Me? Old? The Geography of Aging in America

The only group that can be held up to ridicule in the mass media are the elderly. Race and religion are no longer acceptable targets for bigotry.
08/27/2007 06:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Believe me, I don't feel bad about my neck. So, it's not what it was fifty years ago, and some days it appears to have as many rings as a Muir Park redwood, but it still supports my head which holds my breathing, seeing and thinking devices -- all of which seemed to be functioning okay when I got up this morning. I am, gulp, in my mid seventies, and except for days like today when I tripped over my cat Byron who was wildly chasing a field mouse in my country living room, causing me to crash into a coffee table, bruising my leg and toes, I feel... well... I rarely think about aging. That gets harder and harder to do in this country. Yes, before I go on, Byron caught the mouse. His first. I took a certain pride in this although I have nothing against field mice and my wife insists upon have-a-heart traps for any rodent foolish enough to risk Byron's wrath by sneaking indoors. There I was, brought low by a living Tom and Jerry cartoon. But I will recover. Minor injury.

Years ago I learned something about aging -- that it wasn't so much the date of your birth but the place you were living in that determined whether or not you were old. There was a geography of aging in America. I began to notice this when I moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles in the nineteen seventies and stayed there through the nineties working as a script writer for various studios. I don't have any East Coast snobbery about the culture or lack of it in LA: nice, sentient, intelligent, art loving, caring people actually live there -- but it became clear to me that every time I returned home to New York to visit my folks I felt ten years younger, and every time I stepped out of the terminal at LAX I aged a decade. At first I didn't have a clue as to why that was happening -- I figured that it wasn't just because my parents still viewed me as their youngest child in New York it was the LA experience. I eventually learned that one became an official senior citizen at fifty in Los Angeles, and New York was holding fast to sixty five. Sure, I could get into movies cheaper, but in LA people canvassing in malls failed to ask my opinion on any topic -- I was outside the cherished demographic of 18-40. Then it happened. When I reached fifty nine, my important LA agent called me into his office and sadly, gently fired me -- noting that although I had many awards for writing, indeed too many which gave away the length of my career, and I was a helluva nice guy, he couldn't sell me to the studios or the networks. The message the agent conveyed was that I was old news... out of touch with the zeitgeist... incapable of understanding or creating what America wanted -- an America dominated by the young, and the youth worshipers. As the father of two young sons I was stunned by this -- I felt I knew more about how young people felt and acted than most young people. But the tide was too strong to fight it, and I soon went to Germany to work on a film, and later managed to do a series for the BBC.

I was amazed that anyone in America would think me too old to practice my craft, one that I felt I had perfected with age. When I started writing for television in the fifties, after recently graduating from college, it was the old guys who were my heroes -- Paddy Chayevsky, Reggie Rose, Rod Serling, the people who created the best television drama, writers of the so called "golden age." My generation had a reverence for the artists who were our elders, and we knew they had the most fascinating view of the world we were living in. Check out "Network" if you want to see the best study of television news -- done years ago -- and right on target today.

It took the '94 earthquake to do it, to shake some sense into me, but I moved back to New York, and lost that extra LA decade in the process. I once again began writing for theatre -- enjoying a new career writing musicals and straight plays for regional theatre and off-Broadway. I went back to where I started and it has been a great period of my life. But now I find that my New York, with its billionaire baby hedge-fund moguls is eying me as an old guy, much as I experienced it in LA. It's not just that young people offer me their seat on a bus -- which I often dismiss with a look of "Who me?", but it's the way the local news is reported. A woman of sixty is mugged and she is reported on TV news as an elderly woman, a guy of seventy has a car accident, and he is described as a very old man. I suppose it is worse in retirement states like Florida and Arizona where I have been told that the old are often ghettoized and patronized. I was born in a cold climate and I intend to die in one. Enough! The only place where I now feel ageless is Chicago where people seem to care more about the work produced than the "heat" and the youth surrounding the writer. So now I have to go to the Midwest to lose that decade. It keeps a guy traveling.

This didn't happen overnight. In 1922 Emily Post noted that young people liked to laugh at their elders and find them absurd, so older people should not express disapproval of the young to their faces and risk humiliation. It is much worse in the eighty five years since Ms. Post commented on American manners. Now, the only group that can be held up to ridicule in the mass media are the elderly. Race and religion are no longer acceptable targets for bigotry. But age is the big American joke. We are the fools who don't get it, who make disgusting gastric noises, who meddle in our children's live, we are an army of the tactless, clueless, in short, a blot on the landscape. Trust me, I do get it. And I've earned my understanding. I've had illnesses in most of the major food groups -- and lived to tell the tale. I've experience a lot of loss, but also a lot of joy. Like many who were born in the nineteen thirties, we came through the Depression with a sense of social justice that remains unfinished through time, and a sense of humor to get us through the hard times. And we are politically wise, wise enough to look at all the candidates in this '08 crop with a cold eye, able to weed through the cliches and compromises that we hear on the left, and the cruelty and fear-mongering that is revving up on the right. I don't think that Henry Kissinger is a malevolent fool because he is old, but because Henry Kissinger would have been a malevolent fool at twenty five.

I do recognize that I am a fortunate man. I have two splendid grown sons who live nearby, a long and loving marriage to one remarkable woman, an adorable two year old grand-daughter, a family that cares about each other up close -- not at some awful physical and emotional distance -- the distance that our culture keeps the young and the old apart in this country. I have grown older in the most privileged way, one that most older Americans no longer know -- surrounded by people I love. But I still won't risk another trip to LA. I don't think I can handle that extra decade being imposed upon me until my leg gets better from that accident. And I can show them that I can still run.