Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I'm Not the Wreck of the Hesperus

Dr. Oz, say it ain't so!

I've just read my third article in a month about how many Americans think it would be a bad thing to live to be 120.

It'd be depressing because the world is going to hell.  You'd be old forever.  It's bad for society.  We're overpopulated!  The Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation need to die off so the younger people can have their jobs.

All right.  I am fifty seven -- let's spell that out folks, f-f-f-f...can't do it.  All right.   Deep breath.  FIFTY SEVEN, and I'm starting to take this personally.

I agree that overpopulation is a problem.  I'm in the middle of writing a book where 90% of the human race dies off, and this tragedy, ironically, ushers in a new Golden Age.  Let's agree that there are two or three times as many human beings as the planet can sustain comfortably.

But I don't agree that my stubbornness about checking out causes overpopulation.  There are a lot of complex reasons why we have too many people on this planet.  From what I understand, it has to do with, among other things, a drop in infant mortality, a lack of options for women worldwide (I'm talking education and equal rights, folks), access to clean water and antibiotics.

Yes, a higher life expectancy is also a factor.  But maybe the answer to overpopulation is more complicated than lowering our expectations of how long we can live healthfully if we're interested in carrying on.   Could we educate women and allow them to work and give them the resources they need to control how many children they have?  And once children get here, can we be intelligent about how many resources they use?  I think it's ironic that this keeps coming up here in the United States, where five percent of the population uses 25% of the fossil fuel.  After all the fuss about Grandma and the alleged Death Panels, I don't understand why I'm now getting the message of "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?"

We need to stop working so younger people can have our jobs?  Really?  Have most thirty-year-olds mastered the skill sets that I have?  Amassed the experience, the wisdom?  I've lived three adult lives for their one.  They are doing different jobs, jobs that I outgrew a generation ago.  And all these jobs need to be done, because the more people there are in the world, the more people we need to take care of everybody -- we staff each other.  Living longer is only a problem if we decide to sit around for the last half of our lives and let other people take care of us.  If you're going to live to 120, why would you stop being productive at age 65?  Sit around for 50 years?  Please.

And why would an older person be a less valuable consumer, a less valuable volunteer, family member, counselor?  I assume that you'd get 50 more years of health and vigor with 50 more years of life.  I could understand a reluctance to sit around being spoon-fed Cream of Wheat for half a century.  But I don't think that's what we're talking about here.   The science of aging is exploding.  Researchers are completing large-scale studies that clearly show that what we think of as "aging" is actually just cumulative dis-use.  Eat well, move vigorously, stay connected and productive and you will double or triple your chances of living healthfully into your eighties and beyond, effectively extending middle age.  I know that I am more healthy and energetic than I was in my twenties and thirties.  And yes, I like walking four miles a day and lifting weights twice a week, and I don't miss ice-cream, much.

It's bad for society to have older human beings around?  In many parts of the world, it's understood that when you live a long time, you become wiser.  Your talents, skills and experience all create a nice synergy and the younger set tend to seek you out for advice.  The long-lived ones are considered to be a precious resource.

I don't know why this isn't the case in this country.  I've been bumping into age discrimination since I was in my early thirties -- I was trying to make a career as a performer at the time -- in my forties when I entered grad school and was told at one school "We're uncomfortable with older students" and faced blatant age discrimination at another -- into my fifties where I have to edit my resume very carefully to hide the fact that I'm old enough to still be mad at President Ford for pardoning Nixon.  I've been told that I'm "ageless," and that's nice, but why do I have to look younger than my years?  Why isn't it good to look my age?  Is there something wrong with it?  (I happen to think I look great.  Not for my age.   For me.)

Finally, the argument that it will be depressing because the world is going to hell in a handbasket...people, I have been depressed about the state of the world since I was a teenager.  Between the ages of six and sixteen, I lived through the 1960s and early 1970s.  My heroes were being assassinated, we witnessed riots and murders associated with according U.S. citizens civil rights, students were shot on the Kent State campus on their way to class, and we were just really beginning to be concerned about possible damage to the planet (Silent Spring was published in 1962, and then there was Carl Sagan and his writings on nuclear winter the year my first child was born).  I lived through the Vietnam War and the Cold War.  Even the advent of rock and roll couldn't disguise the fact that those were not happy times. 

It's never happy times, though.  My parents and grandparents lived through the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the first two World Wars, and I don't think those were a chuckle-a-minute years, although they made for some great stories.

The world, as I keep noticing despite all my best efforts, still isn't saved.  As a matter of fact, it seems to be getting messier.  But isn't it possible that people of my generation could be helpful in fixing it?  I read recently that on the whole, people of my generation are more concerned about the ecology of the planet Earth than the thirty-somethings demographic is.

If you're one of my age cohort or older, I want to say:  Depression, apathy, loneliness, being unproductive -- these problems aren't necessarily age-related.  You are not a number.  You have some control over how healthy and productive you are.  Don't let the wrinkles and gray hair scare you.  You didn't let pimples ruin your life, did you?  (Don't answer that.)  Jerome Hines made a comeback at the Met in his 80s.  The great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was 40 when she made her Met debut and recorded the definitive Isolde at the age of 63.  (In case you don't know, singing Wagner should qualify as an Olympic event).

If you are younger than I am, be aware that an accumulation of wisdom and knowledge, and comfort with yourself and the world, IS age-related.  Enjoy it as it comes.  Enjoy us, the long-lived ones.  Get to know us.  We're actually pretty cool.  Don't be afraid of us -- we're you, or at least, you're going to be us, pretty soon here.

And don't show us the door.  We've earned our right to be here.  And you need us.