Author’s Note: I don’t really know how to start this post without sounding like an elitist asshole, so I’m just going to jump in and you can judge me anyway.
The other day I was reading the New Yorker on the subway and came across an essay by Donald Hall, a famous American poet, on what it’s like to grow old in New Hampshire.
On a side note, isn’t it funny how we have to describe our contemporary poets as “famous,” even though they’re unquestionably synonymous with success in the poetry world? You wouldn’t call Tom Brady a famous American quarterback, or Angela Merkel a famous German politician. Poetry has fallen off the map completely. My dad makes fun of me for majoring in English (AND government, I quickly clarify), but I think if I’d majored in poetry he would have just started outright lying to everyone in town about how well I was doing studying economics.
In any case. I started reading Hall’s piece because it was about New Hampshire. It turned out that it wasn’t the New Hampshire I know — for Hall it’s much lonelier, more mundane. I worry that it’s the same place my grandmother, who lives by herself in a big house in Ashland, New Hampshire, occupies. A place where distractions like birds outside on the feeder and the weather’s impending gloom fail to stave off that awful reality that you’re alone. My grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany. I wish she had a little more brightness now.
This isn’t meant as a scathing indictment of New Hampshire, or indeed of rural life as a whole. I understand that loneliness doesn’t discriminate by the number of buildings per square mile, and that it surfaces differently in each person regardless of their age. What struck me about Hall’s essay wasn’t even the theme of loneliness. It was his mention of the condescension he feels from younger generations.
Old people occupy a unique cultural niche — they’re both revered and forgotten. We like to tell ourselves it’s just the former. Grandma’s cooking is the best. Everyone likes to boast about the role, however minor, their grandfather played in World War II. In college my friends and I always talked about how we couldn’t wait to get our “old man strength,” and we’d joke about how our out-of-shape dads in their 50s and 60s could still beat us in a fight.
The reality, of course, is that we often forget about our older relatives for extended periods of time. It’s not a crippling problem, relationship-wise. You’re busy. They understand that you’re busy. You’ll see each other at Thanksgiving.
What isn’t as well understood by people under 70, which Hall notes, is how painful our condescension towards the elderly is. He describes a woman in his town, surely much less accomplished in life than himself, who writes to the local paper about what a “nice old gentleman” he is. Later, a security guard at the National Gallery of Art gets in his face in the cafeteria, asking him “Did we have a nice din-din?”
Fuck off, is what Hall’s saying. Don’t talk down to me.
As I read that section of the essay, I had a few thoughts. One was that I’m so exceedingly happy to be young. Another was that I’m never snickering again when my grandpa asks loudly what an iPod is, or how my smartphone works. The guy essentially bought my parents our house, sent me money every Christmas and birthday, and came and visited when he could still drive. He deserves respect, and he’s smart enough to know when he’s not getting any.
The last thing I wondered after reading Hall’s piece was if my generation will have the same experiences when we’re old. Cultural differences centered around technology are, I think, the main reason for the current disconnect between the young and old. And even if there’s obviously no predicting where society will be in fifty or sixty years, is it too much to hope that this technological disconnect will somehow be lessened?
Even if that’s unrealistic, I have one basic wish: that when my generation gets old, we don’t feel like Donald Hall. Although it would be nice to look outside and still see birds.