Aging Thoughtfully

It’s been a while since I wrote a book review for WOW on the subject of aging. So when I saw the intriguing piece last month in “Books of the Times” by Dwight Garner (New York Times, November 6, 2017), titled “A Frisky Debate Between Friends About Growing Old,” I thought the book in question, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret, by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, might be of value to my WOW readership.

I contacted the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press, requested a review copy, received it in the mail, and read the book this week.

Garner faults the book’s title (not catchy enough), cover (“unappealing”), and its entire first half (filled with “academic throat-clearing”). But, he says, just as he was “about to gently drop this book behind my couch” something happened. “It began to get not just good but very good. The tone warmed; the arguments grew sharper.”

I agree with Garner on all but the second half. For me, the only arguments that grew sharper were mine with the authors.

First, a synopsis:  Nussbaum and Levmore, distinguished professors and colleagues at the University of Chicago – she in philosophy and he in law and economics – and both in their sixties, have each contributed eight erudite essays here, which are paired like a back-and-forth conversation and structured as eight chapters: Learning from King Lear, Retirement Policy, Aging with Friends, Aging Bodies, Looking Back, Romance and Sex beyond Middle Age, Inequality and an Aging Population, and Giving It Away.

They come at these topics, ranging from romance to wrinkles, from rather different perspectives, as you’d expect from a philosopher and lawyer-economist. Sometimes their essays appear to duel, but at other times they harmonize as though in a duet.

At all times, it seemed to me, their writing is so ivory-tower-lofty, so self-congratulatory (“lucky for me!”), and so out of touch with the reality on the ground (where I and my cohort of retired older women live) that the book feels devoid of any practical, down-to-earth value. At one point (and this was the point when I, like Garner, was tempted to “drop the book behind my couch”) Nussbaum chirps:

“Like all American academics of my generation, I have been rescued from a horrible fate by the sheer accident of time. At sixty-nine, I am still happily teaching and writing, with no plan for retirement, because the United States has done away with compulsory retirement. Luckily for me, too, the law changed long enough ago that I never even had to anticipate compulsory retirement or to think of myself as a person who would be on the shelf at sixty-five, whether I liked it or not.”

Reading this, as someone who taught at the college level for ten years as an adjunct professor, earning little more than minimum wage and zero benefits (and someone who is normally mild-mannered and peaceable), I wanted to smack her.

I agree with Garner that Levmore (known throughout the book’s “conversation” as just “Saul”), “is at home with statistical and fiscal argument,” which to my mind is cold and bloodless. Nussbaum (“Martha” throughout), on the other hand, “loses her way,” Garner says, when she approaches her topics “through the lengthy parsing of works like Richard Strauss’s opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ or Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ These sections devolve into tedious plot summary.”

She also spends pages and pages and PAGES (six, to be exact) on King Lear, seemingly oblivious to her impatient readers begging, And the relevance to me is? (How academics can bloviate!)

But Martha and Saul are honest. They recognize that they are both comfortable older people – that is to say, quite financially secure — writing for those in their own comfort zone, which is the top tier:

“Most of this book is about people who are affluent enough to think about retiring at the right age, leaving wealth to children in disparate financial circumstances, and improving physical appearances with injections and surgery, but there are many aging people who struggle to survive,” they admit.

So their Chapter 7, toward the end of the book, like an afterthought, addresses “the elderly poor” – a label that, by the numbers, I and my cohort qualify for, but one I (we?) find beneath condescending.

Poor? I, and my fellow single and divorced older American women friends who have retired to Mexico because we can afford to live here on our Social Security and meager savings, feel RICH – rich in integrity, creativity, resilience, and independence. Someone should write a book about us, I think to myself. But it would never be published by the likes of Oxford University Press and reviewed in “Books of the Times,” so who would learn of it?

Essays, by their nature, are meant to be thought-provoking. They’re not supposed to be the last word on any subject; but rather, ideally, one writer’s point of view, part of a larger, thoughtful, ongoing conversation. In this respect I hope that Aging Thoughtfully succeeds.

23 thoughts on “Aging Thoughtfully”

  1. Thank you….one book I,donut need to buy
    I recommend “The Grace in Aging” by
    Kathleen Singh. It is a spiritual ,not religious, book about using the older years to unload…stuff, grudges, clinging…and find peace. Lots of advice on meditation and self acceptance! Wonderful ! And humbling!

  2. Amen Bonnie! I have never been so content in my “poverty” here in Mexico. My wealth turns out to be wonderful women friends, charity and creativity!
    Hugs to you!

    1. Hugs back to you, Kate. Yes, I find the label “poor” so infuriating. If only the haughty people who use it knew the intangible riches some of us “poor” people have! (I wrote about this issue at length in my Africa memoirs.)

  3. As a longtime fan of Martha Nussbaum, I was taken aback at your take on her. Cant wait to read the book now. YES, she is privileged, as am I, though with no grand pension and wonderful job I don’t want to leave, BUT recognizing all the privileges I have enjoyed as a white woman with loving family—mas o menos—etc-. etc. I recognize my ignorance of the rest of the human family. just started a fab book I hope will help, White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg; you may want to read it too. gracias for a provocative blog.

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Pat. Yes, I knew I risked irking Martha Nussbaum’s fans, but it was a risk I had to take. I needed to at least pretend that I was allowed to be part of the conversation. You’ll see, when you read the book, that she “talks back” to the Greek philosophers; so I took the liberty of “talking back” to her! 🙂

    1. I’m guessing the same, Arti — certainly in the top 10%. But she’s a famous philosopher, and some of what she writes in this book is definitely thought-provoking and worthwhile.

  4. Bonnie, PLEASE write your book–I need your book, and I too want to smack her! I am an academic at the secondary level which in the minds of these authors may not count, even though I have earned two Masters degrees. I am 71 and not teaching because I want to anymore. Frankly, I am tired. Unlike these two professors, I have 32 students in each of my 6 art classes a day- which require 12 hour days, everyday. If I do not make it 37 and1/2 years (and I will not) my pension will be measly. Far less than the social security check I would receive- and in CT, we as teachers, do not get social security. That was negotiated away long ago by a weak union who thought that the state would handle and fully fund our pension (to which we heavily contribute). That did not happen. CT has so mishandled it that they have implemented a teachers’ tax on our salary in order to fund it. Add to that a $4000.00 pay cut for insurance costs, years of frozen salary wages, obscene property taxes insanely coupled with property depreciation values, leaves not much left to save for retirement. So this academic after a long career, is far from “comfortable”.
    I love my home, my humble ceramics studio and my extensive arts community that I have built here. I am heartbroken that I am going to have to leave it all and move thousands of miles away to who knows where from my beautiful grand-babies because there is no way I can afford to stay. So write your book and tell me how to create the next part of my life with the grace, bravery and positive mindset that is you, because trust me, there are far more Seniors who will relate to what you have to say than these two lofty inhabitants of the Ivory Tower.

    1. Dear Barbara — Thank you SO much for sharing your story. If only comfy people in their secure ivory towers would come down and see the real situation on the ground for themselves. But they’re the ones who get the book contracts, alas! I DID review an immensely practical book not so long ago — titled FAKING NORMAL, by Elizabeth Diane White, which she self-published, but which is doing very, very well. (Please look for it in my WOW “reviews” archives.) I’d love to take you up on your suggestion to write a book on the subject, but I just don’t have the wherewithal — to travel to do interviews and research, to self-publish and promote it so people know about it — living as I am on a tight, tight budget as a retiree in Mexico. What is that African saying about how different history would be if the lions could only write?

  5. Thank you Bonnie for your detailed and very thoughtful book review. By the time I finished it I knew I definitely would not be buying this book. Thank you for wading through it for us. So tired of all the positive aging happy talk that leaves out our stories, our lives.. . Oh, and that “elderly poor” reference…Yikes,don’t get me started.

    You asked when someone would write a book about us. That was my goal when I wrote my book Fifty five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal. Thank you for your excellent review..

    What happens when we are 55 or 65 and our plan A doesn’t work out and we are trying to figure out our best possible plan B? How do we live a richly textured and connected life on a modest income? What life and mindset changes do we need to make to make peace, thrive even, in this new normal of financial insecurity? That’s what my book is about based on my own lived experience and hundreds of people who wrote me responding to essays I wrote on this topic.

    Thank you Bonnie for all that you’re doing showing us how living abroad can be an affordable option, a way to live in dignity when we don’t have the resources we used to have.


    1. Dear Liz — I’m thrilled that you’ve joined this current conversation and that you’ve given WOW readers the link to your most helpful and practical book (which I reviewed on this blog last March, I believe). Your book is everything that “Aging Thoughtfully” isn’t (and, in fairness, they’re geared to different audiences, I’m sure). That one will resonate with the top 10%, and yours is for all the rest of us! Thank YOU for your ongoing efforts to be the voice for the mostly voiceless, that is to say, those of us who are blamed and shamed for “just not saving enough for retirement.” Adelante!

  6. Hey, Bonnie, want to talk to you about the book, and don’t think you must have gotten my comment, because i never received a reply. Thought to catch you at dance, but could not make it this week. Give me a shout out. abrazos

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