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Sherman Yellen

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My Eyes Are on the Prize

Posted: 06/09/09 12:39 PM ET

The other day I sent an email to the President of Bard College, my Alma Mater, protesting an award sponsored by the college that was restricted to novelists under 39 years old. It wasn't about my feeling excluded from that competition. I'm well over 39 but I am not an older novelist shut out of a chance for some prize money and a job, nor am I a professional protester. But it seemed to me that the college had taken a misstep in its prize-giving. If they had asked me I would not have called it the Bard Fiction Prize but the Jack Benny Prize after that beloved comedian who foolishly and forever gave his age as 39.

Clinging to 39 was part of Benny's radio act, which centered on his comic vanity -- his effort to fight aging with a preposterous lie. Along with his shtick of stinginess, playing the violin badly, and wearing a toupee, middle age-denial was Benny's comic persona. Old age wasn't even considered a viable subject for humor then. People died much younger in the 1940s, and those who lived long were more often revered for their wisdom than mocked for their frailties. It was called respect and it came as a part of our human equipment. Now the elderly are often the butt of many a bad TV ad and when not mocked, they are marginalized, trivialized, and Viagravized (sorry about that one). It gets far worse; they are more often ignored.

After watching all of that wild leaping about of rare young talents at the Tonys what a relief to see the beautiful Angela Lansbury at eighty receive her Tony Award for her brilliant comic performance in Blithe Spirit. Or elsewhere hear the magnificent Barbara Cook, another eighty plus performer, supremely interpret the great American songbook in her ageless voice. Or watch septuagenarian composer Jerry Herman get his Tony Award for his extraordinary musical theatre works. Sorry Elton, you have a long way to go to match him.

These elder artists are working artists today; they are not exceptions, nor are they the rule. The fact is that some talents grow better with time, others wilt, but it is often the way society treats such talent that makes the difference. The equation for professional longevity in any field is skill plus luck (that includes health) plus a stubborn determination to go on in the face of hostility, loss, and indifference. Toss in a little respect and the older artist or worker often thrives. There is some skepticism about older artists who continue to work until they drop, as if they are running on empty, or long past their shelf life. Recently, a New York show of Picasso's late life paintings was greeted with the praise that had been denied that late work in his lifetime. In a society where we are cautioned to avoid waste, what a squandering of human resources occurs in our toxic age discrimination. Art, like life, needs the tonic mix of generations to thrive. I know I need my young grand-children in my life, but I also know that they will need me just as much to laugh with them, or cry with them at all the absurdities and injustice that we humans face together.

You need only look at other arts grants and awards to see how narrowly focused we are in our separate worlds. Awards are often restricted to those of a particular sex, race, or sexual orientation: geographical grants abound, originating in New England, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a dozen places in the mid-west, all seeking to bestow prizes on their own kind. Of course we can't prevent anyone from discriminating with their private funds but the least we can do is speak up when the prize or award is so narrowly drawn that it shuts out more creative people than it admits. Imagine the feelings of that gifted novelist who is three days past 40 and excluded from the Jack Benny Prize.

As I noted in my letter to the college I do appreciate the effort to encourage emerging talent. But nothing stops emerging talents from rising: the world is eager to greet them and their works; they need as much encouragement as a puppy does to fetch a stick tossed into the garden. It is the aging novelists -- let's call them the submerging talents, those with one or perhaps two published novels to their credit -- who are hard-pressed today to find a publisher or even a literary agent to represent their new work. Looking good for the TV camera on interview shows and for book promotion tours has become another barrier for the older novelist.

In our youth-centered society an award such as the Bard Fiction Prize is retrogressive, inadvertently playing into a shameful part of our culture; ageism -- that ugly word. I know of a particular novelist, a man of 80 whose novels once appeared on the New York Times notable books list, yet who today must self-publish with his limited resources in order to see his excellent work in print. He is not the exception. There are broader consequences to such a prize. If the most liberal institutions practice age discrimination in a fiction prize it is hard to expect less "enlightened" business institutions to hire older workers in these difficult times. There is a connection, an unintended consequence.

Watching the delightful NBC special about President Obama's White House I was -- as ever -- charmed by our brilliant, engaging President and his young family, and I loved that microphone chewing dog Bo, but I was a bit perplexed by this White House's accent on youth. Sure, it takes a lot of energy to work the long hours that these women and men must work to accomplish the country's business. But where were the older, possibly wiser faces? I can recall from my childhood seeing those faces in the newsreels of the Roosevelt brain-trust; a Bernard Baruch, a Harold Ickes and other sages who helped a beleaguered people get through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Would it help to even the playing field if I admit that a lot of us older folks can actually out-swear Rahm Emanuel? Or as they used to say in the comic-strips when someone stubbed a toe or got real angry: !-*@#%&.

I am no warrior for the aged who looks around corners and over my shoulder to find instances of ageism. There's plenty there if you are seeking it and for years it seemed to me best to ignore it and go on with my life and work. When I turned fifty I was living in Los Angeles -- youth central -- and it amused me when some kid with a clip-board canvassing outside a movie theatre would look past invisible me for a younger patron's opinions. There was that 18-40 demographic that the advertisers were lusting after; and anyone over that age was considered a non person. Since I didn't long to be interviewed about my preferences in cola drinks I felt relieved of the burden of saying "Sorry, don't have the time to answer your questions."

For a long time I felt that it was a mistake to even consider older people as a discreet group. We have far too many groups in this country declaring that their needs are ignored and separating us from one another. But it is also foolish to pretend that differences do not exist. Sonia Sotomayor was perfectly correct in stating that her experience as a Latina gave her special insights in dealing with certain cases, perhaps more so than that of a Mad Men-style conservative white guy like Chief Justice John Roberts (my words, not hers, Rush). Speaking of Sonia, the other day I watched an old CSpann from '05 where she sat on a panel discussing the value of a young lawyer becoming a law clerk to a Justice. In addition to her exceptional common sense answers, what an amazing, hearty, good-natured laugh that woman has. Yes, I got a crush on Sonia. Back to my point.

Our histories, our life experiences, do create the people we are and contribute to the judgments we make. That's common sense. We older men and women have more than memories to fall back on -- we have a hard-earned sense of proportion. And having experienced so much loss we know better than most the preciousness of life. We are no minority; there are more of us over 60 every day, on our way to becoming the largest demographic group in the country. But sadly the age discrimination is still there -- inescapably so -- and getting worse every day. With the loss of retirement incomes from the collapse of the stock market, age discrimination plays out tragically for many over 60. Having lost most of their savings, many of the elderly risk losing their housing, and are in desperate need of work and government intervention to survive. That's why that ugly word ageism can become an uglier fact in so many lives. Fortunately for those of us who have spent our lives as freelance writers, painters, sculptors, actors, and survived all the ups and downs of such careers, retirement is not an option. For us it would be a punishment. But for many other people retirement from a physically demanding job is a blessing. And that blessing is now denied as they desperately seek new work.

Okay, it's all off my chest. Back to work.