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Old? Me? The Politics of Aging


Last Tuesday when I went to bed I was just thirty three years old. Imagine my astonishment when I woke up Wednesday morning to find myself seventy-seven. I guess we all live out an episode of The Twilight Zone as we get older, finding ourselves adrift in that strange and mysterious land of the aging and not remembering how we arrived there. I've got two sons, one in his mid thirties; the other in his forties, who are now older than I feel myself to be today and I'm no Benjamin Button. It wasn't always this way. More than a decade ago I was diagnosed with a metastasized cancer. I figured that was the end. But with the help of some great doctors, good treatment, and a magnificent wife, I managed to live out the past decade in reasonable health and comfort; a life in remission which is all anyone really has; grateful to have the past ten years to be with my family and do my work writing plays, adding chapters to my never-ending memoir, seeing the birth of grand-children, and dropping some grouchy opinions here and on the Huffington Post from time to time.

Since I did all my serious thinking about death long ago I give it very little thought these days. Sure, I'm going to die, probably sooner than later, but that won't keep me from living every day that's left to me to its limit, sometimes with generosity and more often with an old guy's prerogative to snarl at the stupidity and cruelty he sees. Funny, I don't mind being considered an old man, but in the politics of aging I'll be damned if I let anyone call me a senior citizen - an ugly designation designed to push anyone over sixty into that ghetto of game show TV, Vic Damone records and early bird dinners. For many years I lived in California where middle age began so early that you were barely out of diapers before they wanted to put you back into them again. When I came back East to live it felt like I had dropped a decade as I set foot in Manhattan. Now I've been blessed to live in this great city where walking is a way of life, and no matter how old you get there are magnificent museums and buildings older than you are. Much of my work in the theatre has recently taken place in Chicago, another old city that I've learned to love and honor for its age spots and its wrinkles, and its ability to overlook mine and focus on my work.

Elizabeth Taylor and I share the same birth-date and birth year. She's been married seven, eight times and lived an extraordinary life, famous lovers, world-wide scandals, adventures, diamonds, Oscars. I've only been married once - most of my adventures were part of a splendid and tumultuous inner journey and I didn't make headlines or fortunes along the way. We share the same sign, the same chart, but oh, what a difference in our lives. So much for astrology.

I worked as a writer in the TV and movie business for forty years, with time out for work in the theatre; did some good work and some not so, but it enabled me to put my sons through college, travel a bit, and to enjoy the company of a few good friends and the love of some great dogs and cats along the way. Yes, I am an unabashed animal lover. Me and Doris Day. But the only thing movie star about me was trusting in a business manager who made off with most of my savings years ago, made off as in Madoff. Although I wish today that I had the means to help out an old friend, an elderly woman who is facing foreclosure and a life in the streets, I don't need much other than the company of the family I cherish, my infant grand-daughters who are heart stopping beautiful, my laptop, and the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse to see me through a bad patch.

Being old I am free to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg and his fellow trustees at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills where sick and dying friends of mine reside - that the planned closing of that home is an act of cruelty towards the helpless that defies all understanding. Guys, you say you have to kick these Parkinson, Alzheimer, and stroke victims out of your institution because you lack the ten million a year that it takes to keep it open for them, and keeping them there will force the closing of the assisted living section. In that age of the foul mouthed tough guy moguls; Mayer, Goldwyn, Selznick, Cohn and Zanuck, this would never have happened. They would have bullied, blackmailed, and bludgeoned their rich friends to keep it open - not turned upon the helpless with a shrug and a sigh. They practiced a rough, rogue's code of honor. It took the soft and sweet talking bosses of today to push the helpless out of their beds into the streets. Seems to me you guys spend five times that amount promoting some lousy picture. I feel outrage when I think of these preening Hollywood philanthropists who can't find the funds or the energy to solve a local humanitarian problem.

Here's the good stuff. Age is so damned liberating. It allows you to let go of so much ambition, so much despair, so much ego, and so much envy and vanity. I look at my contemporary John McCain and I wonder why he can't relinquish his anger, his disappointment, and his old fashioned nastiness. As the kids might say, "Johnny, its so seventies." The night I watched President Obama deliver his remarkable speech to the Congress I looked at those prune faces of his Republican confreres and they have taken on the look of the old time nasty politicians in 1930's Jimmy Stewart movies, the guys who gave pols a bad name. Kindness should keep me from mentioning Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and his response to the President's speech, but that's asking too much of this grumpy old guy. The man looked like he was emerging unsteadily from the space ship of an alien planet, eyes popping, nostrils flaring, having come with a mission to warn us earthlings of inter-galactic war, only to be taken back to the asylum from which he had just escaped in Roswell, New Mexico.

Born under Herbert Hoover in the dark early days of the Great Depression I am delighted to have Barack Obama as my president to help us get through these difficult times. Getting older you get a little closer to your emotions and I cried tears of joy when Obama was elected. It was a vindication of what was good about America, often hard to recall during the long dark night of the Bush years. I may be delusional but I feel that the recession will soon be calmed if not immediately cured by the policies that Obama has put in place and I hope to live to see that happen. I'm less sure about expanding the war in Afghanistan - it has proven time and again to be a burial ground for western armies - devouring young soldiers and changing nothing in that medieval world. I hope Barack Obama thinks more than twice about this. Our armies may be able to pacify the Taliban in one mountainous region only to have the killing fields moved to another, more distant spot. Pakistan and Afghanistan together are the world's Pandora's Box, not to be meddled with lightly without a grand plan. Strikes me that we need more covert and less overt action in that part of the world.

Sure there's plenty of small stuff I find disquieting in modern life. As a lover of songs and musicals let me start with singers who warble away tunelessly in that style called melisma, all push and no pleasure. Then there's the degradation of language through the careless, witless use of profanity. I say this as a writer of "Oh! Calcutta!" And as a connoisseur of the well chosen four-letter word which sparingly used is fresh ground pepper on life's bland iceberg lettuce salad. Then there are those bigots who claim that they are misunderstood and that the world has gotten too politically correct whereas what they mean is that it's great fun to trash and bully people who can't protect themselves. Press Lords who slip in a daily dollop of hate with their trash talk and gossip pages, and on their TV franchises. Guys who go to award ceremonies dressed in two day's growth of beard in a desperate effort to advertise their virility. I suppose the girlfriends of these Porcupine Charlies get both romance and free dermabrasion at the same time. Then there are those people who smoke cigarettes to stay skinny and only look and smell sick. There's that plastic surgery that robs age of its own particular soft beauty - those poor ladies pulled tight as bongo drums stuck in ageless limbo at the awards. And most of all, I reject a society that dismisses the liberal arts as impractical, not realizing that we learn to think as we learn to read deeply and to write well. Computer technology comes and goes, always supplanted by the next best gadget, but Flaubert's Madam Bovary lives forever, even on a kindle.

Having inherited my mother's iron will and my father's love of life I aim to be here for the long haul. I still live in a world of infinite possibility not because I am an optimist but because I am a realist. Sadly, having lost to death so many close friends and loved ones in the past few years I can only repeat the message of the old postcards, "Wish you were here." Trust me on this - bad as it may now seem to some - and I do not diminish the pain and the problems of these times, it's a great time to be alive.

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Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.
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