What Do Old People Know, Anyway?

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How To Live: A Search For Wisdom From Old People
(While They Are Still on This Earth)
Henry Alford
Twelve Books; 262 pages

The Gist:

The older you get, we often naturally assume, the wiser you become. Decade upon decade of experience — victories and failures alike — grant each of us oodles of life lessons to pass on to that foolish, fresh-faced younger generation. Or so we think. Author Henry Alford embarked upon a journey to discover whether this is actually true, interviewing scores of people — some celebrities like playwright Edward Albee and literary greybeard Harold Bloom, others just plain ole old folks, such as the 75-year old Katrina survivor whose story brings the author to tears. Along the way, Alford's 79-year-old mother gets involved when she decides to divorce her husband and strike out anew. (See pictures of the world's most celebrated individuals, 65 years and older.)

Highlight Reel:

1. On Granny D., the 89-year old woman who took a 14-month walk across the country in support of campaign finance reform: "There's a passage in Granny D.'s book in which she talks about how her fascination with roadkill sometimes put her fellow walkers off...Just outside of Phoenix, she was walking with a needy vegetarian who looks like 'the Carradine boy from Kung Fu.' The duo stumble upon a dead fox in the road. His body is still warm. The vegetarian drags the carcass under a tree. Granny D. waxes philosophical, saying, 'If you are afraid of death, you are afraid of life, for living your life leads to death. Until you face death and see its beauty, you will be afraid to really live — you will never properly burn the candle for fear of its end.'"

2. On touring a retirement community with his mother and sister: "[W]e'd been given a tour by one of the facility's residents rather than by an employee...There we stumbled onto a scene that has been permanently imprinted on my brain: five limp, totally beleaguered residents — all women — were seated around a television set whose screen was pure snow; one of the women was clutching a doll whose single eye was a clothes button.

Our tour guide whispered to us, 'Oh, they're watching the hockey game.'

Mom and Kendy and I shared a communal, silent scream of horror."

3. On a study illustrating the difference between the concept of wisdom in eastern and western cultures: "Takashi and Bordia showed four groups of college students — one American, one Australian, one Indian, and one Japanese — all the possible pairings of the seven adjectives 'wise,' 'aged,' 'awakened,' 'discreet,' 'experienced,' 'intuitive,' and 'knowledgeable.' When the students were asked to rate which two adjective were most similar to each other, the western students chose 'wise' and 'knowledgeable' or 'wise' and 'experienced,'' whereas the easterners most associated 'wise' with 'discreet.'

The Lowdown: With its self-helpish title, How To Live might easily be mistaken for a book full of aphorisms and life lessons — a Chicken Soup for the Non-Elderly Soul. Thankfully, Alford is smarter than that, and his book is impressively understated in its desire to actually impart wisdom. It's more a collection of mini-profiles on fascinating senior citizens — the aforementioned Granny D., whose advanced age does nothing to lessen her spunk, the self-obsessed actress Sylvia Miles, and the simply bizarre hitchhiking, dumpster-diving Eugene Loh. The inclusion of Alford's elderly mother, who decided to divorce her second husband days after he was interviewed for her son's book, serves as the project's poignant spine. How To Live provides many answers (which essentially means it provides no answers), none of which are wiser perhaps than the one Alford discovers in a hotel bible: "And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind."

The Verdict:


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