High Concept

Pick Your Persona

Do it now, before you get old and somebody picks it for you.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Listen up, dahlings. It’s a brand new year and there is not a moment to be lost. Old age will soon be upon many of us—certainly your faithful correspondent. If we don’t act now to choose our future, simple inertia or someone else—someone whose best interests may not necessarily be aligned with our own—will foist one upon us.

No, no, I am not going to tell you how to husband your assets for your golden years. All that retread advice about diversifying your portfolio, investing for the long term, and staying away from IPOs unless you’re wired enough to catch the first bounce. No, what I wish to address is the suitable choice of persona.

The proper affect, you will find, can go a long way toward amending whatever gaps you may experience in the durability of your 401k collection. The possibilities, while not infinite, are varied. While prior assets and early training are helpful in the attainment of certain postures, a modicum of practice and the acquisition of a few props will suffice in most cases. Let me offer some examples.

The curmudgeon. This posture comes most readily to those of the male persuasion. However, with a little practice women can easily adopt it. Being an effective curmudgeon, however, requires more than a reflexive irritability. A broad range of knowledge and experience, real or simulated, is essential to the effective deployment of curmudgeonly putdowns. E.g.: “Well, the Pentagon can try that, but as I told Cap Weinberger back in 1984 …” Or: “Yeah, they said that about the Nifty Fifty too.” Or: “We ran that piece back in 1990, but I suppose it’s worth reminding people again, since no one seems to remember anything.”

The philosophe. This is a kinder, gentler variant of the curmudgeon. The philosophe, too, has been there, done that. But he or she has drawn lessons from these encounters that sheer nobility dictates must be shared with those lacking comparable breadth of experience or perspective.

The martyr. Those lacking the assertiveness necessary to the curmudgeon or the perspective of the philosophe may find equal—indeed, greater—effective power in the passive aggression of the latter-day saint. The martyr, of course, never asks, much less demands, anything. Indeed, he or she is only too ready to offer to pile further personal sacrifice upon whatever altar of minor inconvenience presents itself. “Don’t trouble yourself to pick up that quart of milk on your way home. I can take the bus to the subway and then I’ll only be a mile’s walk from the 7-Eleven.” Or, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were busy watching the game. Don’t worry. I can easily get out on the roof myself to fix the antenna. The storm has hardly started.” The danger is that at some point someone may take you up on one of your offers of self-immolation.

The disciplinarian. Effective deployment of this persona will require you to rise at dawn for a two- or three-mile walk. Winters are best because the added attractions of darkness and bitter cold add rigor to the experience. This should be followed by a high-fiber breakfast (the beginner may want to indulge in a cup of decaffeinated coffee). The disciplinarian differs from the martyr in that he (or, rarely, she) takes genuine pleasure in the feeling of moral superiority that ensues. This pleasure is not necessarily shared by those around him. The disciplinarian does not necessarily live longer than his cohorts, but, as they say, it will seem that way.

The roué.While this is typically a male role, the proper spirit (and a timely facelift) may make it available to a few women. The roué must, of course, be charming and voluble. Residual handsomeness helps, of course, not to mention money. But more important is a sublime indifference to whatever ravages time may have worked upon the visage, physique, or pocketbook. If you assume you are attractive, you may be surprised how many others will play along with the gig. Pitfalls to be avoided: lapses into dirty old man-ness.

The grande dame. This posture comes most easily to women, but with appropriate conditioning, men can command equal facility. (The late Joseph Alsop springs to mind.) Naturally it helps if you have in hand such accoutrements as a large mansion with suitable staff, a summer cottage at Prout’s Neck, an A-party list, and an entry in the Social Register. But many a hostess or host with still grander tangible assets has failed to acquire the needed aura of grandeur. More important is the ability to project, affably (no curmudgeons here) but no less forcefully, the legitimacy of one’s entitlement to do precisely what one wishes, precisely how one wants. The true grande dame (or grand homme), while always gracious even to those she detests, can wear whatever she pleases, say whatever pops into her head, call everyone “lovey” while forgetting everyone’s name, and charm even the young into believing that age has not only its privileges but its attractions. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that certain essential elements of grande dameness may be genetic—Katharine Hepburnish physical stature, for example, and the throaty voice to go with it. Still it’s worth a bit of practice just to see what you can carry off.

The helper. If all else fails, one can become useful in one’s old age. For the truly ambitious, volunteer work in Kunduz or the Gaza Strip is available—the distinction from the martyr classification being that the helper actually has to do these things, not simply propose to. For the less daring, closer to home there are innumerable opportunities for grandchild baby-sitting, sewing and mending, chauffeuring, home repairing, and garden maintaining, not to mention a helping hand to the less fortunate nearby. Helpers don’t generally have as much fun as roués or grande dames, but their inner satisfactions are said to be more durable. The disadvantage here is that as your physical powers fade, you may be overcome by a feeling of uselessness and, ultimately, superfluity. At which point, you may decide simply to check out. This was, I think, the case with my mother—but then she was nearing 98.

So, add this to your list of resolutions—put it at the bottom so it’s still there when you’ve given up on all the rest: I will start now to become the octogenarian (nonagenarian if you’ve got the guts) of my choice. Gradually adjust your gait (curmudgeons stalk, martyrs creep up, etc.), your manner of speaking (grande dames may want to acquire a mild case of Locust Valley lockjaw, roués might pick up a few phrases en français)—and, if your role demands it, start making subtle inquiries about the choice of a plastic surgeon. Good luck, or, as they say in showbiz (which after all is what we’re talking about), break a leg! Just be careful not to break your hip.