The Beauty of Old Men

No Cosmetics Required.
(c) 2015, Davd

This is written in appreciation and in honour of old men who “mentored” me, as well as in affirmation of what i can now contribute as they did then, and of the value of men who are past the strength of youth. So please keep in mind that i write in the plural, in appreciation of my Granps and several other teachers and mentors.

Let me begin this reflection, then, with a stock phrase, more general than an aphorism: Too old for that sort of thing. I do say it about “sex”, but its range is far larger than eros. To appreciate old age, and old men, we should keep old-age’s weaknesses in mind as important context.

Last March, looking out the window at the prayer-garden i had so enjoyed for six years1, i noticed a pruning task that was likely to be called-for about this time of autumn, when the branches have stopped growing, involving a man standing on an 8-foot-tall stepladder and reaching above his shoulder level, perhaps above his head, to use a pair of lopping-shears.

Lopping-shears are a two-handed tool, so this task will call for whoever does it to stand some seven feet above the ground, on a ladder rung, without a free hand to steady himself. Twenty years ago, i could have been that man. This year i realized, and accepted, that i am now too old for that sort of thing.

Twenty-five years ago next summer, i knelt on a half-steep roof, facing down over the edge toward a 20-foot drop to bedrock, and nailed on the outer courses of asphalt-“shingle” roofing because, of course, they go on first. Then i worked my way to the top. Today, i would be willing to do the same work starting from where i could face upslope rather than downslope—but not those bottom “courses”—and i couldn’t work kneeling for as long.

Traditional wisdom takes notice: The glory of young men is their strength; and the beauty of old men is their grey hair. [Proverbs 20:29]

More precisely, the beauty is not in our grey hair. It is under our grey hair—if we have hair left—and in the way we use our time. Old bald-headed men partake of it also—but not all old men “have the beauty,” however much or little hair they wear above their ears and of whatever colour. If we have put our earlier lives to good use, we have learned many, many things—more than our juniors have had time to learn. These things-learnt—most of them not memories in a personal sense, but of events and circumstances from our earlier days—provide us old men with abundant context, more abundant than middle-aged men have, far more abundant than young men have, in which to think about the tasks, problems, and events of the present.

I, for instance, have learned to read, speak, and write some Finnish, improved my German and Spanish, and lately learned a little French, in addition to my boyhood English and the basic Spanish i learned in secondary school. When i was half my present age, i could speak, read, and write English quite well and Spanish quite badly; now i can speak and read some Finnish, French and Spanish, can struggle to read and occasionally even speak some German; and these four languages inform my use of English as none of them did back then.

I can remember when many women, at marriage, promised to obey their husbands… and i can also recall observing that in those same years, about as many wives dominated their husbands, as vice-versa2. Today’s young men and big boys can perhaps remember US President Obama telling a random male voter, “Just do whatever she tells you to” while campaigning for re-election in 2012. Women, as part of the marriage ceremony, promising to obey their husbands?—“that’s history”, and they have no feel for how ancient or recent, no personal recollection of its context.

The first beauty of old men is in how much knowledge we can recall, in our personal context of that time, rather than having to look it up and read it in the unknown context of someone else’s recollection and work.

The second is in our appreciation of the strength and accomplishments of younger men, and of boys. This is far more important today than it was fifty and one hundred years ago, when men were more valued in culture (and specifically in law and bureaucratic administration.) The ecological predicament is best addressed—best resolved—using skilled, large muscle labour—the work young men do best. We old men can give the young men on whom our best response to the ecological predicament depends, some mentoring in those large muscle skills, some appreciation and respect for them3. We can affirm and mentor the boys who have a flair for skilled manual work, and with better effect because that flair was once ours..

The third beauty, which is in our willingness and disposition to bless and to tutor our juniors; overlaps the second but is distinct. When a man is between one and two generations old, his first concern usually is to do whatever he can do best, as best he can, with his own body. He won’t ignore nor neglect his children, but he is likely to take, rather often, a “Look at this and see if you can do it too” (or “… and see if you can learn to do it too”) approach. By the time he is of the age to become a grandfather, he begins to have a fuller appreciation of the diversity of humanity, and a greater ability to nurture the good qualities in people—boys and younger men especially— who aren’t much like him.

Old men also have more free time to “mentor”. Young and middle-aged men are called-for when the job involves heavy lifting and quick reflexes; and while the old men and boys might tag along if it isn’t a hireling job, our work is less demanding and less constant. We have time to tell and show the boys what’s going on, while the younger men have to give fuller attention to the task. (In industrial societies, younger men are usually employed at single-focus worksites in places where boys and old men are not even welcome … those worksites are less human than the multi-generation family farm, fishboat, or craft business.)

It was from my grandfather, not my father, that i received a rough map of the work possibilities to which my talents might lead, and introductions to electricity, gardening, science, and woodworking. Dad took me fishing and showed me some of “how to dress”; but he had many more demands on his time, and i think he was more concerned that i “represent him well”, somehow.

Our fourth beauty overlaps the first; it is in personal memories, that can inform boys and younger men beyond their own lifespans: We can recall “how things were” in times when younger men were not yet living, or were boys rather than grown men. It’s been many years since that once common prank, “The Stink Bomb”, was common. In retrospect, “The Stink Bomb” was a rather efficient form of civil disobedience—better than some more violent and disruptive forms we have seen more-often, lately. You’re not likely to learn that in school, nor on the evening news.

I can remember when misogyny and misandry were roughly balanced and neither was dominant. I can remember a change to strong net misandry during my lifetime. They can’t. But if i tell young men and adolescent boys my stories, stories i remember rather than have read, that can bring them closer to a sense of social change, and of the real possibility—and superiority—of balance rather than dominant misandry.

There is wisdom, and a fifth beauty is possible, in our acceptance of mortality… in our awareness that we have fewer, decades-fewer years left to live than we have lived already. Younger men are also mortal—but few of them feel it, once they are on their own and doing their man’s work. It’s all too easy for middle-aged men to take on projects and mortgages they will not have time to complete.

Seriously, if you’re between say, 35 and 60 years old, and you’re thinking of something long-term you’d like to do or something expensive to buy with a mortgage—talk it over with your father, your uncle, an Elder in your church or your tribe. Form with that older man, a perspective on your remaining years on earth. Recognize that life is partly a matter of chance, and that it’s prudent—and healthy—to allow plenty of extra time and even money for bad luck, bad times—and good opportunities you can’t name right now.

Keeping track of your remaining life expectancy, and a sense of that expectancy as a random variable, can be valuable even to young men and adolescent boys. It should be part of the initiation of boys into the first stage of manhood, and such initiation, given by men of diverse adult ages, should be a normal puberty experience for boys.

I’ve been told, now and then since i finished Grade 12 and went on to university studies, that i act older than my years. Some of these “beauties of old age” may have been with me longer than with most other men in their seventies. I may have become middle-aged at 30, in my second year as Associate Professor, and old [but not yet weak] in my fifties. If so, i have an old man to thank, who nurtured my boyhood; an American Métis electrician, fiddler, storyteller, and inventor. Not him alone, but him especially. If you are past 50, or act old for your years, see what boys you can “mentor” as he did, me.

Gran-Père, je te souviens.

 

Notes:

1. It took three years at least, to make it even a semblance of a prayer garden, from its use before i bought the land.

2. One reason so many women dominated their households, was the separation of men’s workplaces from their homes. In those mid-20th-Century years, fairly few Canadian and “American” women worked away from home; theirs was the predominant presence in the house. As i commented above, separating men’s work from the presence of boys and older men, is less human than the multi-generation family farm, fishboat, or craft business.

3. Feminism and the bureaucracies it has influenced, whose main concern is the self-interests of higher-class women, haven’t the motivation, nor the background, to fully appreciate skilled manual labour. That is likely one major reason, why the governmental as well as profit motivated approaches to managing nature, are too mechanistic.

 

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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