It was 1993 when the noted writer and editor Michael Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While not usually a death sentence, the degenerative illness is marked by tremor, loss of balance, difficulty walking and muscle rigidity.
More frightening yet — especially for someone whose intellect is key to his livelihood — Parkinson’s also causes at least some cognitive impairment for most who have it. “The same brain changes that lead to motor symptoms can also result in slowness in memory and thinking,” says the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. There is no cure.
Kinsley, a columnist for Vanity Fair, contributor to The New Yorker and founder of Slate, has written a book that he says is not meant to be about Parkinson’s, and you might say it isn’t. Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide is more broadly a book about the boomer generation, how we face serious illness and how we approach the final days, or decades, of our lives.
When I first was diagnosed, I had a panic attack, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what does this mean for my ability to make a living?’
— Michael Kinsley
Before you conclude that this sounds like a total downer, however, let me tell you that Kinsley has the ability to make even a subject like disease and death laugh-out-loud funny.
Next Avenue talked with Kinsley recently about the book. We’ve included excerpts of the interview here:
Next Avenue: What prompted you to write the book?
Michael Kinsley: You write about what you know. That’s what the writing teachers always teach you. (Aging) is certainly what I knew, what was on my mind, and also I thought this was something that would appeal to boomers in particular. It was a little niche that hadn’t been filled yet, so I decided I’d try to fill it. This is the moment when boomers get converted into old people; that’s going on right now.
You write about undergoing a series of cognitive assessments. Why did you decide to be so public about that, considering the fact that the most recent one showed some low scores?
(The result) wasn’t terrible. I don’t want people to think I’m off my rocker. I was just appalled that my scores had gone down at all. I did it because I was writing about it and I thought I ought to write about the whole experience. So I took the standard cognitive test, which I had taken several times before.
When I first was diagnosed, I had a panic attack, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what does this mean for my ability to make a living?’ so I had it taken then. Unfortunately, they lost those results. But then I did it again before I had deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery. And then I did it again real time, which was about a year and a half ago. It’s like any scientific experiment, you need a control for the experiment.
And like all good journalists, you want to report the truth?
You may be giving me too much credit. I don’t know what I would have done if it had shown severe or even moderate decline. I doubt I would have had the courage to just lightly put that in an article or a book.
But it didn’t show that. It showed problem areas, and we’ve all got problem areas. So I put it in the book. I also had doubts about whether these tests were accurate or worth anything. And I wanted an opportunity to express those.
What do you think boomers should be thinking about aging that we are not thinking now?
The main thing is: How are you going to pay for it? There’s a chapter sort of about that, and the federal budget and Social Security, that people have said doesn’t really fit into the book. It’s sort of different in tone, different in subject matter. What we have to do to prepare for (aging) is to start saving more money and that includes saving it through the government, through entitlement programs.
You also write about what we want out of life and what we want out of longevity.
Right. My first thought was that people — boomers especially — are thought to want stuff. Fancy cars, large screen TVs; they’re associated fairly or unfairly with the boomer generation. From there I reasoned the stuff doesn’t do you any good unless you’re around to enjoy it, so what you should want is longevity. And I premised this by saying, of course you should be a good person and you should contribute money to charity …
But what good does longevity do you if you’re suffering from dementia, which many, many boomers will? And then finally I thought, what does any of this matter? What really counts is your reputation, because you’re going to be dead for a lot longer than you’re alive.
This is all a bit tongue in cheek. As I recite it here, it sounds very serious and morbid. That’s not my intention.
Did you learn anything in the process of writing the book?
Yes. I learned that I don’t like writing books. And I’ll never do it again. I’m used to writing a column, 1,200 words or so, or actually 700 words for a newspaper column… When you wake up in the morning, you think, ‘I’m going write a column and then it’ll be in the paper tomorrow,’ or these days, it’ll be on the Internet five minutes from now.
But a book — you wake up in the morning and no matter how productive you are or how many cups of coffee you drink, you’re not going to see any result of that effort for at least a year. And some people who write these impressive histories and biographies, it can be 10 years they spend on it. I don’t think that sounds like fun. I admire them; it’s just not for me.
Is it harder to devote yourself to writing a book in your 60s than it would have been in, say, your 30s? Since, as we age, we realize we have a finite amount of time?
Yes, and some writers, maybe they’re writing a six-volume biography of, I don’t know, Henry James, and they’re only on the third volume. I guess that’s an incentive to stay healthy.