Ageing in the key of humour

WASHINGTON • His back hurts. His memory is slipping. He can't cook, but then he never could. Igloo- making is no longer one of his diversions. The wit is sharp, quick as ever, but now he's prone to, what's the word?

Oh, and he has Parkinson's disease.

Michael Kinsley is ageing, so you don't have to. The editor in him, the one who held the reins at The New Republic, Harper's and Slate, and grasped for a few hours the chance to helm The New Yorker, would refine that.

Here's how he puts it, in his guidance to the 74 million baby boomers entering the years of living less dangerously: "But when it comes to the ultimate boomer game, competitive longevity, I'm on the sidelines doing colour commentary."

His chronic disease, which gives him many of the symptoms of old age but which he believes is no more likely to bring him to an early death than slipping on a bar of soap, has presented him with "an interesting foretaste of our shared future".


Kinsley, who coined a new definition of a gaffe - when a politician tells the truth - and once described 38-year-old Al Gore as "an old person's idea of a young person", is in public service mode, out with a slim book on ageing.

"Sometimes I feel like a scout from my generation, sent out ahead to experience in my 50s what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their 60s, 70s and 80s."

Full disclosure: I like Kinsley. I would call him a friend, even if his trademark misanthropy prevents him from returning the sentiment. But here's the thing: I loathe books about baby boomers. I hated the yuppie thing. I despised the era when my generation acted as if we were the first people ever to have kids. And I can't stand the Viagra-taking, booty-shaking, ageing rocker phase. I don't doubt that boomers will "reinvent" old age because that's what boomers do to every age.

But along the road to Bernie Sanders grumpiness, can somebody slap some sense into these people?

Enter Kinsley. At age 65, his Parkinson's has given him a premature taste of the stumbling, the cognitive slips, the limits that will inevitably define life's actuarial last trimester. He can no longer drive. A woman at a dinner party offered to cut up his meat.

When I met him in 1996, he had just moved to Seattle to start Slate, the online magazine. There were many reasons to hate him: Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, wunderkind editor, talking head on CNN's Crossfire, his visage on the cover of Newsweek, under the headline: Swimming To Seattle: Everyone Else Is Moving There. Should You?

I gave him six months before he left. Surely he would die outside the biosphere of Beltway bloviation. A decade later, he was still here in Seattle. He found true love, his wife Patty Stonesifer - who has done much good in non-profits and philanthropy after doing well at Microsoft.

I always thought of him as a highly evolved brain inhabiting an uncertain body, an E.T. with wit. But then he learnt to backpack in the Cascade Mountains, to snowshoe, to swim in Lake Washington in winter and, yes, to build an igloo - all with Parkinson's, which was diagnosed when he was 43.

In his book, Old Age - A Beginner's Guide, he tries on altruism, suggesting that boomers' ultimate gift to the future would be to pay off the national debt and do it before the last of that g-g-generation turns 65, in 2029.

Nice try. Never going to happen. His contribution to the wave of new books, shows and miracle antidotes to ageing is his approach. Where others would groan, wince, cry or whine, Kinsley is looking for the joke.

So, after undergoing nine hours of deep brain surgery, he thought of what he could say to assure his friends he had not lost any of his analytical skills.

"Well, of course," he said, post-operation. "When you cut taxes, government revenues go up. Why couldn't I see that before?" Easy for him to say. No, actually, it's not.

His Parkinson's medication allows him to seem relatively symptom-free for hours, but then he starts to stiffen, like the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz, in need of oil. And Kinsley admits to some loss of his mental acuity in recent years.

He notes that 28 million boomers are expected to develop Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia - nothing to laugh at.

"Dementia seems like an especially humiliating last stop on the road of life," he writes. "There's no way to do it in style or in dignity."

But perhaps there's a way to find some grace notes through humour. I saw him this month, before a packed house at Seattle's Town Hall. He was in typical form.

Asked at the end of the evening what his audience should "take away" from the distilled wisdom of his book, he paused, giving that owlish, quizzical look of his and said: "Several copies."


•Old Age - A Beginner's Guide ($28.64) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Ageing in the key of humour'. Print Edition | Subscribe