Two old men in their eighties meet in a park everyday. They sit on a bench for hours and talk about their lives.
“I’m so old,” complains one man, “I can no longer pee in a stream. It sputters and spurts. Every morning I get up, go to the bathroom and stand at the toilet for ten minutes sputtering and spurting and dribbling until my bladder is empty.”
“I should be so lucky!” says his friend. “Every morning at the stroke of seven I relieve myself and every single morning, like clockwork, I release a long, strong, steady stream. I could knock over a horse with that stream! Every morning at seven!”
“What’s wrong with that?” asks the other man.
“I don’t wake up until 7:30.”
Actually, it’s a pretty good joke when told well. The problem is the jokes add up to stereotypes and I wouldn’t even mind that so much if it was occasionally acknowledged that the generalizations are comic and not universally real. And if you think that should be obvious, think again. Find a teenager and raise the subject of ageism, or for that matter somebody in his twenties or thirties. They’ve never given it a moment’s thought and can’t relate. They’ll smile, maybe roll their eyes a little and then acknowledge it’s not nice to make fun of old people. And even that’s not right. It’s fine to make fun of old people when the joke is a good one! It’s just not fine to believe that old people are jokes themselves.
Pastor Smith receives word that the oldest member of his congregation, Maude Hemmings, has taken ill and is hospitalized. After his Sunday sermon he rushes to her bedside to while away the day visiting her, bringing her local news, good humor and inspiration. While he’s there he idly treats himself to a bowl of peanuts next to her bed, but when two hours have passed he realizes with sudden embarrassment that he has eaten the entire bowl of peanuts.
“Maude,” he apologizes, “I’m so sorry I ate all your peanuts. I didn’t even notice what I was doing. I’ll bring you more peanuts tomorrow.”
“Oh, please don’t do that, Reverend,” Maude says with a sweet smile. “I hate peanuts. It took me all day to suck the chocolate off of those.’
Okay, so technically that’s not really a joke about aging. It’s a joke about the “ick” factor of eating a bunch of peanuts after they’ve been in somebody else’s mouth. But would it be funny if she wasn’t old or if her name was Judy rather than Maude?
Old people, fat people and Southerners. It’s always open season on them and nobody has even considered passing laws, creating regulations or invoking rules of respect for these soft targets that can’t effectively defend themselves against wholesale mockery. I guess I should say I think Southerners sometimes enjoy the generalization because it allows them to gain the upper hand over competitors who assume them dull witted. It’s still wrong but nearly universally accepted as good, innocent fun.
But oh, do we ever worry about pretty young women! Until they get old, that is. And of course, pretty young women with Southern accents are the best targets of them all.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, before my Grandma Georgia was victimized by Alzheimer’s and eventually died, I remember asking her to tell me about her life. She’d tell me where she was born and the names of her siblings. She’d answer any questions I asked but I didn’t ask the good ones. I think she did the best she could but she was no autobiographical fount of information and I was a lousy interviewer in those days. So, she’s gone and I really don’t know much about her and what I really wanted was a sense of what life was like in the first half of twentieth century America. And what concerns me is that I think I was an oddball in that respect. I don’t know anybody else who has expressed any great curiosity about the lives of their parents, grandparents and beyond. I don’t know anybody who has any interest in the wisdom acquired by our elders, their views of life and death and philosophies toward humanity. Who ever asks these questions of old people? I never have and before too long, if I’m lucky, I’ll be one.
I wonder what it’s like, keeping all those experiences, observations and philosophical conclusions to yourself because nobody cares enough to ask what you think? I’m already getting less likely to inject my opinions into conversations uninvited. I find myself getting quieter as I get older because it’s hard to get excited about the same old topics and it’s getting harder to find new ones of interest. And besides, who really cares what I think?
I’m marginalizing myself, I suppose. Not sure that’s a bad thing, I just find it kind of sad.
And maybe I’ve just answered the charge I posed myself in the first paragraph. It may be that the reason the elderly suffer indignity with grace and quiet acquiescence is because they’ve just reached a point where they just don’t much give a damn.
Still, it would be nice if someone did.
© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved