Don’t let the title fool you. Steven Petrow’s new book, Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old, is more than just a laundry list of things older people do that annoy younger people and their families. It’s a thoughtful collection of essays that just happens to have a waggish—and attention-getting—title.
Petrow says that the book is “all about the stupid things that my parents did wrong as they were getting into their seventies. And I was a smart 50-something who was taking notes. I’m a journalist and I became interested in how I might do things better when my turn came, and that list got bigger and bigger. It turned into a New York Times essay, and it turned into a book.
“And when I’m not being a smartass, I would say that it’s really a manifesto about aging and the things that we can all do in our daily lives to sort of retrain our brains away from some of the anti-aging stereotypes that are part of our culture.”
At the heart of Petrow’s manifesto is the central admonishment for people not to “go gently into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas wrote. For example, he won’t stop rocking stylish clothing, including orange pants, because they don’t fit external notions of what people his age “should” wear. He also won’t color his hair—one of the funniest pieces in the book in which he learned what worked for Diane Sawyer didn’t for him—or refuse a hearing aid, should the time come when he needs it. Bottom line: Petrow is a strong advocate for staying engaged in life at any age and not buying into presumed cultural attitudes, or what others might think. To that end, he recommends having friends of all ages and being open to new ideas and the inevitable changes that time brings. He also advises living in the present and not worrying about things that are out of his control—great advice for everyone.
Like many middle-aged people, he had to come to terms with the realities of dealing with his aging parents and their deaths. Several chapters deal with end-of-life issues with the very good and practical advice that people should have as much control over the end of their lives as possible. Among these are making sure that you plan your own funeral and memorials, accepting physical challenges with grace, and being sure to say goodbye to people as they are dying. A significant theme throughout the book is the advice to accept what comes your way without using setbacks or challenges as a reason to withdraw from the world. One chapter in particular, “I Won’t Let a Walker Ruin My Style (but I’ll Still Use It)” describes the difficulty of Steven and his siblings to get their dad to use a walker, or even a cane. He cites statistics on how effective these are, and at the same time, he writes about how the device can become a fashion accessory—if you can convince someone to use it. All of it, though, is written with good humor, love and caring, even within the frustration he and his family often experience.
Some of Petrow’s wisdom is hard-won. He is a cancer survivor, has gone through a divorce from his husband, has been living with HIV for many years, and as a result had to reset his path and identity on several occasions. He’s particularly concerned that LGBTQ+ individuals stay active and involved in life. “You know, we become invisible in our culture whether it’s at 40 or 50, and that’s a detriment to everybody.” The refusal to be invisible is what inspired the orange pants. “That was a lesson my mom taught me,” he says. “She was always very fashionable well into the 70s and 80s. So, I’ve been a proponent of wearing skinny jeans and neon-colored clothes. It’s part of who I am, but it’s also a part of just being visible in the world.
Petrow also pledges not to be disappointed with his life. Writing about his very accomplished father, his heart breaks for a man who at the end, departed without a sense of fulfillment. Like many men of his generation, as the gay son, Petrow, had a cordial but somewhat distant relationship with his father, and there is a sense in the chapter about what was lost in that. Petrow refuses to go down the same path. As he observes, “We are only given a limited number of decades in our lives—it would be a terrible thing to come to their end with a sense of disappointment. I am in charge of how my life turns out, and I will make the most of it.”
Always looking for the positive—and the possibilities—in any situation, Petrow says, “I won’t stop believing in magic.” I am a proponent of magic, but I’m a bigger proponent of science. I remember as a kid, the wonderment I had and a belief in the possibilities of the world.
“And as I got older, that kind of got beat out of me as it happens to many of us. We become pragmatists and, you know, everything seems incremental. One of the good things that came out of me having cancer in my twenties was a good friend, gave me this Fairy God Bunny. This was really a nonbinary gender-neutral bunny who had a tutu and a wand and so on. It was given to me as a talisman when I was going through treatment. And it was something that I came to believe in, held onto, took to all my appointments and kind of created this wonder again. That’s where that thought about staying in this moment of possibility and magic and seeing where that takes us comes from.”
As one reads Petrow’s book, it’s clear that rather than avoiding doing stupid things, the trick is to stay in the game, no matter how that may shift. These essays are a good start—and a useful roadmap.
You can hear my full interview with Steven Petrow on the Voice OutLoud podcast.