How to Live NPR coverage of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) by Henry Alford. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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How to Live

A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

by Henry Alford

Hardcover, 262 pages, Grand Central Pub, List Price: $23.99 |


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How to Live
A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)
Henry Alford

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Book Summary

Part family memoir, part Studs Terkel, How To Live considers some unusual sources—deathbed confessions, late-in-life journals—as well as offering a rich compilation of interviews with the over-70 set to deliver a highly optimistic look at our dying days.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: How To Live

How to Live


Copyright © 2009 Henry Alford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-446-19603-1

Chapter One

It is commonly said-but I believe it anyway-that old people are wise. I don't mean that anyone who hits the age of seventy or so suddenly starts speaking in haiku or engaging in the kind of hyperextended, meaning-drenched eye contact that makes you look nervously down at the floor in search of a dog to pet.

No. Rather, I think that the older we get, the more life experiences we are likely to have-and the more experiences we have, the greater the body of information we have to work from. I happen to think that there are some very wise thirty-year-olds out there in the world, too-but the chances of an eighty-year-old's knowing something important about life are much greater.

We humans are one of the few species with an average life span that extends beyond the age at which we can procreate.

Why is this?

Maybe it's because old folks have something else to offer.

* * *

Every year or so, I have an epiphany about some aspect of life. Usually, these insights are small. Take, for instance, the one I had a few years back, after buying a lot of food for a breakfast I was making for some friends. Having carefully selected an assortment of bagels, which I then gingerly placed into a brown paper bag, I was struck, two hours later, by a very, very, very profound realization: a bag of assorted bagels with one garlic bagel in it is a bag of garlic bagels.

But sometimes my insights are larger. Sometimes they reveal to me truisms about life or people and compel me to sit up and take notice. (And "truisms about life or people" is, in this instance, what I'm talking about when I say "wisdom." I'm not talking about quantum theory or knowledge comprehensible only by experts.) When this knowledge is of a universal nature, it almost unavoidably verges on being clichéd-take my realization, after a long and difficult friendship with a strikingly candid friend whose bald assertions often hurt my and others' feelings, that our greatest strengths (her candor) are usually our greatest liabilities (her candor).

When this knowledge is of a more personal nature, it can hit you with all the subtlety of a gong-like my discovery, once I'd determined that neither my crush-inducing cinema-studies professor nor my charismatic boss at my first job nor the attractive young intern I trained at that job reciprocated my affections, that most crushes are narcissistic. Their engine is flattery.

* * *

But there's another kind of wisdom, too-the ability to predict the consequences of certain actions. This kind of knowledge is even more hard-won, forged as it is in the crucible of failure. And, unlike truisms about life and people, which are sometimes articulated by the young, the ability to predict consequences is almost necessarily a function of advanced years: to know that A, when followed by B, leads to C, is to have seen A and B in some rather compromised situations, very possibly at 2:00 a.m. in their underpants, in front of the kitchen sink.

This ability to predict consequences does not operate without effort. Sherwin Nuland, the clinical professor of surgery at Yale who wrote How We Die, writes in The Art of Aging, "Man is the only animal to have been granted the ability to continue developing during the later periods of life, and much of this depends on seeing oneself as the kind of person who can overcome the tendency to do otherwise."

As songwriter Eubie Blake, who lived to ninety-six, said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself."

* * *

Following my line of logic about aging and insights, you might think that I believe that a typical ninety-year-old is twice as wise as a typical forty-five-year-old. I don't. I don't because we humans tend to forget things. We must account for attrition-valuable information is slipping through the cracks in the wall and seeping into the bed linens and evaporating into the current Boca Raton weather system.

But maybe I can catch and curate some of it before it slips off into the night.

* * *

Wisdom is slippery. It comes in many forms and guises. Sometimes it is intermingled with a certain amount of unwisdom.

But however difficult wisdom can be to pin down, one thing is certain: the curtains don't come crashing down when you hit seventy. In fact, the years after "threescore and ten"-the decade that Psalms 90 tells us is the span of our lives because anything after eighty "is only labor and sorrow"-are a ripe time for realizations and breakthroughs. The reasons for this are varied. For some people, retirement finally gives them the time to contemplate their navels. Some come to conclusions as a result of their or others' increasing proximity to the end. Cicero wrote in 44 B.C., "Since [nature] has fitly planned the other acts of life's drama, it is not likely that she has neglected the final act as if she were a careless playwright."

We tend to think of life after seventy-outside of medical ailments, of course-as being soft and muzzy and fairly static: lots of cardigan sweaters and an increasingly housebound devotion to a small, irritable pet. But for many people, it's anything but. Grandma Moses started painting in her seventies; Michelangelo finished sculpting the Rondanini Pietà when he was nearly ninety. Benjamin Franklin helped frame the U.S. Constitution at eighty-one; Golda Meir assumed leadership of Israel at seventy, and Nelson Mandela assumed leadership of South Africa at seventy-six.

Others aren't starting new projects or professions or life situations but are altering their involvement with professions or life situations they've been in for years-rethinking their marriage, changing how they write or paint, deciding never ever again to tolerate anyone who calls them "Dollface." In 2006, Newsweek ran a story about how eighty-seven-year-old preacher Billy Graham, who'd spent most of his adult working life in the spotlight, had in his old age shifted his animus from partisan politics to the purely heavenly. The former political gadabout now refused to offer either an opinion on stem-cell research or counsel to world leaders. He told the magazine, "The older I get, the more important the eternal becomes to me personally."

Whatever the realizations are that these older folks make-and whether these realizations apply only to themselves or have a more universal nature-it's safe to say that these mental breakthroughs are not always easily won and that the paths that lead to them are sometimes full of misdirection. As with any creative process, there is often a period of doubt and mental thrashing.

Over the years, I've seen my mother, now eighty, grapple with questions about her life in ways that seem specific to her age. I remember lying on a Caribbean beach with her two years ago when she said, "Let me talk about Will. I want to know what you think my obligations to him are." I'd taken her along with me on a glamorous travel-writing assignment, which had necessitated her leaving behind Will, whom she'd lived with for thirty-one years, twenty-three of them as his wife.

My mother and stepfather, it seems, had taken different approaches to aging. Mom was increasingly out of the house, more eager than ever to create a whirlwind of travel and painting classes and rug hooking and fun, while Will had grown increasingly morose and sedentary. He was still a voracious reader-Will has been known to polish off three books in a week-but he was increasingly bedroom bound. As my brother once put it, "Will sleeps fourteen hours a day. He's like a male lion."

I asked Mom if she felt guilty coming on the trip with me; she said no, Will had always been very supportive of her travels. But she worried that his life had become so small-semiretired, he'd resigned from the local historical committee and from the town board in the small central Massachusetts town they lived in. She said, "His only activity besides napping and reading and watching TV is going to get the mail."

"Well," I said, trying to put a nice spin on it, "at least his situation is self-created. It's not like you're running off to the Caribbean while he has a fatal disease."

"True," she said, reaching into her bag for some suntan lotion.

"Do you miss him?" I asked.

"Not really. Isn't that awful?"

"Did you use to miss him when you traveled?"

"Yes. But I have a thick shell now." I pointed out, "He's sort of gotten harder to love as he's gotten older."

"Yes," she said. "And maybe my thick shell is my fear of losing him."

The heart wants what it wants, especially in later life. But what if the heart hasn't yet made up its mind?

* * *

The fact-or should I say, cliché-that old people are wise is not merely rooted in anecdotal evidence. There's medical evidence, too. Until the 1970s or so, the mind was considered merely to be part of the brain and not part of one's biological being. Recent studies in neuroscience, however, show that the brain has a powerful ability to influence its own aging. Nuland explains in The Art of Aging that "it is no longer enough to conceive of the mind as a function only of the brain; it must be thought of as influenced by the very factors that it has long been recognized to influence, namely the body and our perception of the environment in which we find ourselves." Although we experience a 5 percent or so decrease in brain weight and volume every decade after we reach forty, the actual number of brain cells in healthy older people decreases only marginally. From a neurological point of view, it takes us longer to learn things as we grow older and older, and our creative thinking, short-term memory, and problem-solving abilities dwindle, but, Nuland writes, "the ability to assimilate information and to learn from the experience does not change appreciably."

And according to some, that ability actually improves. In his book The Wisdom Paradox, Elkhonon Goldberg, a clinical professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, writes that, as we age, we get better and better at pattern recognition. According to Goldberg, "we accumulate an increasing number of cognitive templates," so that "decision-making takes the form of pattern recognition rather than of problem-solving."

The basis of this pattern recognition is so-called generic memories. Goldberg gives an example: say you're unsuccessfully trying to come up with someone's name. But then, as soon as the person walks into the room, you suddenly remember it. In order for this to happen, your brain must have housed a network that contained both a visual component (the face) and an auditory component (the name). Goldberg writes, "Despite the fact that these two kinds of information inhabit very different cortical areas (the parietal lobe for facial information and the temporal lobe for name information) they are intertwined in a single attractor." He concludes, "This, in a nutshell, is the mechanism of generic memory."

Goldberg illustrates the importance and power of this decades-tested intuition in a very unusual way. He points to the various forms of brain disease evidenced in the leaders of the twentieth century-Reagan's Alzheimer's, Hitler's memory decline and Parkinson's, Stalin's and Lenin's multi-infarct diseases, Mao's ALS, Churchill's and Thatcher's series of strokes, Brezhnev's senility. "What allowed these remarkable personalities to prevail despite neurological decline," Goldberg writes, "was the rich, previously developed pattern-recognition facility, which enabled them to tackle a wide range of new situations, problems and challenges, as if they were familiar ones."

I'm no neurologist, but I can certainly attest to my own increased powers, even at the modest age of forty-five, of intuition. For instance, I've gotten much better over the years at immediately gauging which of the acquaintances I make will become longtime friends; and I now know that any movie trailer that features a lot of extreme close-ups of a fountain pen skritching along a piece of paper is an ad for a movie that is going to view The Life of the Writer with a kind of gauzy romanticism that will make me feel like I've crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat.

The paradox inherent in our increased ability to recognize patterns, of course, is that it occurs simultaneously with large amounts of memory loss. And it is this memory loss that I hope will give my quest a special urgency. If people are repositories of knowledge-the death of an old person, an African saying runs, is like the burning of a library-then I want a library card. I want borrowing privileges for the rest of my life.

As if this attitude weren't self-serving enough, there's an even more selfish element to my quest, too. Namely, I hope to get a preview of my own old age. Having three older siblings-the eldest, my sister Kendy, is thirteen years older than I-has been a boon to me because I have constantly been served examples of what lay, or did not lie, before me. Maybe my interactions with older folks will provide a similar forecast. If you know the advantages and disadvantages of a destination before you reach it, you can sometimes savor or extend the former and delay or thwart the latter. Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, "If you are mindful that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so exert yourself in youth, that your old age will not lack sustenance."

Like many people, I have a strange relationship with aging. When I started getting gray hairs at the age of forty-three, I spent two years carefully cutting them from my temples; but I'm also someone who would never choose to live in a new building and who will sometimes wash a new shirt ten or eleven times before wearing it for the first time. Why do I want everything around me to be old while laboring under the misconception that I myself am ever youthful? I see the changes that life visits upon me-I used to be svelte, but with age I have svelled-and wonder, Am I ready for what's ahead?

And so I have decided to interview and spend time with as many fascinating senior citizens as I can. I will ask them about their dawning realizations, and I will ask them what they've learned, and I will ask them, the next time I'm putting together a picnic, whether I should be putting the one garlic bagel in its own biocontainment bag.

A word about this book's title. I in no way mean to suggest by it that I myself am proposing a way for others to live. Rather, I am the listener here; it is my interviewees who I hope will be making all the recommendations.

Mark Twain once said, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked."

And, oh, how some oldsters can talk.