Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Though I am ninety, my wife has a thing for an even older man—my dog. Make that our dog, Rocky. A brown wire hair terrier, he is fourteen years old, which in dog years is equivalent to ninety-eight. They love each other. He especially loves Arlene. If he senses she has strayed too far or has been away from him for too long, he barks, and barks, and barks, until she comes around and pats him on the head, gives him a kiss, or cradles him in her lap while rubbing his belly. “I’m here,” she says, comforting him into submission, and quiet.

She would never tolerate such demanding behavior from me or anyone else. But he is different. At night, when we are in bed watching TV, they are a pair. He sits directly in front of her, staring up at her with Jean-Paul Belmondo eyes: dark, droopy, lovelorn puddles of sadness and sensuality, demanding attention, waiting to drown her with affection. Either that, or he is struggling to make her out through thick layers of cloudiness (not cataracts) that have rendered his vision a misty morning fog. He doesn’t move until she returns his gaze and then purrs, “I love you, Rocky.”

Theirs is another relationship that defies the odds. When I met Arlene, she was a cat person, and she still is. She brought her cat, Spider, into the house and kept him in a carrying crate to protect him from Rocky, who kept jumping at her out of curiosity. Michelle had been allergic to cats; Rocky had never seen one before. And Spider didn’t seem too keen on having a dog pawing at her. He’d let out blood-curdling screeches and foam at the mouth. In other words, he was not interested. I was discouraged. I wanted them to get along.

“It’s going to take time,” Arlene counseled.

That’s how it was with Arlene and Rocky. At the start of our relationship she said, “I don’t really like dogs.” It was matter of fact. A declaration. To me, that was like saying, “I don’t like Mozart” or “I don’t like ice cream sundaes.” What kind of person doesn’t like dogs? I found out. But I did not hold that against Arlene, and neither did Rocky, and fortunately Arlene did not hold being a dog person or being a dog against either of us.

I understood the problem. Rocky was demanding. The first time Arlene came over to fix dinner, he dropped his plastic toy at her feet and waited for her to pick it up. She didn’t. The next time she came over he put his toy at her feet and waited. After a bit she kicked the toy about three feet. He hurried over, scooped it up in his mouth, and deposited it back at her feet. When she failed to kick it again, he trained his Belmondos on her, but without the desired effect.

Over time she generously tossed the toy a few times. Rocky was grateful for the attention, I’m sure. But he was like an alcoholic with that toy. One toss was too many and a thousand was never enough. When Arlene began living at the house, she stayed in Michelle’s room, and late at night, as she was drifting off, nestled in that comfortable world between being awake and asleep, she heard the door creak open.

She peered through the darkness, unable to see or hear anything—until suddenly a twenty-five-pound wire hair terrier jumped up on the bed and curled up on her pillow. “Get up, you dog!” she said, only to be met by a woozy grunt and a repositioned paw—body language that said, “I ain’t moving.”

Not long after that fateful night, Arlene came out for breakfast one morning—followed closely by Rocky—and said, “Okay, we have a dog now.” She quickly added, “But I’m still a cat person.”

Though her cat Spider was wary of this new relationship, I was delighted. Rocky, well, he was in love. He wouldn’t leave Arlene alone. He followed her everywhere. One afternoon Arlene picked up the leash. Rocky was right behind her. I was at the dining room table and overheard her talking to him.

“I love cats,” Arlene said. “But the thing I don’t like about cats is you can’t take them for a walk. So, yeah, Rocky, I’ll take you for a walk.”

Thirty minutes later the front door opened. They were back—and Arlene was smiling.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Fun,” she said. “We had a good walk.”

Soon Arlene acknowledged she’d become a dog person. But she was not the only one who had changed. Rocky and I were living different lives, too. Aside from being married and upbeat again, I was ushered (or dragged) into the twenty-first century. I was on Twitter. I starred in six-second videos called Vines. I listened to music with Pandora, whose algorithms were like magic to me. I had no idea how that app did what it did (true confession: I don’t even know what an app is), nor did I understand why, when I created the Tomaso Albinoni station, they never played any of the Italian Baroque composer’s music. Nevertheless, I played it for hours.

Through Arlene I found new music from Lady Gaga, who sings great, and Amy Winehouse, who impressed me as part Billie Holiday, part Ella Fitzgerald, but with a sound of her own. She had clearly done her homework. The impact all of this had on me—from going to belly dancing class with Arlene to discovering new music to using apps—was an elixir all its own. I sang and danced constantly. It was like the wind suddenly picked up after being becalmed for a period of time.

I was moving again, invested in the future, growing, learning, and doing all the things that should not stop just because you get to a certain stage in life, or a ripe old age. Old age shouldn’t be considered ripe; neither should it be thought of as overripe. It takes nine months to have a baby. People go to school for twelve to twenty-five years. Becoming educated takes even longer. And learning is—or should be—a process that spans an entire lifetime.

I was reminded of this recently when I read that Stewart Stern had died. Stewart was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause, The Ugly American, Teresa, Sybil, and many other movies. But this man, who lived to be ninety-two, impressed me most with the way he lived his life.

I met him in the 1960s through Edna McHugh, one of Eddie Cantor’s five daughters, and composer Jimmy McHugh’s daughter-in-law. She was one of those sophisticated characters who knew everyone, and she hosted fabulous dinner parties where she gathered the most fascinating mix of writers, actors, artists, and musicians. The dinners I attended at her house inevitably ended with some kind of intellectual brain game. There was no sitting around chatting; after dessert it was a competition of cleverness and wit.

Stewart was among the brightest and most entertaining people there. He loved animals, and I remember him telling a story about how, while on a hike, he came upon a pasture of grazing cows and laid down in the grass among the animals. Another time he related being on a safari in Africa, wandering into the jungle, and camping solo among the wildlife. He was a gentle, quiet man who gave me the sense that his writing was about his own personal search for something other than show business, perhaps something purer and closer to his soul.

Indeed, he ended up a beloved writing teacher in Seattle after moving from Hollywood in the late 1980s, according to his obituary, in order to “get away from all the outside voices and pressures, and back to what inspired me to write in the first place.” I was about that same age, my middle sixties, and in Denver, working on the first season of Diagnosis Murder, when I heard about this thing called Toaster from Amiga that let you create animations on your computer. I was a life-long cartoonist—or amateur doodler. I drew caricatures of people when I was on the set. So I couldn’t resist this new toy.

I ordered one. It came to the hotel, and I plugged it in. I read the instruction book. I had a camera. I took a picture of the skyline, and ten minutes later I had spaceships flying over Denver. I was hooked. I described it to coworkers as a combination of technology and art, but in truth it was playtime. Of course, in those days, if you finished a small, fifteen-frame animation on Friday, it took until Monday to render. Now it’s very fast. But time didn’t matter to me.

This was a hobby, and like any hobbyist, I was more than willing to fritter away hours, if not days, pursuing a project. I ended up doing quite a bit of CG animation for the series, including a fiery motorcycle crash that opened one episode. The show didn’t have a budget for big stunts like that, so I shot a highway scene, went back to my computer, added a motorcycle, and created the crash, all in CG. We used it, and I got paid $200. I still create animations at the computer in my studio. The process is bottomless, and inevitably, as I whittle away the hours, I discover something new.

But I was telling you about Arlene and Rocky. Let me get back to them because the point I want to emphasize here is that old dogs can, should, and need to learn new tricks. It’s the reason Rocky is still with us—that, and my wife’s devotion to him. Their first walk together led to daily romps in the meadow on the hill. Arlene would return home eager to describe the way Rocky bounded through the tall grass, an old man running like a spirited pup happy to be out in the fresh air.

Then his eyes got worse and hips weakened. The decline was gradual until late 2014. He struggled to get up and wobbled on his legs. It seemed like he had back pain. Arlene took him to vet, who delivered a grave prognosis: “You’re going to have to put him down. It’s pretty much over.” Arlene came home in tears.

I pictured Rocky as a pup, scampering near the pool. He had lived a wonderful life, I thought, and I was ready to surrender to the doctor’s end-of-life prognosis, if that was most humane. But Arlene made it clear that her dog was not going anyplace. She wasn’t going to allow anyone to put him down just because he had developed a disability, just because he had gotten old.

“Except for his legs, everything else is working,” she said. She picked him up. Momentarily tense, he looked at her through opaque blue eyes, then relaxed, like a pup, and licked her face. “See that,” she said.

“He loves his mom,” I said.

Arlene smiled. “We wouldn’t put a human being down just because they have trouble getting around.”

My brother disagreed. Jerry thought Rocky should be put down. “He’s old,” he said without seeing the similarities between him and Rocky. Both of them were old. Both of them had bad hips, bad backs, and various other aches and pains that kept them from getting around the way they did in their youth. Both of them sat around much of the day. Both of them barked if the women in their lives weren’t by their side, albeit affectionately, but essentially demanding the same thing: “Come pay attention to me.”

As I have mentioned, Rocky barked nonstop when he started to miss Arlene. Jerry had zero tolerance for the noise, especially when he was exercising in the pool. “That dog should be put down!” he kept telling her.

Arlene frowned as she scooped up Rocky and wrapped her arms protectively around him while the dog’s appreciative tongue searched for her cheek. “Come on, Jerry,” she said sweetly. “We don’t say such things about you!”

This version of The Sunshine Boys played daily in the backyard. Then one afternoon, as Arlene was walking Rocky by the pool, the dog’s hip wobbled. He lost his balance and fell into the pool.

“Oh no!” Arlene gasped, before taking a breath and preparing to jump in to rescue Rocky. A moment later, though, she was still on the side, frozen with disbelief by what she was saw. Rocky was swimming. As soon as he hit the water, his back legs started to work, effortlessly, the way they were supposed to but couldn’t on land. But in the water they did not have to bear any weight. The salt water added even more buoyancy. As Arlene later recalled to me, he almost appeared to be smiling. He was suddenly Rocky Phelps.

One dip in the pool, of course, did not make Rocky a young pup again. But after that he went swimming every day. Spider would sit on a chaise, watching supportively. We thought she knew his eyesight had gone, and she felt more secure; she also wanted Arlene’s attention. As for Rocky, we could tell he anticipated his daily swim with a puppy-like eagerness. Once in the water, his tail wagged with such velocity it looked like a propeller.

Actually, his workout was more like therapy—and similar to the routine of . . . guess who? In fact, pretty soon my brother and Rocky were alternating time in the pool. They were taking the same pain pills and doing the same water therapy for the same amount of time. It was as if they had received a prescription for what I always preach—keep moving!

And it helped. The old dogs had new tricks, and they were better off for it.

Did I mention that I also fell in love with Spider? I’m now a dog and a cat person.

Old dogs. New tricks.

That should be on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker.

Look, people don’t want to deal with dogs that get old and are no longer perfect, and the same is true when human beings incur the wear and tear of a long life. Despite the old adage, though, old dogs can learn new tricks—and should! I have seen the benefits in my own backyard. We don’t know how long Rocky will be with us, but right now he is doing well. Some days, thanks to Arlene, he gets more exercise than I do. He seems to smile when she lifts his hind legs and walks him around the backyard like a wheelbarrow. He has his own wheelchair. The vet says he seems content and happy. His tail wags throughout the day. He has added acupuncture, laser therapy, and a workout on a water treadmill to his weekly routine, and from what I can see, he continues to enjoy being a dog.

My brother is trudging along too. Life may slow down, but it shouldn’t stop. Every day you wake up and don’t find yourself listed in the obituary is an opportunity to take charge of your health—and your happiness.

Old dogs. New tricks.

Live the life. Get the T-shirt.

Why Write It Down?

I keep a notebook by my bed

and lay out the day that’s ahead.

When it’s there on the page,

my thoughts disengage,

and my brain turns to dreaming instead.