Saturday, May 26, 2018

How to talk to old people

Astronomicum Caesareum (Metropolitan Museum)
     Like comets, the kids return this time of year. On schedule, their wide elliptical orbits in time and space, through semesters and colleges and foreign countries, loop back, one more time, home to familiar ground. 
    My oldest has impacted back into the house, his room turned from pristine shrine to a crater, strewn with ejecta, rubble, books and clothes and cables and backpacks. 
     A meteor shower of friends zip past the house, kids I've known since grade school, now lean, clean, tall, well-scrubbed proto-adults. Aborning stars all.
    I go out to walk the dog. Some late model SUV in the driveway. At the wheel, a young man curled over his phone. No need to actually walk up to the house and ring the doorbell. That's as old-fashioned as churning butter. A simple text: "In the driveway."
     I step around the front of the car, dip my head, angle into his view. He looks up and is out of the car. These kids move fast.  
     Beaming mightily, as if viewing something highly amusing. 
     Hey, I say, good to see you. What are your plans after school? The Wharton School of Business slingshotting him into the world.
     "Infometrics at Facebook," he says, adding "Silicon Valley," helpfully, just in case "Facebook" draws a blank the way  "infometrics" does—something about numbers, I imagine. Too much pride to ask. Instead I say something positive about Facebook: "Very useful service." 
     "And how about you?" he says. Being polite. We're peers now. Just two employed persons trading data. "Still at the paper?" He doesn't know himself whether the paper exists or went out of business five years ago—how could he? It's something a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
     "Still the same," I say. "Every day somebody employed at a newspaper still has a job is a good day." 
      He smiles, indulgently, benevolently, eyes twinkling.
     "Well, it's good that you're keeping busy," he concludes, as if trying to put the bright spin on something that might otherwise seem impossibly trivial. I make some additional small talk — how are his parents? What movie are the boys seeing? They had hoped for "RBG"—a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it wasn't playing. So "Deadpool 2."  
     My son comes out, and, taking my cue as if dismissed, I wish them a good time, turn and hurry  down the street.
     "Good that you're keeping busy." Good that you're keeping busy!? Ouch. As if my job, my career, my life, were some quaint, marginal activity, a time-killing hobby: making corn husk brooms, spray-painting pine cones and attaching googly eyes so they resemble owls and trying to sell them at craft fairs.  Tossing cards into a hat. A kind of recreational therapy.
    Keeping busy.
    Well, that's how it must seem, I suppose. That's how they talk to old people. No use my complaining about it. That's what old people do. Complain. About the world not paying attention to them enough. Not making a bigger deal out of their pebble of a life. This is how it should be, right? Try to think back to when you were that age. Old folks were a puzzlement, an enigma. Their lives were obviously over—old, failed, neutered, decrepit. And yet they were still here, unwanted, unneeded, shuffling around. These odd alien life forms with their weird post-mortem existence. Nobody has the heart to tell them they've died, not yet, and so, in temporary ignorance, they propel forward a few steps, like decapitated chickens, on muscle memory and habit, leading their sedentary, dwindling, declining existences.
    And it could be worse. When I pause to recount the above exchange to a woman down the street, she says—as soon as she finishes laughing, recovers her breath, eyes watering, gasping, which takes some time—that her daughter, about the same age, will cut her off in the midst of delivering some bit of maternal wisdom with: "Why do you talk?" 
     Double ouch. Girls are harder, all parents I know say that. My boys might think—certainly think, "Why do you talk? Why are your lips moving? Why are you speaking to me, as if I could possible listen, care or benefit?" 
     But they don't actually say those words, out of pity perhaps, or utter indifference. Or maybe politeness. That's it! Politeness. They know how to talk to old people. So take comfort in that. At least they're polite. To our faces. We did that much right.
      This is all as it should be. My wife keeps saying that. This is why we raised them. So many parents have kids sputtering on the launch pad. "3...2...1..." and instead of the big roar and the fiery ascent, a fizzle and puzzled looks all around mission control and an immediate inquiry into What Went Wrong. It would be an insult to those parents for us to regret, too loudly, too much, the perfect blast-off. Of course the youngsters have to scorch the earth, the launchpad, to push against us, in order to overcome the earth's gravity, to defeat the force holding them back, and power upward into the heavens. Of course the ground doesn't like it. You don't have to like it. You just have to accept it, and you don't even have to do that, because what you like or don't like, accept or don't accept, matters a whole lot less now. Comfort yourself with the thought that, maybe, they'll toss a glance back at the blue dot dwindling behind them, maybe a single nod in approval—a good place to come from, the home planet. They'll at least keep track of it for a brief while yet, if only for navigation purposes. A fixed point for them, a reassuring thought for us, to try to believe, while enduring the roar of liftoff and waiting for the ringing in our ears to subside. 


  1. Take some solace in knowing that you have successfully completed your biological function. You have made the likelihood of your genetic material surviving into the future without your further involvement highly possible.
    Time to save for your retirement community digs in Arizona or Florida

  2. Perfect!
    In trying to recall my own youthful perspective of old folks, I remembered a song by Steppenwolf called "Move Over". I think I'll give the scratchy old album a quick dusting, and give it a listen. It'll be stuck in my head for a week, if I don't. I'm just happy to have something to keep myself busy.

  3. Two friends of mine teach at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and are adjuncts at Loyola, they both say that to their students there's no difference between 30 years old and 70 years old. We're all just "old."

  4. Hysterically funny...and awful to dwell on.


  5. Different times I suppose, but I don't think I ever thought that way about older people. How ever my number was up and I ended up going into the army right after college. (1970). So maybe I missed that period of being dismissive about people my parents age.

  6. I admire your restraint, Neil. I would have hollered at the kid, "Listen, whelp, I'm helping inform people accurately about vital issues while you're going to be facilitating the spread of misinformation that's undermining this country."

    And been dismissed, no doubt, as another old crank.

    1. I would never say that. This is the guy who is going to spring me from Facebook Jail someday, like that scene in "Schindler's List" when Schindler gets his accountant off the cattle car. I had that thought.

  7. It's not at all difficult recall my early twenties. Old folks were not an enigma, they were the enemy. They were the mayor and the governor who sent young men (many close to my own age) with loaded M-1 rifles onto a university campus, 42 miles from where I'm typing these words. to gun down protesters my own age. We're better off now. At least for the moment, anyway.

    "Good that you're keeping busy" is merely another generational put-down, similar to "Did you forget your meds?" or "You need to change your Depends" or "Go oil your wheelchair or your walker!" An insulting dismissal to those considered to be old and in the way. But at least he made conversation. Much of the time, an "elderly" person (usually anyone over 60) is merely ignored. Like a rock, or a tree, or furniture. Getting pissed is a waste of energy. Getting used to it is all one can do.

    1. I don't really think the kid was being insulting, intentional or otherwise. It was more likely just an awkward exchange due to lack of experience. We all went through it, and I'd venture to say that most of us didn't get punched in the face over it. It's their turn to be young.

    2. True. It's their turn. But I wouldn't trade places. It's a lot harder now for the young to "get by"--the times of thirty-cent gas fueling a second-hand Beetle, which you drove from your low-rent apartment to your menial job, or to the singles bar, are long gone. Considering all they are facing and dealing with, in Real Life and on the new frontiers of social media and cyberspace,I envy them neither their looks nor their youth. Housing, stable and remunerative employment, and loving, long-term relationships appear to be a lot harder to obtain for all too many. I second the refrain of Maurice Chevalier in "Gigi"--"I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore..."

    3. I wouldn't trade places either, Griz. I'm enjoying this phase of my life too much to trade it for the uncertainties of youth. Plus trading to be young now would mean not growing up in the 60s. Those years are the footing for the foundation of my life. I wouldn't be the same person had I grown up at any other time. That said, we have to remember that everyone can make that same statement about the years of their youth. Also, good to keep in mind that what looks overwhelming to us old folks, is normal for the young. They're used to living life in a way that confounds us. Remember "don't trust anyone over 30"? We scared the living shit out those old codgers! They thought the country was "going to Hell in a handbag!"
      The kids are alright.

  8. No, he is maybe twenty-two. One would hope that the fifty-something person might have provided an example of how to converse, but I know from experience that successfully doing so is nigh on impossible...

  9. I couldn't imagine one of my kids pulling a "Why do you talk?" on me. I'd consider myself a total failure as a parent.


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