Friday, December 28th, 2012

The Only Way Left To Be Radical In America

I like to plan ahead, so by the time I turned 30 earlier this year, I was already preparing for old age. I have a problem with rounding up, is the thing. When I was 27, I’d read about a 39 year old who went bankrupt, or a 45 year old who had a hard time conceiving, and think, Well, I’m practically 45, so I should probably start inuring myself to the hard truths life has in store for me.

I understand that this is ridiculous. I’m not old; I’m older. And of course “old” doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. My parents are getting oldish (sorry, Mom)—enough to qualify for discounts, at least—but they also run half-marathons. My grandfather's blog is pretty cool, even though he hasn’t updated it in a while. My dad just told me a story about crashing a party at Art Basel. Sixty is the new twenty-five!

None of that makes me feel any better; it terrifies me, in fact, because I didn’t much enjoy being twenty-five, and I don’t want to go to more parties. My daydreams of the good life involve fewer parties, actually, and not blogging, and feeling safe in my body, and never worrying about having enough money. So as long as I never get any older and figure out how to get someone to pay me, I should be fine. But instead I keep having birthdays, and my life gets more and more precarious. In my darkest moments, I think of old age as just a frailer reliving of early adulthood: a time when the world insistently reminds you how incapable you are of taking care of yourself. You know how no one takes you seriously when you’re twenty, and you have to eat ramen all the time because you’re poor? In my mind, being old will be like that, but sometimes also you’ll break your hip.

Or worse, even—old age will be the country of retribution, where everything I thought I’d gotten away with—eking by without things like, you know, a “career” or “benefits” or “financial stability”; breaking up with men who were very kind to me; preferring cats to children—will come back to haunt me. This visitation will happen in some sort of nightmare fashion that ends with me dying alone, probably in a shack, my cats nibbling on my corpse. I imagine old age as payback island, the unfun vacation home of imposter syndrome, where all those risky adventures and courageous, life-affirming decisions will come back and show themselves to have been the wrong risks, the wrong choices. You can only get away with this for so long, my future crone-face hisses. What, did you think you weren’t going to have to pay?

Which is why the best advice I received all year was actually a short piece of video art by poet/artist/general badass-about-town Stephanie Barber. In it, an oldish lady stares at the camera, blinking occasionally. She looks like she knows a secret. She’s wearing nice lipstick. It only lasts twenty-two seconds, but it feels longer—this extended, steady close-up shot of her face. Meanwhile, words flash up on the screen, one by one: THE ONLY WAY LEFT TO BE RADICAL IN AMERICA IS TO BE OLD. The woman’s face stretches into a grin. Her earrings sparkle.

I saw Stephanie at a party the other day. She’s been hanging out with older ladies recently, she told me—painters in their 70s, elderly art professors. She thinks that old is the new punk. Old is the new punk! It felt like a revelation; I’d been thinking about it wrong the whole time.

I’m not the only one who’s gotten old people wrong. While the microgenerations and niche subgroups of youth are relentlessly documented and marketed to, the old are allowed to glide by, undifferentiated. They’re allowed to be in movies and TV, but only if they’re sex-obsessed and/or filthy-mouthed—behaving like the young, in other words. “People are increasingly treated as if they’re invisible as they age,” Psychology Today frets, but aren’t they forgetting that invisibility is a superpower? Old people can be mean, or have ridiculous hair. No one’s mining their tweets to better sell them things. Who do they have to be afraid of, anyway?

And so in 2013 I vow to spend more time hanging out with weird, lonely, happy old ladies, either by reading their books (May Sarton; Dorothy Day), or inviting myself over to their houses on the pretext of being helpful. I will pay close attention to everything that Patti Smith does. I will not buy expensive retinol creams. I will live precariously for another year. I will round up not in fear, but in anticipation. Soon enough, I hope, I’ll be old and punk and invisible and broken-hipped and indestructible.

Previously in series: Don't Stop Running

Also by this author: The Killer Crush: The Horror Of Teen Girls, From Columbiners To Beliebers

Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas. Video "To Be Old" by Stephanie Barber, used with permission.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

ForgotIknew (#240,403)

when I was a very new adult, one of the things I did was hang out with a rather old adult, who, one of the first things he did as a newly-minted adult was read the new york times going back 100 years. So I feel like I got a vaguish sense of 200+ years under my belt… mainly about what's new and what's not, and how people behave.

There HAVE been BIG changes… but one of the things I find interesting as I have been listening to old detective radio shows (randomly) is how very modern it sounds — I don't get this sense from old movies, where everything is very dated.

I was never into being a callow youth, and had a fair amount of contempt for that, as well as for those well-ensconced in middle-age, and those who progressed to old age without learning anything, or very little.

But I always thought it was pretty lame of the olds to revere (slash revile) the youngs, and it had a taste of feasting on the young and a weird displacement of responsibility for how things didn't turn out (losing a sense of wonder and enthusiasm about life) and so they had kind of these grasping claws towards the celebration of youth (which the callow youth were happy to indulge, trying pretty vociferously and urgently to ignore what lay ahead).

Now with a little more (actual, lived) time under my belt, I find it interesting to see the process repeated with another generation. It's weird to idolize youth.

And so many older people lose their hip/happeningness (in the truest sense) in that their vitality wans and gets beaten down. I've seen first hand brilliance turn to mediocrity which was kind of startling and had seemed unimaginable. (Rarely does the reverse happen).

But I always damn knew what I was aiming for was the awesome 80 year old. I appreciated the fuck out of my youth in a way (although that shit is hard) but I tried to take it for what it was, a fresh appreciation of life around me. I hope that that has deepened, not depleted (though some days I'm not so sure — I wasn't so sure when I was a youngun either…)

Ideally, as you get older, you get more groovy, not less. And you can appreciate the life-stages of young peeps without gloming on and grasping at it in some creepy way.

As a girl especially, I've always known that clear skin and creamy thighs was not the secret elixir to happiness that it is described as. Some of the unhappiest women I've known have been some of the hottest ladies (not always, for sure, just sayin').

We've been sold a bill of goods. But it's not worth buying.

But yeah, frolicksome youth… it's fun. As a late teen I felt super old, and looked back on my childhood with intense nostalgia.

ForgotIknew (#240,403)

I think, ideally, there's learning and understanding thru time.

But then, innovation is often seeing things from an entirely new/fresh perspective.

But I definitely don't think that the young or old are served by fetishizing youth. That's a weird part of our culture that I guess is better than having overmuch respect for our elders (because, often times with age comes calcification, and that's not awesome). But still.

Candiss (#240,418)

As today is my 42nd birthday, I really needed this today. I've been on the "old ladies are awesome" bandwagon for a while now, but sometimes it's still hard to think about becoming one myself.

I suppose I've got a very stereotypically "Eastern" view of my elders, in some ways; I tend to respect and value their experience and longevity, not to treat them as somehow "obsolete." I totally agree with ForgotIknew about our "youth fetish" not doing any of us any favors.

Logan's Run was a dystopia, people, not a how-to video! ;)

Bittersweet (#765)

@Candiss I'll be joining you at 42 next month. My biggest challenges with aging are struggling against increasing physical limitations, and reconciling the parts of me that are 42 with the part that's still 15.

I value the experience and longevity of my elders, but I don't automatically assume it's there just because someone is old. You can be just as silly and self-deluded at 80 as you can at 30.

ennaenirehtac (#11,592)

Ha, I love "old is the new punk." This article is tops, my friend.
ETA: Your grandfather's blog is slow to load like an old person.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I think you have to be a radical to be old successfully. (Not talking here about those who have been flying on autopilot since they got out of school.) For one major thing, no matter how competent an 'old' person is (say, 60+), for younger people they're simply off the board for serious relationships like business or romance. It's like violating racial and class norms. If you want to get anywhere in those areas, you have to subvert the squares and squaredom — the dominant paradigm. In some areas, like computers or the commercial arts, the prejudice against age starts a lot sooner.

This sounds bad, but it frees the old person from the great monolith of ambitious squaredom. Along the same lines, the old person is also freed from her or his future, which weighs heavily on the young, who have to cultivate the vast laborious plantations of their selves-to-be. The old know that if you don't do it now, it's not going to happen. This fact gives them a kind of practical hold on life others may miss. Hence they are usually considerable happier than they were at an earlier age.

Also some of them — us — may have saved a little money and learned a few ropes.

In spite of the prejudices noted above, in some areas old people are respected. Curiously, two of them seem to be radical politics and the fine arts. It's like you came through; just surviving as such a person is radical and admirable.

In spite of the prohibitions against romance and business, the old person can cultivate relationships with the young, which may be advisable as one's peers leave the building. Middle-aged people are usually pretty impermeable; they're sunk under burdens of jobs, careers, marriages, mortgages, the children, and so on. They have few very slots open for fun, games, and new or old friends. The only problem with the young is that most of them are headed towards that maelstrom and will disappear into it, and only a few will get to the other side intact. One must cherish their brief brilliance while it has not yet been crushed out of them.

In any case — Onward!

Danzig! (#5,318)

When I was a sullen, lonely teenager I was advised to make friends with older people. We were supposed to have more things in common than not. I didn't really believe that, mainly because my grandparents were deeply unpleasant – stoic and god-fearing and really quite mean.

Anyway, one summer late in my teens I stayed with the grandmother of a second cousin and I saw what I'd been missing – she was a Catholic widow with 9 grown kids, earned a degree from a women's college in the early 60's, smart and matronly but absolutely fearless. I wished she was my gran (both of my grandmas had married out of high school and were essentially Betty Drapers). We got along splendidly and we wrote letters to one another, until she had a stroke and couldn't continue, and her world constricted to accommodate only more immediate family.

I've always been an exceedingly cautious boy, but I'm burning into my late 20's and I've been thinking about her a lot. It seemed to me like she must have always been the way she was, but it occurred to me that she might have grown into being the vibrant person she is and that maybe what made her great wasn't strictly essential to her character. So I've been trying to cultivate her fearlessness lately. It's difficult, but it's really the only thing standing between me and an inert and lonely future.

supersauce (#240,438)

Being young is like being vry good looking. People praise you for the wrong reasons, and you know you have a short shelf life before you're not hot shit anymore. Which you basically never were, people were just objectifying you, and, yes, it feels good but it also feels bad because there's no solid foundation.

It's like the 50's before freakculture and nerdcore. (Although in the actual 50's I think young people were more put down because youth culture was seen as rebellious and dangerous before it got commodified).

I've always liked cool people of all ages. Someone once said to me that I disrupted their stereotypes that young people couldn't be really smart, and I did not take that as a compliment, I took it as an insult. Of course young people can be smart. There are some seriously smart 14 year olds, and even 12 year olds. And for that matter 6 year old kids can be pretty smart and right-on. But definitely young teens can be seriously bright people, even if they don't have much experience and there's a lot they don't know about yet in terms of facts and figures. But basic perceptual insight can develop fairly young, and A LOT of people get dumber as they get older, even if they do get more "knowledge".

adkerratic@twitter (#240,451)

Rounding up – I always did this! When I was 27 I thought I was too old to flirt with a 22 year old. Now I've finally caught up (52) and I love being old. Except for the part where society underestimates you, but that is surely changing.

cinderellen@twitter (#196,831)

You have discovered the secret – invisibility as a super power! After 60 you can wear what you like, do what you like, and if you have been sensible enough in your younger years you can work as much or as little as you like. If you're smart you will cultivate lots of interests so that the free time you gain when you are older will not be wasted time.

JimLee (#254,675)

"The only way left to be radical in America is to be old"? Hmmm. I don't know about that. There are a lot of young people who are pretty radical. I'm old and I used to be a radical, but having kids, a dog, a job, a house and a mortgage kind of took the radical out of me. Now I'm much more focused on selling gold and silver coins and making money than on protesting. I used to protest the Vietnam war back in 1973-1974. We used to march down the middle of the street and then the cops would come and attack us. That was kinda radical. Nevertheless, although there aren't nearly as many young radicals today as there were back when I was in high school, they're still out there.

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