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COLUMNIST WRITES OF THE WAYS OF THE AGING BODY WITH CLARITY, INSIGHT AND HUMOR

ON TURNING SIXTY-FIVE: Notes From the Field

By John Jerome
Random House
255 pages, $24.95

Don't write off this book as another odious entry on the burgeoning shelf of books about the baby boomers' life passages. For one thing, the oldest boomers are still a decade away from 65 (and no doubt they'll resist the idea as vigorously as they did 30, 40 and 50). For another, where most "passages" books gush on about the emotional adjustments required by life's nebulous stages, John Jerome here does what he does best: write with clarity, insight and humor about the ways of the body.

Jerome is a columnist for Esquire and Outside magazines, and is something of a wisdom guru among runners and other athletes, especially those of masters age. His 1982 book "Staying With It," written as the author neared age 50, chronicled his rigorous training in the swimming pool as he got into fighting trim for age-group competition. 1989's "Stone Work" reflected on country life but centered on the biokinetics of building a stone wall. He's one of those writers, like John McPhee, who researches so thoroughly and writes so simply that the reader comes away thinking, "Yes, that's perfectly clear -- seems like I already knew it." He's at least half teacher.

"On Turning Sixty-Five" is drawn from the year before and the year following that birthday. It's structured in 12 sections -- a month-to-month journey into the beginnings of old age -- with such subtitles as "The Dumpster Project" (about his impulse to divest his home of a lifetime's burdensome stuff) and "Why Old Men Walk That Way" (nerve endings that give the brain a sense of muscle position are dying off, leading to impaired balance and a defensive gait that is wider, slower and with shorter steps).

Jerome has been an astonishingly active person, from his athletic life (rivaling George Plimpton's for variety) to the rigors of maintaining a home in the country to his choice of recreation, wilderness canoe camping in the Adirondacks. So it's no wonder that what preoccupies him about aging is loss of function. He hurts sometimes; his alert, productive periods are growing shorter; he needs more naps, more sweaters, less noise. He had always believed that those attritions could be staved off with more training, but he comes to realize that that was the hubris of middle age. The body's decline isn't just the knees going, or the neck stiffening from disuse -- it happens at the cellular level.

For those determined to control their own destiny, that comes as a rude shock. As Jim Morrison said, no one here gets out alive.

Adding to those frustrations, the author undergoes surgery to rebuild a deteriorated vertebra that had been extremely painful. Hobbled by an unwieldy plastic collar for a while, he muses on what he calls his "endgame":

My strategy is to know I am old -- there's plenty of evidence -- but to go on as before anyway. My claim is that I will be able to do that selectively, choosing which things to continue with and which to let slip away. This is arrogant, I realize; God, or Father Time, or the idiosyncrasies of certain cellular mechanisms, will do the selecting for me. I'm just trying to maintain the illusion of choice -- OK, delusion -- as long as possible. . . . Surgery aside, the difficult part is finding out where to draw the line between fighting and accepting. How do we achieve a graceful acceptance of aging's inevitability, the chronological imperative? How do we even recognize where we are on that curve?

There's a little philosophy as well in "On Turning Sixty-Five" -- not surprising for a guy whose planned retirement project is reading all 2 1/2 million words of Thoreau's journals. "What you have to do is learn the importance of the simple," Jerome writes. "The misanthropy of aging comes in large part from looking about and seeing what all those other idiots still think is important."

The effect is like a cocktail-party conversation with a charmer, whose bons mots come equipped with not only wit but wisdom. I can think of no better companion for thoughtful readers who aren't getting any younger.