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

Dancing with Your Inner Child—A Workout for Older People

I am a child in search of his inner adult, though the truth is that I’m not searching too hard. I don’t recommend anyone doing so. That is the secret, the one people always ask me about when they see me singing and dancing, whistling my way through the grocery store or doing a soft shoe in the checkout line. They say, “Pardon me, Mr. Van Dyke, but you seem so happy. What’s your secret?”

What they really want to know is how I have managed to grow old, even very old, without growing up, and the answer is this: I haven’t grown up. I play. I dance with my inner child. Every day.

There.

Now you know the secret too.

If you don’t sing and dance like me, figure out how your inner child likes to play and then make a date to do so.

I was onto this idea years ago. When we were shooting The Dick Van Dyke Show, I played Rob Petrie, a man with adult mannerisms and responsibilities—he was a husband, father, and breadwinner—who also had the insecurity and willfulness of a child. He approached work and life with childlike openness and enthusiasm, wary of authority, worried that something could go wrong but always ready to have fun. In many ways he was like me, I suppose.

He was also like the man who created him on paper, my good friend Carl Reiner, who is another man who has grown old without losing the brilliant curiosity of his youth. Scripture says you should put aside childish things when you grow up. I take that to mean willfulness, self-centeredness, and things like that—not imagination, creativity, and joyful curiosity.

I am not alone here. I read online that billionaire octogenarian Warren Buffet reportedly eats like a six-year-old. He guzzles Cokes and says his diet is also high in salt. I am going to guess he eats hamburgers and fries too. When you are eighty-five like Mr. Buffet—or my age, soon to be ninety—I say eat whatever you want, whenever you want . . . in moderation, of course. Or not in moderation if it is a special occasion, like lunch or dinner or a snack in between meals.

According to one story, Mr. Buffet researched actuarial tables and found that six-year-olds have the lowest death rate, so he decided to eat like a kid. Whether that is 100 percent true is beside the point to me because the message it conveys is spot-on: keep your inner child alive and well. Dance with it. Take it out to lunch. Indulge it. Do whatever it takes. Mr. Buffet famously treats himself to Dairy Queen. I like a nightly ice cream sundae, too, of Häagen Dazs® vanilla ice cream topped with Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Hey, we may be onto something here!

My inner child is all about playtime, and I know why. Some of my fondest memories are of the summers I spent when school got out. I can’t believe how many years have passed since then, but the smells and feel of those June days are still so fresh that they might as well have happened the day before yesterday. I would count down the last days of the school year, and as soon as vacation started, I’d kick off my shoes and spend the next two and a half months running through fields, playing, and doing whatever I felt like doing.

This was before e-mail and social media, before electronic games, before cell phones, even before television! The days seemed to have more time, and I used that time much as I do now—to imagine and create, to play. I wanted to be a magician. I ordered tricks in the mail for 25 cents from the Johnson & Smith catalog and practiced my sleight-of-hand for hours in the basement. All that practice paid off when I was hired for $3 to perform at the Kiwanis Club.

At age ten I got my first bicycle, a rusty two-wheeler I found in a pawn shop downtown for $7. Even at that price, my dad said he couldn’t afford it on his traveling salesman’s salary, this still being the tail-end of the Great Depression. But after much pleading on my part, he bought it for me. That bike meant everything to me. I cleaned it off, rubbed off the rust, oiled it up, rode it to my friend’s house, and then, eventually, out to the lake, which was several miles way. Suddenly I had freedom—and that changed my life.

These days my playtime is more structured than it was when I was a kid, and it’s slower paced—there’s no running through open fields or riding my bike to the lake. But my days still include singing, dancing, drawing, and playing games. Children are taught to amuse themselves. They’re told to “go play.” I’m all in favor of refresher courses for adults. As seniors, it is vital to have hobbies and passions, to have playtime, and to engage in them every day.

I wouldn’t tell anyone to do exactly as I do, but maybe my daily schedule can provide some ideas. Consider:

1. In the morning I work out at my local gym. I’ll be honest, every day it gets tougher to get out of bed, put on the sweats, and work out. But it’s important. And that first cup of coffee I have plays a crucial part in getting me out the door. I’ve been going to my gym for so long that they gave me a set of keys so I can open up if I arrive early. To warm up, I hang upside down and stretch. Then I spend time on the treadmill before lifting weights. Some days I alternate: lift, then aerobics.

Not too long ago, when I was on the treadmill, the guy next to me said, “Hey, you’re humming! The rest of us are huffing and puffing and you’re humming. How do you do that?”

Half-jokingly, I said, “Vocal chords are muscles too.” But also humming, as with a Buddhist chanting, singing, or even an infant making noises as it discovers its voice, sets up a sympathetic frequency in your body that simply feels good.

Try it: mmmmmmmmm.

Anyway. I am never going to look like Mr. Universe, but I seem to be getting stronger, especially since recovering from pneumonia. I am lifting more weight than I have in a few years. The younger guys at the gym are impressed that I can lift my age and sometimes even more, though, as I tell them, we’ll see if that is still true in ten or twenty years. I just know I like to feel good, to feel in shape, and I always have.

Back in my Air Force days I got one of the highest fitness ratings in the state of Texas. I couldn’t run distances, but I was always the first one through the obstacle course. But that was natural, youthful ability. I started working out more on a more regular basis when I was doing Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway in 1960. One afternoon, a matinee day, I saw all the dancers working out with weights. I started joining them between shows. I was thirty-four or thirty-five years old. I felt so good that I kept it up and haven’t stopped.

Good habits matter. Eating light and fresh. Staying away from fast and processed foods. Not smoking. Working out regularly. Even going for a walk every day is extremely beneficial for longevity, according to studies I have heard on the news. As pianist Eubie Blake said when he was performing at age ninety-nine, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Times have changed. Plan on living long, and start when you’re young so that by the time you’re my age, the right diet and exercise and other good habits are second nature.

2. After the gym I go to the grocery store to pick up assorted items my wife and I need that day. As I push my cart up and down the aisles, I often sing and dance to the music playing in the background. Most of the time I’m not aware I’m doing this, but apparently the people working there look forward to my visits as entertainment. If for some reason I don’t sing or dance, I hear from the store manager or Debbie, my favorite checker. “Hey, Dick, why aren’t you singing? Why aren’t you dancing?” That is the question I pose to other people, including you, the reader, literally and metaphorically: If you aren’t singing or dancing, why not?

3. Back home I check my To-Do list for the rest of the day. I make it out the night before and then add to it as the day goes on. I always have a list of tasks. Though I never get through all of them, the worst is when I get to the market and can’t read my own writing. But it’s like a job. I am a maintenance man for my own life. Actually, as I think about it, that’s a job one should assume and take more seriously with age. Take care of things at home. As Shakespeare wrote, “Our remedies often in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky.” So every day I make To-Do lists.

1.Put gas in the car!!

2.Call Bill—need some backing tracks.

3.Make a haircut appointment!!

4.Get gum.

5.Find Blu-ray burner for 3D animations.

6.Get blue blazer tailored.

7.Movie tonight? Ask Arlene.

I also suggest making a high-level, more philosophical To Do list.

1.Never go down the stairs sideways.

2.Try to understand why time keeps speeding up.

3.Wake up your sixth sense.

4.Keep learning.

5.Find your song—and sing it!!!

6.What’s new?

And then there is the list nobody makes, the NOT To-Do list.

1.Do not forget to exercise.

2.Do not stop being curious.

3.Do not forget to try new things—even a new flavor of ice cream will do.

4.Do not forget to open your mind every day.

5.Do not stop asking why do I believe what I believe.

6.Do not forget to smile.

7.Do not forget to make someone else smile.

4. Then I do the crossword puzzle to exercise my brain. Studies have shown that the brain is a use-it-or-lose-it organ. To keep it flexible and in good working order, it must be used, stimulated, even challenged. I have always believed that crossword puzzles are one of the best ways to exercise your brain. However, although they are indeed effective, they aren’t number one. I read a study in the New England Journal of Medicine on the best mental and physical activities for staying sharp in old age and preventing dementia, and doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week was the second-best thing you can do stay clear and present. Guess which one of the following was the best thing you can do to stay sharp as you age.

a.Playing cards

b.Solving math problems

c.Dancing

d.Baking chocolate chip cookies

The answer is C, dancing—and I promise that I am not making this up. More than any physical or mental activity, moving your feet to a good beat provides the brain with the most fuel to fight the aging process. So guess what I make sure is also on my To-Do list every day?

5. I sing and dance. If I feel like dancing around the house, I use Pandora (my wife introduced me to this fantastic app) to find music with a beat that suits my mood. If I feel like singing, I will sit down at the piano or put on the stereo and sing along. Take a moment to put down this book and try it.

Suggested songs to sing right now:

1.“Jolly Holiday”

2.“Carolina in the Morning”

3.“Simple Melody” (Bing Crosby and Gary Crosby did it, and it’s such fun to sing. Arlene and I have started singing it around the house. Look it up if you don’t know it.)

4.“On a Wonderful Day Like Today”

5.“I Wish I Was in Love Again”

Suggested songs to dance to right now:

1.“Jolly Holiday”

2.“Tea for Two”

3.“Cheek to Cheek” (I’m picturing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat as I write this.)

4.“What Is This Thing Called Love?”

5.“Take the A Train”

6. Stay involved in the world—and with other people. It’s important to keep up with current events. I watch the news every night—both sides—in case one of them is right. I argue with the right and the left and sometimes the middle too. But staying involved in the world also—and more importantly—means connecting with other people. Loneliness and isolation are major problems for people over sixty-five and typically lead to declining health, depression, and other serious issues. I am not an expert, but I do know the easiest and most meaningful way to counter this is to volunteer. Whatever you give, you get back many times over, including a sense of purpose, a profound sense that your presence in this world matters. For the past twenty years I have been involved with the Midnight Mission, a Los Angeles–based facility dedicated to helping men, women, and children who have lost everything return to self-sufficiency. I spend every holiday there; I don’t get the Christmas spirit until I am at the Mission. Early on I approached a large, mean-looking man and wished him a merry Christmas. The menacing look on his face disappeared—he smiled. “People look through us,” he says. “Or they look past us. Nobody sees us. But you’re looking right at me. That is one helluva gift, man.” His smile was an even bigger gift to me. And it has been that way ever since.

One day Arlene asked whether I had ever taken one of the families to Disneyland. I hadn’t, so we arranged with the Mission to host a family at Disneyland for a day. They selected a woman with three children. She had a harrowing background that included drugs, abuse, homelessness, and losing her kids. Through the Mission she turned her life around, landed a job at a department store, where she has been promoted twice, the latest to a manager, and she got her kids, now ages six, five, and three, back and is doing a great job raising them. We all met at California Adventure. I was supposed to go on one ride with them and have lunch. I ended up staying with them for five hours. The children had no idea who I was or my connection to Disney. They had never seen Mary Poppins. It didn’t matter. We laughed and ate our way through the park. In Tomorrowland I heard the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and led them in a sing-along. At the end of our day together the six-year-old girl said, “I had the most fun ever. This is the best day of my life.” Of course, the only thing bigger than her smile was mine.

7. I learn something new every day, like lines from Shakespeare. I make time nearly every day to memorize the lines. I started with King Lear and enjoyed the sound of my recitations as much as I did the accomplishment of having committed them to memory. The language is beautiful, and the writing is full of truth. “Love is not love when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.” One afternoon I went to Carl Reiner’s house and surprised my longtime friend by working a few of the Bard’s more famous lines into the conversation. “My gosh, I’ve known you for fifty years,” Carl said. “I had no idea you did Shakespeare.” Carl knows Shakespeare as well as any professor. He used to do Shakespearean doubletalk as a comedic bit; in fact, that bit got him transferred from the Army to Special Services in World War II. I have often thought he might be old Bill himself reincarnated in a funnier version—from British to Yiddish, as one of our old Dick Van Dyke Show writers once quipped. “To be or not to be” may be the question, but learning should be a lifelong quest. If Shakespeare doesn’t ignite your curiosity, find another subject—biology, science, history, literature, comedy, music, cooking—the options are infinite. And good for you. Researchers and doctors speak highly of the value of memorization as an excellent way to keep the mind in tip-top shake. You can do a lot worse than Shakespeare.

8. I take a nap every afternoon just like a child, and I highly recommend this refreshing break in the day to you and everyone else. Most of South America and Europe do the same thing. Try it.

9. I play games. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play,” and I concur. If not for this passion, I might have starved. In 1960, after networks passed on a TV pilot I did and before I was cast in Bye Bye Birdie—in other words, at a moment in time when I was without work—my agent got me a job on a game show, Mike Stokey’s Pantomime Quiz. I was partnered with Carol Burnett and Howard Morris. I knew Carol from The Garry Moore Show, and the two of us turned out to be great teammates. We clicked on-and off-screen. Both of us were good at pantomime, and both of us desperately needed the $200 you got for winning the game; it’s how we fed our families. We also had a good time. These days I like charades, brain teasers, and anagrams. I have a knack for spotting signs when I drive around town and reordering the letters to make new words. It’s like my brain is wired to play, even when I am doing something else. At night Arlene and I watch Jeopardy in bed while we eat dinner. She has, on at least half a dozen occasions, blurted out the answer to the Final Jeopardy question before host Alex Trebek has even asked it. I can still hear her saying, “Lord Byron” and then looking at her when that turned out to be right. “I don’t even know who Lord Byron is,” she said. It’s uncanny. As for me, I play the traditional way. I wait to hear the clue. How do I fare? As my old costar Morey Amsterdam once said, “I know a lot. I just can’t think of it.”

10. At the end of the day I have dessert. I always have dessert. I don’t skip it, and neither should you. That’s a motto to live by. It might be one for the headstone: “He enjoyed his dessert.” As I said earlier, my end-of-the-day treat is vanilla ice cream topped with Hershey’s chocolate syrup. After dinner I get out the ice cream and chocolate syrup. The two are the perfect combination: two generous scoops of ice cream, then a healthy pour of Hershey’s syrup over the two scoops. They are proof that opposites attract. Interestingly, there are no directions on the can for the right amount. I recommend a slow pour, letting the sauce fall onto the top of each scoop and slowly cascade down the sides. Keep pouring until there is a generous pool of syrup at the bottom of the dish, just enough so that it appears the ice cream is resting on a thin sheet of chocolate. Then wait two minutes before eating. This does two things. First, it allows the ice cream to melt into the sauce, which enhances the flavor. Second, it increases the anticipation of the first bite. Pay no attention to the nutritional information on the ice cream or the chocolate sauce. Dessert is about rewarding yourself with something sweet: a just dessert at the end of the day. As Thornton Wilder, the great playwright, put it, “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.”