John Hood's Reviews > How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People

How to Live by Henry  Alford
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Jan 17, 2009

it was amazing

Bound Miami SunPost Jan. 15, 2009

Wisdom of the Aged

Henry Alford Finds Some Old Folks Do Know More Than You

By John Hood

Once upon a time, you couldn’t shake a cane on South Beach without hitting some old folk in the spotted noggin. Then came the younguns — or at least the youngly behaved — and all those old folks got run outta town on their walkers. Aside from the odd fashion tip I used to pick up from some of the more dapper gentlemen, I’d mostly forgotten about that colorful array of codgers and biddies. And if the Beach’s relentless attention to the young and the beautiful is any indication, so did you.

Too bad too, ‘cause had we heeded their presence while they were here, perhaps we might’ve learned something about ourselves — and about the world at large.

Such is the case made by Henry Alford’s illuminating How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (Twelve, $23.99), a book that looks into the hearts, minds and souls of some of those who’ve reached an age where insight and know-how pretty much come with the bus pass. Oh, that’s not to say all oldsters are wise, mind you, but it is evident that more than a few fogies have something to offer.

In How to Live, Alford gets with some of those sage-like seniors. There are those you know (Ram Dass, Phyllis Diller, Edward Albee), those you might know (cross-country walker Granny D, Sandra Tsing Loh’s dumpster-diving father) and those you don’t but won’t mind meeting (a nap-loving pastor, a Katrina survivor, Hank’s mom, who sparked the search in the first place), and in the end each leaves us much wiser for Alford’s effort.

The book also happens to be breezy but not vapid, conversational but not chatty, and informed but not pedantic; in other words, it reads like it was written by someone who spends most of his time writing for some of America’s best publications (when, that is, he’s not walking around Manhattan in his pajamas). And since the Thurber Prized contributor to Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The New Yorker has such a wily way with word-work, I decided to slip him 10 questions via e-mail and let him at it. Here’s his well-wrought reply:

At what age does knowledge generally start becoming wisdom?

I’m interested in people over 70 because that seems an especially ripe time for self-introspection and self-mastery. Grandma Moses started painting in her 70s; many critics agree that Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Edward Albee, sculptor Louise Bourgeois and composer Eliot Carter are all currently doing some of the best work of their careers.

At what stage does wisdom become hooey?

When people start smiling indulgently at you and looking down at the floor as if in search of a dog to pet.

At which turn do things generally become for the worse?

When, like a late-in-life Bette Davis, you knock over the microphone stand at the Oscars.

How many boring stories did you have to sit through before you heard your first gem?

I was lucky. One of my first interviews was Granny D, who talked eloquently about walking across the country at age 89 — complete with emphysema, severe arthritis, hearing aids and dentures — in support of campaign finance reform. I’m a former casting director for feature films, so I’m pretty scrupulous about recruitment.

Did you find elders of one race or country more prone to wisdom than others?

The most dramatic piece of wisdom I encountered was that of a fisherman from Indonesia. He’s a member of the Moken tribe — they learn to swim before they walk, and to hold their breath underwater twice as long as most humans. Noticing harbingers of doom on the morning of the tsunami in 2003 — the way the tide went out, the way the cicadas buzzed — he told his fellow tribesmen to climb a local mountain, and thus saved thousands of lives.

Generally, the more agrarian and rural a culture, the more elder wisdom is valued. … The big geographical divide in wisdom is West vs. East. Here in the Western world, wisdom is more quantifiable — it’s logic-based and linear. Whereas the Eastern conception is more akin to our notion of intuition — it’s more about the process rather than the result.

Is belief helpful or harmful when it comes to attaining wisdom in old age?

It’s definitely a boon, unless it takes the form of dogmatism or intolerance, as you sometimes find with religious fundamentalism. But on the whole, wisdom, existing outside the church as it does, is more universal than religion.

If you could choose a way to segue into whatever (if anything) comes next, which would it be?

To rapturous applause.

Who’s your favorite old folk — living or dead?

The Dalai Lama is both deep and hilarious; I would definitely watch an HBO series starring him and Everybody Loves Raymond’s Doris Roberts. Of the people in my book, my favorites are my mother, whose O.C.D. approach to knitting and the fiber arts has led me to call her Yarnivore; a retired aerospace engineer named Eugene Loh, who pulls much of the food he eats each day out of dumpsters; and actress Sylvia Miles, who said, “People disappoint you. Lovers disappoint you. But theatrical memorabilia stays with you, as long as you keep it under clear plastic.”

What’s the difference between a coot and a sage?

It’s sort of the same as the difference between cute and beautiful. You forget cute by the time you reach the corner. But beautiful colonizes your subconscious.

Is old the new black?

Absolutely. Old is very slimming. And it will definitely take you from day into evening.
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