Gloria Steinem recently turned 80. In a New York Times essay on the eve of Steinem's birthday, Gail Collins celebrates how the "face of feminism" has aged. Though Steinem's name is synonymous with the historic movement, she remains modest about her accomplishments.

"It's a big gift to be recognized as part of something that matters to people, but that's not the same thing as being responsible for something."

Steinem, in her 20s, had planned to write, "The Death Book," which would have included "great stories and last words and other anecdotes about dying." Not surprisingly, the young Steinem failed to interest a publisher in the book, and ironically, the old Steinem has lacked the disciplined quiet to write it. (She celebrated 80 in Botswana, and as Collins writes, is resolved toward "moving the movement forward.")

I now wonder if Steinem's legacy is owed to her understanding of life's brevity, if her achievements can be attributed to her preoccupation, even as a young woman, with death.

In a month, I'll turn 40. I am now reading essays on aging with avid interest, and I'm even brooding on death (which will no doubt seem extraordinary, if not morose). I feel myself to be an oddity among my peers. Who thinks of death when there is still so much life ahead? Why give thought to life's wintering when it is summer and we are young? Forty is the new 20—right?

Perhaps it's my own father's death as a 40-something that forces on me an awareness of life's borrowed qualities. He died before he grayed, when I was 18 and lacking keen sense of the injustice of the timing. Friends and family gathered, lining up to convey ...

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