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'Bucket lists' often empty

| Monday, June 1, 2009

SEA ISLE CITY, N.J.

They had a contest here last week in The Press of Atlantic City that asked readers in 25 words or less to submit answers to this question: "Where do you want to spend the last years of your life?"

The winner was Nandini Taneja, from Mays Landing, with this reply: "Alone in a rented oceanfront apartment, praying daily for the years I lived, choices I made, people I hurt, hearts I broke."

For an aspiration, that seems to me to be a little too morose and out of the way. But the editors liked it because its "vision of responsibility and atonement was especially moving."

From Ventnor, Tom Krick was the most negative and succinct about the location of his end days: "Anywhere but New Jersey (and that includes hell)."

More political, David Smyth in Absecon was looking for an escape route from America's swing to collectivism: "Sadly, because this government is slowly turning this great country into the SSA, the 'Socialist States of America,' I am looking into moving to Australia."

Tom Murphy in Atlantic City seemed more happy with socialism: "In my subsidized high-rise in Atlantic City. Looks like, though, it may be in a doorway in Atlantic City if Social Security isn't fixed."

Personally, my favorite was an upbeat answer from a woman in Egg Harbor Township, Elizabeth Thomas: "On the road again like Willie Nelson or Dierks Bentley, free and easy down the road I go."

An even more upbeat way to go out on the road is Bruce Springsteen's. I always thought his singing sounded like just hollering, but on the way to his recent concert in Pittsburgh my wife told me that he's a poet. So for the first time I listened to the lyrics.

Wild dreams intact, Bruce sang "Born to Run," just as he has at every concert since the '70s: "I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss." How sick!

I don't think much about the sunset years. Too often, those years become the grim and fearful world that John Updike, who died in January, described through his characters in his final volume of stories -- a time of standing unsteadily on the brink of old age, increasingly separated from old friends and associates, depleted by bad health, and preoccupied with the approaching void, the final step where "death is real, and dark, and huge." Yikes!

The old poker buddies of Fairchild, an elderly man in one of these Updike stories, "had been dispersed to infirmity and Florida if not to the grave."

Similarly, Philip Roth in his latest novel, "Exit Ghost," has his longtime alter ego, a now-decrepit Nathan Zuckerman, living isolated in a rustic New England retreat, incontinent and impotent as a result of his treatments for prostate cancer.

Zuckerman had moved away from New York "to be rid of the lingering consequences of life's mistakes," to write and to be alone.

"I had banished my country, been myself banished from erotic contact with women, and was lost through battle fatigue to the world of love," Zuckerman says. "I had issued an admonition. I was out from under my life and times. I lived, by choice, where I could no longer be drawn down into the disappointments."

His potency gone, Zuckerman's desires remain unbroken: "And so I set out to minimize the loss by struggling to pretend that desire had naturally abated, until I came in contact for barely an hour with a beautiful, privileged, intelligent, self-possessed, languid-looking 30-year-old made enticingly vulnerable by her fears and I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again."

Zuckerman envies the woman's husband and the man he expects to be the woman's lover, both "armed to the teeth with time."

"The ninth and, apparently, final Zuckerman novel is a blisteringly bad-tempered indictment of modern America filled with the usual gripes of Roth," writes Alfred Hickling in a review in London's Guardian. "But one also senses that Roth has chosen to write the eulogy for his generation. In a supremely poignant scene, Norman Mailer gets up to speak at George Plimpton's memorial service, saddened to acknowledge that Plimpton's demise 'was neither humorous nor unusual. He died not in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium but in pajamas in his sleep. He died as we all do: as a rank amateur.'"

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