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A Country For Old Men

A fine piece about Iraq by George Packer in the Winter 2008 issue of World Affairs concludes:

The war began as folly; it became a tragedy when the hopes and lives of Iraqis and Americans began to be expended by the thousands.

"I can never blame the Americans alone," an Iraqi refugee named Firas told me in early 2007. "It’s the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye." To gain this wisdom, Firas had to lose almost everything. What would it take for Americans to understand what Firas already does? A recognition that Iraq was everyone’s loss, whichever side you were on.

Beginnings are difficult to make out (When did the American Civil War actually begin?), conclusions are even more complex (From the Gettysburg Address through Gone With the Wind, discuss the significance and effects of the American Civil War), but human life consists in some degree of the decisions about what has happened to and around oneself. To someone like myself, who finds himself surprisingly but unmistakably on the brink of his 80th birthday, the pressure of such assessment is a tragicomic fact.

The after effects of WWI, the Depression and FDR, WWII, Hiroshima, Korea, prosperity, the discovery of Europe and one’s academic and family life, Vietnam and Watergate, world travels and one’s book-writing, the coming of age, grandparenthood, Iraq, the 2008 presidency and now, the end game is a barebones summary of a life. Day by day, though, one lives, somewhat less mobile, less ambitious, if not resigned, at least more at peace about one’s limited if fairly straightforward existence, although aware of the weakness, foolishness and inadequacy which soils too much of it. Old age is, as I think L. P. Hartley wrote 50 odd years ago, another country. Most of one’s relatives, friends, and colleagues have died. One knows that one won’t see much of what happens to one’s beloved grandchildren or one’s younger friends. The world, one believes, will be essentially the same, and perhaps some of what one has done will affect a few people in 10, 50, or even 100 years. (This isn’t a preoccupation or even a tormenting ambition.)

In the last few days, one has heard from a graduate school acquaintance, not heard from in many decades who has read something one wrote 40 years ago and reports on it and on his own troubled retirement. In the mail yesterday, the manuscript of a beautiful short story by a close friend who has for five months been suffering the first writer’s block of his life, about an actor who can no longer act, who has an affair with the lesbian daughter of old friends, converting her for a while into a heterosexual woman. He resumes his successful acting life, but after the young woman resumes her lesbian life, he lapses into the suicidal state he hasn’t managed to complete and completes it. Yesterday, on the coldest day of Chicago’s worst winter in 20 years, I went to see the dermatologist about the auto-immune condition which has troubled me for three years and whose recent suppression was more recently revived. It is, I think, my fifth column. (I recently read about the revival of the Hemingway play of that name.) Annoying as it is and weak as the medication taken for it has made me, I consider myself lucky to have in 80 years escaped lethal diseases and the deaths or awful injuries to my children and grandchildren, and to be more or less independent financially and--
with the help of a wonderful wife--physically and emotionally.

I write this post as a sort of birthday announcement to the few sympathetic and the fewer, I believe, unsympathetic readers of the Open University blog which has in this last part of a 55-year literary career given me another outlet which I’ve flattered myself is a literary version of the Chopin etudes if neither as lyric or beautifully formed. Unlike Packer’s version of the Iraq war as everyone’s loss, my narrow view is able to think of my eighty mostly uncelebrated years as a gain for me and in a very small way for most of those who’ve been part of them.

--Richard Stern