Ottawa Writers Festival: Learning the lessons of aging well with Carl Honore

Carl Honore is in Ottawa March 7 at Southminster United Church.

Let us never know what old age is. Let us know the happiness time brings, not count the years.


The Canadian ex-pat and writer Carl Honore was playing some hockey when he scored a great goal to help his team advance in its league playoffs.

He was 48 at the time. That sterling moment was spoiled when a teammate said in the dressing room “Mate … you’re the oldest player in the tournament.”

It forced Honore to consider his time of life. And it stung and it stuck. It became one of those things that wouldn’t let go.

Honore, who is well-known for what he calls his Slow Trilogy of books that analyse our fast-paced world and suggest a better way of living, knew he had something but it just took time to complete the thought. Now that he’s 51, he has produced the book Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives (Knopf Canada). He’ll be in Ottawa on Thursday at Southminster United Church to talk about his findings.

“I have never been that interested, as a writer, in preaching to the choir to be honest. I find that as you grow older, you care less about what other people think. You mind less. You have got something to say and you just want to say it,” he told ARTSFILE in an interview.

“I took that approach with the first book I wrote and I feel that even more now. I sat down and wrote this book for me. It is something that I felt I needed to say.”

Honore, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Edmonton, has been living in the U.K. for many years. He has been a foreign correspondent and a journalist. His books tackle big subjects, but they begin close to hand.

“I have come to this realization that I have always tried to work through some of my own stuff or exorcise some of my own demons, I suppose, in my books.

“With the first three, I was grappling with my own addiction to doing everything faster. With Bolder, what I am trying to do, on a personal level, is make sense of my own toxic ageism, that I was carrying around like a millstone.”

His partner would poke fun at him about being ageist. But Honore sailed past his 30th and 40th birthdays without changing his perspective.

The reason: “nothing seemed to really change and on the whole things were getting better. And it still is getting better.”

Then came the locker room incident.

“There was something about that moment. It was like an out of body experience. After having that soaring high and then having it all crash down on the basis of a number made my blood run cold. I questioned whether I should even play in that tournament. It put everything in a different and uncomfortable light.”

Honore writes a book every four years or so and when what would become Bolder “wouldn’t let go of me” he knew he had a book.

“I feel journalists are weather vanes. We pick stuff up by osmosis, stuff that people aren’t seeing. That’s when we do our best work. … You see a through line and give it language people haven’t seen before and give it fresh life.”

Honore, who was born in 1967, is a member of Generation X but “I tend to stay away from generational cubby-holing.”

Even so he believes that the Baby Boom generation has “come in for a lot of flak for being bloated, solipsistic, self-seeking, bed blockers. The boomers are actually redefining what it looks like to grow older in a way that no other generation has done.

“I think we will look back at the boomers and say they were the people who gave the door that first kicking through.”

But that’s not the point.

“I am not writing about being old. I feel I am writing for and I am hearing from people in their 30s who are having this idea that everything is already on a downward spiral. People are talking about being finished at 40. I am writing for age-phobic worriers of any age.”

The general perception, Honore said, is that aging is something old people do. But really “if you are 30, later life could be 39. I have deliberately left that open so that people at any age can come to the book and play with the ideas.

One of the reasons aging signifies something unpleasant is the inevitability of death. Growing older brings us closer to the end.

For Honore, his whole feeling about death has changed because of his research, that took him around the globe.

“One of the first things you think of is why are we so terrified of aging? The answer: Aging adumbrates death. One thing I found is that contemplating death is actually not a bad thing. Thinking about death is something we rarely do now.”

Scientists are looking for a way to avoid the Grim Reaper but the reality is we will die, Honore said.

“The question then is what do you do with that. A society that runs away from death, that hides and conceals it, makes death even more terrifying.

“The trickle down from that is that aging, which takes you closer to death, becomes even more appalling.”

This wasn’t always so, he noted. In more traditional societies death was woven into daily lives. It wasn’t some great unknown.

“If you bring out in the open, talk about it, think about it, aging becomes less dreadful. I didn’t think about death before, but I think about it much more now and I don’t view it with dread.”

To that end he has even signed up for the app WeCroak which sends a daily reminder of the great beyond.

The focus on death has now turned Honore into thinking he is going to make the most between now and then. “That is the takeaway.”

This is an optimistic book. That positive view has drawn some flak, but Honore doesn’t seem fazed.

“Some may think I am being too optimistic. I am not a pollyanna. Aging has its downsides and I am at pains to point them out all through the book. That’s part of life. The trouble in our culture is that we focus almost entirely on the rough parts and we don’t talk enough about the smooth parts.”

He said if you want to read about the downside of growing old, there are lots of books that will do that.

“I mention it enough for (Bolder) to be balanced and not be some sort of wild cheerleading paean. I wanted to explore and uncover the surprising side of aging. I had no idea that people’s satisfaction and happiness was higher in later life. It was a revelation to me and it blew my doom and gloom view of aging out of the water.”

The book shows that there is another side to the story about aging “and it is luminous. Let’s hear more about that.”

Besides, Honore believes, a downbeat view of aging becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If you think growing older will suck. it will suck. I personally have come out of this feeling way more optimistic.”

He said he isn’t about to put those super agers who are skydiving at 90 on a pedestal. Instead the book offers a simple message: “Go out and make you own form of aging. If that involves hiking Kilimanjaro in y0ur 80s, go for it. If it means puttering around in the garden and watching your grandchildren, that’s OK too. Don’t feel bad about age because then the conversation is all about loss, decrepitude and dementia.”

The book does recognize that wealth or lack of it is limiting. If you are old and poor this hopeful message may not resonate.

“I worry about that. I clock that in the book. I didn’t want it to be a book to be for upper middle class people in cities in advanced western countries.”

He does believe that when it comes to a realignment of wealth, a discussion that is gaining currency, “aging has to be part of the conversation.”

Still, “even in an unequal world there are levers that we can pull whatever our income level to improve our aging. Drink less, don’t smoke. Be more active. Push yourself to learn. There is a lot of personal responsibility involved.”

There is a risk even here though.Honore said he didn’t want to turn the book into something that blames those who aren’t aging well for causing their own problems.

“I didn’t want to turn good aging into a stick to beat people with.”

All his books are journeys of self-discovery but this one had Honore “discovering my own wrongness the most.”

He believes there are changes fuelling a more positive view of aging including the fact that the generations are starting to mix together more.

“So much good comes from mixing up the generations. One of the main benefits is you start to take down ageism because when you live around people of all ages, stereotypes become harder to defend.”

Even cultural barriers between the generations are tumbling. For example, at the time of this interview, Honore’s 52 year old wife was going to see the trip hop band Massive Attack with her twentysomething son.

Even more important: “For example, Netflix’s algorithm doesn’t measure a viewer by age but by taste. We are becoming less and less defined by the number on a birth certificate. What matters more is what you bring to the party.”

In town: Carl Honore will be at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave., March 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.