Monday, January 17, 2011

How to Act Old

With all the advice out there about acting young, staying hip, etc, you’d think the other thing was easy – acting old, that is. But few of us are born knowing how to do this. It’s a learned skill, like whittling your own furniture or tying an Alpine butterfly knot, and like these it will soon be a vanishing art.

Yes, that’s right. We may soon live in a world where everyone is young. This will be because no one knows how to be the other thing anymore. The dignified pause as one struggles to remember what one was just saying; the peace and freedom that come from accepting that one can no longer keep up with the internet; these are becoming obsolete. So too are references to popular songs that one’s children and grandchildren have never heard of. How is today’s aging population supposed to make such dated references when a fabulous foursome whose heyday was fifty years ago are once again back in vogue?

But a world in which everyone goes around humming “When I’m 64” is a world where no one does. The very essence of hipness is to distinguish one generation from another, but, if “social climate change” continues, the pundits report with alarm, it may no longer be possible to do so. By 2050 not only will the polar ice caps have melted, but, right before being washed away, the trendiest clubs will be full of seniors dancing the Macarena along with their grandchildren.

In an effort to avert some parts of this apocalyptic scenario in the little while that remains, I have decided to revive the lost art of acting old. Here are a few secrets I have picked up over the years:

1. People acting old go to sleep early and wake up early, in fact, just in time to greet their teenage children as they try to sneak in after breaking curfew. At this point, the early riser does not wink knowingly at the late-nighter, as if to say, “Oh yeah. I get you. Out studying with some friends, huh? I did plenty of that too when I was your age. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Ok, that last part was acceptable old-speak, but better is “If you were studying, where are your books, young lady/man?” This will give the youth in question the opportunity to groan at your ignorance. “Books? This isn’t the 1990s. We study on our phones, Dad…”

2. People acting old regularly embarrass their kids. They could almost seem to take a malicious delight in doing it. Or so any well brought-up child will think. If intergenerational phenomena like the Beatles and the TV show “Glee” make an air of being awkwardly out-of-step harder to achieve, the determined oldster does not give up. No, these oldsters go back as far as it takes – to the show tunes of the 1890s if necessary – for their cultural references. “Knocked’em in the Old Kent Road” is a guaranteed eyebrow-raiser, one that, for all his own favoring of hits of the past, Mr. Schuster will probably not be introducing to New Directions anytime soon.

3. People acting old are nostalgic. “Remember the restaurant that used to be
on that corner? I had a great BLT there in 1989.” That sounds old, not “I’m glad they tore it down and put up the bistro instead.” This applies to people as well. “I liked her first husband” is preferable to “third time’s the charm” just as “he used to have such a wonderfully explosive temper “ beats “the therapy has done him a world of good.” Just remember not to overdo it with the slang of yesteryear. Like songs, words and expressions have a way of coming back into circulation so that by the time you get around to saying, “Attaboy, ducky, don’t take any wooden nickels!”, you might well run the risk of sounding like a hipster.

4. A certain number of years should bring with it the worry that life is not a cycle, just a bumpy road with a sudden drop at the end. This is of course not good news. The old, however, take their consolation from the fact that, if they are lucky, they will not be around to experience the worst of global warming.

But if we as a country are willing to wake up fast to looming catastrophe, we may at least be able to reverse social climate change before it is too late. We can return to a world where elders are met with looks of utter incomprehension whenever they address their juniors, where to those over 50 the singers on “Glee” seem to be heading in some very “new” directions indeed. It will not happen overnight. Democrats and Republicans will have to put aside their differences and work together on this one. But I think we can all agree that a large and sustainable generation gap is a bipartisan issue.

So go to it, one-hundred-and-twelfth congress. Attaboy!