Once, when I was a boy, I was speaking with my elderly grandfather who lived to be nearly one hundred, and he told me that he was “rising 80” an expression he had picked up during his years of living in London’s East End. I loved the sound of it. Most of us in America think that anyone who is approaching 80 is declining, if not amongst the walking dead, but we never associate 80 with the splendid word rising. Now, having reached that amazing number myself this week (amazing to me after a lifetime of health dramas that should have killed me off at 10, 20, then at 40, then at 60) while all the while convincing myself that I am forever 32, I rejoice in my new and unexpected age. No, 80 is not the new 60, it is not the new anything, it is the same old 80, but surprise, surprise; it feels great to me.
Most days I feel the same as I did 40 years ago — lucky me — but there are other days when I am very much aware of time’s passage, like when I bend down to pick a book off the floor (no kindle user me) or remember that there are few alive today who can recall the Third Avenue elevated train under which I lived as a young man, the wooden floors of B. Altman’s fine old department store, and the world of cars that looked like round backed Tonka toys, and the beautiful girls in billowing skirts (not blue jeans); and that I was lucky enough to see the gorgeous sloe eyed charm of an Audrey Hepburn on the Broadway stage, or what it was like to be a young guy whose first vote was for Adlai Stevenson, or to be one who heard Edith Piaf sing of tragic love in the flesh, and who (gulp!) met Marilyn Monroe through a friend of Joe Dimaggio, and who worked with the great Richard Rodgers on a musical play. Nevertheless, my best advice for any age is to paste the battle stories of your past into a scrap book and stay close to the present, living in the moment with few regrets. It may be easy for me to say this because this has been a great and fortunate year for me.
Right now I have a new musical Josephine Tonight playing at Metro Stage in Alexandria, Va, and selling out. It has been welcomed in the DC area with the kind of praise that one does not usually get at my age, when the world rejoices in emerging talents rather than so called submerging ones — and it is great to find oneself lifted up by appreciation in a world of the theater that I love and work in. Sadly, there is no Veteran’s Day for the arts, and most artists are among the walking wounded. After two Emmy Awards and a Tony nomination, there were years of professional neglect when it was assumed that I had aged out of the work I love. Being my mother’s son — which means someone who won’t admit to barriers that can be jumped — I sold TV scripts in England and in Germany when Hollywood closed its doors on my career, and started to write plays and musicals for small, regional theaters. Now, another production of my new musical about the early life of Josephine Baker, a Cinderella story with great Wally Harper music, will be played in Sarasota at the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe in April. Note, I took up the art of lyric writing when I was well over 60, when we are not supposed to learn new skills, and I found that the learning process doesn’t stop, or even decline (ignore all so called scientific studies to the contrary written by rubbish statisticians who hate their fathers). And my other new musical about Al Jolson that I wrote with Will Holt (another octogenarian) will have a debut in Lancaster Pa next fall. I am not the exception to the rule that creativity and the passion for work dies with age — I have too many friends in my age group among whom are Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler) and Charles Strouse (Annie) still working with great talent and zeal at their craft and finding joy in it. So much for aging out of the work we love. You can find a representative review of my new musical on the link below in this piece — yes, I am shamefully immodest. An overnight success. It only took a decade of work to get these reviews for this show. It was lovely to read these reviews but the halo disappears from my head when I remember that my toddler grand-daughters are due to visit and I better hike over to the grocery to buy some milk, and there is more joy in just being with them than any good review can bring. Still, check out this link if you please — it sounds like it was written by my mother in heaven but honestly, I don’t know the critic, or the many others who found so much entertainment in this work of mine, and the late Wally Harper.
My wife hates the fact that I am writing this, she doesn’t believe that one should hang a number on one’s chest, or sing one’s own praises. Easy for her. She is an ageless beauty blessed with an inexorable decency who believes that one should go on living day by day the best one can and not do the math for curious strangers. But there are some numbers, and 80 is one of them, for which, as Arthur Miller said of the aging Willy Lohman, “Attention must be paid.” And if I didn’t mention my age I don’t stand a chance against my Wikipedia listing which tells all to anyone who cares to Google me. Not all. All will be told in my forthcoming memoir, Spotless, some of which has appeared in the past on The Huffington Post, but even then, only the choice parts of a life are worth telling. Age to me is the last closet with a lock on the door, and it’s time for those of us who are of a certain age to tamper with that lock, pick it open, acknowledge it, and step into the light, for age often makes one invisible, as skin color did for so many years, and nobody alive should be invisible. Fortunately, this has been a very visible year for me.
Eighty has its benefits as well as its obligations. At 80 I am allowed to stare people out of their seats in a bus and I gather that I am permitted to give blessings and advice. I’ll settle for the giving of blessings. Advice is a gift where the recipient looks for the receipt to return it while pretending to be pleased upon receiving it. It appears that everyone has a duplicate of good advice at home, like those rabbit wine openers and silver plate cake knives, and they dismiss even the very best kind of advice that I purportedly give that comes from my splendid mother’s recipe book, “Don’t give up on your dreams, or on your marriage unless it is abusive, and never on your children, or your friends, and especially on your work.You will find a way if you look hard enough and work hard enough for it.” Fortune cookie advice, sure it is, but it has helped me get through eight occasionally stormy and difficult decades, and today I am having one of the best years of my life.
It is wonderful to find that at this certain age there are more people you love in the world than those you don’t, despite the fact that the losses of parents, sister, friends, are so great that they often seem unbearable. Time doesn’t heal anything. That’s a cheap and worthless salve for life’s deepest wounds. I feel the loss of my mother and my older sister, two of my early life supports, decades after their deaths. But work and new friendships do offer true comfort for the pain of loss. When I was young — late 30s — an older acquaintance, Dorothy Rodgers, the wife of Richard Rodgers asked my wife and I to become their friends. We were honored and puzzled. She explained that so many of her old friends were dying they needed new, young friends to fill a void in their lives. Not a bad piece of advice. Contact with the young not only keeps you young but involved in the world. Friendships with old friends and new are the best anodyne against the depression and despair that comes with the losses of aging.
The wonder of it all is, that I haven’t mellowed a bit. I was contrary, opinionated and outspoken at 13 and at 30, and the sharp edges are no smoother today. I bellow at those who don’t hold open doors for people with packages, I argue with people who are rigidly wed to some system or rule, and I stare down (ineffectively) kids in the street who promiscuously use the four letter words that I hoard for very special people and occasions, say a Gingrich or a Santorum or the Roberts court, but I am pleased that I have not really changed much in that area. The grumpiness is more than balanced by the love I feel for my family and friends — particularly my young grand-daughters who are just starting out in life, and amaze me with their charm and intelligence. Best of all, I’m happy to turn the tables on the old saying that one is always a liberal in one’s youth and a conservative in old age.
Never have I felt more passionate about the need for progressive action to remake this wounded country, and for greater government intervention into the lives of the dispossessed. Having lived through the Great Depression as a child, I never felt the despair that I do today, because then there was a common goal to energize and restore the country, and there was a respect and concern for those unfortunate enough to have fallen into hard times. Poverty is unacceptable in this rich country, it is a national disgrace and it is now rationalized and demonized by the right. Given the nature of poverty in America, something that effects so many young children, it is one of the nastiest forms of child abuse to ignore it. And without joining the Occupy Movement I occupy my hard earned liberal convictions without a backpack or a sleeping bag, but I live them more each day.
I despise the cruelty that tries to pass itself off as social and economic conservatism; the hard hearts that confuse selfishness with common sense, the indecency that passes for some kind of rigorous economic thinking. Ayn Rand, a mediocre — no, make that awful — writer and a self-absorbed zealot who conflated selfishness with freedom, still helps the uncaring and uncharitable to justify their offshore bank accounts and sin sniffing ways.
And I have been gloriously, gratefully lucky in my life, and recognize that not everyone has had my good fortune. Lucky in my parents who for all their troubled lives loved me and provided me with a wonderful education in school and life; lucky in my remarkable friends who are loyal and caring, and best of all lucky to be married to the same woman for nearly sixty years (divorce is for sissies) with two fine, mature sons who emanate decency, a lovely daughter-in-law, and three glorious grandchildren — the three-year-old wonder-twins, and the six-year-old child encyclopedia of charm, so this is a terrific time of life for me. No, I don’t live in a 50s sit-com, but there is an alternate reality to the belief that the word family must always be preceded by dysfunctional. Again, I know I am one of the fortunate few, and I realize that it may not and will not last. I have friends and relatives facing physical and mental trials that are truly terrible, signs that nature can be an ageist too, hell no, a sadist, conflicting pain on the minds and bodies of those who can least endure it. Yet there is an army of us — older men and women — who love our lives, find comfort and peace inside our own age, and whose deepest concern is for the future of the people we love, and the world they will live in when we are long gone. Onwards!