Oct 012016


Today is the UN International Day of Older Persons.  This from the WHO website:

The International Day of Older Persons is an opportunity to highlight the important contributions that older people make to society and raise awareness of the issues and challenges of ageing in today’s world. The theme for 2016, Take a Stand Against Ageism, challenges everyone to consider ageism – the negative attitudes and discrimination based on age – and the detrimental impact it has on older people.

The bit about “important contributions” is a tad condescending, and the “issues and challenges” bit is a little broad. But I’ll go with it. Let’s start with what an “older person” is. The WHO tactfully does not give an age but this does:


So apparently I am an “older person” at 65. Who knew? I thought 60 was the new 40. Here’s this “older person” at 63.


The beard wasn’t doing me any favors in that regard, so I lost it. My sister thinks I should lose the chops now also. Not a chance. The good thing about getting older is being able to be a curmudgeon. When I was younger I was simply a pain in the arse. Now it’s cute. If you don’t like it you can f**k off. And you know where you can stick this sign.


I have various thoughts about aging and, since this year’s theme is ageism I’ll get to that eventually. Other thoughts first. The need for a special day for older persons is in large part due to the modern cult of youth which has been creeping up steadily since at least the 1950s. When I was a boy in the 1950s I thought that people my age were ancient. That’s partly a function of my own youth at the time, and partly a function of different standards. Medicine was quite different then, and also people slowed down more quickly. My paternal grandparents were dead by their 50s and my mother wore a full set of dentures in her 30s. These were normal facts of life back then. On the other hand, a raft of my maternal great aunts and uncles lived well into their 90s and one made it past 100. I also had a great aunt by marriage who was going strong into her 100s – living alone, cooking for herself etc. until she dropped. But these were notable exceptions.

Nowadays, especially in the United States, older people have become a nuisance for many families whereas once they were valued. They get stuck in retirement homes and visited on Sunday afternoons. That practice is a gigantic failure of society. Younger relatives are too “busy” to look after people as they grow older so they get pushed aside. That doesn’t cut it with me, nor with many other cultures. In rural Italy nonna lives at home with one of her children and her grandchildren, and when she gets feeble she sits outside during the day and greets local villagers as they pass by. Someone brings her lunch where she is sitting, and in the evening she goes inside for dinner. She doesn’t need a nursing “home” – just someone to show some basic compassion.  Here’s a picture I took in 1963 in Australia of my neighbors (and my sister with them). No thought of bunging “gran” in a nursing home. She was a valued family member even though she needed a wheelchair.


There was a time, especially before the Industrial Revolution, when local “worthies” (old folk) were specially prized members of society because of their knowledge. Let’s say there’s an unusually heavy frost in the fields followed by a devastating flood. What do you do about ploughing this year? This just doesn’t happen. Well – you seek out the oldsters who tell you, “I remember my father saying that this happened when he was a boy. What he did was . . .” There are also well-documented cases of land-usage disputes in the 18th century that were settled by the courts by calling on the testimony of the oldest members of the village who gave evidence based on what their grandfathers had told them, and this testimony was legally binding. All gone.

The simple fact is that in a world where technology and fashions change so rapidly, the expertise of the elderly isn’t valued any more, although I like this tale:

An ocean liner was disabled because its main engine had failed. Expert engineers were called in but no one could fix it. Finally a 70 year old man who had worked on ship’s engines like it for 40 years was called in. He examined the engine for many hours, then took out a mallet and tapped in a certain spot twice. The engine sprang to life. The man asked for $10,000 for “services rendered.” The owners were flummoxed at the cost and asked for an itemized bill. This is what they got:

Tapping on the engine . . .  $2

Knowing where to tap . . . $9,998

I’m pretty good at keeping up with the latest developments in computers, smartphones, and whatnot, but it can be a struggle. I have complete sympathy with older people who are tired of constantly learning new things. I stopped updating Windows for my laptop at version 7. Enough is enough. Besides, later versions are crap. Newness for the sake of it is a disease of modern capitalism, and we don’t fight back enough. Word processing software is an infinite improvement over typewriters, but I don’t need the latest update every five minutes. Yet software companies want to push the new versions for the sake of revenue, not because they are really any better. I’ll take my current version of MS WORD, (which I am writing on now and which is about 5 years old), over the DOS version of WordStar I used on my first PC in 1983. I don’t need the latest bells and whistles even though I am sure they are just wonderful. I’m a simple hack who needs to get words on paper (or screens, or whatever).

This year’s theme, ageism, is, indeed, a big problem that continues to spread. Sexism and racism are, alas, still with us in spades, but they do, at least, have vocal opponents. Ageism is the forgotten prejudice. Luckily in Europe I can still find work at my age. I’m retired, so that’s not  a major issue. But I want to travel and live in different countries; teaching helps me out. Besides, teaching gets me embedded in new cultures easily. However . . . many countries in the Middle East and Far East have strict age limits on hiring. In China the cutoff is 60 although “foreign experts” such as myself can push the ceiling up a bit. In parts of the Middle East (notably Dubai and Saudi Arabia) and Indonesia the cutoff is 55. I’ll grant they have issues over health. These countries don’t want foreign workers being off sick a lot and a burden on the healthcare system. So demand a full physical !! It ain’t rocket science. In China I had to go for a full workup that took several hours – 11 clinics involving blood tests, an EKG, ultrasound, eye tests, chest X-ray . . . you name it. That works to weed out the feeble.

The other problem has to do with countries that have massive unemployment coupled with population pressure. If older people stay on in jobs into their 70s and beyond, they cripple opportunities for younger people entering the workforce. That’s a huge problem in the US right now where age discrimination is illegal. People are living longer and often want to keep working in a market where personnel needs are diminishing anyway – partly because of corporate greed, and partly because of improvements in technology that increasingly replace humans with machines. Asian countries “solve” the problem with mandatory retirement ages. This “solution” goes some of the way to help with youth unemployment, but it does not address the fact that by sending out sexagenarians to pasture, you are losing your knowledge base. I am a much better teacher than a 20-something fresh out of college because my 40 years of experience on the job are worth something. Admittedly I’m also more expensive. Cost versus quality? Tough choice. Usually I lose (or accept a pay cut).

What about old git cooking? Hard to say really. I did discover a few years ago in Argentina that I could cut vegetables just as well sitting at the table as standing at the kitchen counter and straining my back in the process.  I still don’t like doing it though, and have given up the practice. My back is stronger now for some inexplicable reason. So are my knees. It could be that I have strengthened them by walking more since I gave up driving. It’s also true that older people can do daft things such as leaving the oven on all night. But fair’s fair. I destroyed my fair share of kettles and blackened countless pots by leaving them on the stove and going back to writing when I was in my 30s. But forgetfulness and loss of motor control do creep up on you.

On the other hand, my landlady in coastal North Carolina was knocking 70 and cooked for a large-ish family every single day. Everyone went off to work and in the evening came home to a fully cooked meal, made from scratch. She started preparation around 10 am and worked on dinner for 8 hours. It was not solid work, of course, but many dishes took long, long hours. Greasy greens are a great example. First here’s a great oldster, Peg Leg Sam (1911-1977), blues singer and huckster from North Carolina who came to prominence in the early 1970s courtesy of a friend of mine in the Folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What about them greasy greens? Well, you just need to be an old-timey southern cook to get them right. Collards are the greens of choice. In Britain – called colewort – they are picked very young and go into what we used to call “spring greens.” In the US they are left to grow old and leathery (like the old cooks), and need to be boiled for long hours to tenderize them. Start with a “mess” of greens – i.e. enough to fill a large pot. Wash them well and cut out the hard parts of the stalks. Shred them loosely with your hands and stuff them into a pot. Pack them down well because they will cook down. Fill the pot with cold water and add a good slab of salt pork. Then cook and cook and cook on a low simmer. 8 hours or longer was normal in my household.


In the last hour or so my landlady added cornmeal dumplings. These are made by mixing cornmeal with a little flour then binding with lard and water. I never liked them so have not bothered to learn the recipe. This site looks good: http://www.ansonmills.com/recipes/462  They are way too heavy for my tastes. I make my dumplings with flour and baking powder.


To serve greasy greens my landlady put them in a big bowl with the dumplings and salt pork on top and a raw onion and vinegar on the side. The younger members of the family didn’t care for the onion and vinegar, but Elsie piled on chopped onion and a splash of vinegar every time with a little bit of fat added “for flavor.” Not heart food.  Elsie was not a slender woman, but she did live to a ripe old age – bless her.


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