On joining the ranks of the old

May 8, 2015 at 1:40 pm (By Amba)

This, by Alessandra Stanley, who has gotten herself in trouble before (h/t Tom Strong), got me going:

People who complain about aging sound old. But “Grace and Frankie” is a senior angst comedy that somehow doesn’t seem fusty and out of date. . . . Together, [Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin] pull this comedy about 70-somethings back from the brink of ridicule. . . . This series covers a later phase in life, somewhere between late-blooming love and assisted living.

And it’s been a while since a series was so intently centered on the early-bird-special set.

Television shows tend to reflect the preoccupations of their creators, and ageism is a fact of Hollywood life. It’s not just older actresses who feel discarded. [It’s e]ven [the] people behind the camera . . .

Reviews reflect the preoccupations of their creators, too. Stanley is reportedly 60 herself, and every line of this screams, “I am NOT one of THEM!!!” Ageism is also a fact of New York media life—hell, of American life. And milking that fact for bittersweet laughs (after all, there’s a large, retiring demographic coming along, the death-diminished bulge in the python, with lots of TV-watching time on its hands) is what this sitcom is all about. Toward the review’s end, Stanley stops sneeringly editorializing with every phrase and simply describes a scene from the sitcom:

Grace and Frankie find that without important husbands, they vanish. Old friends don’t call and strangers don’t even acknowledge them. In one scene, the normally poised Grace is incensed when a male supermarket cashier doesn’t turn to serve them or even acknowledge their waves, pleas and yoo-hoos. He has eyes and time only for a pretty young woman who saunters up asking for lottery tickets.

Grace has a screaming meltdown, and Frankie ushers her back to the car and reveals an upside: She stole a pack of cigarettes. “We have a superpower,” Frankie says slyly. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Grace and Frankie feel invisible, but here they stand out.

So this has made me think about the perennial subject of age and ageism: how getting old really sucks, and how it actually doesn’t; why our culture dismisses, derides, and despises the old, and what it misses thereby. (Disclaimer: I don’t think this is all or even the main thing we should be talking about, in some last baby-boomer bid to monopolize the cultural conversation.)

How getting old sucks is perfectly obvious: your body starts to fall off. And sometimes, and therefore, your mind too. And it’s simultaneously happening to all your friends. Nature is through with you and starts looking for a way to kill you. And it is perfectly clear to you that it is not a matter of if, but when, and how, and how bad. From now on you’ll be occupied with tossing parts of yourself you can live without to Captain Hook’s crocodile to postpone the inevitable; then, you’ll be smashing the crocodile in the snout with your rifle butt as its bad breath engulfs you. It’s the price of life. And it’s amazing to arrive at the threshold of old age and discover how very little of a dent the triumphs of science have made in it. Okay, more of us now make it to our three score and ten. And then, if not before, the shit starts hitting the fan, right on schedule. Knees are replaced, stents put in, breasts and bladders turn cancerous . . .

What’s more amazing to discover, though, is that it isn’t all loss and fear. If you have your mind. If you have your mind, it becomes like a study glowing with burnishing lamplight, with a deep, comfortable chair, with shelves of books on all sides receding into the darkness of the infinite. As you sit in that chair you have a magical arm that can reach out past Alpha Cygni in a languid gesture and pluck just the right apple from the farthest twig of the great tree.

Of course there’s more — the detachment and perspective we call “wisdom,” which feels like rising to stratospheric heights above the busy surface of the globe and taking it all in with an eagle’s-eye sweep—the patterns, the vanishing tininess—on the way to leaving it all behind. And if thinking has new, powerful pleasures, so does stopping thinking—paradoxically recognizing how futile, inadequate, and disconnected from actual life are all efforts to systematize and understand. You know so much more about what you don’t know—the pinnacle of education!

Why doesn’t our culture find any value in this? I think mainly because it’s invisible, or hidden in homely vessels. We’re an almost exclusively visual culture, obsessed with the charm of surfaces. We’re also obsessed with marketing, which goes for the lowest biological common denominator, locus of the strongest impulses and the broadest base—therefore the surest profits. (Profits über prophets!) Sophisticated presentations of the most basic drives and arousals are our entirely worldly focus. In the heat of the prime of life, the insights of wisdom are impotent cobwebs, or snowflakes, to be shouldered off.  Only loss reveals them to be weighty anchors and deep wells.

It’s holding on that makes age ridiculous. If you’re too busy fighting the loss, you can miss the gain.

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39 Comments

  1. mockturtle said,

    It’s holding on that makes age ridiculous. If you’re too busy fighting the loss, you can miss the gain.

    Absolutely! Personally, I don’t give a crap about popular culture and its portrayal of aging. My life as a ‘senior’ woman living and traveling in a small RV is far from ordinary. It’s exciting and adventurous and yet my needs have never been simpler. I intend to pursue it as long as I am physically, mentally and financially able to do so.

    Age and retirement have blessed me with more time to read than ever before. While I’ve always been a reader, I’ve read more really good books these past couple of years than in the last ten. My soon-to-be 90-year old mother also reads a great deal. Life is worth living as long as there are books one still hasn’t read.

    After my husband died, I quit coloring my hair. :-) Freedom. That’s what aging is about. Freedom from our culture’s definitions and dictates.

  2. amba12 said,

    LOVE THAT.

  3. kngfish said,

    I’m not so sure that the mind is all that important a thing….we don’t really value it in the young either. And wisdom? For every wise older person I’ve met, I’ve met just as many who are just stubborn in their older prejudices and not particularly wise.

    People hit the geezer point at different stages in life…some are born geezers, but some never get there! That’s your mystery, right there.

  4. amba12 said,

    “all that important” to whom? The cultural consensus? or the possessor whom it consoles?

  5. kngfish said,

    Woody Allen: “The mind is the most important organ…but then….look what’s telling you that!”

  6. kngfish said,

    I don’t even need a cultural consensus to say that what is important to culture….it’s what is useful. Do we care what scientists look like? or what movie stars think? There’s some Japanese guy who’s cultural contribution is how many hot dogs he can eat.

    As for consolation…maybe the mind is in the mix, but perhaps love or wealth may be worth more.

    I almost misspelled “important” as “importaunt”. A useful word to describe a significant insult?

  7. brunobaby said,

    “From now on you’ll be occupied with tossing parts of yourself you can live without to Captain Hook’s crocodile to postpone the inevitable”

    That made me laugh out loud at Applebee’s while waiting for my senior discount.

    “some are born geezers”

    Some achieve geezerhood, and some have geezerhood thrust upon them.

    BTW, some people look spectacular with white hair.

    I am not one of them.

  8. realpc920 said,

    ” And it’s amazing to arrive at the threshold of old age and discover how very little of a dent the triumphs of science have made in it.”

    Not amazing to me. Scientists don’t even know what life is.

    But it is very hard to think of leaving this world, since we have been here so long and got used to it. But we were only meant to stay here a while. I really do hope we go someplace better, or at least not worse, and that the people we love will be there also. But of course I don’t know.

    As for this society not liking old people very much, I think that is true. Young people are better at technology, because they pay more attention to it, and technology is everything now.

  9. amba12 said,

    “Importaunt” — or, it could mean taunting someone by rubbing in how important you are and they’re not. Or taunting someone for being important, or self-important. Versatile word.

  10. amba12 said,

    If you don’t have love or wealth, you still have your mind (unless you don’t). It is not as dependent on external factors. It has helped people survive imprisonment. Of course, it is dependent on an internal factor, your brain.

    But anyway, the fourth truth the Buddha said everyone should recite every day beginning in youth is the real shocker. The first three — “I will get old, I will get sick, I will die” — yadda, yadda, yadda. [Autocorrect bizarrely insisted on turning each of those “yadda”s into “eider.” Yes, you read that right. Eider, as in eiderdown. I had to ritually overrule it 3 x 3 times.] But the fourth? “Everything I love will change and be taken from me.” Love, wealth, mind.

  11. amba12 said,

    And, this world.

  12. kngfish said,

    First, amba…..wow, I’ll bet you’re fun at parties! :0 Plus, how can I not love someone who took my little puff of smoke of a word and gave another dimension or two.

  13. Icepick said,

    “Importaunt” — or, it could mean taunting someone by rubbing in how important you are and they’re not

    “Do you know who I am?”

  14. amba12 said,

    :D

  15. amba12 said,

    The funny thing is, the only place I can place that line right off the bat is The Dead Zone, the movie with Chris Walken based on the Stephen King book, where it wasn’t exactly a taunt, but an assertion designed to cut through the bullshit and save a life.

  16. amba12 said,

    “some are born geezers”

    Some achieve geezerhood, and some have geezerhood thrust upon them.

    LOL, Brunobaby.

  17. kngfish said,

    A Golf Cart! A Golf Cart! My Kingdom for a Golf Cart!

    — From Richard III In Florida

  18. mockturtle said,

    “some are born geezers”

    Some achieve geezerhood, and some have geezerhood thrust upon them.

    Yep. Good one! ;-)

  19. LouiseM said,

    I’ve been slowly reading, “The Grace in Aging” by Kathleen Dowling Singh, which contains this partial poem (she left off the last line for her own reasons, so I will too):

    My friends, let’s grow up.
    Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
    Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
    Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
    It’s simple — how could we have missed it for so long?
    Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
    But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.

    Let’s not act so betrayed,
    As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
    Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
    And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
    To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
    And her compassion exquisitely precise:
    Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
    She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
    This is the true ride — let’s give ourselves to it!
    Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
    There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
    We are not children anymore.
    The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost…
    Jennifer Welwood

  20. LouiseM said,

    However, looking for poetry and truth from others when it is right here to be enjoyed, is a response prompted by the creativity and truth present in writing that comes to poetry, inviting connection. Which I savor, delighting in the two movements presented, the wonder of soaring above while taking in the patterns and vanishing tininess, along with the sense of being on the way to leaving it all behind. I’ve felt both, and enjoy the resonation that results from hearing this description:

    Of course there’s more — the detachment and perspective we call “wisdom,” which feels like rising to stratospheric heights above the busy surface of the globe and taking it all in with an eagle’s-eye sweep—the patterns, the vanishing tininess—on the way to leaving it all behind. And if thinking has new, powerful pleasures, so does stopping thinking—paradoxically recognizing how futile, inadequate, and disconnected from actual life are all efforts to systematize and understand. You know so much more about what you don’t know—the pinnacle of education!

  21. amba12 said,

    Wow, though, that poem . . . what a great reminder to let go and find your only security in insecurity.

  22. LouiseM said,

    creativity and truth present in writing that comes to poetry Oops…I missed a word. So that sentence should have read, Writing that come close to poetry, which is how I experienced this post. Good stuff.

  23. mockturtle said,

    the detachment and perspective we call “wisdom,” which feels like rising to stratospheric heights above the busy surface of the globe and taking it all in with an eagle’s-eye sweep—the patterns, the vanishing tininess—on the way to leaving it all behind. And if thinking has new, powerful pleasures, so does stopping thinking—paradoxically recognizing how futile, inadequate, and disconnected from actual life are all efforts to systematize and understand. You know so much more about what you don’t know—the pinnacle of education!

    Interesting, Louise, that I experienced this when I dropped acid back in the sixties. The perception that one is but a tiny speck in an infinite universe can be paradoxically satisfying.

  24. LouiseM said,

    Alex Grey, an artist, whose work I find intriguing, translated his experiences with LSD, into artwork, much of which can be found in his book, Transfigurations. Also in these two books, which again don’t hold the sought after key to everything, but serve as another door to something more: https://www.z2systems.com/neon/resource/cosm/images/art_psalms_and_mission.jpg

    He explains his connection here:
    It was 1975. I had spent the year at the Boston Museum School doing some very bizarre performance works. The last one included going to the North Magnetic Pole and spending all of my money. I came back exhilarated and exhausted, not to mention slightly suicidal. I was pretty young, like 21. I’d been searching, and I just didn’t understand what my life was all about. So at one point I kind of asked, “If there is a God, then please give me a sign.”
    Then, on the last day of art school, I was standing on a street corner, saying goodbye to my professor, when this woman drove by and invited us to a party later that night. My professor picked me up that evening and offered me a bottle of Kahlua and LSD, and since I felt like I had nothing to lose — I had never done psychedelics before — I tried it. I drank about half the bottle. And when we got to the front door of the lady giving the party, I told her what was in the bottle, and she drank the rest of it. I went into her apartment, sat on a couch and closed my eyes; inside of my head it seemed like everything was in a big, dark tunnel, but I was revolving around in a spiral toward the light. There was this beautiful, amazing kind of luminosity, a kind of light that I’d never imagined. It was the light of love, the light of redemption, in a weird way. I felt a kind of ecstatic joyfulness that was a real release from my depression, and I saw the experience as symbolically important in that I was in the dark, going toward the light…It was like going through a spiritual rebirth canal. And it was like nothing I had experienced before. I called the girl (the party giver) the next day, and asked if we could get together and talk about the experience. She ended up being my wife, 33 years ago. So it was a definite turning point. I had met a sort of divine love in the flesh in the form of my wife, and this definitely opened me up to a new realm.

    From: http://www.sfgate.com/living/article/LSD-Helped-Forge-Alex-Grey-s-Spiritual-Artistic-2518374.php

    Whatever one thinks of his methods, experiences, and life choices, his art is powerful.

    During a time when I was looking for purpose, after years of knowing sections of the Heidelberg Catechism by memory (and I thought by heart) the wise counselor I was seeing, who was not of my faith practice, presented the following as his belief: “We are here to give and receive light.
    I’ve since found that belief fitting my awareness. It reveals a purpose that’s not bound by age and doesn’t necessarily require the presence of a fully functioning mind in order to happen. I wonder sometimes if the bottom line might be even more basic than that, with our purpose being to inspire and expire, without knowing who or what else might be inspired by us along the way.

    In line with Mother’s Day, I find this picture of mother and child inspiring, for the energy and connection portrayed: http://alexgrey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Alex_Grey-Nursing.jpg

    The giving and receiving shown there is also what happens when a glowing light in a study extends out into a forum, and something as magical, mysterious, confounding and sometimes convoluted as an LSD enhanced perception occurs! Satisfyingly paradoxical, indeed!

  25. wj said,

    TV reflects demographics. When us Baby Boomers were growing up, the “old people” on TV shows were in their 40s or 50s at most. Today? Look at, for example, NCIS (one of the most watched shows on television). The lead actor (Mark Harmon) is in his 60s. And one of the main actors, David McCallum, is in his 80s! That’s a change.

    Granted, actresses have a rougher time of it. On the other hand, Susan Sullivan, who plays one of the main characters on Castle, is in her 70s. And her character is active, still working at her profession, and still has a real social life (and love life) going. You never would have seen such a thing half a century ago.

    So yes, there is room for improvement. But there is also change in progress.

  26. mockturtle said,

    So, would you say that the real goal of seniors should be to try to stay as ‘young’ as possible as long as possible? To continue to endure the stress and daily dramas of the workplace and ‘love life’? How many boomers really want to work into their seventies?

    In fairness, I haven’t watched any of the programs you mentioned, as I don’t like television. And you may be right. I’m merely questioning some of these universally accepted assumptions.

  27. amba12 said,

    I think people should do whatever they damn well feel like.

    Two extremes afflict seniors, though: one is the “stay faux-young at all costs, run marathons in spandex at 90” meme; all very well if that’s really you. The other is ceasing to move much at all because you’re now old by definition and it’s somehow considered inappropriate and out of bounds, or not possible, or dangerous. Inertia is a vicious spiral; the less you move the less you have the energy or the nerve to move. Your strength, balance, and energy all deteriorate more than they need to, and you call the resultant feeling “old.”

    My karate teacher told me when we were in our 20s that he was still going to be training when he had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and because I was imprinted on him like a baby duck I vowed to do the same. And here I am, 69 and still working out, at least keeping pace with the younger people (and having more stamina and flexibility than some, because I’ve been doing it continuously, if not superintensely, for more than 40 years). If you exercise because it keeps you feeling as good as you did (without any effort) when you were young, is that a foolish attempt to mimic the young? I don’t think so.

    Ask me again when I’m 80, God willing.

  28. amba12 said,

    That’s speaking of physical activity. Mental activity, I have to keep working for financial reasons, like the challenge that keeps my brain sharp, but somewhat envy “retired” people when “retired” translates as “do whatever they damn well feel like.” I want to write, my own stuff, not someone else’s (as I did for decades), and that takes uninterrupted time, which I don’t yet have.

    Love life, later for that. Been there, done that. Not on the horizon at this point.

  29. wj said,

    The importance of mental activity, I suspect, cannot be overstated. I am minded of when my Mother (at 80 something) broke her hip and ended up in a nursing home for rehab. This was in the last 1990s. Her two main complaints?

    One: No Internet access. Really! As some of you will recall, almost nobody over 50 used the Internet back then, unless it was at work. However, Mom had long since gotten hooked on being able to research anything she came across that caught her interest — which was a lot of stuff.

    But complaint number Two was: All the “old people” who were there. Mind you, most of those “old people” were 10-15 years younger than she was! But they weren’t doing anything; they weren’t interested in anything. They were, essentially, just waiting to die. “Old” was a matter of attitude, not years.

    So yes, do what you want as long as you can. But far more important, stay interested in the world around you. As long as you do that, life remains worth living . . . and fun!

  30. kngfish said,

    I learn from both Amba and wj here. Like exercise, I see this tendency to tell you to ‘act your age’ true from day one to when you’re wearing the dirt shirt. Striving for independence of mind from the womb, I quickly adopted the ‘fuck all that noise’ philosophy, which I adhere to to this very day! When you reject what you’re told to be….and then you get old physically….well, hell, getting young mentally is something you’ve been training for 50 years!

    “He does not know how old he is, or how young he is going to become” — Nietzsche on Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  31. wj said,

    The irony of “act your age” is how often the person saying it did nothing of the kind when he was your age. I sometimes suspect the advice of being, as much as anything, a reflection of awareness of how not doing so hurt the individual speaking. Not least because those who were not pained by the memory of something they did at the particular age seem far less prone to give that particular advice.

  32. mockturtle said,

    I think amba summed it up best: I think people should do whatever they damn well feel like. We are all individuals, after all. We don’t become a homogenous blob of wrinkled humanity just because we hit 65.

  33. LouiseM said,

    I want to write, my own stuff, not someone else’s (as I did for decades), and that takes uninterrupted time, which I don’t yet have.

    What came up for me when I read that is this response, which has as much to do with me as another: Hold onto the long goal, and keep moving in the present moment. Apply a shorter measuring stick for the time being and consider the fact that writing something close to poetry, close enough to inspire a small audience of others to respond, also constitutes writing.

    I no longer consider life “fun”. Unfortunately (or fortunately–it’s hard to know), that gayness, in the old fashioned sense of the word, has left the building. What remains are bursts of good humor and unexpected delight, along with what Rohr refers to as “a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness” when he says There is still darkness in the second half of life—in fact maybe even more. But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety. It is what John of the Cross called “luminous darkness”

    Which brings to mind the luminosity present in the life and mind of one who sits in a deep chair in a study glowing with burnishing lamplight and decides to reach with the magical arm of mystery into the darkness past Alpha Cygni.

    Also fitting with deep wells and weighty anchors.

    I started taking a colored pencil class two weeks ago. Almost put off doing so, because doing so seemed trivial in light of what I really want to do which is to pick up painting with watercolors and oils again after dropping that form of expression 30 years ago when life went another direction. Problem is, I don’t know how to pick it up again and pencils seemed like a less serious way to start. Do I want to spend two hours a week goofing around with pencils when I could be attempting to put what I’m envisioning into paint? How much does working to capture the lights and darks of one red apple, as I did on my own last night, matter in the long run? What am I going to do with the two colored pencil exercises I’ve completed that look cool but aren’t framing material? Is it enough to look at them and recall how alive I felt while doing them? Yes, I’m thinking so, least for now, because feeling alive while doing something, however small, is better than the alternative of feeling dead and stuck. So I’m reminding myself to hold the long goal, while moving in the present moment to sharpen my pencils, figure out the shadows and light present, and lay down colors that matter to me; and in doing so, enjoy that hard to hold feeling of being alive and connected to something more.

  34. LouiseM said,

    This showed up in my inbox today:

    “In his introduction to this issue of Oneing, Fr. Richard Rohr writes: “The word emancipation [describes] a deeper, bigger, and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural, and spiritual—all at once. Surely this is the task of a lifetime. Those who achieve this level of emancipation really are ‘from another world’ and, frankly, disturb and irritate those invested in smaller security systems. Precisely because they cannot be bribed by payoffs, punishments, and rewards, their insider/outsider status allows them to be fully and freely involved in this world. Their final and full freedom is that they do not need to buck the system or see themselves as outsiders or mavericks at all. They simply are.”

    Unlike the pair (Grace and Frankie) in the quote above who follow up a screaming meltdown with the theft of merchandise as payback and compensation for the discomfort of being unseen and proof they have the power to make someone else pay for their losses. All of which sounds more like unresolved issues from adolescence begging to be resolved than the behavior of mature adults who’ve gained a measure of wisdom and humor along the way, without requiring the use of slyness (skill in achieving one’s ends through indirect, subtle, or underhanded means) to cope and stave off the awareness that vanishing will be their last act.

    While I’m not convinced the freedom Rohr describes is consistently sustainable, I’m holding on to the hope that it might be more attainable with more frequency after having experienced moments of it myself when insecurity, social ranking and survival issues weren’t dominating and driving the bus. I’ve also been fortunate to have come in contact with a few people who come close to fitting the “they simply are” description, and the authenticity they reveal is simply powerful.

    The Rohr quote ended with this, Any encounter with a large or lovely life changes our imaginations forever . Do I believe this? Yes, I believe I do. In which case aging matters less than the opportunity for encounters and the changing of ones own imaginations.

  35. LouiseM said,

    This is why I miss Karen. She kept things mooving.

  36. amba12 said,

    I’ve been trying to persuade her to actually post . . . about the cows, or whatever. So could you! Let me know if you’re interested.

  37. amba12 said,

    Any encounter with a large or lovely life changes our imaginations forever. Having encountered a large one, I second this and love it.

  38. LouiseM said,

    Yes! I looked up “large” before including that quote to find the definition larger and more comprehensive than I had in mind. Same with lovely, only that required a look in the old paper dictionary to find the one that pleased me most.

    Large
    – of considerable or relatively great size, extent, or capacity.
    – of wide range or scope.
    – not limited in importance, range, etc

    Lovely
    -having those qualities that inspire love, affection or admiration; specifically , (a)beautiful;exquisite; (b) morally or spiritually attractive; gracious; (c)[Colloq.] highly enjoyable.

    Which the online definition now lists as archaic. But I’ll tell you what, when my mother-in-law repeatedly referred to the chocolate lab who lived with us and graced our lives for ten years as “a lovely dog”, she was right. He was! In every sense of the word.

    As for posting, thank you for the invitation, which falls under lovely and large. I will consider it. For now, the opportunity to read and comment at Ambiance is a connection I appreciate! Thank you for providing a forum for all three.

  39. dustbury.com » As the years go by said,

    […] The clock keeps ticking, until such time as it stops altogether: […]

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