Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review - Life Reimagined

Like middle children, life’s second act often gets ignored. That window between about 40 and 60 lacks the excitement of youth and young adulthood or the finality of one’s golden years. In Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art & Opportunity of Midlife we get an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) survey of this often paradoxical phase in our lives. On the one hand, “middle age” is in many ways a sweet spot of life - you are old enough to have learned many of life’s lessons and young enough to apply them, to look around a few corners anticipating blind alleys and avoiding them or directing your focus to the things you love. You are fully formed, or at least mostly so, secure in who you are and what defines you as a person. You may be married or divorced, a parent or childless, but you are at the peak of your earning power and far removed from the Ramen noodle diet you subsisted on in college. On the other hand, the suicide rate has skyrocketed among the middle-aged, divorce rates are ticking up, and research shows that happiness in life is “U” shaped, with the nadir smack dab in the middle sandwiched between peaks at the beginning and end. 

It makes sense. Middle age has both the nostalgia for lost youth and the fear of death, of paths not taken or too late to be started, of the risks we take if we divert from our established path. And this is where Hagerty rolls up her sleeves in an attempt to reframe these years in ways that people can make more enjoyable, more meaningful, and more explicable. Her tone is breezy and conversational, a gal pal who bops in and out of research clinics and first-person stories to weave a tale that focuses on everything from honing your mental acuity to the benefits of close personal friendships. If there is a common theme in Life it is engagement - that as we age, the importance of remaining present in our lives, of not pulling the sheet over our head and tuning out the world, but instead, re-committing ourselves to our own well being, our own growth, and what we can do to make our (personal) world a better place are the strategies we should adopt if we want to flatten that deep trough. 

It is an important subject taken seriously by a reporter who shows her chops, but it is also has the air of so many “first world problems.” Hagerty comes off as a plucky overachiever with a penchant for humble bragging. And that is fine - the book's target audience is surely demographically similar to Hagerty herself - well educated, upper middle class, and with the kind of resources and financial stability to contemplate the existential questions posed by middle age. And while I can certainly relate to this framing, I also found myself wondering how people of lesser means would view this book. Hagerty suffers from inflamed vocal cords but has the ability to seek out the finest medical practitioners to aid in her recovery. She breaks her collarbone in a bike accident along MacArther Boulevard (a tony section of suburban Washington, D.C.) but quickly hires a graduate student to help her with book research, a stenographer to take down interview notes, and a doting husband who tends to her. How many middle or lower income Americans could relate to this? 

An extended story about her brother (who we are reminded at least a half-dozen times is the owner of The Atlantic magazine) aiding in the rescue of journalists kidnapped abroad is meant to show his selflessness but comes off as self-promotion. Hagerty is also unapologetic about walking away from her own volunteer effort when it no longer "felt" right. Points for honesty, but I did cringe at the sentiment. Similarly, in a chapter that examines making changes in middle age, Hagerty uses as an example a woman who holds a Ph.D and has a husband able to support them both on his salary. Surely, that makes her desire for mid-career change less risky, but how realistic is that for most people? It is not to diminish the woman’s decision, it is just to say it is one that is foreclosed (or at least an incredible gamble) for those without that safety net.

Hagerty sprinkles some personal crumbs along the way - her laser focus on career, her later-in-life marriage, and childlessness, but the apple polishing on her own life is far more prevelant. Her great vacation, wonderful dog, and rich and successful brother garner ample page space but there is a part of the story that seems missing. Hagerty hints at this in briefly mentioning turbulence early on in her own marriage, but quickly moves on without further comment. It would have been far more interesting to hear more about those issues than pivoting away from that to how a two-week vacation (again, who among us can afford such a luxury or have an employer who would offer us one?) cemented how much she appreciated her husband.

Further, so much of what Hagerty writes about has the feeling of the exception proving the rule. Her case studies invariably support her thesis but failure is in  short supply. While there are many tales of survival and thriving, of barriers overcome and second chances accepted and rewarded, I worry that some false promise is there too - affluence affords a person a certain cushion against failure that they may not fully appreciate.

The book is told in short bites but is also over long at nearly 400 pages, particularly since a two-page afterword encapsulates much of the book's vibe without the lengthy descriptions of research studies and first-person accounts. In short, be engaged in your life with people you value and who value you, be charitable in meaningful ways, understand your limitations but do not stop challenging yourself, and keep your mind nimble and active to ward off dementia. All well meaning and intentioned, I am just not sure we needed so much book to tell us this.  

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