During our time abroad, we have run into a fair number of interesting people, fascinating people. We are more inclined to start a conversation with strangers. After all, the chance of a deep conversation is a rarity in our language constrained lives. If I were to list the most interesting people we have met, they would share one obvious attribute. They were old. Not quaintly graying around the temples old but just plain old – ranging in age from 80 to 97.
I won’t assert that all old people are interesting. But I might venture that all interesting people are old. That’s comforting to me – the realization that meaningful life exists well beyond my conventional bias of when life effectively ends. I still have some lofty goals ahead. Perhaps these people will be the kick in the pants I need to pursue them.
My favorite dinner companion is John G. Morris. I have blogged about John three times – the first blog bestowing the moniker the most interesting man in the world. To recap, he was the picture editor of the New York Times, Life Magazine and Ladies Home Journal and the first executive director of Magnum Photography. We met John in a Paris restaurant. He kept striking up a conversation across the aisle between our tables. We have since returned to Paris for the sole purpose of dining with him. And while he is about to turn 97, John has spent the last two years globe trotting – as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and a recipient of numerous journalism awards. In his spare time he penned the “peace plank” of the democratic platform and attended the premier of a movie about his life. He lives with his “girlfriend” in her apartment overlooking Notre Dame but maintains his Marais pied-a-terre as his office. After all, as he explains, he still works.
During our trip home, we met a couple who invited us over for wine. They wanted to hear about our life in Hungary – a couple in their 80s who have lived in Saudi Arabia and Boston (a city we have come to love) before settling near Denver. He attended MIT and is a “water expert” (those are my words). She is a classically trained pianist who received her masters in social work from Smith College. He spoke of his need to spend that Sunday afternoon writing a summary of his recommendation on how to handle water rights on Indian reservations. When we asked if he had been called in as a consultant, he replied that it was part of his job. He still works. Water, quite simply, is his passion. Our nearly two hour visit flew as we danced across a wide range of subjects and stories from far flung corners of the world.
I consider what makes these people so memorable. First, they are mentally active – and blessed with the good genes which have allowed them to remain so. They work in their fields. They never retired – not from any particular monetary need but from the mere fact that they love what they do. All are great conversationalists- peppering the repartee with tales of their lives while asking probing questions to understand the world from our own unique perspective. They are proud of their age – to them it indicates they have been more places, read more books, and experienced more life. They do not dwell on illness or the perils of old age.
They are my role models. As I think of the next decades, I consider their lives. These are people who never left the game, never sat on the bench, never took a day off. They found their passion and they stuck to it. They didn’t consider working 30 years and grabbing the gold watch. They are not marginalized, tucked into the corner and handed the TV remote.
I won’t stick with my current job because, frankly, it is not my passion. When I consider what my passions are, I become dismissive. I’m too old for a second career, too much a dullard to return to school. Then, I realize that John Morris moved to Paris at the age of 67 and has lived there for nearly 30 years. He received the legion d’honneur from his adopted country. I reconsider my self imposed boundaries, and I realize life is as limited as I make it. Good role models are a blessing.
So Miley, you can twerk to your hearts content. But flesh colored hot pants; a foam finger and a bad hairdo don’t make you interesting. Provocative isn’t the same as interesting. For the life of me I can’t understand our obsession with youth.
Granted, life may not begin at 80. But if you want a fascinating dinner partner, it’s the best option I’ve found.