Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)
Oh Brother, How Old Art Thou?
(Or, How Do You Know When You’re Old?)
How do you know when you’re old?
People worry about this. They think about it, they plan for it, and then one day they wake up surprised. They look in the mirror and ask, “Is that really me? Am I old? How did that happen?” I have done that many times, though I try not to, despite the daily onslaught of insurance solicitations that arrive in the mail and the TV commercials we all see targeting the ailments, afflictions, and anxieties prevalent among us soldiers in the gray-haired army. Maybe you know you’re old when you start paying attention to those commercials. I change the channel.
I have managed to avoid the question, even though all of the major birthdays that trigger such existential inquiry are in my past. I have also managed to avoid the question even though my oldest child, Chris, is sixty-five, my next oldest child, Barry, is sixty-four, and my daughters—well, I won’t say their ages. To me, they’ll always be kids. But I also have a forty-year-old grandson among the brood, all of whom are inching up the actuarial table. They may be asking themselves how they will know when they are old. They may even be looking at me for signs.
I don’t want anyone to waste the time, so I’ll point out the obvious. I used to be six-foot-two, and now I am five-foot-eleven. Where did those three inches go? Medically, I’ve been told that vertebrae compact, the skeleton compresses, and you shrink. But I still think of those inches like socks that disappear in the dryer—a mystery. Is that what it means to grow old? You shrink a few inches every few years until you disappear?
Then there’s my hair, which used to be brown but is now gray. Actually, it’s white. That transformation to Santa Claus–white from dishwater brown wasn’t even a speed bump for me. I was touring in Music Man at age fifty when I noticed my pate had paled—I was completely white. Instead of being depressed, though, I said to myself, “By God, if I’m ever going to have a chance to look a little like Cary Grant, this is it.”
The truth is, my hair could be blue or green for all I care—as long as I have some on my head.
If ever there was a sign I was old, it was when I was rejected by the AARP magazine. That actually happened a few years ago. They asked whether I would be on the cover, and I said, “Sure, why not?” Then I received word that they had changed their mind. They put Michael J. Fox on the cover instead. Apparently, at eighty-six, I was too old for AARP. I got over it—immediately—as I do most things.
Losing three inches, not getting a magazine cover—what’s the big deal? There are few things in my life I would change, and as a result, I focus on what’s next, not the past. Comedian George Burns, who, when asked late in his life whether he lived in the past, said, “No, I live in Beverly Hills. It’s much nicer.” I live in Malibu and feel the same way. When I do get nostalgic, it’s apt to be for simple pleasures, like the jazz and big band standards from the forties and fifties or the kinds of things that make a night special, like a dress code in a nice restaurant or having my Caesar salad dressing made tableside the way I used to enjoy at fine restaurants in the sixties.
If you are suddenly craving a Caesar salad, it might be a sign that you are old. The original Caesar salad dressing that I remember from restaurants was made with raw egg yolks, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies, and typically mixed and tossed right at the table. I understand that anchovies were added later and weren’t part of the original recipe. My wife has learned to make it the way I remember, if anyone wants the recipe. We have it all the time. As a result, I am still enjoying my salad days.
My brother, Jerry, who is six years younger than me, has a slightly different take, partially because he is naturally funny and sees life through a comedic lens. But he has also battled health problems for nearly two decades, from knee replacements (due to his Rafael Nadal–like zeal for chasing down balls on the tennis court) to a liver transplant (while he was on the waiting list, I changed my will to say he could have my liver if I died, and every day he called me to see whether I was still alive). Understandably, those events have taken a toll.
I saw it when he and his wife, Shirley, stayed with us for a couple of months starting last Christmas. While I scooted in and out of the house in my bare feet, as I am known to do (a friend once dubbed me the Barefoot Prince of Malibu), Jerry got around with a cane, the result of a painful back surgery the previous year that had not yet fully healed. It was hard for me to see. I know it was harder for him. One afternoon he landed on the sofa with a heavy sigh.
“How’re you doing today?” I asked.
“Terrible,” he said.
“What’s bothering you?”
“Same thing as yesterday—I’m eighty-three years old!”
“Jer, is there anything good about getting older?” I asked.
“What about the lessons you’ve learned?”
“I’m very sorry to say there aren’t any.”
“Do you have any advice for people who are getting older, who are entering their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties?
“Don’t do it.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t get older.”
What my brother meant was don’t slow down, don’t give up the things you like to do, don’t pay attention to the calendar. In other words, keep moving, stay active, and continue to pursue the interests and activities that keep your spirit young. Jerry is a perfect example. Like me, he blew past sixty-five without thinking of retirement (at the time, he was still playing Luther on the sitcom Coach). He’s continued to work into his eighties, slowing only when his health refused to cooperate. A couple of years ago he was booked at a club in Palm Springs.
There was just one problem: he hadn’t done his stand-up act in a while and couldn’t remember his material. A day or two before, he called from his home in Arkansas, asking whether I remembered any of the jokes.
“From twenty-five years ago?” I said.
“There’s nothing written down?”
He went on anyway. A few days later I ran into Gary Mule Deer, the veteran comedian and musician, who had been at the show. He said my brother had the audience laughing nonstop. According to Gary, there wasn’t a person in the theater who didn’t have a good time. Though not surprised, I called my brother and asked how he’d managed without his act.
“Shirley,” he said, referring to his wife, “remembered my act.”
“Not a clue.”
“What’d you do?”
“She was just offstage, and I kept yelling to her, ‘What do I do now?’ Right in the middle of a song too.”
Most recently Jerry has had a recurring role on The Middle, an ABC comedy about a middle-class Indiana family. He plays actress Patricia Heaton’s cantankerous father. Over the Christmas break, while at our house, Jerry pitched the show’s executive producers on having me guest star with him on an episode. We shot it a couple of months later, as soon as they finished writing it. We played feuding brothers trying to mend fences before it’s too late. But when I show up to visit, my energy and agility piss him off—which is similar to our real-life relationship.
For years he’s said that people stop him in airports and restaurants and say, “Hey, Jerry, we loved you on Coach. Honey, come here. It’s Dick Van Dyke’s brother.”
Growing up, I didn’t make it easy on him. I was a good student (I could have done better, but I was too busy being social), a performer (I starred in most of the school plays: I was taller than the girls and could be heard in the back row), and student body president and then a DJ at the local radio station before going out on the road as one half of a musical-comedy pantomime act. At sixteen, Jerry visited me in Los Angeles, where I was working nightclubs. Impressed, he returned home to Danville and began doing my act. As he says, “I stole the whole thing, went back and made a fortune—at least $25.”
He still has a letter I sent him following that visit, saying I couldn’t wait to get back to Danville to see his act—“the act you stole from me!” In it I also advised him to get out of nightclubs. “If you stay in nightclubs, you’re going to meet a lot of lousy jerks and die broke. The coming thing is television. We should try to get into television because it should be going great guns.”
I was so gung ho about this new device that I took a correspondence course in television repair as a backup in case show business didn’t work out for me. I urged Jerry to do the same. But he refused to consider a backup plan. “I was afraid if I had one, I would back into it,” he recently explained to me.
And now? Any regrets? “It is what it is,” he said with a shrug. “I’m still here.” And still waxing philosophic about the lessons he learned along the way, starting with this one: “People worry too much about things that don’t matter.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Stuff—the stuff we think other people are going to notice or talk about. As it turns out, nobody gives a crap.”
“That’s one of the advantages of age,” I said. “You don’t worry about what other people think. There’s more honesty as the years go by.”
Jerry nodded. “That’s why I don’t understand plastic surgery,” he said. “All my friends are getting work done. They come up to me and ask, ‘How do I look?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. Who are you?’ You can only go so far. People have this idea that they can fix everything. But they only fix what they see, and as you get older, it’s the parts you can’t see that need to be fixed—like your ass. Never mind your face. Your face is fine. As you get older, it’s your ass that disappears. And you don’t know that until one day you can’t get up and realize you’re sitting on your back.”
Ladies and gentlemen: my brother.
For me, it is all about how I feel on the inside. These days most of us seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-year-olds feel younger than we are, and the new reality is more like a new honesty: it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside—whether we have gray hair, no hair, less hair, hearing aids, bifocals or trifocals, stooped shoulders, or orthopedic shoes instead of Florsheims or Ferragamos. Our reflections barely matter. After a certain point age doesn’t matter. Why even count? For that matter, why even look in the mirror with a critical eye?
You get to that place where you are like a favorite old flannel shirt—well worn, faded, thin in places, but so perfectly comfortable you love it more than anything else in the closet. Like that old shirt, you want to feel great. The outside doesn’t matter as much as the texture and touch, all the memories and miles, and, of course, the fact that it still does its job!
At seventy-five, I thought about entering the Senior Olympics. I had been a high jumper in high school, and I felt as good as I did back then. I still ran about a twelve-second hundred-meter and knew I could beat most guys in my age group. If I hadn’t taken a job instead, I might have a gold medal on my mantel.
With the right attitude, age is immaterial. At eighty-nine, I became the executive creative producer of the Malibu Playhouse. The opportunity was unexpected, but I thought, “Why not try?” The playhouse is small: a stage, no curtain, just the bare bones of a theater. But ask anyone who works in theater, and they’ll tell you there’s no limit to the imagination. I have ideas for a sing-along night, a salute to Broadway, and I have spoken to Shirley Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., and others in the neighborhood. Ed Asner, at age eighty-five, recently finished a show. I know many talented people still eager to work. I am going to sign them up.
Only my brother has been skeptical of this new position, and I know that if his back weren’t killing him, he’d be pitching me on the two of us doing The Sunshine Boys again. In 2011 we costarred in the Neil Simon classic to raise funds for the theater, and then we took the play on the road for a few nights. We had a blast.
I remember walking into a scene one night, hunched over, and my brother whispered, “Dick, you don’t have to play old anymore.”
It broke me up. It also began a conversation between the two of us that we recently continued:
“Jer, at what age did you begin to think of yourself as old?”
“It was just like, ‘Oh, shit, I can’t be eighty-three. I can’t be.’”
“What happened that made you feel that way? Your knees? Your back?”
“No, it was that my phone stopped ringing. I used to be on the phone constantly. I had a lot of friends. Then all of a sudden . . .”
“Do you remember our mother saying the same thing? She complained that everyone was gone. She had no one with whom she could talk about the past. I know what she meant. I had to have all my suits taken in because I’m shrinking. I have the same tailor as George Hamilton. I ran into him at a banquet dinner and asked, ‘How’s our tailor?’ He said, ‘He’s dead.’”
“It’s been like that since I came out here. Everybody I have asked about, I find out they’re dead.” Jerry paused. “On the bright side, they are, and I’m not.”
The two of us fell silent and sipped our coffee. I thought about my good fortune at still being able to sing, dance, travel, and do nearly everything else I have enjoyed my entire life. I adore my wife, four kids, seven grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Jerry, too, despite his recent physical problems, has had a long, happy marriage and a full life. Pretty good for two guys with a combined age of 172 years.
“Jer, I have one more question,” I said.
“How do you know when you’re old?”
“If I shut my eyes, I still feel twenty-five,” he said. “Does that tell you something?”
It did. Then I told him about a dream I have frequently, usually just before I wake up. In the dream I am running through an open field, running like a deer—free and fast and wide open without ever getting tired. I dream that a lot, probably because I can’t run like that anymore. It is a spectacular dream: therapeutic, thrilling, energizing, and fun. Then I wake up feeling—”
“Like a kid,” Jerry said.
“Yes, exactly like I did as a kid.”
“And are you disappointed when you get up and look in the mirror?”
I shook my head. It is wonderful to remember the feeling of being young, but if you ask me, it’s much more important to revel in what you still have.
That Old Senility
These are lyrics I rewrote to the classic Disney song “The Bare Necessities” by Terry Gilkyson from the 1967 movie The Jungle Book. I hope you enjoy singing them as much as I do.
I’ve got that old senility,
that simple old senility.
Forgot about my trouble and my strife.
I mean that old senility.
I lost my old ability
to recognize my neighbors or my wife.
Wherever I wander,
wherever I roam
I go too far yonder
and can’t find my way home.
My glasses may be on my head.
I look everywhere else instead.
And then I look behind the door
and find the pair that I lost before.
That old senility
will come to you.