Saturday, March 06, 2010

What Kind of Old Works Best for You?

With the passage of time and onset of aging, I try to come up with an image of what type of old person I would like to become. What are appropriate role models?

It's much easier to identify what I don't want to become as I look at the variety of people of a certain age. On one end of the range are the cranky, bitter and hunch-backed type. Much as we might love reading Dorothy Parker, who would want to be around her elder, bitter, gin-soaked self?

Equally annoying are those supposedly joyous, eccentric types who throw convention to the winds and become lively free spirits. Remember that dreadful poem Jenny Jospeh:
When I am an old lady I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

Bleh, no way. I'm getting bitter just thinking about it. I won't go so far as to name names, but I hated tie dye when I was young and have no intention of wearing it in my dotage. The justification made by such supposedly joyfully colorful elder eccentrics is that they don't want to become invisible as they grow older. What's wrong with growing invisible in your old age? Didn't these people have childhood fantasies of being invisible and being able to enter secret places without being observed? Fear of growing invisible is a sign of an outsized, fragile and unfulfilled ego in my book.

So what are some appropriate role models? I've been reading Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood, a wonderfully elegant little 122-page tome about a man who intends to live to the age of 115. Mitchell's works definitely are the embodiment of the golden age of The New Yorker, I also just ordered his Up at the Old Hotel, a collection of his best pieces. Admirably, Mitchell chose to stop writing when he ceased to find subjects that he didn't love. It is sad that the New York he loved was disappearing, but commendable that he had the wisdom of knowing when to quit instead of either kvetching about the changes or writing half-heartedly about people he didn't care for.
A contemporary example that brings me great joy every week is photographer Bill Cunningham of The New York Times with his little online slide shows of street fashion in Manhattan. Cunningham is in his 80s, has lived in New York for at least 60 years but approaches his subjects with the joy of someone who just arrived from the provinces. A Korean War veteran, Harvard dropout and man who has worked in the cut-throat fashion industry for years, he manages to exude so much joy in his little two-minute slide shows, each one leaving me feeling uplifted and optimistic about the nature of urban life.

Cunningham has a great eye and rapport for his subjects. His visuals are always great, but I enjoy just listening to the audio minus the visuals. Cunningham is very much an old-school New Englander who drops his Rs and has a wonderful rhythm and rasp to his voice. Best of all is the delight he finds in his subject without the slightest air of judgment. No matter how ridiculous or outrageous the outfit, he captures it with the delight of an archaeologist finding some great discovery. Not that he would ever wear it, but he always has an air of "Look at that!" that is heartening.

Though decidedly knowledgeable about fashion, he clearly prefers to focus on the sidewalk not the runway and admires the ingenuity of the individual over the fashion victim. It's great that he doesn't focus on specific designers or trends but specific things like this great show on scarves (or "skawhves" as he would say). I hope I might run into Mr. Cunningham on the streets of New York someday, not likely as a subject of his photographic eye, but just a chance to cross paths with his wonderful spirit.

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At 12:12 PM, Blogger rich bachelor said...

I've been saying for years that I've been practicing for years to be a cranky old fuck. But that's not really true; more like joyous hyperbole.

The thing I'm having a hard time understanding is how I spent most of my young life being mistaken for someone much older, and now that I'm nearing 40 and have a daughter in college, no one believes at all that I am the age I am.

Oddly, I get calmer as the years go by, not that I'm not still prone to viciously ridicule the ridiculous. But that just makes good sense.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Rich - I agree that a certain about of cynicism is healthy, and I retain a fair amount. I wouldn't want to become some galloping agent of joy either. I am always suspicious of them. But shrill and bitter is never much fun to be around.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger willow said...

Skawhves is one of the things I like best about winter clothing! I'm adding this book to my leaning tower of must reads right now.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Willow - Just for clairty it's Mr. Cunningham who talks about skawhves not Mr. Mitchell, but Mr. Mitchell's books are great all the same.


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