Michael Kinsley is known to Vanity Fair readers for his monthly columns on politics, the media, and society—columns memorable as much for their sly and self-deprecatory wit as for their shrewd and often contrarian arguments. The term “national treasure,” certainly as applied to himself, is one he would have some fun with. Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than two decades ago, and in recent years he has written occasionally about the condition and how he copes with it. Meanwhile, he keeps up an enviable professional pace—and this week has published a book, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide (Crown). Kinsley isn’t old by modern standards—he recently turned 65—but the realities of Parkinson’s have a way of bringing age and mortality into the foreground. Kinsley being Kinsley, he found the subjects hard to resist. Old Age has already won wide acclaim, for both its seriousness and its humor (not to mention for its length—it’s very short!). Kinsley drew on a portion of the book for his recent column about how the tiresome competition among baby-boomers (for toys, sex, money) has at last reached its final stage (the competition now is for longevity, sanity, reputation). I’ve had the privilege of being Mike’s editor for several years, and as his book came off the press asked him a few questions.
V.F.: One of the things you write about in your book is how, because of Parkinson’s, you have monitored your capabilities over time—capabilities of all sorts, physical and cognitive. Do you find that you’ve gotten better at some things, despite your condition?
Michael Kinsley: I haven’t gotten better at anything physical, certainly. I think I’m a nicer person as a result of this shock, but I am assured I’m even wrong there. As for physical symptoms, I‘ve got all the usual ones except that, oddly, I can type as fast as ever—provided that it‘s on a “clickety-clack” keyboard. And, as I say in the book, I am living out the old joke, “Doctor, will I be able to play the piano?”
Most people your age haven’t had the intense engagement with the medical profession that you have. With all that experience, what do you make of it as a system?
Let me just pass along one realization: having a chronic disease is unbelievably time-consuming. Parkinson’s, being a collection of different symptoms, is typical. It is easily a quarter-time job. Of course since that reflects mostly the accumulation and consumption of miracle drugs, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
People of every age are dependent on something or some person. What forms of dependence have surprised you, and maybe even made you think better about people or about life?
I am surprised by the people who essentially give up the last part of their own lives to care for a mother or a sister or someone else.
I’m not sure Floyd Mayweather is worried yet, but you‘ve recently taken up boxing. What’s that all about?
Lesley Stahl, one of the hosts of 60 Minutes, has a husband with Parkinson’s, and she did a segment about boxing and Parkinson’s that didn’t exactly show him turning into Fred Astaire, but was pretty remarkable in terms of improvement in his walking and so on. The next day I was walking down the street and someone was installing a huge banner that said “DC Boxing”—a new storefront. I thought this seemed like karma. I’ve only been at it a few weeks, and I can’t tell whether it helps or not, but it’s logical that it should—with hand-eye coordination, bone density, and so on.
A portion of your book that will make baby-boomers squirm is the section about reputation. You probably won’t have much choice in the matter, but how would you like to be remembered?
As I say in the book, it’s important that—in order to build a reputation in the first place, never mind preserving a reputation—as many sentences as possible that you utter or write in the course of publicizing it begin with the words, “As I say in the book.”
You’ve been writing columns for newspapers and magazines for more than four decades. Does one stand out as having had the most influence?
Over the years, I’ve written on every subject under the sun, many of them very weighty and profound (the subjects, that is—not my answers). But the one that I still get the most people bringing up is one I wrote for the New York Times op-ed page in 1981 (I think) about the difficulty of finding a place to live in New York City.
Let’s say you’re talking with someone who’s 25 and the subject of old age comes up. What’s the most important piece of advice you would offer?
Try to avoid it. There is, of course, an obvious way to avoid it. Avoid that, too. From the library of clichés about misfortune, choose a cheery one as your theme. “It could be worse,” though profoundly true, is not all that comforting. Try to do better.