The Duplex Planet
"Everybody's askin' who I was."
Valuing old people for who they are rather than for who they were is one of the secrets to communicating with them, says David Greenberger, creator of The Duplex Planet and compiler of a 25-year collection of conversations with seniors.
Too often, he says, we talk to old people as if they are merely repositories of familiar stories about the olden days. Children learn to do so early on, often assigned by kindergarten and grade school teachers to talk to grandparents about the Great Depression or World War II.
Though oral history is useful, "It's much more vital and engaging to get to know [old people] as they are now," says Greenberger.
Greenberger has made a career of talking to elders and sharing what they say through publications, spoken-word recordings and theater. Aging is a big part of our lives, he says, and doing so gracefully is made easier if we associate it with a wide range of familiar faces and personalities rather than "scary, single word descriptions or visions of grandpa dying."
We come to know old people by meeting them in the moment, accepting their frailties and current circumstances without feeling sorry for them, or treating them as "having the wisdom of the ages."
Pity and worship serve only to distance us from them, Greenberger warns. "If you put somebody on a pedestal, you're not seeing them eye-to-eye."
In fact, he says, thinking you need to do anything differently than with anyone else when speaking to old people is just wrong.
"Consider the postage stamp, my son: its existence consists of its ability to stick to one thing until it gets there."
- William "Fergie" Ferguson, from Duplex Planet
Once an aspiring painter, Greenberger discovered more compelling artistry in the language of elders. His first inspiration came just after college on a cross-country trip to California. Along the way he met Herb, in his late 70s. Unlike with Greenberger's relatives, he spoke with Herb without the prejudices and emotional baggage that come with knowing a person's past, and which often prevents focusing on the here and now.
"What was really empowering about it for me was, I met this guy on the same terms I would meet anybody," Greenberger recalls. "I didn't know what he used to do and it didn't matter.. that sort of freed me up."
It whetted his appetite for more interaction with those who are old or in decline. In 1979, he joined the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston as Activities Director, and soon began publishing snatches of residents' conversations in a simple, homemade magazine, The Duplex Planet.
He left the nursing home in 1982, but continues to publish the magazine after more than 170 issues. There also are books, concerts and CDs. On his latest CD, Legibly Speaking, Greenberger recites monologues from conversations with elders while accompanied by a backup band, 3-Leg Torso.
He gets new material by visiting elders at nursing homes, meal sites and similar settings around the country. They usually are happy to talk.
"I found as long as I approach them the same way I would approach anybody else, I feel fully engaged, and so do they," he says. "That means not treating them as a repository of the past, not interviewing them, [but] conversing with them."
"Some people have a one-way mind. They have a mind that just goes forward. And the person with one-way mind, if you talk to them, they don't listen because nothing goes in, only comes out: one-way mind."
- Albert Dambrose, from Duplex Planet
Unlike listening to well-rehearsed narratives about the past, conversation is a two-way exchange of fractured sentences and spontaneity that reveal the speaker's individuality.
"That's how you get to know somebody.. not from having them give you fully-formed stories," says Greenberger.
He stimulates conversation with unusual questions and humor aimed at revealing the "in-the-moment emotional creature" within his participants:
"If you were stranded on an island, what three things would you want to have with you?" he asks.
"A flashlight, a gun and food," says a pragmatic Charles Shea.
"A woman, something to drink and cigars," says a more idealistic John Fallon.
"I'd want my husband, Elvis Presley and the Salvation Army," says Daphne Matthews, mixing idealism with pragmatism.
Humor, the great icebreaker, conveys much unseen but important information and sets the stage for building relationships, says Greenberger. For example, if you have a very different sense of humor than the other person, chances are your relationship won't grow beyond a certain level, he says.
"Would you swim in coffee if it wasn't too hot?" he asks.
"Yessss, I would," says Ed Poindexter. "You want to know my Social Security number?"
"You know what I say, all nuts don't come in shells!" observes Francis McElroy.
The value of such interactions is not necessarily to find role models or the wisdom of sages, says Greenberger, but rather, examples of aging. Most things we do in life are based on seeing other people do them, regardless of whether or not we choose to do things the same way. The more examples we see, the better, he says. But except for our relatives, society gives us very few examples of healthy aging - a situation he is helping to overcome with conversation.
"I hope to be a healthy old person some day, and I'm on my way there," he predicts.
You could say he is talking his way into it.
Excerpts from The Duplex Planet: Everybody's Asking Who I Was, reprinted with permission from the author, David Greenberger:
"Anybody who thinks they can get away without having bad times is not reading the fine print. Its part of the deal.. it's a BIG part of the deal.
- Anna Traut, from Legibly Speaking
Q. Who invented sitting down?
A. The man that couldn't stand up.
- Bernie Reagan
"Why is it they put holes in Swiss cheese when it's Limburger needs ventilation!"
- Roy Elliot
Q. What makes a good relationship?
A. Doin' for 'em and help each other out. And, ah, divide the money. And, ah, lendin' clothes.
- Abe Surgecoff
Q. What constitutes a perfect kiss?
A. Uncompromising commitment to the act of kissing.
- Bob Shirey
"I just can't see why us human bein's, why we have to kill each other, because I think there's other ways to settle that stuff without, without killin' each other. We act like we ain't got no upbringing or anything. We go shoot somebody, but they're still human bein's. Why are we killin' each other?
And just think back, look how many young boys have been killed on wars, for centuries. Some of 'em could've been scientists, some could have made things better in the world, but we'll never know. We'll never know. It makes me kind of want to cry. We don't learn.
It seems like we continue to go down the same old road, same old road.. I don't know what the Heavenly Father thinks about stuff like that. He must cry up there, before the boys that are killed. And we're makin' bigger and bigger stuff too, to kill more people. We need to learn how to live together, live together as brothers and sisters, to help out each other and love each other, care about each other. And show our love."
- Albert Entzel
Q. What do you know about dinosaurs?
A. Why what's the matter with them? There's nothing wrong with them - if you treat them right, they'll treat you right. You treat them wrong, they'll treat you wrong.
- William "Fergie" Ferguson
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