WHEN I was choosing which elective to take, I let age decide.
It was a tie between a course in poetics and one in creative nonfiction. The former was handled by a poet in his 70s; the latter by a much younger colleague, a woman known for her essays.
I wanted to study creative nonfiction, also known as literary journalism.
Poetics made me skittish, perhaps because of its association with poetry.
Yet, I decided that age made it peremptory for me to be in the class of poetics: I would take the chance of someday sitting in her class, but I could not be as sure he would still be around next semester.
Ageing and its associations came back to me when I read Sun.Star Cebu’s reports on the recently concluded conference on “Ageing in Asia Pacific: Balancing the State and the Family”.
The 20th Biennial General Conference of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils tackled, among other things, the vulnerability of the elderly.
There was a toss-up between the family and the state on who had primary responsibility for protecting and caring for the elderly, Rebelander S. Basilan reported in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 6, 2013 issue.
While families and the state pass the buck to each other, studies show that, contrary to traditional expectations that children take care of their parents, many of the elderly support their children and grandchildren. Many have pensions; others still earn a livelihood.
I wonder where we get this predisposition marginalizing the elderly as in need of care and protection.
Last semester, my professors’ ages ranged from their 50s to their 70s. In terms of work ethic, I cannot draw a clear distinction because while the “younger” colleagues in journalism and broadcasting were involved in research, freelance journalism and trainings, the “older” professor’s outputs during the five months I studied with him included two published anthologies and participation in two writing workshops, one taking place outside the country.
In some private colleges, teachers approaching their 60s are retired, replaced with younger teachers, or given a “lighter” load. I could understand the predicament of colleges faced with steep rates demanded by senior professors with their long list of accomplishments. I could understand the tractability of junior faculty members still seeking the Holy Grail of tenure. I could understand the preference for youth, vigor and brawn in the business of, say, crunching boulders into pebbles.
What I cannot understand is reducing all human endeavors into a boulder-and-pebble quest. There’s no substitute for age and experience, specially for questioning whether boulders and pebbles should be the be-all and end-all of human quests. Writing, teaching, cooking, building a house, raising children—in what spheres does age became an actual liability?
The older we get, the less we depend on sleep. Or sex and food. That’s three distractions the elderly replace with other passions. I’ve noticed that old people start their day early. They always come on time. They prepare for something days before. They create a system over the years for accomplishing certain tasks, and they never divert from this system. As a consequence, they rarely fail to achieve what they’ve set out to do. Old people have never disappointed me. You can set both time and expectations by them, and they always deliver.
They get sick, of course. And they die.
What alleviates these human conditions of frailty and ephemeralness is humor, of which the ageing and eternally young have much in store.
I remember an anecdote of graveyard humor narrated by my favorite journalist, Joseph Mitchell. The man is long dead and his books are long out of print and if extant, priced beyond mortal reach.
But his journalism is as good as the day he passed the articles. This anecdote is taken from the Author’s Note of “Up in the Old Hotel,” a collection of Mitchell’s articles for The New Yorker.
Mitchell described a family outing that began with eating watermelons and ended with roaming among the tombstones in the church cemetery. Leading them was his Aunt Annie (“She was tall and thin and erect, and she was sure of herself.”)
Aunt Annie “would pause at a grave and tell us about the man or woman down below… ‘This man buried here,’ she would say, ‘was a cousin of ours, and he was so mean I don’t know how his family stood him. And this man here,’ she would continue, moving along a few steps, ‘was so good I don’t know how his family stood him.’”
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 7, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” main op-ed column