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Poetry About The Wit And Wisdom Of Old Age

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Aired 10/20/09

Former SDSU business professor Natasha Josefowitz is out with her 17-th book of light verse. Professor Josefowitz, now over 80 years old, shares her humor and wisdom about growing older.

Book jacket from "BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, DOING IT BETTER: A Witty Look at Growing Older by a Formerly Young Person" written by author Natasha Josefowitz.
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Above: Book jacket from "BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, DOING IT BETTER: A Witty Look at Growing Older by a Formerly Young Person" written by author Natasha Josefowitz.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The biggest compliment you can give to an older person in our society, it seems, is to tell them they don't look their age. Our youth-obsessed culture does not find much good about growing older. Popular attitudes still equate old with being sick, tired and unhappy. But attitudes are changing. As America shifts demographically to an older population, the reality of old age is beginning to catch up to the myths. And one woman who is working to make that happen, is my guest, writer and educator Natasha Josefowitz. Her new book of poems is called “Been There, Done That, Doing It Better: A Witty Look at Growing Older by a Formerly Young Person.” Natasha, welcome to These Days.

NATASHA JOSEFOWITZ (Author): Thank you. We are, most of us, formerly young people.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Well, just so that everybody knows that you have the proper credentials to talk about old age, you have a birthday coming up at the end of this month.

JOSEFOWITZ: Eighty-three.

CAVANAUGH: Eighty-three.

JOSEFOWITZ: And I never say 83-young, I say 83-old because I am celebrating my wrinkles, gray hair, a few pounds too many, and what I really want to do is have everybody celebrate their growing older instead of trying to look younger because we do have more maturity, we are getting better.

CAVANAUGH: Now what do you – what have you found to be some of the biggest misconceptions about growing old?

JOSEFOWITZ: Well, that we are done and that we have nothing more to contribute. When, in fact, when you think of what’s going on in European countries and Asian countries, old age is not only revered but old age is asked advice of. We kind of put them aside, these old people, as funny and finished when, in fact, we do have a lot to contribute. Let me read you my first poem in that book. ‘We are the reinvented generation, the rewired, the retired, you know, with new tires. Ready to keep rolling, we are the geriactives, the wise oldtimers. We’re not only senior citizens, we are seasoned citizens. And it’s when you get over the hill that you really start to pick up speed.’ And we now, as we grow older, have the time to pick up that speed.’

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us, Natasha, a little bit about your background. I know that you’ve been defying conventions about age for quite some time.

JOSEFOWITZ: Well, my first mission in life was to empower women and to enlighten men. I must say I was better at the first than at the second. I taught the first course of Women In Business in the country way back in the 1970s and got a book out of it called “Path to Power: A Woman’s Guide from First Job to Top Executive.” It was a bestseller. You know, the whole thing, I was on Larry King—oh, I have a funny story—I was on Dr. Ruth, and I told Dr. Ruth, I’m – I don’t want to talk about sex at home and how to do it, I want to talk about sex at work and how not to.

CAVANAUGH: And that must’ve been a first for her.

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes, right.

CAVANAUGH: But you decided to go on to higher education at a time when a lot of people think it’s too late.

JOSEFOWITZ: I was – Absolutely. I was 40 for my master’s, had a Ph.D. at 50. And whoever’s listening, we get smarter and it’s easier to learn stuff – You know, the myth is that we can’t remember anything, well, now you can’t remember what you had for breakfast but you certainly can remember the books you’re reading and the test you need to take. It’s a totally different kind of place in your brain. So if you ever thought of going back to school, it’s never too late. Just do it.

CAVANAUGH: Now you actually wrote a poem about it not being too late in your book, “Been There, Done That, Doing It Better.” Would you share that with us?

JOSEFOWITZ: Sure. Well, there is one that I call “Frontal Lobe.” And – Well, I’ll say the poem and I’ll tell you the funny story that goes with it. ‘My frontal lobe is shrinking, is the seat of impulse control. (Which is true.) My frontal lobe is shrinking, so I ask embarrassing questions or drone on about irrelevant topics. My frontal lobe is shrinking due to the aging process. You’ll just have to put up with me.’ Well, the funny story is, is I belong to ADRC, which is a Alzheimer’s Research Center. So far, I’m in the control group. Anyhow, so part of that is giving people MRIs of their brain. So I went in and I said to the doctor, you know, I worried about my hippocampus shrinking. And he looked at me and he says, I can tell by your question it isn’t. So…

CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s good news.

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of your missions in this book is, you say, to empower older women. Now why do they need to be empowered?

JOSEFOWITZ: Because we have our own self-perception that society tells us that we don’t have the power when, in fact, we do. I’m living at the White Sands in La Jolla, which is a retirement community and we are all older folks. You have to be over 62 to get in and most of us are late 70s and 80s. I’m the president there. We have 45 committees. It is resident run, and everybody is working at top capacity. And when you see that, you realize how mistaken these – our society is in thinking that we don’t have anything to contribute. We’re in the – The older population, which is growing older and there’s more of it, have an enormous amount to contribute and so use us.

CAVANAUGH: Now you have a poem in this book called “Be Kinder Than Necessary.”

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think kindness is something that wisdom brings?

JOSEFOWITZ: Kindness is something that you can do because now we have more time, too. You know, when you’re rushing – You know, our lives, when you think about our lives, I mean, your life—I’m looking at you—Maureen is young. I’m sure that your life is back-to-back events and that you don’t even have time for anything and if you do have time for a cup of coffee, it’s to give you energy for the next event. And so, yes, be kinder than necessary. Let me tell you the few words from here.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

JOSEFOWITZ: ‘Be kinder than necessary. Everyone is fighting some type of battle. Do an unexpected act of kindness. It may help someone through his or her day. Extend a hand when not required. Smile at someone who’s looking sad. Sit next to a person who seems lonely. Make someone laugh with a funny tale. Wave at the stranger crossing your path. Hug the friend who’s just standing there. Do an unexpected act of kindness. You just may help someone get through his or her day.’ We older people are not back-to-back on everything, and we have these unexpected acts of kindness and it is lovely to see. And where I live, in our community at White Sands, people do this all the time for each other. It’s really lovely to see.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break.

JOSEFOWITZ: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: When we return, more poems and stories from Natasha Josefowitz and her book, “Been There, Done That, Doing It Better.” You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Natasha Josefowitz, a former SDSU business professor and author of 17 books, including her latest book of poetry about growing older, called “Been There, Done That, Doing It Better: A Witty Look at Growing Older by a Formerly Young Person.”

JOSEFOWITZ: 18th…

CAVANAUGH: It’s your 18th book.

JOSEFOWITZ: It is.

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. I – I forgot one.

JOSEFOWITZ: That’s okay. I forgive you.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve done an awful lot in your career, as you were telling us before. And you actually broke some ground in speak – getting large, large organizations, both business and governmental, to kind of get on board to the idea that women were in the work force.

JOSEFOWITZ: Well, you know, I was at the time, my heavens, you know, ‘70s, early ‘80s when women were beginning to come into male dominated organizations. And I had the only class that was taught and I had the only book, “Path to Power,” for women. And so I became this consultant. I consulted to the FBI and the CIA and to General Motors, General Electric, and, I mean, all of a sudden I was all over the place talking about women entering male dominated organizations. In fact, I was, for three years, a consultant on sexual harassment at the City of San Diego, and my students were Bill Kolender and Jerry Sanders and Tracy Jarman. I mean, you know, all of these people were my kids there.

CAVANAUGH: That’s funny.

JOSEFOWITZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And during all this time when you were giving lectures and so forth, you’ve learned some things about public speaking. In fact, you’ve told me that, indeed, the idea of public speaking is still a little bit daunting to you.

JOSEFOWITZ: It is only as I think about it. And the way I think about it is everybody has some anxiety around being out in front of others, being on TV or radio. And so, you know, breathe deep, doesn’t work. So what you say is, okay, I have some – feel some anxiety, it’s standing right next to me, I’m going to pat it on the head and I’m going to say to it, you are not controlling my behavior. In other words, you never make a decision based on fear. You say, okay, I’m afraid, it’s legitimate, it’s okay, I’m not going to control – better control my behavior. And so as soon as I start then it’s such fun. Like I’m having such fun right now, Maureen, that the fear goes away but it’s always there lurking just before you begin. And so I’m encouraging people to never let that stop them. You just keep going.

CAVANAUGH: One of the bits of wisdom you’ve picked up in your years.

JOSEFOWITZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s go back to your book of poems. Your 18th book, now that I’ve been advised.

JOSEFOWITZ: Chastized.

CAVANAUGH: One of the books (sic) in your poem is, I think, an interesting take on the stereotype of parents asking their adult children to call. I believe it’s called “Phone Calls.”

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes. ‘The kids don’t call. If they do, it’s not often enough. All parents don’t want to be an interruption in their kids’ busy lives so they sit and wait for these phone calls and usually complain. Or the opposite happens. The kids call all the time. The daughter wants to share her child’s latest feat, the son has issues with his job. They call on Sunday, during the week, they call evenings, early mornings, while their elderly parents are busy with their own lives. They call a lot. But it’s a good thing to have parents who are available and children who care enough to call a lot. It is never too much. It is never too often. Children calling their parents, it is a good thing to be so connected throughout our whole lives.’

CAVANAUGH: Now that whole idea of connection and how important it is for older people to be connected. Tell us about that. Not just with their own family but with their community.

JOSEFOWITZ: Well, I have a mission. I really have a mission in my life right now. I really, really believe the older I get and the more I live in a community, that older people should not live alone. You know, you become a burden to your children if you live alone and anything happens. And things happen, you get old enough, things happen. So that I really believe communities is the future for everybody who is alone. That’s not only old people alone, it is old couples who are living alone because one will have to take care of the other and it is difficult. So I hope everybody who listens is going to think about their retirement years and looking for a community where they can be happy because it isn’t just the end of their lives, it’s the beginning of a whole new adventure. I wrote a book called “Retirement: The Next Great Adventure,” and it is an adventure. I am having the best time ever with all the freedom of not having to take care of a house. We go out, we do – we are with friends. I never eat alone. My husband died two months ago and I never eat alone. If I were sitting alone in my house on top of Mt. Soledad where we used to live, it would be a total disaster. I have 100 best friends at White Sands.

CAVANAUGH: Now that takes – going to take a change in the way society operates, though, for a collection – groups of older people to be able to gain strength and community together.

JOSEFOWITZ: This is our future and we need to pay attention, and we need to do something about it and build these communities. And people need to make that huge change of leaving their homes, which is familiar, and go to the unfamiliar but exciting.

CAVANAUGH: Now do you think older people are listened to in this society?

JOSEFOWITZ: Not enough. We have a lot to say. And here I am, listen.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you turned 80, you said you were beginning your 9th decade and it sounded outrageous. Does it still sound outrageous to you?

JOSEFOWITZ: Well, the studies show that people, whatever age they are, feel they’re really 20 years younger, and I think that’s true. I mean, I’m going to be 83, I feel like in my sixties. And, well, I’ll tell you what happens when you’re really old. You can be outrageous, and that’s huge fun.

CAVANAUGH: You can say what you think, finally.

JOSEFOWITZ: Exactly, yes.

CAVANAUGH: You have a poem in this book called “Slow Down.” And I believe that perhaps it’s actually written for younger people?

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes, it is. ‘Let me say to you, I need to slow down, chat with my neighbor, look at a flower, read a book that has nothing to do with personal growth. I need to slow down, call up a friend, smile at a child, to go a movie, read a magazine that will teach me absolutely nothing. I need to slow down, take a walk, watch a sunset, take an art class. I need to slow down.’ We all need to slow down. I mean, I’m also kind of back-to-back. I’m still waiting to retire, you know, and I need to slow down. This is really written for me. And it is written for you, Maureen. I’m sure that you also, your life is back-to-back.

CAVANAUGH: I think a lot of people’s lives are just crammed full of incidents…

JOSEFOWITZ: Yes, yes.

CAVANAUGH: …and they just need to take a moment.

JOSEFOWITZ: And it’s difficult to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s surprising to me but we are just about out of time and I know that you had a parting thought for us from your book, “Been There, Done That, and Doing It Better (sic).”

JOSEFOWITZ: Remember, it’s written by a formerly young person.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

JOSEFOWITZ: Okay, “Today All Is Well.” ‘Today, all is well. Tomorrow has no guarantees. But today the sun is shining, we got up and nothing hurt. Today, all is well. We are sitting with good friends, not worried about the next meal or where we’ll sleep tonight.’ By the way, if you read the newspapers, this is huge that we are, in fact, not worried. ‘Today, all is well. I don’t know about tomorrow, so I stop whatever I’m doing and appreciate the fact that today, all is well.’ And I would like to ask all of my listeners right now to stop whatever you’re doing and appreciate the fact that today, for you, too, all is well. ‘Bye.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I’ve been speaking with Natasha Josefowitz. Her book is called “Been There, Done That, Doing It Better: A Witty Look at Growing Older by a Formerly Young Person.” Now she will be discussing her book at the Wine & Writers Series at Tango Wine Company in Little Italy on Wednesday, October 28th, starting at 6:00 p.m. Natasha, thank you so much.

JOSEFOWITZ: Thanks. Thanks. That was great.

CAVANAUGH: And you’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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