Saturday, April 22, 2006

Suddenly The Big Surprise: Growing Older In America

When I submitted my first piece to the Huffington Post I was asked to provide a bio and a photo of myself to be used alongside my web-log. Faced by the request for that picture, I realized that I hadn’t taken a new photo in years. Truth is I had taken a few family snapshots – me looking down in delight at my nine month old grand-daughter - but I hadn’t taken” a good picture” in years. I opened a photo album and pulled out a picture I liked that was taken thirty five years ago. There I was with a full head of dark brown hair, straight white teeth, unwrinkled countenance, a “not bad for a writer” kind of picture which I had used in the programs of my plays. I submitted it to the Huffington Post and it has accompanied every blog I have posted these past months. I rationalized the deception. After all I had lived more than half of my life looking like the younger man in that photo, and less than a quarter of my life was lived as the weary older man I now confronted in the mirror. Nevertheless, I was challenged by conscience or was it truth in advertising (an oxymoron if ever there was one) but not enough for me to remove that picture and replace it with a contemporary photograph. Since I make no pretense about my age – I have recently arrived at seventy four - I know that it is a foolish bit of vanity but one that I am not yet ready to abandon.

I thought little more about my age until I was recently interviewed in Chicago by Time Out a popular entertainment guide about a new musical, “Josephine Tonight!” for which I had written the libretto and lyrics. I had learned the art of lyric writing in my late sixties – not so remarkable – it was the age of many of my friends who were learning new skills and experimenting in other art forms. The show was opening in Chicago in a few days and the publicist asked me to meet with the magazine’s reporter to help publicize the show. I agreed. After being introduced to the young interviewer, he announced that he had looked me up in Wickipedia and he was surprised by the fruits of his research. He wanted to know why I was writing new work at this time of my life. How could a man who had once collaborated with the great Richard Rodgers now write a new musical, with a new off Broadway show in New York and this other one in Chicago? It was as if I had trespassed into a world of creativity that exclusively belonged to the young. Worse yet, how could I, this older white man, write about a young black woman - the teen aged Josephine Baker of my musical? The first question was pure ageism. The second was pure horse-shit.

I tried to explain to Junior that a writer’s material does not belong to any race or any generation, that hard as it is to believe, all of us share a common humanity. Josephine Baker, a woman who had struggled for a lifetime to break down racial barriers would have celebrated a musical written about a spirited young black girl growing up in a Jim Crowe world, one who transcends the limitations of her life. From what I knew of her she would never worry that her life was being dramatized by a white man. I knew that I was in deep trouble with the cutting edge “Time Out.” And I was proven right when the reviews came out a week later. While the Chicago Sun Times had nothing but the highest praise for the work, finding it “hugely entertaining…hit written all over it”, and the Tribune found almost as much to commend in the work of its “redoubtable author;” and other critics thought it was in the tradition of the great American musicals, Time Out found it creaky, yes creaky, you know, the way old people and old floorboards creak? Okay, maybe he didn’t really like my show but I suspected that I was facing the last outpost of bigotry in America; the view that the older artist has nothing fresh to offer the world. Sure there are artists who transcend the negative view of age – the Picassos, the Matisses, and in my field, the Albees and the Sondhiems. But for most of us lesser mortals, the world views us through our numbers. I had written a lyric in the musical sung by an ageing theatre star who sings, “Suddenly, the big surprise. You look old in someone’s eyes.” And here I was, the creator of those words, experiencing that emotion as a result of that article.

It is no longer acceptable to be a casual racist, but bigotry against older people is non-racial, non denominational, and acceptable among otherwise progressive people in this society – such as the men and women who run our entertainment industry. Amos and Andy are gone forever, but foolish, befuddled, meddlesome old grandpa and grandma, prone to do and say silly, rude, and outrageous things are universally accepted on television, in films, in ads. Sadly, this attitude towards older people is a part of our national tragedy, for had “young” W heeded the wisdom of his own aged father, and not his hand picked Hallelujah chorus, we might not be stuck in a dreadful war today. One of the great discoveries of aging – other than finding that our learning and creativity doesn’t stop at any given age - is that it is easier to be bolder in calling the powerful to task. I’m proud to say that some of us older folks were among the first to recognize the arrival in America of the four horsemen of this apocalypse: Bush, Cheney, Rove and Rumsfeld.

My mother-in-law Henrietta Fuhr was a modest and moderate woman who rarely made a show of her political views but when she was dying at aged ninety-three she did not waste her last days with sentimental journeys into the past; she expressed her outrage at the Bush administration and the hope that people would soon awaken to its greed and dishonesty. This gentle, intelligent woman was thinking about the world that Bush was creating for her children and grandchildren. She was deeply troubled about the future of the country she loved and was about to leave behind. And so am I and many of my aging contemporaries, most of them deeply committed to a country that honors its best traditions. Like my mother-in-law I don’t wish to leave this world as one who kept a safe silence while the great decider destroys this democracy. We elders have lived through enough storms to know that Bush is our own Hurricane Katrina, bound to leave such material, environmental, and moral wreckage behind that it will take generations of wise old men and women working with the smart young ones to put this country right again. But there are limits to my septuagenarian courage. Yes, I can willingly take on the government and its leaders in a web-log, but what I still can’t bring myself to do is change that picture on The Huffington Post. Perhaps it’s because I still feel that I am that vigorous young man in the photograph. Delusional? Sure it is. Okay Junior, just humor the old guy