“I value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation. I am now sixty-eight, and I have no more of it than at twenty-eight.”
The conversation of men and women grows tiresome with age, a ceaseless recycling of complaints, regrets, pointless stories and self-importance. That’s the conventional view and there’s evidence to back it up. We’ve all known old people who rattle on too long, forcing us to invent plausible excuses for leaving the room. But let’s be honest: youth is no guarantee of scintillating conversation. I meet a lot of students and only rarely does one of them speak knowledgeably, articulately and with wit. Too often their conversation turns into a ritualized pas de deux of awesome’s and cool’s. Let’s be honest again: many old bores were once young and middle-aged bores. Senescence isn’t always the explanation.
One of history’s imposing talkers is Dr. Johnson, who delivered the passage quoted above on April 30, 1778, as recounted by Boswell. The Life of Johnson is a quilt of the old man’s conversations. It’s significant that Johnson would choose, among his many gifts, to brag of his conversational prowess. One of life’s sweetest pleasures, conversation in our day has dried up and blown away. The causes are many but loss of civility and a general absence of cultural knowledge must be chief among them. I turn sixty-eight today and hope there is “nothing of the old man in my conversation,” if that implies earnest, self-centered, repetitive dullness.
I used to brag that I wouldn’t live to see thirty, and I was well on the way to fulfilling that prophecy. No one is more surprised than I that I have reached this age and remain reasonably intact. I’ve never known what it meant to feel one’s age, even when young. I live with more pain than before but that doesn’t seem pertinent. Mentally I feel more alive. I saw my primary-care doctor recently and we talked about aging. She’s thirty-five, roughly half my age. What do I like about getting old? she asked. A new equanimity, I told her. I have a better notion of what is important and what is irrelevant. And what do I most dislike? The death of friends and acquaintances with whom I would like to resume conversations. An epigram by James Russell Lowell, “Sixty-Eighth Birthday” (1889), speaks for me:
“As life runs on, the road grows strange
With faces new, and near the end
The milestones into headstones change,
’Neath every one a friend.”