Vertical hour

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(HOST) Commentator Vic Henningsen recently came across a new sociological term, and he’s not particularly thrilled by it.

(HENNINGSEN) When The Atlantic Monthly named its new editor last month, the magazine’s owner wanted someone “in his vertical hour.” According to the New York Times, this means a person whose “career was still on the rise.”

Hmm. The “vertical hour.” How many of us are in our “vertical hours?” More importantly, how many of us, perhaps without knowing it, have stopped rising, have reached our “plateau moment,” soon to be followed by…what? The “horizontal fortnight” of gracious semi-retirement on the job? In my field we call that “tenure.” Or perhaps we plunge instantly into the “diagonal moment,” free-falling past gains made during our “vertical hour.”

I think I’m still in my “vertical hour.” But I also like to think of myself as middle-aged, and I get annoyed when my children ask how many one-hundred-and-ten year olds I know. Apparently, other people hold the yardstick. They get to decide when we have a terrific future behind us.

That’s wrong.

I was brought up to believe that you just kept going. “He who rests,” my grandfather used to say, “rots.” That’s the grandfather who got his motorcycle license at eighty-eight. My wife’s grandfather, a World War I pilot, was still flying at ninety. My next door neighbor, a dairy farmer in his late seventies, does the first milking at three in the morning. Another neighbor celebrated his 70th birthday by biking up Mount Washington. Every winter he competes in a cross-country ski marathon across northern Finland. A few years ago he dislocated his shoulder, but finished the race and complained only about his poor time. They’re still vertical.

There are lots of people whose vertical hours seem to have lasted.

John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg continue to dispense justice at the Supreme Court.

Rupert Murdoch seems to be doing all right running the world’s largest communications empire.

Warren Buffet isn’t slowing down.

Grace Paley is still writing poetry. Andrew Wyeth is still painting. Carol Channing continues her cabaret act.

Queen Elizabeth still reigns.

But those who would cut short our “vertical hours” lurk everywhere, waiting for their moment to strike. Last fall, for example, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library laid off volunteer tour guides over seventy because of, and I quote, “the physical and intellectual rigors of the job.”

Like so many policies of Reagan himself (remember Reaganomics?) this is inherently contradictory. After all, the Library cut staffers younger than Reagan was when he held office. And let’s remember, Reagan himself refused to make age an issue in his 1984 campaign. He generously refrained from criticizing Walter Mondale’s comparative youth and inexperience as he extended his own “vertical hour.”

I never agreed much with the Gipper, but I’m with him on this one. Like my neighbors here in Thetford, I plan to make my “vertical hour” last until I’m permanently horizontal.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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