Michael Kinsley: ‘I would like to give living for ever a try’

The American journalist on ageing, coming to terms with Parkinson’s disease and why baby boomers should be taxed

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Vanity Fair; contributor to the New Yorker; former editor of the New Republic and founder of online magazine Slate. In 1993, aged 43, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Now 65, he has written Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, a witty, sobering confrontation of life’s last chapter.

When you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s, you went into denial. Is denial underrated as a coping strategy?
In the early years, after a Parkinson’s diagnosis, there are very few symptoms and it was all about foreboding, so denial worked perfectly. I could convince everybody, including myself, there was no problem. Yet, as a journalist, I am in favour of ruthless revelation and, if you are writing about yourself, that means the opposite of denial.

Your book insists baby boomers face facts such as that, of 79 million of us, 28 million are expected to develop Alzheimer’s. But is there any point worrying about something we can’t control?
No… but when I gave up on denial, I went in the opposite direction. The main thing I wanted to achieve was to try to laugh through the tears. There are people who are much worse off than I am. In fact, some are dead.

You say baby boomers are competitive about longevity and touch on the unseemly habit of glancing at obituary pages to check comparative ages.
My generation is more competitive than average and now competing about mortality. Reading obits competitively is a multigenerational habit. Statistically, I figured out that among your circle of friends and relations (on average about 150 per person) if you start aged 60, you can expect one friend a year to croak, then two a year. Now, for me, it is four or five a year. I’m in London for the funeral of a friend – Alexander Chancellor. At least Alexander made the most of his 77 years. A week ago, he was still on the case, commissioning articles, going out for long lunches.

You say 60 is the age at which people stop being surprised that you look old. Is the modern pressure to look young unhealthy?
It can become pathological but it does not need to be.

You talk about consumerism – do you think the acquisition of inanimate objects is a defence against mortality?
I do. Also there is a novel – cannot remember who it is by – where a woman asks: “Why do men cheat on their wives?” The answer is: “Because they are afraid of death.”

You worried when a doctor told you Parkinson’s might make you lose your “edge”. Is there any chance losing your edge might have advantages?
People say I’m a nicer person than I used to be. I keep thinking: I might have been nicer anyway or I might not really be nice.

You described Larry Ellison, chief executive of tech firm Oracle, spending $430,000 on anti-ageing research and dubbed him an “immortophiliac”?
I did coin that word. We’re all immortophiliacs to the extent that loving the idea of living forever is the equivalent of hating to die.

Except that is different, isn’t it? And wouldn’t it be terrible to live for ever?
I personally would like to give it a try. The worst part would be that all your friends would disappear.

And what age would you choose to remain if time could stop?
I’m tempted to say 22.

You’re not serious?
Depending – if I wanted to be older and wiser… 23?

In your last chapter, you propose baby boomers be taxed to reduce the national debt. But is this realistic? If you have children, what do they think?
It is realistic. My two stepchildren were raised by their mother and real father to want to give back. One runs a consulting firm for NGOs, the other is a policeman in Montana. Their mother ran the Gates foundation for 10 years; we met because she was on the committee that hired me, which you might say was a conflict of interest.

Of all the work you have done as a journalist, what would you like to be remembered for?
The most fun I ever had was starting Slate with Microsoft. In 1996, on my first day, this guy showed me a little cubicle with a computer in it and said: “Tell us what you want to do.” I wrote a memo full of specifics: page numbers, tables of contents that did not even have links – I was completely wrong about everything. But we got our act together finally. It is halfway between the old Time magazine and the Spectator.

Can you explain why is it OK, when half the world is encouraged to retire at 65, to have an elderly president?
Give Trump a little bit of credit – he is a young 70. He looks anything between 40 and 80, although there are older people I’d rather see as president. Obama was twisting the knife recently with those kite-surfing photographs that seemed to be saying: “I’m still pretty energetic and you can’t have me any more.” You can’t imagine Trump even getting on a StairMaster because he would see working out to stay fit as personally degrading. You have to make a fool of yourself and he is not willing to do that.

What is Donald Trump’s position on stem cell research for Parkinson’s?
I am not sure. We lost eight years while George W Bush was president, which was infuriating. Obama then lifted the ban. The new development is that it is better to work with developed cells from individuals being treated for the disease than with cells from a foetus – this makes the subject less fraught.

With your journalist’s hat on, I can’t resist asking what you think about Trump’s relationship to the media, recently described on the radio here as “abusive”?
I admire British journalism and have always thought American papers should be more like the British. But it is startling to see how vicious the New York Times has become and a little unfair to Trump. If he is paranoid, you can’t completely blame him. There is also the argument that you help him by encouraging victimisation, the idea that the eastern media elite is out to get him.

No chance, I suppose, that Trump will read your book?
I wish he would.

• Old Age: a Beginner’s Guide by Michael Kinsey published by Rider (£9.99). To order a copy for £8.49 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Interview by Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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