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The Column: The benefits of being not dead

A former colleague telephoned recently — first time we’d spoken in years — to ask if I was dead.

I was not. But it was mighty thoughtful of him.

The fact is that both he and I are what some people would consider "elderly": Closing in on the life-expectancy-for-males-in-the-U.S. statistic, which now is just beyond 76 years. In the high-risk group for COVID-19. Plenty of water under the bridge. We’re almost to that point when Casey Stengel, late in a career as an enduring baseball character, had noticed, "Most of the people my age are dead at the present time."

So it was a legitimate question, though the caller and I both remain in the workforce. He’s in television; I attempt to teach college students about what was my primary profession, journalism, for 50-odd years.

But the truth is a lot of folks in our demographic indeed have shuffled off this mortal coil. You lose touch with somebody and, before you know it, he or she shows up in an obituary. Especially these days, not just because of the coronavirus pestilence but because our contemporaries tend to be, well, old.

The result is that to still be going strong when near or beyond the three-quarter century mark can be something of a surprise. Willie Nelson — he’s 87 — recently released a song to that effect:

I woke up still not dead again today / The internet said I had passed away / But if I died I wasn’t dead to stay / And I woke up still not dead again today.

Roger Angell — he’s 100 now but was only 93 when he wrote his "This Old Man" essay for The New Yorker — acknowledged then how extended human longevity can be as shocking as the news of someone’s demise.

"It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head," he wrote, "that makes everyone so glad to see me again. ‘How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!’ they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy ---! He’s still vertical!’"

It happens. Some of us have all the luck. A few surgical procedures along the way, a drastically slowing pace on morning runs, expanding pill regimen, dimmed hearing, increased visual assistance — at this stage, the major function of ears evolves into holding spectacles in place — yet feeling spry. Relatively.

A friend, even more ancient than I, once mentioned that he first felt old when a younger man than him was elected U.S. president. In my case, that didn’t happen until 2008 with Barack Obama — though I barely had missed that milestone, by mere months — with Clinton, W., and the recent White House occupant. Now that Joe Biden is taking office, I’m back to being a comparative pup.

Anyway. When I got the call, inquiring whether I might no longer be extant, it wasn’t as if my life flashed before my eyes, though it did seem appropriate for the caller and I to reminisce briefly about some earlier good times. Both of us marveled at having spent decades getting paid for what never has felt like hard labor. I had wanted, as a child, to be in the newspapers as creator of a comic strip but wound up a sports writer instead.

Nice work if you can get it, and I did. Traveled the world. Met fascinating people. Learned stuff. Couldn’t have married a better, smarter, more multitalented person. Lovely daughter and, as of this year, a grandboy. A few nice pets.

And I’m still entertaining the hope that I amount to something when I grow up.

That’s the thing. Even in what technically could be described as geezerhood, it seems thoroughly normal to continue seeking what’s around the next corner. As opposed to, say, propped in a rocking chair, drooling. Upon my official retirement as a full-time reporter, a neighbor suggested the importance of accomplishing "one thing" each day. The other day I wrote and mailed Christmas cards.

That was my one thing. And it sent forth the word to distant friends and relatives that I am not dead.

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