking to a group of younger, but legally adult persons, most them have never seen, let alone played, this game. Of course, in my childhood as in Vince’s, most boys carried a pocket knife to school and so, of course, games were played during recess. In the more rural towns around me, they brought their guns to school during deer season, but in this case, games were not played during recess.

In 1944, playing mumblety-peg, Vince took a knife to the foot and earned a trip to the hospital. The next day, his unit shipped out, 1200 men. The Germans sunk the transport ship crossing the Channel. All passengers and crew lost. Except Vince, thanks to being a foolish boy and getting knifed in the foot during a game of mumblety-peg.

And so it was in the world of men. I’m sure it shocked them to talk to me and learn that there were semi-adults like me with actual jobs for actual money who did not remember THE war. Who, even more imponderable, did not even remember Kennedy. That president and I shared the same planet for only a bit more than six months. Neither of us now remembers those months now.

Increasingly, I begin to understand the dismay of that generation when they learned of all the things I did not know. Like Hall, I’m often taken aback by the need to explain that the world was once different in small ways that people forget about.

Hall’s essay on smoking makes me remember that, yes, at my first job, people smoked on the job inside university buildings, sitting in offices and mopping floors with cigars and cigarettes hanging from their lips. My high school had a smoking area for students. We did not like to go to the teachers’ room, because the smoke was so thick.

When I got to college, my philosophy professor smoked in the small seminar room. I took three classes from him. Nobody mentioned his smoking. A student having asthma was a problem. A chain-smoking professor in a closed seminar room filling an ashtray over the course of an hour and a quarter class while expounding on Homer or Nietzsche was not a problem.

Before the late 1980s, if you were unlucky, the only remaining seats on the plane would be in the smoking section. On my first flight to France, I was seated in the no-smoking section, but only two rows forward of the smoking section. The plane was full of Frenchmen smoking Gauloises and Gitanes. Thick clouds of smoke wafted through the aircraft. That was a thing that existed outside of black and white movies and was mostly not glamorous.

When the young hear the term “party line,” they think always of politics and never of telephony. In the small town where I had my first small jobs, there were only two “parties” for the whole town of 2,000. The old ladies, lacking anything better to do, would sit on the phone and listen to conversations. Jimmy, a high-school boy who worked the same farm, called a girl to ask her on a date. His home phone rang a minute after he hung up. His grandmother, who had listened to the whole conversation, was calling to tell Jimmy’s mother that he has asked a girl out.

Our next-door neighbors had a private line. Such things were available, of course, but a whole line for just one family seemed an unnecessary extravagance to my parents. My cousins had a four-party line, which meant that if anyone got a call, your phone rang, but each party had a distinctive ring. We had a two-party line, which meant it only rang if the call was for you and you couldn’t listen in on others’ conversations. You still couldn’t make or receive calls if the other party was on the line. I wonder how the Godins got any use from their phone during my sister’s teenage years when she seemed to spend whole evenings on the phone.

Long-distance calls cost real money. People do not remember that Sprint and MCI changed the culture because they brought the cost of calling long distance on a landline down as low as twelve cents a minute, off-peak. When I was, say, 12 years old, before the AT&T breakup, my aunt would call me from California for my birthday. We would talk perhaps 20 minutes, which at normal rates cost $8.32 (PDF, p. 67). That comes to $39.54 in 2019 when adjusted for inflation.

By the time I was in graduate school, I could call my parents on weekends (off-peak) and talk for 30 minutes for just $3.60 (about $7 in inflation-adjusted dollars) as long as I was willing to type in a long string of numbers and codes. It took me years to get them to stop saying, “Let me call you back. This is costing you a fortune.”

But even then, international calling was prohibitive. When a girlfriend was in England and having a hard time, my phone bill was $600 one month. I was earning $900/month. There was no email. It was either paper, pen, envelope and stamp, or over $3/minute to talk on the phone, because the time change made it hard to call during off-peak times. She insisted I call. We were very in love. We split up.

The young adults I talk to don’t remember that a nine-year-old could, and on most days did, walk into the grocery store and buy cigarettes, usually, but not always, on behalf of a parent. With a note from your father, in most small towns, they would sell you beer. Cigarettes required no note.

My friend Kurtis was a smoker by fourth grade. One day, in the woods near school, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, I forget which brand, and offered one to me. I both started and quit smoking that day with the first and last puff of my life. My entire career as a smoker. Kurtis went on to many more cigarettes and, last I knew, jail. He was a tough kid already in fourth grade. Based on the text and photo for the 2014 Be On The Lookout notice, he turned into a tough and violent adult. Kurtis was already a bit unusual, but not because he was a smoker at nine years old. That was rare, but not crazy. I certainly didn’t tell on him. I suspect had I done so, nobody would have cared.

Matches were another story. Those were a regular habit for all boys I knew. To this day, I am amazed by both the danger and the appeal of lighting a small fire, filling a dish soap bottle with gasoline and jumping on it, creating a war-movie-worthy tongue of flame that could easily have killed a young boy. As an adult, I would be too afraid to try such a thing.

As we approached the cashier with our matches, we would put on a brief and undoubtedly unconvincing acting performance. “Are these the kind of matches your mother asked for?” one of us would say as the other put the box of wooden matches, the only kind worth playing with, on the conveyor belt. “These are the ones she always buys,” the other would say as the cashier typed in the price on the price tag (no barcode, no scanner, of course). We believed this performance would prevent the cashiers from questioning our motives. It was unnecessary. They seemed completely uninterested in our acts of petty arson out in the forests of Vermont.

The disinterest of adults in policing children seemed surprising to us at the time. We always thought we would be stopped, should be stopped, but we so rarely were. That world of children running free and playing with matches seems utterly gone. It has been many years since I have seen a couple of nine-year-old boys shopping alone, let alone buying matches or cigarettes. The kids and the forests are safer, but I mourn the loss of that world. It makes me sad to think of a childhood without matches and danger.

I could go on, but the essential is this: I think of myself as young, but I am not. The actual young do not remember the world as I knew it. Increasingly, even some people with a claim on being middle aged don’t remember that world.

I found myself thinking a lot about age and time as I encountered my younger friends during the day, and read and ruminated on Hall’s essays in the evening. It has made me suddenly aware that the distance has widened. Recently, I found myself climbing with a friend and, on a whim, I asked what year he was born.

“Nineteen ninety-three,” he said.

“Ah. This shirt is older than you are,” I replied.

It had long been obvious that I would have peers who were not friends. It had not occurred to me that I would one day have friends who were not peers.

And so my mind wandered while reading Essays after Eighty. I sometimes spent less time reading the book than resting it on my chest or lap as I stared vacantly into space. And that may be the very definition of a good essay.

The essays have typically undergone somewhere between 70 and 80 drafts, he says at one point. Almost all first drafts are atrocious. Even great authors say so and anyone who has graded student papers has had it proven over and over. Second drafts are a bare minimum, and usually not worth reading. But even a writer and teacher of writing as meticulous as John McPhee thinks the fourth draft is where a piece comes into its own and is usually ready for publication.

Eighty drafts is a boggling number.

One time my friend Christian, writing his dissertation and reading mine, said he wished writing came as easily for him as it came for me. I was mystified. During the stressful months of writing, I had gained 25 pounds due to the nervous habit of attempting to cure writer’s block with cheese. My resting pulse climbed 20 beats. There was nothing easy about it.

He explained that when he read it, the words seemed as though they had come easily. I explained how stressful it was and that he was reading the ninth draft. “Ah, same as me then,” he said.

The first two drafts had been responsible for most of the 25 pounds. In the third draft, large sections continued to appear and disappear as the final version took form. The fourth draft would have been easy, but an impending deadline meant that it accounted for most of the increase in my resting heart rate. In the fifth and final draft, I axed two major sections as an act of mercy toward my readers.

I lied about drafts six through nine. I never wrote them. Five was my limit.

Eighty drafts is astounding. I cannot imagine the patience. I cannot imagine looking at a text for the 76th time and believing it could still get better. I also cannot imagine reading an eightieth draft and feeling there was nothing to fix. No matter how many drafts I do, I always want to change it, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But I have never written 70 drafts of anything except my signature and I think it has gotten worse with each draft. Hall says of one essay that he had to set aside for six months because there was one word he didn’t like. When the right word for that spot finally came to him, the essay was done.

In the end, I am grateful for all those drafts, though I suspect the difference between draft 20 and draft 80 would be apparent mostly to Hall. Reading the essays make me ponder how much more foreign I will feel in the world of the young when I double the distance between me and them, as Hall had done by the time he published Essays after Eighty.

I’m not sure what it would be like reading Hall’s essays at 26, but I look forward to reading them again at 86.

However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most importantly they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up… (p. 8)

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. (p. 9)

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