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

Old Things—And What Really Matters

No one was more surprised than me to hear that the striped satin blazer I wore in the “Jolly Holiday” scene in Mary Poppins, the one where Bert the chimney sweep dances with animated penguins, sold at auction. According to reports, a collector of movie memorabilia paid over $60,000 for it. The label still had my name on it. As far as I know, that was the second time the jacket was auctioned, and my reaction this time was the same as the last time—wow!

Around the same time, my wife bought a “Dick Van Dyke” signature cardigan that was manufactured at the height of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960s. She’s constantly finding rare photos and merchandise of mine on the Internet, and this signature sweater was the latest. She purchased it for $15 and gave it to me as a birthday present. I was pleased to see that the gray sweater had held up over the years. It had a small fray on one of the sleeves; otherwise all of its original buttons were intact, and it looked pretty good—kind of like me, I suppose.

It’s a funny thing, though, about things. I have never felt an attachment to material things. Not old things. Not new things. Not anything. Once I was able to afford sports cars, I went through my share. I owned Corvettes, Jaguars, an Avanti, and even an Excalibur. I enjoyed nice cars. But I didn’t “collect” them or anything else. Not stamps or coins or baseball cards. Not ashtrays, matches, or postcards. Not paintings, records, or movies. Not favorite old T-shirts. And obviously not jackets, costumes, or sweaters with my name on the label.

I once read that collecting things is related to anxiety. I am not an anxious person. Is there a connection? I don’t worry. I don’t get nervous. I can’t remember the last time something wound me up. The shelves in my home do not boast anything I would show off to visitors. My parents did not collect anything either. Of course, they didn’t have any money. Even if they had been well off, I don’t think they would have bothered. They weren’t sentimental in that way, and neither am I.

My biggest indulgence over the years has been clothes. Though I knock around the house in a T-shirt and sweat pants, I like nice, fashionable clothes, a preference I attribute to my father. He loved to dress stylishly. He copied Fred Astaire. He used a necktie in place of a belt and wore ascots. His suits cost $40, which was a good deal but still expensive in the thirties and forties. Like my dad, I also admired Fred Astaire, but I took my fashion cues from Cary Grant. Once I got to New York and had a steady paycheck, I had suits custom made at J. Press. I paid between $200 and $250, probably the equivalent of $2,500 today, but I loved a suit that fit.

It was noticed. I wore my own suits while starring in Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway, and I won the After Six Award as “Broadway’s best dressed star of the 1960–1961 season.” Soon after, following a Friday night performance, there was a knock on my dressing room door. I opened it, and there stood Cary Grant, the most dapper man on the planet. After a congratulatory handshake, he playfully shoved me aside and started going through my suits. “The best dressed star on Broadway? Well, I’ll see about that.” It tickled me to death.

Today my After Six Award is on a shelf, framed, with a torn piece of paper inside the glass that says, “Well!” and it’s signed, “Cary Grant.”

Arlene recently unearthed my best-dressed proclamation from a box of stuff I was not aware I had in my possession until she brought it into the house and put it in front of me. She found other boxes too. I didn’t know I had three-quarters of the things she pulled from them: a drawing I did of Morey Amsterdam on the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, sketches I did of people on the set of Mary Poppins, drawings someone did of me. There were also photos, letters, and more. All great stuff, and each one brought back a warm memory, which is what I really treasured—the memories of having been there in the first place.

My first wife, Margie, deserves all the credit for preserving that memorabilia. She packed all those boxes forty or fifty years ago. If left to me, I am sure it all would have been lost or forgotten. But don’t think I’m unsentimental. If you were to walk through my house, you’d see family photos on tabletops and a beautiful landscape on the dining room wall that was painted by my grandson Wes, a terrific artist who still paints on the easel we bought him when he was a kid.

It doesn’t take much prompting to get an update on the other grandchildren: Taryn and Kristen both work with autistic children, Ryan is a talented musician and sound engineer, Tyler just graduated from film school, brothers Carey Wayne and Shane make movies, and Jessica, an extraordinarily bright girl who died tragically of Reye’s syndrome when she was thirteen, smiles at all of us from high above.

As for the glitzy Hollywood stuff, it’s there, but you have to look up on the bookshelves to see my awards: Emmys, a Grammy, a Tony, and a recent Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Then there’s the statue I cherish most, a one-of-a-kind Chimney Sweep Award that the crew from Mary Poppins made for me. I appreciate everything those represent.

But these days I get just as excited about new tools, a set of paints, or a new computer animation program. I also go all-out during Halloween; my garage is full of decorations and devices that make young trick-or-treaters shriek and smile, and I love when I discover a new one.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m practical minded and like things that entertain my imagination more than the stuff typically coveted for status. Here’s why.

About ten years into my first marriage we moved to a two-hundred-acre ranch in Cave Creek, Arizona, an area north of Scottsdale. Today Cave Creek is fully developed, with homes and shopping malls, but back then it was empty desert almost as far as you could see. Our house was in the middle of nowhere. A creek ran past on one side, and the other side was a wall of sandstone cliffs. The entire mesa, nearly as far as I could see, was part of the ranch. I used to ride a minibike straight across the rugged landscape when I needed to touch base with civilization.

One day when we were hiking, one of my kids spotted a shiny rock. A few minutes later we unearthed an ax head. The digging commenced then and there. The whole family got into it. We noticed partially exposed rocks that were pretty geometric; they turned out to be pottery. Over several years we dug down about five feet until we uncovered an entire village. In 1982 my wife wrote a scholarly book about the structures we excavated and the artifacts we found, gobs of pottery and utensils, tools that were key to everyday life of a tribe of Hohokam Indians who lived on our ranch around 675–850 CE. Or, I suppose, we lived on top of their village about a thousand years later.

Think about that—one thousand years later.

Up until then I thought I owned that land. But the dig set me straight, as did all the stuff that we found. If anyone needed proof of the old adage “You can’t take it with you,” there it was. We were finding things that had been essential to the Hohokam people’s survival. I wondered whether some of them had wanted larger pots or admired their neighbor’s ax blades more than their own. Had some of them complained to the chief about living in a ground-floor dwelling, preferring instead a perch higher up the mesa wall, a room with a view? Was it possible they had the same jealousies that plague modern life?

But to what purpose? They disappeared: all their homes, tools, and industry buried under layers of dirt, hidden for an entire millennium until an actor and his family dug them up.

I wondered about their last days. What had happened? There were no volcanoes nearby that would have wiped them out in a single flood of lava. There were no tidal waves. Was it a slow dissipation from desert conditions? Who was left at the end? Ten people? Three? One? Had that last person been so mad they threw the pottery against the wall? Or had they stacked it all up neatly and walked away?

The site and the thought of a once-vibrant and thriving outpost of humanity quietly disappearing underneath five feet of desert began to give me a perspective on stuff: What helps us survive? What is a waste of time or money? What makes us happy and feel like our lives have meaning? And what really matters?

If that was the start, now, as I near ninety and can look back over many decades of life experiences, joys and heartaches, moves and missed opportunities, seven-inch TVs and sixty-inch TVs, celebrations and disappointments, friendships, separations, reunions, marriages, and divorces, births and deaths, I think I have a handle on the stuff that has truly made a difference, in the deeper sense of giving my life definition and meaning. Not surprisingly, it’s also the stuff that continues to do so.

So what do I think really matters?

1. Family and friends: I would hate to think I was alone on this rock floating around the solar system. That’s why family and friends matter. Period. I never had a bachelorhood, I suppose. I had planned to marry my high school girlfriend, Nancy Frankieburger, but she dropped me when I came back from the service. Then I was with Margie for twenty-eight years. I spent thirty-three years with Michelle. Given that track record, I am counting on at least twenty to thirty years with Arlene. I have enjoyed being in relationships and raising a family. For me, life has always been about accepting responsibility for the well-being and happiness of the people I love. Even though I didn’t have any money, I embraced the arrival of each one of my children. They give your life gravity and meaning. They create a moral compass that is real, not abstract or theoretical. They have lives of their own, but you can always reel them back in. I’m thinking of the old joke about the couple who find themselves alone on Thanksgiving. The husband calls their children and says, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce.” Then he hangs up, turns to his wife, and says, “The kids will be over in fifteen minutes.” Friends enjoy a similar standing. They are also people with whom you share your life’s experiences. Do they enjoy you? Do you step up when they are in need? Do they want to check in with you? The way we interact with people is what defines us and how we come to be defined. How we spend our time with them is what gives life meaning. You can look in the mirror to see the way you look on the outside. But the way family and friends regard you is a real measure of the way you look on the inside.

2. Questions. Early on, I wanted to feel that my life mattered, that my existence had meaning, and to do so, I had to figure out what mattered to me and then apply myself to it. I knew that I wanted to get into radio, and that led to performing in nightclubs, which opened the door to Broadway and television, and then movies. By that point I was beyond questioning whether I had made the correct choices in my professional life. In terms of my career, I knew I was applying myself the way I was supposed to. But even with success, I heard the constant refrain of my soul asking questions, some of which were within my grasp and others that soared way beyond my reach.

I trace this restless desire to understand the big picture back to my childhood. At eleven, I went to Bible camp. For the next three years, I carried around a Bible which I read from cover to cover. The stories filled me with awe and curiosity, even though my intellectually immature mind strained to understand the meaning within the rich tapestry of allegory. I decided I would become a minister—that is, until I joined the high school drama club.

Suddenly my plans changed. My Bible ended up on the shelf, and I started down the road that eventually landed me in Hollywood. But I never lost my curiosity about my place on this mystical, magical map, nor did I quit asking questions. In fact, success probably made me even more curious about the nature of my existence. I read constantly, mostly theologians and philosophers. Among those whose books I have turned to repeatedly are Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and religious scholar I once met when I wrangled my way into a lunch he and his wife were having with people who brought him to Hollywood.

Though he didn’t speak any English, we communicated through an interpreter. I managed to explain that I was impressed with the way he applied his biblical teachings to his patients. In a way I applied my principles to my work, making it a rule long ago not to work on any projects that my children couldn’t see.

The thing these writers have in common is that they mostly ask questions, either of themselves or others, but especially of those who claim to know all the answers. Doubt shines through all of their writing, an unrelenting, resilient doubt that I relate to intellectually. As I have grown older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve come to see that there are no sure answers, only better questions—questions that get us closer to the truth about whatever it is we want or need to know. Just knowing you don’t have the answers, in fact, is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness, and an eagerness to learn—and those are all good things.

All good things begin with a question. French fries or mashed potatoes? Red or white? Dessert? Chocolate or vanilla? Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? What about Paris? Do you want the job? Will you marry me? Do you want to try to have a baby? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do while I am here?

In the early 1960s I sat alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally in Los Angeles. I was there because writer Rod Serling asked a simple question: “Will you help Dr. King?”

At the rally I sloughed off warnings that someone might take a shot at Dr. King. “I’ll lean to the left,” I joked.

If someone had taken a shot and the bullet had hit me instead, I suppose I would have been okay with dying for a cause like racial equality, though it would have been way too soon for me to go. I would have missed joining the NOH8 campaign for marriage equality, as I did recently. That also began with a question: “Do you believe in equality?” And it involved the converse: “Why do people hate?”

Hate is such a terrible waste of time. I don’t think people who hate should receive the attention they seem to garner in the media. Entire cable networks have been created to hate each other. Our political system seems to have devolved into one side hating the other. I like to ask, “Why do you hate?” It is so much easier to help. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Help can mean writing a check. It can also mean sharing a smile or saying hello. One time when I was serving food to the homeless at the Midnight Mission in downtown L.A., a man seemingly in his forties recognized me and asked, “Why are you here?” It bothered me that we live in a world where he had to ask. “Why wouldn’t I be here?” I said.

It’s important to ask questions. Questions matter. Good questions matter even more. If you don’t have any questions, here are some to carry around in your pocket:

Why not me?

What can I do to help?

How can you be so sure?

Can I do better this time rather than next time?

What don’t I know that I should know?

What do I need to do next so that I don’t worry about not having done it?

Do I have everything I need as opposed to everything I want?

Am I using my time productively?

How can I use it better?

Do I like my work? If not, what would I like to do?

What’s missing? How can I fix that?

Am I okay with myself? If not, why?

Am I doing better?

How can I help other people do better?

Is my heart open?

Have I said I’m sorry to those who need to hear it?

Have I said I love you to those I want to tell?

3. Music. Why does music matter? In the most personal terms, it gave me a relationship with my father. He didn’t understand me, but we liked the same music, and it was always something we could talk about. Music also played a crucial role in my career, starting with my first job as a disc jockey. For as long as I can remember, though, music has been a part of my daily life, whether it was playing with the band in school, singing or dancing to make a living, or playing the piano in the early morning or late at night, as I do nowadays, filling the quiet with chords that give, as Plato said of music, “soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Listen to Bach, Benny Goodman, or Cole Porter, and then try to tell me music doesn’t make life more delightful, delicious, and de-lovely. I know for a fact it does. A few years ago I was singing with my quartet the Vantastix at a children’s hospital on the East Coast. We went from room to room, singing songs to groups of kids, roommates, and families. If we found a kid, we sang.

Doctors, nurses, and the kids themselves said the songs were the best medicine they had received, adding fun to the otherwise dreary and depressing routine of their hospital stay. The last room we entered was nearly dark, with just a small shaft of light sneaking in behind the drawn shades. A boy who looked to be about fourteen years old was lying on top of the bed, a single IV attached to his arm. He was painfully thin and bald. His eyes were closed. He was obviously very sick. Even though it seemed as if we might be disturbing him, the nurse who led us into his room nodded that it was okay to sing. We did a couple of songs, singing very softly, our voices careful to soothe and not disturb. He didn’t respond, didn’t open his eyes, and didn’t stir until we finished and started to tiptoe out. Then we heard a quiet voice, barely a whisper, say, “Would you please sing another one?” That alone is why music matters.

4. Books. I love ideas and stories. I always have at least one book going and am on the lookout for the next one. They feed the brain and fuel the imagination. I can’t imagine life without them. As a kid, I read all the way through Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books. I liked King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and of course, I loved Mark Twain. Booth Tarkington was another writer I liked when I was growing up. He wrote the Penrod series, Penrod and Sam and the two other books in the trilogy about the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy. I identified with those stories.

I also enjoyed stories about the Civil War and sea adventures. I used to have dime novels. They were printed on rough paper and only cost a dime, but some of the writers were among the greats, such as Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Only a dime—that’s how much it cost to time travel. Can you imagine? I read those books by the handful. The collection I had as a kid is the one thing I wish I still had. In fact, the only thing I have saved from my childhood is my copy of King Arthur. It wasn’t deliberate. It seems to have followed me around. But I am glad to have it.

5. A Sense of humor. I once heard someone say that if you can’t laugh at life, you’re missing the joke. I agree. As far as I’m concerned, a sense of humor is the way we make sense out of nonsense.

A Separate Plot

There was a young man from Dallas

who overdosed on Cialis.

His body was laid

to rest in the shade

with a separate plot

for his phallus.