Author Steven Petrow speaks about his new book, Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old
Have you ever heard your parents complain with their friends for hours about all their aches and pains and thought, “gosh, I swear I won’t do that when I’m their age”? This is what author and New York Times contributor Steven Petrow calls “the Organ Recital,” and it’s just one of the chapters he covers in his new tongue-in-cheek book, Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old. With chapters like “I Won’t Pass Up a Chance to Pee (Even When I Don’t Have To)” to “I Won’t Die Without Writing Letters to My Loved Ones,” Petrow’s book really runs the gamut when it comes to topics involving aging. We talked to the author (who is currently 63 years young) about what prompted him to write this book, who his role models for aging are (you might know one of them quite well!), and what he does want to take away from watching his own parents age.
KCM: You talk about the list you kept of the way you thought your parents were aging “wrong.” Was there one thing that made you say “enough is enough, I need to change the aging rulebook”?
Steven Petrow: Yes, there was. My parents often had a refrain — they would always say, “we don’t want to become a burden to you,” meaning my siblings and myself, and we would all roll our eyes. So the straw that broke the camel’s back was that they were actually living in a fairly isolated house on a cliff in Long Island. Things began getting more difficult, and there were falls, and so my brother took them to see a continuing care facility near his home in Connecticut. It’s a nice place. They went through the whole tour, and then they had lunch in the dining room, where they were serving salmon. At the end of the whole tour, my brother said to them, “so what did you think?” He was optimistic. And my mother replied, “I don’t like fish.” That was the end of the conversation for her. She didn’t like that they had served salmon. And then my father said, “We just want to age in place. We’re never going to leave our house…but we don’t want to become a burden to you.” My siblings and I all felt like banging our heads against a wall because now we had to hire home health aides, deal with 911 calls, retrofit the house with safety bars…that’s when I said enough is enough and I put together my list, which I then published in The New York Times.
You talk about not limiting yourself to friends in your own age group. How do you make friends these days?
I have a chapter in the book about my friend Denise Kessler, who was about 40 years older than me. I met her in the late 1990s and she was such an active mentor to me. At the time, she was very self-consciously trying to expand her circle because she had seen her sister go down this path of isolation, and she realized, “If I live a long time, I’m going to wind up alone. So I need to put together a new collection of people.” She ended up interviewing me to rent her apartment, but she was really also interviewing me to be a friend. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to do that as well. As a writer, I often mentor emerging writers, which is a great way of cultivating those connections. I use this term that we should all try to be perennials, rather than millennials or boomers. The beauty of a perennial is it comes back year after year after year, and continues to bring joy and beauty. Anybody can be a perennial, it doesn’t matter your age.
One of the chapters of your book is called “I won’t avoid looking at myself naked in the mirror.” That’s a scary thought for a lot of us. What’s your advice to people who are hesitant to take in their reflection as they age?
We all have things that trouble us about our bodies. Looking proudly at your reflection in the mirror is such a great metaphor for accepting who you are on the whole. It’s taken me a lifetime to do. I had some surgeries when I was younger, so I felt like my body was especially cut up. But I think everybody is cut up in some way in their mind. So how do we learn to love ourselves? I think it’s about looking at the parts of ourselves that might not be perfect and saying, “these are markers of the life that I have led, the resilience I have shown, and the victories I have achieved. This is me, and I love me.”
Another chapter is titled, “I won’t let anyone treat me with disrespect.” How do you do that — put your foot down if people start infantilizing you as you age?
I believe that ageism is one of the last isms that’s acceptable. At this point, most of us are at least aware that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny aren’t publicly acceptable, but it is still kind of acceptable to make fun of older people. You see it in jokes, you see it in birthday cards, you see it in little everyday qualifiers like “you look great for your age.” The science behind all this says that when we internalize these messages, we get sick more often, we have more mental health problems, and we don’t live as long.
So if that’s the problem, then there are different ways to look at the solution. I have another chapter called “I’m not going to join the organ recital,” which is when folks over 50 get together and spend the entire time talking about aches and pains. Then people start to kind of self-identify as their illnesses. So that’s something you can combat. We may have various illnesses, but we are not our illnesses. Look at the amount of time you talk about pain, and then move on to other topics that will integrate you into the world. I think the second part of this process is that when you are disrespected, call it out for what it is. You don’t need to be mean about it, but explain why the way what was said diminished you, or why it wasn’t funny. Very few people these days actually mean to inflict harm, so it’s a great education process. More often than not, people will hear you, and they won’t tell that stupid joke next time.
What did you learn from your parents that you do want to take with you as you age?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that it’s very easy to be critical and to think you’re the son that knows best. Being the oldest, I was well primed for that. But as I watched my parents over time, I saw that they were trying to do their best, and it was often fear that got in the way of them making better decisions. Fear of having seen their parents pass, and not wanting to go out like that.
My mom had lung cancer, and I remember the first time she asked me, “what is it going to be like to die?” I completely avoided the question — I think I asked her what she wanted for dinner. Even though I knew she had terminal lung cancer, I couldn’t get past that feeling of, “she’s my mom, she’s going to live forever.” But she asked again, and by the third time, I realized that she was trying to open the door for a real conversation, and I needed to have the courage to step through that door with her. And eventually, we did. And it was painful, and it was beautiful, and it made us closer. I think it helped her to have an easier transition in the end. I hope that when the time comes, I’ll have the courage to do that too.
Who are some people you think are great role models for aging with dignity?
Am I allowed to use Katie?! She and I are both 1957 babies. What I see in Katie is that she’s always had this light in her — this joy, and this energy, whether she was 30 or 60. That youthful attitude seems to have stayed with her. It also seems like she’s refusing to let age limit her —she’s always involved in new projects, she stays passionate and connected, and she’s still working so hard, not necessarily because she needs to but because she’s curious and she loves it.
I think that’s sort of the key — finding the things and people that you love and putting your energy into them. It’s not good enough just to say, “I want to do this,” you really have to make the choices that will allow you to achieve your goals, especially as you age. We can all have intentions, but we need to lead our lives in a way that puts those intentions into practice.