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

Rewriting the Rules

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was strolling along Robertson Drive in Beverly Hills. The meetings that had brought me into town were finished, and I thought a walk past all the fancy stores would be fun—and it was. The sidewalks were crowded with fashionably dressed people, a few of whom said hello, causing me to smile and say hello back, which made the world seem smaller and friendlier than it normally comes across on, say, the local news.

As I passed the Tommy Hilfiger store something in the window caught my eye. I went inside for a closer look but quickly got the impression that the store wasn’t used to customers my age. Otherwise, I can’t imagine why the young saleswoman, after seeing me looking around, would have approached me and said, “Sir, I don’t think you’ll find anything here that you’ll like.”

It was not my first encounter with ageism, but it was the most blatant. Typically the remarks are subtler. Someone will come up to me and say, “Wow, you look good.” What they really mean is that they are surprised I am alive. Nobody said I “looked good” when I was thirty-five. Or someone will ask whether I have trouble remembering my lines or need cue cards written in EXTRA-LARGE TYPE or require a wheelchair getting to the elevator. Then there are the jokes we’ve all heard: “What were Adam and Eve like?” “Do you need help blowing out your birthday candles?” “At your age, I bet your back goes out more than you do.”

I get it. I’ve heard them—and more. And most of the time I laugh. But it’s time people got over the jokes, the fears, and the discrimination. Old age isn’t catchy. I understand the media is obsessed with youth. Fine. But there isn’t anything wrong with getting older. It happens. It’s healthy. And it is a reality—our reality. As the ranks of seniors and elderly grow, we should think of it as the new normal—a desirable new normal that does away with ageism and commands respect. How does this happen? I think we may need a revolution. We have gone through the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. Why not the Gray Rights Movement?

The Gray Rights Movement has something going for it the others lacked—actually two things: (1) no one is going to get hurt in this revolution—we’ll move slow and deliberately: protests will end early so we can be back home before the ten o’clock news; and (2) old age is blind to differences and labels: black, yellow, white, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jewish, atheist, rich, poor, middle class—everyone has a shot at it. And everyone should want it. The number of people sixty-five and older is only getting larger, as is the number of people eighty-five and older. Life is getting longer, which is a good thing if it is done right. How do we do it right?

We have to rewrite the rules, which I am doing at my age, by focusing on living, not dying. I am married to a young woman who finds me charming, fun, and dashing (her words). I perform four-part harmony with a singing group I put together about fifteen years ago as a retirement gift to myself. And if the right scripts come my way, I say, “Yes! When do we start?”

But I’m not an isolated case. There’s an eighty-something movie producer up the street from me who drives a Tesla. There are a couple of guys in the neighborhood well past seventy who carry their long boards under their arm every morning as they head out to catch waves. My friends Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Richard Sherman, Don Rickles, and Bob Newhart continue to work. Likewise the handful of senior statesmen I only know from TV but see all the time, including politician Bernie Sanders; Bob Schieffer, seventy-seven, the recently retired host of CBS’s Sunday talk show Face the Nation; NBC Nightly News anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw, seventy-five; and Charlie Rose, who, at seventy-three, seems to work both mornings and nights.

And I don’t want to overlook the women, who on average outlive men—and can probably out-work us too. Jane Fonda, seventy-seven, and Lily Tomlin, seventy-four, are starring in a new television series; Betty White is cracking jokes in her nineties; and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is still fighting the good fight as a nimble-minded octogenarian.

Clearly we have entered a new era. As the instigator of the Gray Revolution, I suggest ignoring the anti-aging tips that are so prevalent in the media and search for pro-aging tips. I want to see more older people celebrated for continuing to be vital and active as role models. I want to see experience valued. I want to see older people appreciated in the workforce. I would like to see more people sixty-five and up in movies and on TV in roles other than commercials targeting memory loss, heart disease, diabetes, urinary problems, arthritis, cancer, depression, insomnia, anxiety, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, and Crohn’s disease.

And put older people behind the camera too. Many of the comedy writers I knew from the sixties and seventies, brilliantly funny, clever people, could not get hired in the eighties and nineties. By the 2000s they were dead. How many laughs did we miss? Speaking of laughter, I once worked with an actress who told me to stop making her laugh; she didn’t want to get wrinkles. I’d rather end up a very amused prune than miss a laugh.

I have a feeling that Baby Boomers get this, and they’ll rewrite the rules, making the concept of old age as it has been known obsolete. Stereotypes of old people as frail, forgetful, boring, cranky, sick, unattractive, and unproductive will be replaced by pictures of eighty-year-olds scaling mountains, starting new businesses, going back to school, creating great art, discovering new talents and passions, and figuring out new ways to improve life’s twilight years.

My hope is this will have a positive impact on the worlds where I have experience: comedy, music, and entertainment. Too much of acting on TV today and comedy more specifically, seems the same, without distinction. Everyone looks the same: there’s canned laughter; people get hysterical at a door slamming, and the shows are sped up to cram more into twenty-two minutes. It ruins the timing. My advice to TV producers and writers: let your shows breathe, take a moment, be human, make it real. That’s where you find the funny.

I think the same can be said of music. Every time I get in the car and turn on the radio it sounds the same. I don’t know one band from the other, but I’ve been informed that FM radio is playing the same songs that have been played for the past forty years, and that is too bad. It’s boring. It misses out on other great music—Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, George Gershwin, Cole Porter. Mix it all together.

I do. We started singing “All About That Bass” at a Vantastix rehearsal. It was a pretty good tune—and I liked its message too.

Life is about variety, and music has always been my road to it. At seventeen, I was a DJ at the local radio station in my hometown, Danville, Illinois, and I played the same records over and over again. I quickly lost my taste for the popular music and began to explore new bands. Through Stan Kenton and his orchestra, for instance, I discovered saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Anita O’Day. I also remember perking up when I heard the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, a pretty adventurous group in their day. Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” remains as fresh and exciting to me as it did when I first heard it in the 1950s. I also loved Sinatra, and I have not seen anyone with the versatility onstage as Sammy Davis Jr.

Once, I saw Lena Horne at the Fairmont in San Francisco, and she took my breath away. I was also a fan of Carmen McRae, one of the greatest jazz singers I ever heard. She just happened to come along at the same time as other greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. I envy young people the thrill of hearing these great artists for the first time.

This whole concept of rewriting the rules is really about being open to discovery and learning and appreciating life—all of life, not just from birth to age sixty-five. Henry David Thoreau’s great quote, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment . . . there is no other life but this” is even more meaningful later in life, when you know your time is limited.

Back in the midsixties I was made an elder in the Presbyterian church where I took my family. I used to speak on Laymen’s Sundays, as they were called, and my talks became fairly popular. Suddenly I found myself on the circuit, driving out to towns and speaking on Sundays. My primary topic was the hypocrisy of people who were pious only one day a week. “What about the other six days?” I used to ask.

Though popular, my turn as a speaker didn’t last long—my heart wasn’t in it.

And then I lost my taste for organized religion. After the Watts Riots, race, and, more specifically, racism within the Los Angeles Police Department made it to the top of the news, similar to what has happened recently in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Cleveland, a number of us at our church felt like we should do something to try to heal the city and understand the issues. Someone suggested inviting a Baptist choir from Watts to our church. I thought that was a great idea. What better place than a church to bring people together? What better place to celebrate differences and discover similarities? And how perfect to do that with music?

But in a meeting of the church elders several people objected. They did not want any black people in the church. I was disgusted. I left that meeting, and that was my last Sunday in any church.

I wasn’t quite done with religion, though. I began attending Jewish services with the Congregation Beth Ohr, whose members met in a Unitarian church in Studio City. Anybody was welcome. I was impressed with their rabbi, a man named Michael Roth. He would speak for thirty minutes, and then everybody went in another room, had coffee and cake, and discussed the service. They questioned ideas, debated them, related them to the real world, and talked about how the age-old themes might be applied to our lives. To me, that felt more like it.

I attended services for about six months and then lost touch with the rabbi until not too long ago when our paths happened to cross. He was in his nineties.

“What do you do now?” I asked.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “Still reading and learning.”

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