Tag Archive | aging

How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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The homeless, art and Basquiat’s anger

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.

I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.

I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.

I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Here we are, old. Which direction will we take?

“Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?”

So wrote Daniel Klein in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. I suspect that it’s not usually  as clear cut as that. I do have one friend whose life is filled with activity. A poet and social activist, he’s also become a fine photographer and editor, a curator, an essayist, and more things than I can name–trying to get it all in before it’s too late.

Klein decides in favor of “friendship and reflection.” He’s happy to go to an island (many of us haven’t got the wherewithal to get there!) and contemplate life and death.

The new old age is the result of medical advances. We have time now to address our bucket lists; we can stay at our jobs and accomplish ambitions that would otherwise be lost to illness or death. Or we can let go and listen, think, wait.

I think most of us will probably do something of both.

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The movies in my mind

I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns!  I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.

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When I get old enough…..

I am now 73 and still working hard at writing, still learning, still trying to form prose that says something and says it well. What gives me courage are other old artists. Take, for example, Louise Bourgeois who declared, “”I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”

Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.” When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Practice what you know

Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.

- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

 

Rembrandt took his own advice and painted many pictures of old age, and especially of his own aging.

Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for the Guardian, lists many painters whose attitude towards old age was either dismissive or negative. However, Rembrandt, he says, is “an artist to grow old with.”

“His unrivaled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his self-portraits at the ages of 34 and 64 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.”

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The extraordinary old

Years ago I remember watching an old black and white television program of the Grand Ole Opry. I was struck by how many older people starred alongside the younger ones–people who’d been around for years, and were still country music favorites. I wasn’t very old then, but I remember feeling comfortable in a way I didn’t usually. As if I were watching from a comfortable-old-couch comfortable. It was “a new normal” for me and I liked it.
There are old singers around, although not a lot of them. I think there will probably be more as the population ages. But mostly singers in every genre of music are young or still trying to look and act young. I’m so glad there’s a MickJagger(69), a Tony Bennett (86), and a Willie Nelson(79). Old people sing too!

Tony Bennett in 2003. Photo by Tom Beetz. Permission from Creative Commons.

I started thinking about all of this because of an article on WQXR by Fred Plotkin entitled “The Song of the Ancient Soprano.” He wasn’t just talking about older singers like Placido Domingo (71) or Mirella Freni (77) who have chosen their roles wisely and with their age in mind; he really was talking about “ancient singers,” people who were raised in a different musical culture, who knew Puccini and Strauss, and represented another way of singing. Frequently, they’re Italian: “No country seems to venerate ancient sopranos and tenors more than Italy, where a very old person who is still actively engaged in life and work is referred to as forte. This term implies not simply “strong” but admirable.”
He cites some formidable examples. Angelo Lo Forese (92) who was still performing at the age of 91 can be heard on Youtube singing music from Il Trovatore at the age of 90. The author gives special attention to Magda Olivero who was born in 1910. She made her Met debut at the age of 65 singing the role of Tosca. She was not only believable as the fifteen-year-old heroine, she was deeply impressive. Olivero is now 103; she sang in public well into her 90s. Not quite as outrageously amazing is Giuseppe Taddei who died in 2010. He made his Met debut as Falstaff at the age of 69. The role was age appropriate, but that’s the only reason his appearance was anything short of amazing.

Magda Olivera at 100

Some people have questioned whether it’s helpful to the aged to hold up examples of those among us who are extraordinary, inclulding those who are athletically or academically gifted. Most of us won’t be singing or dancing at 99. I don’t know how much the extraordinary say about the rest of us. I do think it makes a difference for all of us when the aged and the young are all in the mix, whether it’s cultural, social, academic…. whatever. It reminds me of another time I felt similarly comfortable. The choreographer Bill T. Jones was in Burlilngton, Vermont doing a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The closing scene was a rousing one with all the dancers–very old, old, middle aged and young–naked and dancing. It was remarkably satisfying.

When I’m 97 ….

 

Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.

 

Scarlet runner beans and Fred Webster

 

It had been a strange day. I looked with no success for scarlet runner bean seeds at Agway. They used to grow to 12 feet in the children’s garden at the Old Stone House, where they sported red flowers and enormous pods with multicolored seeds. Somebody whose name was Billy Currington was singing a country song: “Jesus is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Now that’s a lyric. I’d stopped by the Old Stone House for the first time in months and someone said that Fred Webster (see my post of May 3, 2010) needed a pacemaker, and that, at age 91, he was thinking about selling everything for $200,000. And it was worth a lot more than that.

 
I hadn’t seen Fred for a very long time. Now he was 91 years and thinking about selling everything! The report was scary.

 
The next day I drove to Fred’s farm on a high hill. Clouds were lifting, the world was shining the way it will after spring rains. The Phish stage Fred had saved a few years earlier from the last Phish concert, stood like some fanciful castle on wheels, directly past a scribbled sign a neighbor had put up: “Who shot my turkey?”  Why would anyone shoot the man’s turkey, I wondered, and left with no answers, dismissed the sign’s conundrum. The huge barns, showing a few more years of wear, still standing despite themselves, with a monumental history of farming spilling out the doors, were where they’d always been. The farmhouse looked as it always had, worn, and a little haphazard.

 

I pulled in and went to the door. On the other side of a screen door turned dark with shadows, Fred was sitting at the kitchen table eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. His wife, Vivian, was napping in the living room, he explained, giving me one of his sweet hugs. I guess he looked older, but not by much, and not as if he needed a pacemaker. His hair was standing straight up as it sometimes does. Hearing that it was me—she’s always liked me, I think, because she likes anyone who likes Fred a lot—Vivian suggested we all sit in the living room, where a clutter of old things was spread across the walls and all over the floor, and where “Murder, She Wrote” played soundlessly on the TV screen. What’s this about a pacemaker, I asked, as I coped with one of the Reese’s cups  Fred handed me. Apparently, there was no rush, and Fred wasn’t sure he’d ever go for something like that. “But I am going to die someday,” he said. “No. I won’t allow it,” Vivian declared. She explained that a couple of years ago, after a whole rash of tests, the doctor had said to Fred, “As far as I can see, you’re good to go for another twenty years.” She was holding the old man to it.

 

 

And, contrary to the alarming report of the day before, the guy who had offered to buy everything for $200,000 and take it all down to Plainfield for another and, I presume, neater agriculture museum, hadn’t shown up the day before. Fred was just as glad because he didn’t want to sell. “Am I wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to sell anything. It’s not the money. I just can’t do it.”

 
What Fred really wanted to talk about was a typed manuscript from Jack Lazor, an organic farmer well-known in Vermont. It was a hunk of white paper full of detail about his farming methods and to Fred it was all a delight. A year before Fred had been inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he thought Lazor should be next. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the tine weeder that the man described, because he had a tine weeder. He could show him an old one. I’d never in my life given a thought to tines, so he and Vivian slipped on jackets and we went to see Fred’s tine weeder, dodging muddy puddles, tripping across thresholds, wooden wheels, machinery made lame by time, parts spilling out into the aisles. The metal roof rattled; the walls groaned. The tine weeder was missing a leg, but the tines all seemed to be there. Vivian took a picture of it, then another, with Fred smiling and pointing.


Now, he said, he wanted to show us something else. Vivian and I followed him down one aisle and up another to a veritable patchwork of tines. “Do you see what these are?” he asked, grinning. “They have tines,” I said. Vivian agreed. “Tines.” “These are all hay forks,” he said. Vivian set about taking photographs of hay forks. I didn’t quite get the point, but I was pretty sure Jack Lazor would when he saw them.

 

 
We navigated the muddy banks of several ditches that Fred, his son and whoever had dug to divert water from one place to another. A man, his wife and a barking dog had taken over a bit of trailer that had served as a tool shed, and electric wires had been jerry rigged to turn it into a temporary home. I didn’t get the story, but I always come away from Fred’s with more questions than answers. He’s been reading Bacon’s “Vicissitudes,” he said. That’s the kind of writing he really likes to do, not just words about one generation’s tools and then another’s, not just careful descriptions of the evolution of everything from milking stools to tine weeders. He likes wise words about life, especially when they’re funny, and in Fred’s life there are many of those.

 
I left then. I didn’t stay for tea. I never got around to eating the second Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it was good to know that Fred Webster’s life is as full to overflowing as ever.

Drumming

Korean drummer performing at Langley International Festival 2010. Photo by dance photographer, Brendan Lally.

Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.

 
Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.

 
Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.