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Alex Beam

The peculiar urgency of mortality

I WAS HANGING out with my late-onset baby boomer pals — the early 60s crowd — when the conversation turned to death, imminence of. Ten years earlier, few of our peers had died. Now, a death in our age cohort wasn’t exactly news.

“They are shooting at our regiment,” a friend remarked.

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They are indeed. The obituary pages, which we used to jauntily dismiss as “the Irish sports pages” speak more loudly now. Yes, it seems OK that British academic Richard Hoggart should pass away at age 95; he had a great life. Over 50 years ago he testified that D.H. Lawrence’s earthy novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” was “puritanical, poignant, and tender,” an opinion that freed the book from the shackles of censorship.

But why is Malden comedian John Pinette dead at 50? Where was his biblically promised three score and ten? What about television executive Lucy Hood; why should she die at 56?

What’s this about Geoff Dyer having a stroke? Dyer, a great novelist who also wrote “Out of Sheer Rage,” a madcap inquiry into D.H. Lawrence’s life, was last seen bumming around the tennis courts at the Key West Literary Seminar. Just two weeks ago, he was writing from a Los Angeles hospital room, trying to regain his vision.

Dyer is five years younger than I am.

I have two wonderful friends whom I met freshman year in college. We’ve seen each other marry, have children, and teeter on the verge of divorce. Now I realize that we are not so many years removed from attending one another’s funerals, which will be occasions of great sadness for all concerned.

I no longer read books I’m not interested in. I don’t mind empty calories — quite the opposite! — but empty experiences grate on me more than before. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing today. If not, chuck it.

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I don’t know anyone who hasn’t attended the funeral of a parent and failed to think: “I’m next.”

What flows from this? In no particular order: I no longer read books I’m not interested in. I don’t mind empty calories — quite the opposite! — but empty experiences grate on me more than before. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing today. If not, chuck it. My former colleague David Mehegan had a sign on his desk: Don’t Postpone Joy. Good advice; don’t.

The beckoning New Longevity, so ardently hyped by Big Pharma and orthopedic quacks, has no allure for me. I can’t see myself among those burnished, glossified AARP oldsters bicycling around artificial “water features” in cookie-cutter communities in or around South Carolina. I refuse to keep my brain “young” with “fitness software” from outfits like Lumosity.com. I’m planning to be old and cranky, the sooner the better.

(Special message for Alex: Fear not; you are very much on track to meet your goal.)

I’ll tell you what doesn’t flow from death-awareness: My definition of wasting time has changed. I don’t see staring into space, or riding my bike, or binge-watching some DVDs as a waste of time. I have friends who play a lot of Solitaire on their laptops, and complain about it constantly; “Oh, I’m wasting time.” Really? If Solitaire relaxes you, then relax. It’s your time now. Spend it as you like.

Just a few months ago, I heard my wife sing Handel’s “Messiah” in a Christmas concert. There is a famous alto-tenor duet at the end, with the words taken directly from I Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, thy victory?”

As I sat in the audience, I couldn’t help but think: Death, your sting is very real, and grave, your victory seems to be quite final indeed. They are shooting at our regiment, and I am doing my best to keep my head down.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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