I have been making desultory attempts to learn Chinese for a while. One of them took the form of an eight-week Evening at Emory course, at which I learned that in Chinese culture it is considered friendly to ask personal questions such as, “How old are you?”
And there is a nuance. For a person you think is probably under 60, it translates into a straight “How many years do you have?” But for a potential senior, it’s “What noble age record have you attained?”
This is great. How we play it in America is on the sad side. We say, “I’m dating myself,” when we mention some historic event or some dance craze. Meaning, I am revealing a slightly shameful fact, that I was alive for “The Funky Chicken” or the Nixon administration.
Some people keep their age as quiet as a felony conviction.
No Faust Here
Not me. I understand it if one is an actress or a model, or maybe a video game designer, because those fields do discriminate in favor of youth. You folks go ahead and try to hide your ages, but at a certain point you get into “Death in Venice”/”Faust” territory, and that is not a good place to be.
Elders are good. Elders are an asset. A society that grows a bunch of elders is a society that has been blessed—with peace, with prosperity, with enough food, and a lack of plagues.
We ritually write scary articles about the gray tsunami that is going to wreck Social Security and the health care system and maybe our children’s lives. Fear a dementia pandemic!
Talking about my generation. (For you whippersnappers, that was the chorus of a catchy and raucous song by a rock and roll band called The Who, in which they expressed the wish to “die before I get old.”)
It ain’t necessarily so. I’m going to put aside the dotage and the dollars just for now, and share with you some intangibles.
There is a former colleague, a full generation above me, with whom I enjoy an occasional lunch. At age 88, she is thinking of switching to a church closer to home, because driving is getting to be not so desirable. “I’m going to go ahead and do it soon,” she said. “Because I can still volunteer.”
That’s the thing. Elders become less selfish. Some of them become genuinely selfless as they progress through life. Their ambitions and cravings wear away, and they become open-minded. Rosemary Glenn had not thought about what she could get from her community. She only wanted to give to it.
She and I love storytelling and traditional culture, and we used to ritually travel each year to Jonesboro, Tenn., to the International Storytelling Festival in early October.
A Tlingit Elder
I heard Gene Tagaban tell a story there, some time in the last decade. He is a member of the Tlingit tribe from the Pacific Northwest.
He told a story about escorting a Tlingit elder around New York, of all places, and how the man would share himself with others for a little while, with wit and honesty.
Tagaban smiled into the distance, with his long black hair falling around his shoulders. A person becomes an elder when he or she turns 60, he said. “I hope someday I become an elder.”
At that moment I resolved never to hide my age. Tagaban inspired me to become a crone army of one.
My whole culture may or may not ever regain a positive view of its seniors. I do not care. I will trumpet my maturity. Dear reader, if you have gotten this far, I just turned 60 years old, and am now an official elder.
I am aiming for wisdom and virtue. Ask me again how far along I got, when I am 88, like the unselfish Rosemary.