On the surface, it’s complicated to discern the connective threads that link Happiness Is a Choice You Make with New York Times reporter John Leland’s previous book-length subjects — the history of the concept of “hip” (Hip: The History) and an exegesis of the Ur-Beat writer Jack Kerouac (Why Kerouac Matters). It’s an extension of Leland’s much-remarked-upon Times series, “The Oldest Old,” in which he tracked three men and three women, aged eighty-eight to ninety-two, all New Yorkers, over the course of 2016. The book-length version fleshes out the quotidian experiences of his subjects and attempts to capture and distill the experience Leland cites of learning to “quiet” his instincts — which told him he had nothing to learn about being older — and open himself to what his subjects had to teach him.
A devotee of the Greek and Roman classics as a Columbia undergraduate and a “pretty bad” drummer on New York’s cusp-of-the-’80s “No Wave” scene, Leland — a self-described “recovering rock critic” on Twitter — developed his journalistic chops as a chronicler of rock, punk, and hip-hop at alternative and mainstream music magazines, before reaching the summit of that pyramid with positions as an editor and columnist at Spin magazine and as a music critic at Newsday. From these jobs he leapfrogged to a senior editor’s position at Newsweek and a yearlong tenure as editor-in-chief of Details magazine.
You can trace a line of influence from the Greek and Roman authors Leland studied to the almost, not quite, homiletic quality of portions of the book’s second, “lessons” section. But, to paraphrase the title of a song by bebop tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, “Don’t be too hip,” or you might skim over the wisdom Leland drops throughout the pages of this cliché-free, empathic, glass-half-full treatment of the aging process. —Ted Panken
The Barnes & Noble Review: I searched your archived Times articles, and Happiness Is a Choice You Make seems to be the culmination of about ten years of reporting — I found your first pieces on retirement in 2006; you started reporting on it in earnest in 2008 and 2009.
John Leland: A few years ago, I noticed this little blip, that people over eighty-five are one of the fastest-growing populations. I’d reported on older people in the past and found it rewarding work, because it quickly got to the emotional core of life. Your mother’s old; that’s emotional for you. It’s emotional for her or your father or brother. So this interested me, and I thought: Well, why don’t I do a story about what happens when you lose your mobility? Or what happens when you lose your eyesight? I’d set out to do the challenges of getting older. It was predictable. I could have talked to doctors and written these stories. But I didn’t think it really got at what life would be like for people. Finally, I came up with this idea, and my editor approved it: Why don’t we follow six people for a year and let the stories be whatever they give us? I started casting around for people to be part of it.
BNR: How did you cull your cast of six from the enormous pool of elderly people in New York?
JL: My partner is a former actress, and she says that casting is 90 percent of directing. I wanted a diverse group and figured six would be manageable. I wanted three men, three women, people from different walks of life, different levels of mobility, living in different situations, from nursing home to independent home. I wanted to find a couple.
BNR: You wrote in the Times about a gay male couple in 2013.
JL: Yes. That was before I started this project. I’d written about two men in my mother’s building, Ken Leedom and Peter Cott, who had been together at that point for fifty-five years, I think it was. I wanted them to tell me what gay life was like in New York fifty years ago. They were lovely, fascinating guys, and I think they whetted the appetite within the Times.
BNR: Certainly, the template of the tone and focus of the later articles seems present in that piece.
JL: I think that’s true, although I think I learned to write the series as I went along. The first piece is like, “Boy, it’s tough being eighty-six,” and “Boy, it’s tough being eighty-seven” — for everybody but Jonas Mekas, who is having a wonderful time. I came to the project with a lot of preconceptions, which I think shone through more in the first article than in the second, and more in the second than in the third. I really learned some of the lessons by the time I was through with the series and was closer to thinking about writing the book.
BNR: How many people did you select from?
JL: Dozens. I don’t know exactly how many dozens.
BNR: How did you meet them?
JL: Some people I met on my own. Jonas Mekas I knew about. And I thought, well, I could use somebody who’s a ringer . . .
BNR: Well, hipsters and artists are part of your beat also.
JL: Jonas certainly runs in hipster circles. I knew him and was interested in him, and I thought at the very least I’ll go into this with one person who is really good at talking to the press. I wanted an immigrant, so I went to a bunch of elder immigrant organizations. I went to Chinese and Korean senior centers, some groups that dealt with Latin seniors. I met with a lawyer who does elder law, to see if there was somebody in a suit with their children over housing — that’s a big issue in New York. I didn’t get anything useful out of that, but as I was leaving, someone from there said: Oh, by the way, I volunteer for this organization that delivers meals-on-wheels to home-bound seniors in Brooklyn. Through them, I met an African-American man named Fred Jones, a military veteran who had his own great story and was very funny. Also, the mother of the woman who ran the organization had just been kicked out of her home in an assisted living center in Brooklyn. I thought: Homeless at ninety; that’s a fascinating story. That was Ruth Willig.
I met a lot of people who didn’t quite make it. One of the first things I did was to interview a bunch of centenarians, and I met a fantastic woman — but she died. “Get me a gin,” she said. Her name was Jean Goldberg, and I think she was 101. She lived on her own until 100, and then she started to fall, and she worried that she was going to become a burden to her son, who would have to come every time she fell. So she checked herself into a nursing home and died a year later.
BNR: After reading your various Times pieces on aging, it seems reasonable to assume that your reporting on Happiness Is a Choice You Make piggybacked on the information you’d assimilated between 2008 and 2015.
JL: A lot of books like this will begin with the data or the experts and look for examples of people to fill in and support the data. I tried to do this the other way around. I wanted the stories of the subjects to drive the direction that I was going in, and then afterward look to see if there was data to support this, or what the psychologists or geriatricians or gerontologists made of what I was seeing. I wanted to make sure that what I was seeing wasn’t wholly anecdotal, but I was never trying just to illustrate the data.
BNR: When did it become apparent that you had a book?
JL: I didn’t really start thinking about a book until about six months after I’d finished the series. It was partly selfish. I loved the story. I missed the people and I wanted to stay in touch with them. These people had a profound effect on me emotionally. They changed my life. I realized that the story was not about what it’s like to be older, which the Times newspaper stories were really about, or what eighty-five looks like to an eighty-five -year-old, or what ninety-two looks like to a ninety-two -year-old. This was more: What did I learn about life from these people that is valuable at any age? I wish I’d known a lot of this stuff earlier.
BNR: You incorporate your personal narrative into the text, and your mother plays a consequential role. Was your experience with her aging process also driving your interest in reporting this subject?
JL: My mother was always a presence in my reporting. I found that dealing with somebody else’s elderly people made me much more . . . I don’t know . . . compassionate with my mother. I didn’t go to those relationships thinking I had to fix anybody. I didn’t have any past experience with them. I no longer thought, Gosh, I wish my mother exercised, because I didn’t wish any of these people exercised — I was just willing to accept them as they were. “I wish they had a better attitude.” No, I didn’t wish they’d have a better attitude. So it really helped me understand, become more patient, and enjoy my time with my mother more. When I’d go to see these people, I didn’t think of myself as doing something for them. I wasn’t performing an obligation. It was something that was of value to me. So then I could think about visiting my mother as: What am I getting out of this? I’m learning from this. I’m getting so much out of it. That instantly warmed up my relationship with my mother, which was never bad, but was always . . . We’re not that super-close a family.
BNR: How many visits on average did you make to each of your protagonists?
JL: I usually visited a couple of times a month for a year. I have to say, it was always fun.
BNR: You don’t delve too much into their pasts. Had you initially thought to create more fleshed-out biographies of each of these people?
JL: I hadn’t thought about that, because I was most interested in who they were now. Really, it was just: How do you get up every morning and face it? What do you face? And what has that taught you about life? I think to do full bios of them would be fascinating. I love them, and I would love sitting around talking to them about their pasts. But the story I wanted to tell is: You’ve been in this journey so long; you’ve lived so long; you’ve learned so many things — what is it you know now?
BNR: How did you work out the structure? The text is two equal parts. The second half is lessons, in which you elucidate what you learned from each person in one way or another, while the first half is . . . well, also lessons, I guess.
JL: The lessons in this book, I should say, are not terribly complicated. We’re all capable of learning them. You don’t have to be a Mensa person to live a happy life. People who got better SAT scores aren’t happier than people who didn’t. So the lessons are there for us, but we need to be taught them, we need to get them in a way that’s going to be meaningful. These lessons are in our literature. They’re all in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah. They’re all in self-help shelves as well. But to absorb them, you have to get them from the source. So the first half of the book is really introducing you to the characters. You need to know Ruth Willig as a person if you’re going to learn anything from her. Same thing with Jonas Mekas or Ping Wong. So that’s what the first half is; the second half is the things that made my life so much better.
BNR: The Times pieces generated quite a bit of commentary, and the woulda-shoulda remarks in the Comments section were interesting.
JL: I loved the comments on this. It’s one of the great things about writing for the Times. Most comments on websites now are “drop dead, libtard.” But the Times has a thoughtful body of readers, and a lot of people wanted to tell me the story of their grandmother, or their mother, or their own story. Some people said, “You’re missing this point.” All of that was welcome. It did what I hoped it would do. It’s become a large body of people who are having a conversation with one another, and I was a part of it, but I wasn’t necessarily directing it.
BNR: You’ve been working on several other files of activity with the Times over the last couple of years as well — the “Sunday Routine” series, pieces on photographers, more recently, the “Lions of New York” series with people like the late Sam Shepard and Hal Wilner. Do you get to shape your own agenda, or are these subjects happy accidents? You seem to have one of the more enviable beats at the Times.
JL: No doubt about it — I have the best job at the paper. I get to shape it to an extent, but I work with great editors, and they’ll have suggestions, too. Jan Benzel, who was the editor of the Sunday Metropolitan section, suggested “Lions of New York” as a column. It’s people who have been part of the fabric of the city for decades, through its ups and downs — what did they see? Some of the other stuff, “Album” and the “Sunday Routine,” I love doing because they’re fast. The “Oldest Old” series that the book began with . . . those stories take a long time to develop. I might be two months out of the paper with those.
BNR: You started out in music journalism.
JL: I did. There’s people in that realm who come from the journalism side, and people who come from the “Gee, I like music, and what do I do about it?” side. That’s who I was.
BNR: You attended Columbia, but not the journalism school.
JL: No. That’s a graduate program. I was an undergrad. But I was writing for the Columbia Spectator, the school paper, and I just loved music, and there was so much going on. I came to New York in 1977, the early days of punk and hip-hop and the loft jazz scene. It was an incredible time. You never knew what you’d hear next. You’d hear stuff that was just awful, and then go around the corner and hear something that knocked your socks off — like nothing you’d ever heard before. And it was cheap!
I lived on West Ninety-ninth Street. There was a handball court at the end of the block that was big with graffiti writers — and if there were graffiti writers, there were break dancers, and if there were break dancers, there were rappers and DJs. So I remember this scene: One time they were practically in front of our building, and I go out, and there’s guys spinning on their heads, and guys talking about their zodiac signs. It was a shock, like that’s the new thing; that’s what’s going to happen. Not that many people were as interested in it as I was. To me, that was the beginning of my experience of real empathy as a journalist. The people who were making this music were really different from me. They came out of a different world. They lived different lives. I don’t know what it’s like to live like that. I was going to learn from them. I didn’t have anything that I could tell them. I think it became this great training in letting other people tell you about their lives, learning about the world from them.
BNR: Were you writing about it for the Spectator?
JL: At the Spectator I mostly wrote about albums that were out. I don’t think I wrote about anything in hip-hop at the time. And I wasn’t that smart at the time. I started to really understand this was important music a little later. You’re talking about, by then, sort of early to mid ’80s.
BNR: How did it become your profession?
JL: Well, I knew I liked to write, and I knew I liked music. One of my editors at the Spectator became the typesetter at Trouser Press magazine, and then editor of a spinoff from Trouser Press, which he asked me to write for. That folded, and I started writing for the regular Trouser Press. Music magazines were unstable. You would get in a music magazine, then it would fold, and the people from that magazine who were good would go to three different magazines, and then suddenly you had an in at three different places, and you could write for them. The money was negligible. I started off writing for about $35 a story, but now you could make that at three outlets instead of just one.
BNR: Your first book, Hip, generated a fair amount of discussion at the time it came out.
JL: It came out of conversations with my editor, who was really interested in the topic of Hip. I was really interested in the ways we process race in America and the fantasies we have about one another — that we love and embrace our popular culture, which is so integrated, and yet we are so segregated as people. So our ideas gelled together to become the Hip book. Where did Hip come from? Well, it seems to come from these West African words, hipi or hepi, “to see” or “to open your eyes.” What does that mean? How does a West African word make it into general parlance? Well, it’s got to go from black people to white people, and there’s got to be some interplay there. John Kouwenhoven writes, “What’s American about America?” What’s as American about America as that path of that word hipi or hepi into our idea of Hip? You can learn almost half of what you need to know about America in that.
BNR: Your second book, Kerouac, would seem a logical follow-up.
JL: Yes. It was the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road. The Beats were such a fascinating part of the Hip narrative. And I loved the idea of delving deep into one work of literature that not everybody has read, but a lot of people have read. And it didn’t have an embodied criticism around it that, say, Moby-Dick has.
BNR: Do you see a connection between the lessons you learned from writing Hip and the elders who are the subject of your new book?
JL: I guess I don’t. The idea of “hip” often glamorizes depression, unhappiness, existential angst, and I think the people in Happiness Is a Choice You Make have learned to cast off that romance.
BNR: Two of your subjects passed away in 2016 — Fred Jones and John Sorenson. Are the others still with us?
JL: Everybody else is still alive. I’m happy to say they’re still doing well.
BNR: You’re fifty-eight. How might you apply these lessons to your own aging process? Is it purely a matter of consciousness? Are there more practical measures that you can draw from your reporting?
JL: Well, there are practical measures you should take. We all believe we’re going to live for a long time. We certainly have that opportunity. For you, it might be eighty-three; for the person at the next table, it might be ninety-two; for the person at the next table, it might be 110. But we have possibilities in front of us in ways that didn’t exist when our ancestors were being chased by saber tooth tigers. Most of us haven’t been doing grueling physical labor all our lives, so our bodies aren’t broken down from that. So we do ourselves a favor if we eat well and take care of ourselves.
More than that, I think what I’ve taken away is not to be afraid of old age. It’s going to be different. There’s going to be changes. I won’t be able to do certain things that I can do now, and I will look differently upon other parts of my life. So I want to recognize that that’s exactly the same as now. I can’t do things I did when I was seventeen. I’m limited by my physical abilities, the money I have, the personal and physical attractiveness or lack of same. I have limitations. But we all have limitations wherever we are in our lives. Limitations don’t start when you’re eighty-five. Before you lost your eyesight, you lost something else. And you made the most of it. Your life is still complete.
So I don’t look at it as a diminishing of my life. Maybe certain things I can’t do. But my life will still be my life. I will still occupy 100 percent of my life.
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