Go Out With a Bang
The secret to aging well? Work hard, fish harder.
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I used to have a recurring nightmare about climbing a fragile ladder straight up into the sky. The ladder wasn’t leaning against anything and the only way I could keep it balanced was to continue to climb as fast as possible. The view was great, but inevitably the ladder would topple and I’d fall to my death, over and over as the dream occurred. Needless to say things weren’t going well back then. I was trying to support a wife and two daughters on less than ten grand a year. Things got better after I wrote Legends of the Fall, and I no longer have this desperate dream.
I grew up on a farm for a while where death is so obvious. You chop the head off the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Your favorite piglet dies for no reason. A massive draft horse drops dead while plowing, still in the harness. Quite a job to bury it.
As I aged, I expected to think about death far more than I do. My favorite epitaph is the one that my hero, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote for himself, “We loved the earth but could not stay.” Wonderfully concise. But what do we do before we go? As a writer I’ve never stopped. I’ve written more in my seventies than ever before. Of course, I frequently wear out, a condition I have countered by becoming a master of naps. The first of the day comes in the morning, soon after walking the dog and five cups of coffee. Coffee has never kept me awake an extra minute. I doze about 20 minutes under the idea that I’m clearing my head, maybe an illusion, but then it works. The next nap is what Henry Miller called a “full dress nap.” It comes after lunch, the official siesta time in Spain. This one takes an hour or more. You have to take off your clothes and get in bed. At no time may any nap be taken with your socks on. This is likely a superstition, but I stick to it. I also believe in the Resurrection, because it never occurred to me to stop believing in it. The third nap takes place after dinner and is a matter of habit. For years I had to work at full-time jobs and then write at night. I’d take a nap after dinner and then work until well after midnight. I still take the naps but rarely work at night anymore, because my mind would become clinically fugal, which means that it would slide into an uncontrollable whirl. Not pleasant.
I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.
I have been teased relentlessly by laymen and other writers about my naps, but then I just published The River Swimmer, my thirty-sixth book, and they didn’t. In Buddhist terms, my naps are a Noble Truth. My father’s message was, “Get your work done,” and I am still at it. I’ve had books published in 29 countries, which mystifies me. There was the recent addition of Bulgaria. Why do they want American fiction in Bulgaria? Would Bolivia be better?
Aging brings around illnesses beyond the head-cold range. Late last fall, I had extensive spinal surgery, and the recovery hasn’t been fun. Before surgery I couldn’t walk at all, which was hard on my dog, who became melancholy without our walks. After surgery, I wasn’t recovering fast enough and was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where I learned to walk again, a pleasant talent compared with sitting. I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.
Which brings up the sporting life. For 30 years, I spent a couple of months each fall and winter hunting game birds—grouse, woodcock, quail, and doves—in various parts of this country. I loved it, even for eight exhausting hours a day. After my spinal problem, I can’t keep up with my friends and bird dogs anymore. I have thus perfected the art of log sitting. Similar to a bed and naps, I find a nice log and sit on it, usually for as much as 40 minutes. My bird dog occasionally comes back for a visit, perhaps to commiserate, and then she is off again to where the action is, her singular imperative. I don’t mind. I’m old, semi-crippled, and want her to have a good time. She was my main motive for back surgery. Dogs don’t live long and deserve walks every day.
Of course, your sexuality vastly diminishes in your seventies. Perhaps this is the gods getting you out of the gene pool. You used to while away hours concocting electric fantasies, but now you are far too realistic and pragmatic. You know very well that those beautiful girls and women you see wandering around New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t pray after work, “Lord, gimme a geezer tonight.” This is hard to accept, but don’t sit under an apple tree until you get the long-lost constant hard-on that plagued your youth. The apples will ripen and fall on your head before anything happens. I’ve read that you don’t help matters by drinking and smoking too much, but these ingrained habits help me want to live. French red wine is as necessary as oxygen for me.
As a matter of plain fact, life has become pleasantly smaller and simpler. Lucky for me I live in Montana and can still fly-fish for trout. About 90 days a summer and fall will find me gliding down rivers in a guide boat. When I get even older, we’ll drop an easy chair into the bow. I can make the throw sitting down because I had 20 years of salt-water fly-casting in Key West. Those were wild days and nights, with social diseases lurking in the alleys. I lived through them and try not to think about them anymore. They were just life in its simpleminded prime. Now I’m so wise, I share nasty oatmeal with the dog. She’s getting older but still loves life.
Jim Harrison's Brown Dog, a collection of novellas, will be published in December by Grove Press.