Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book Review: Professional Old Man

(Is this one a Fair Trade Book? I'm guessing that it's not; Jim McGavran of Columbus, Ohio, doesn't seem likely to be the same person as either Jim McGavran of Charlotte, North Carolina, who died recently, or Jim McGavran of Virginia Beach, who's only in his forties. Who would've thought such an unusual name would be so popular? Anyway, if the author was over seventy in the 1980s it's probably no longer a Fair Trade Book, although I'd be delighted if I were wrong.)


Title: Professional Old Man

Author: Jim McGavran

Date: 1987

Publisher: Watkins Printing Co.

ISBN: none

Length: 92 pages

Quote: “Regular readers…know that they will never learn anything from it that is worth knowing. Its osle purpose is to entertain, by sharing memories and by chuckling together over the strange things that happen as we grow older.”

McGavran was talking about his column in The Columbus Dispatch, from which this book was collected. Nevertheless, his book does have historical interest. Back in the 1960s when there weren’t enough housing projects for low-income retirees to choose from, McGavran dedicated his work to raising interest in building them; when he “really retired” from writing his column, he felt that he’d accomplished some part of his goal.His approach was subtle, tactful, tasteful, nonpartisan…what Arthur Brooks might have called majoritarian; and, in its quiet way, effective.

Columns that inform or advise, McGavran said, were likely to be wasted on senior readers. If anyone hadn’t learned to cook by age seventy, s/he just didn’t want to cook. Anyone who’d survived the “childhood diseases” and the “midlife crisis” was probably as healthy as s/he was ever going to be. All the “professional old man” had to tell people about was the lighter side of being “old.” Nevertheless, he quipped, his profession took more preparation than the traditional ones. “It takes only four years to become a school teacher, and seven to be a lawyer…It takes 70 years or even longer to become a professional old man.”

So what does the professional old man write about? Mostly the bemusements of time. Who would have thought, he muses, that there’d ever be an actual support group for people who were “too good looking for their own good”? “It’s sad to think that a girl who wants to be a nurse or teacher has to settle for stardom in a daytime television drama.” Stores that relied so completely on self-service that they wouldn’t train the help to, well, help customers find things? “‘Pardon me,’ I asked [another shopper], ‘but do you know where to find bath mats?’ ‘No, I don’t,’ she snapped. ‘If I had found them when I tried last week, I wouldn’t be limping around with my arm in a sling.’” Doctors who didn’t recognize the names of his complaints—“Rheumatism…kind of like lumbago, only everywhere…Catarrh…something like rhinitis and la grippe…I have dyspepsia and flatulence.”

(Personally, I suspect he was exaggerating about that, but it’s worth noting that only in a very obsolete French textbook have I ever found an explanation of La Grippe. Basically, when influenza meant the deadly kind, la grippe meant the other things we now call flu. “Grippe” was, the book enthused, one of the new slang words that were current in both French and English, along with “camaraderie” and “suave.” No, I don't have either the book, or any idea how to search for it on Amazon, today.)

McGavran was not too old to spare some empathy for the problems confronting the young. In 1983 jobs were much more plentiful than they are today, and most full-time jobs paid enough to feed and lodge two point six children if not a dependent spouse who stayed home with them, and even students earning $3.35 per hour could afford to rent furnished rooms while dressing for success and collecting LP’s. Still, was it true that anyone who wanted a job  could get one? “What’s an aerobics instructor? What’s an avionics technician? What’s a cytotechnologist?” And oh, those dear old computer systems of 1983, mostly available on fully dedicated machines that were now sleek and compact—shrunk down from whole-wall-of-a-room size to medium-reclining-armchair-size…

Y’know who can really enjoy this book now? People now in their fifties, sixties, or seventies, who were considered kids in the 1980s, that’s who. For a total nostalgia trip, who’s up for reminiscing about the grand old days when COBOL and DOS were new? And when the people making this kind of observation were, like, with us? I can see the Craigslist ads now: “Let me tell you about my great-aunt. Will listen to reminiscences about your great-uncle, or swap CD’s…”


Do you still have grandparents? (I lost mine horribly early; that’s the trouble with a family where everyone ripens slowly, marries late, and dies at a respectable age but still hardly gets to know the grandchildren.) If you do, invite them to reminisce at you, now. You’ll be glad you did.

If you want to share the vintage reminiscences of the Professional Old Man, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of your screen, below the blog feed widget.