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A World Apart

Last week, there was a wonderful essay in The New Yorker by Donald Hall called “Out the Window” (subscription only):

After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other–thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss of fifty–and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I travelled to another universe. However alter we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying–in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way–but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done, she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.

A few years ago I spoke to the writer Arnold Hano on the phone. He was 90. Profane and funny. He told me that something had been written about him in the local paper and the writer had called him spry. “How come you only hear the word spry when people talk about old people?” he said. “That drives me crazy. C’mere, and watch me stick my foot right up your ass.”

Click here to listen to the New Yorker podcast with Hall.

And click here to read Hank Waddles’ two-part interview with Hano.

[Photo Credit: Matthew Gordon Levandoski]

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