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Supreme Court Helps Out on Age Discrimination

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Isn't this nice: Time Goes By is The Pick of the Day blog at the Guardian UK.]

In a unanimous decision (minus Chief Justice Rehnquist who did not participate because of ill health when the case was heard in November 2004), the Supreme Court Wednesday made it easier for workers older than 40 to claim age discrimination in federal court under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). They are no longer required to prove intentional bias.

This is an important decision because until now, the burden of proof on plaintiffs was set so high, many lawsuits were never brought and few that were could be won.

One employment law expert, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., who is a partner in the Chicago law firm, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, predicts a “deluge of litigation.”

“This decision is one of the most significant age discrimination rulings in decades. It will have profound implications for a wide rage of decision-making such as layoffs, reductions in force and employee benefits plans. I think the plaintiffs’ bar is rejoicing right now.”
- Business Insurance, 30 March 2005

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens noted in the decision that employers can defend themselves by showing that there actions stemmed from “reasonable factors other than age."

The judgment involves what are called “disparate impact claims” – referring to employer policies which appear to be age-neutral, but disparately harm older workers. An example would be, as in this case, giving proportionately larger raises to employees who had worked at the company for fewer years than others. Because older workers tend to have been on the job longer than young ones, such a policy could disparately affect older workers who would get smaller raises.

Even though plaintiffs no longer need to prove that harm to an older worker was intentional, such claims may still be difficult to win and in fact, in handing down their ruling, the justices concluded that in this case [Azel Smith et al. v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, et al.] the “petitioners have not set forth a valid disparate-impact claim.”

Nevertheless, it’s not often that the little guy wins against corporations and this is a big step forward toward giving older workers who believe they have been discriminated against based on age a better chance in court.

To Dye or Not to Dye
On a related, though lighter, note, a recent report in the Miami Herald [free registration required] debates the impact of gray hair in the workplace and comes down squarely in the middle. 56-year-old Dan Vnuk thinks gray hair helps:

“It seems more acceptable today,” he said. “With the amount of baby boomers out there, I don’t think it’s imperative to look younger.”

Forty-year old Aliza Sherman Risdahl, who recently dyed her prematurely gray hair, believes anti-gray discrimination in the workplace is a fact, especially for women:

“Women who are gray are considered ‘tired’ or ‘old’ or…She’s not going to fit in,” Risdahl said. Gray-haired men, on the other hand, are seen as “seasoned,” “experienced” or “distinguished.”

It’s been eight months since I started growing out my gray hair and it’s been a relief to give up the mess, time, cost and damage caused by coloring. I also like knowing what the "real me" looks like, and if I ever suspect I was fired or not hired for the color of my hair, I hope the Supreme Court's ready for me. The headline is waiting in the wings: Graybeards Uphold Gray Hair.


Ronni's 40th Birthday

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Ronni 1981 Birthday

[7 April 1981] I had hardly noticed 30; 40 was the one that horrified me. I spent my entire 39th year boring friends with unfunny jokes about my fear of this impending black day. Then I read the card from Jim that accompanied the 40 perfect tulips I found on my office desk that morning.

Since then, I've shamelessly borrowed Jim's line (adjusting the adjective as necessary) for friends' problematic birthdays with gifts of flowers, with original magazines and newspapers from the date of birth and in one case, a bottle of 40-year old port.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
av_producer @ 2003-09-27 said:
I think Jim was right!

hamlet @ 2003-09-27 said:
Tulips. I love tulips. Tulips, lilacs and roses.

zinetv @ 2003-09-27 said:
I agree with av, Jim was definitely right.

yolima @ 2003-09-27 said:
And how does 40 compare in retrospect? [EDITOR'S NOTE 2005] You can read my answer to yolima's question here.]

harz @ 2003-09-27 said:
Great, marvellous idea!

virgorama @ 2003-09-28 said:
40 horrified me too, still does 5 years later. Still waiting for 45 tulips

jungalero @ 2003-09-30 said:
I would have cried.


An Older, Wiser Revolution

The title of today’s post is, word-for-word, the title of a story in the March 22 edition of the Washington Post [via William Howarth] in which columnist, Abigail Trafford, writes compellingly about a meeting she attended in Philadelphia of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging (NCOA). [This meeting was also mentioned in a TGB story last week about the media blackout on aging.]

Ms. Trafford aroused my envy of her in attending this conference when she referred to the inception of the women’s movement in the 1960s:

“I felt the same kind of excitement in Philadelphia. I am part of this movement, personally and professionally: as a grandmother, as a writer and public speaker. I see the potential in ‘Changing the Face of Aging,’ as the conference program was entitled.”

Most periodicals ignore older people except on issues of poor health, and Trafford is the most visible reporter writing regularly and positively on aging in the U.S. Her column last week could almost be a manifesto, a kickoff for a campaign to change the attitude toward old people that Time Goes By has been advocating for the year of its existence.

Because Trafford’s story will soon go behind a paid firewall, I will quote from it liberally. You need to know about this fledgling intention.

The Philadelphia meeting felt like the beginning of a social revolution, says Ms. Trafford, a place “where professionals challenged the stereotype of older Americans as a crushing burden on society" - what another attendeed labeled "alarmist demography” because, although it is rarely noted, 80 percent of the over-65 population is healthy.

“Yet these men and women who do not fit the frail stereotype,” writes Trafford, “are being ignored by institutions that serve older Americans. They are marginalized by the media, devalued in the workplace, shunned by politicians.”

As excited as she was by the energetic mood of the conference, Trafford is wary too of mistakes that can be made if we are not careful. But we can learn, she says, in this new revolution, from an early misjudgment of the women’s movement: pitting professional women against stay-at-home moms.

“The shared goal – whether you’re healthy or frail – is to break down bias against older Americans and create opportunities to be valued in the society. There’s no mileage in fighting among ourselves over resources or squabbling about who represents the face of age.”

Another concern she has is not falling victim to the prevailing definition of what successful aging is:

“Most of us try to pass for younger. Vitality and self-worth are measured in how young we appear and behave…This is ageist self-loathing. It’s important to define success in our own terms. You don’t have to jump out of a plane, start a business or get married (although you might want to do these things) to find purpose and love in these later decades. We need to establish our own identity as pioneers of longevity.”

Ms. Trafford also makes an important point that has been discussed in a smaller context here at TGB (about a mixed-age workplace): We should not, in advancing the cause of older people, turn it into a contest against the young.

“The battle over aging could also get ugly if the very old are pitted against the very young. The young-old divide-and-conquer strategy is already present in the political arena as the country debates the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But this generational Shock-and-Awe rhetoric is a phony war. The old and young are natural allies. Most men and women worry about their grandchildren and the world they will leave to future generations…Rather than an ownership society, we are a stewardship society. We have a role as advocates of children.”

There is nothing I can add to this excellent appeal except that we all become part of it. As Ms. Trafford concludes:

“The movement to redefine aging is just beginning. We’re in the awakening stage and swing from outrage to possibility. There’s the zing of energy in the air.”

Inspiration at Any Age

category_bug_journal2.gif On a busy day last week, when I didn’t have time to put any serious thought to a post, I gathered together some quotes on aging.

Cop Car, who gets up as early as I do, was the first to comment: “What an uplifting way to start my day…”

She was soon followed by Claude from Blogging in Paris: who said, “I love this post.”

And Joanna: “Great quotes. All of them are going on my office door (I'm a college teacher) for all to see.”

And Donna, remarking on one of the quotes: “He he. A new signature line for me!”

And some others with similar things to say. In reading those comments, it occurred to me that we live in times which, if not devoid of inspiration, are certainly short of it. There are too many venal corporate executives, dishonest politicians, hypocritical religious leaders and drugged-out sports stars. Where can we turn, I wondered, for something to lift us out of the ordinary, gladden our hearts and renew our spirits when we are low?

Why, to music, of course. Whatever your preferences – jazz, country, classical, rock-and-roll, blues, maybe even rap sometimes – “Music,” in William Congreve’s well-known adage, “hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” And, I would add, to inspire.

A few years ago, I came across a song that makes me believe I can do anything I can dream of and although I know every word by heart now, I play it when I’m tired or discouraged and, frequently, just because it's an exceptional piece of music, every note filled with the joy of living.

It was written by the great baritone saxophone player, Gerry Mulligan, and as far as I can find, recorded only once - by one of the finest lyrical interpreters in jazz, Susannah McCorkle. In a sad bit of irony, for someone who has lifted me out of occasional black periods, Ms. McCorkle, after a lifetime battling depression, committed suicide in 2001.

The Ballad of Pearly Sue is a story song and takes the girl of the title from age two until she reaches the Pearly Gates at 98, urging us to believe we can make our dreams come true at any age. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

So here it is for your inspiration today. And men, although it seems to be aimed at women, I defy you to not be exhilarated by it too. [Macromedia Flash 7+ required]

I’m cheating on copyright rules by posting this, but I’ll leave it up until they catch me. The song is from an excellent album titled No More Blues released in 1988, on the Concord Jazz label which can be purchased at most music websites.


Ronni at the Office

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Ronni at the Office 1979

[1979] There's a lot of research in preparing a really good television profile and when it’s an entertainment legend, the job gets even better. To find clips to go with the interviews, I watched every movie Katharine Hepburn made. And John Wayne, Fred Astaire, Ronald Reagan, Lauren Bacall. And listened to every album made by Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Itzak Perlman – you get the idea. I was always amazed they paid me to do this.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
virgorama @ 2003-09-24 said:
what a gift-job... bet you put in some hours though.

roomwithaview @ 2003-09-24 said:
Wow, ronni. this is fabulous. I just caught up with the last 6 or 7 photos. Got to say I am breathless. Bet you wish you could just hook up your memories to some machine at night and let it all accumulte in nice paragraphs and well-made sentences. This is great.

zinetv @ 2003-09-24 said:
It also seems while you were having all that fun your hair got bigger. Seriously, editing with the producers at ABC sports was a pleasure. They really let you try all sorts of things. And Jim McKay was amazing, he would see a piece he would narrate for the first time at the recording session, take no more that a minute to write his copy on the spot and go.

hillspan @ 2003-09-24 said:
The hair is getting bigger, but remember we’re coming up on the 80s now, the hair should be getting bigger.

the_nannish_one @ 2003-09-27 03:59 said:
And that came with a paycheck too? Spiffy!


Ronni in Sacramento

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Ronni in Sacramento 1978

[1978] Even on a visit with Mom at her home in Sacramento, my job followed me once I joined The Barbara Walters Specials and 20/20. That’s not a complaint. For the next ten years, I worked with kings and queens and movie stars and heads of state, and traveled the world on ABC-TV’s dime.


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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
einstein2 @ 2003-09-23 said:
pretty in pink : )

virgorama @ 2003-09-23 said:
Looking forward to what’s coming...

hamlet @ 2003-09-23 said:
Wow, that shot IS so 1978. Your project is moving along! Love the inside joke about the Stanley Seigel Show, ha! Will visit more often...

yolima @ 2003-09-23 said:
Funny, your time at 20/20 and BW at ABC overlapped with my stint as a news photo editor at the Associated Press. Early to mid eighties. The time I had a perm! I do have to go back to my albums. there`s just so much and every time I look I get sucked in to my past...

zinetv @ 2003-09-23 said:
Those were heady days at ABC. In the seventies I freelanced as a film editor at ABC sports. ABC had dimes to spare then.


Social Security - Part 16: The Debate Continues

EDITOR'S NOTE: There is a nice little mention about Time Goes By in the Wall Street Journal today. It's in the free section.

The great Social Security privatization debate of 2005 lumbers on. The Democrats continue to stand firmly against it as the president, vice president and Republican senators visit several states each week continuing to misrepresent what looks increasingly like a dead horse. The majority of Americans opposing privatization grows every week.

Waning Support For Privatization
In a CNN poll released on Tuesday, 22 March, only 45 percent of respondents supported private accounts and that number fell to 33 percent when told that private accounts would reduce guaranteed benefits.

Most interesting to Crabby Old Lady, who has been annoyed that the president, in tone and attitude, seems to believe that the issue is too complex for ordinary people, was the response to a question about how well those surveyed understand the issue: 81 percent say they grasp it “somewhat” or “very well.” Only 18 percent said they do not have a good understanding of the issue.

Don’t Blame the Baby Boomers
The president and his supporters have blamed the large size of the baby boomer generation for causing the future shortfall in Social Security. Economist Allen W. Smith notes that boomers have not only paid the Social Security costs of the previous generation’s benefits, they have prepaid their own retirement benefits:

“The higher taxes that were part of the 1983 ‘solution’ to the baby boomer problem have generated the annual Social Security surpluses anticipated so far,” says Smith, “and they will continue to do so until 2018…

“Our government should be thanking the baby boomers for their extra sacrifice and special contributions. But instead, President Bush is trying to use them as scapegoats for the government’s failure to save and invest the Social Security surplus.”

Yahoo! Finance, 22 March 2005

The Trust Fund is There
Privatization partisans continue to argue that the Social Security Trust Fund - the excess payroll taxes not used to pay current benefits - is empty. You betcha it is because President Bush spends every extra penny on the Iraq war, tax cuts for the wealthy and other government programs. To be fair, President Clinton did this too, as did Mr. Bush’s father when he was president, but nowhere near the degree that Mr. Bush does.

When that money is used for other expenditures, special issue treasury notes – the government’s promise to repay the Trust Fund – are placed in the Trust Fund in exchange for the looted money. And it will be repaid. As Richard C. Leone and Greg Anrig, Jr. explain:

“…future Congresses will be bound to pay the interest and principal on those securities before authorizing payments "on any other government expense." U.S. Treasury obligations are viewed worldwide to be the safest possible investment - the federal government throughout its long history, including deep recessions and times of war, has always paid interest and principal on its debt.

Presumably, members of Congress could not ignore the enormous political and economic implications of a bond default to the trust fund. Indeed, it would take an economic calamity of unthinkable magnitude for the federal government to default on any of its obligations, in which case Social Security's future would be among the least of our worries.”

The Century Foundation, 9 March 2005

Bush Threatens Democrats
On Tuesday in Albuquerque, the president issued a warning to Democrat opponents:

“I believe,” he said, “there will be bad political consequences for people who are unwilling to to sit down and talk about the issue.”
Washington Post, 23 March 2005

Crabby Old Lady doesn't believe public debate should be conducted by threat, particularly coming from a president who has refused to enlighten the citizenry about the details of his plan. As Winston Smith, who left this comment on Social Security – Part 15, points out:

“Crabby, I think Democrats HAVE a Social Security proposal of our own. It passed both houses of Congress in 1935 and FDR signed it into law.

“I don't have a problem with calls for Democrats to address possible funding shortfalls thirty years down the road. But I don't think we're obliged to present a proposal to someone who won't put his own specific plan on the table, dismisses the most reasonable fixes out of hand, insists any fix must include a device that precipitates a crisis sooner rather than later, and - oh, dismantles the most popular and successful government program in human history. Am I being too crabby?”

...to be continued...

Social Security Privatization Series Index


Words To Ponder

Some days Crabby Old Lady just loses hope than anything will change for the better. In answer to a question from a 40-something about fear of aging, a psychologist answered:

“The solution is not to convince yourself that aging is unimportant, or ‘not all that bad.’ Of course it stinks!” [emphasis added]

Crabby thinks there ought to be a rule that no one can offer advice to old people until they have reached their 50th birthday. This guy appears, from his photograph, to be about 27, and although he went on to recommend living in the here and now, which isn’t such a bad idea, it really isn't enough - and Crabby doubts too that it helped the woman much.

So today, because Crabby is too distracted to put serious thought into a post, she’s going to cheat a little with this set of quotations to ponder:

“As we grow old…beauty steals inward.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We grow neither better nor worse as we grow old, but more like ourselves.”
- Mary Lamberton Becker
“The old woman I shall become will be quite different from the woman I am now. Another “I” is beginning and so far, I have not had to complain of her.”
- George Sand
“Every time I think I’m getting old and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”
- Lillian Carter

This one’s for you, Michael at blogin idiot:

“We all get heavier as we grow older because there’s a lot more information in our heads.”
- Vlade Divac
“I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old memories, old books, old wine.”
- Oliver Goldsmith
“There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time when he was an old man to learn music and dancing, and thought it was time well spent.”
- Michel de Montaigne
“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”
- Dorothy L. Sayers
“To hold the same views at 40 is 20 stupefied.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson
“The heads of strong old age are beautiful beyond all grace of youth.”
- Robinson Jeffers
“Age will not be defied.”
- Francis Bacon

Beau Bennett

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Beau Bennett 1978

[circa 1978] Before there was Ollie, there was Beau. When I saw him, in 1977, bouncing off the walls of a pet shop window on Eighth Street while a pile of gray kittens snoozed, I thought he was some sort of wild/domestic mix. Instead, he was an Abyssinian – way too expensive, but I bought him on a whim anyway, then feared, given his price, that I would never love him. Silly me. Beau became priceless - my closest, daily companion for 20 years.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
av_producer @ 2003-09-22 said:
Lots of character in Beau’s face. And of course I remember that pet store on 8th. So many things have changed and recycled on that street. I think Brentano’s was still there in '77 as well as Whelan’s drug store on the corner where the cheap hot dog joint is now.

tsogy @ 2003-09-22 said:
20 years, that`s a long age for a cat! He really is beautiful.

yolima @ 2003-09-22 said:
Ooh, what a sweet beauty. And 20 is a fantastic age for a cat. I so hope my two cats Mollie and Dollie, who are 13 now and have been my closest companions, will live to reach that age.

zinetv @ 2003-09-23 said:
It's great he stayed around for 20 years. He looks like a true New York cat with the appropriate attitude.


The Perfect Age

We are pushed and pummeled from all directions to remain young or, at least, young-looking. Even in an era when it is considered a virtue to tell all, every nasty detail, every day on television talk shows, asking someone’s age is still considered rude. When one’s age is revealed, the obligatory response, considered a compliment, is, “oh, you don’t look that old.”

Women in Hollywood complain, rightly, that there are few good roles for them once they hit 40, at which time they head straight for the surgeon in hope of extending their work lives. And experts who track such things say that age discrimination in the general workplace begins as early as 40, even 35 for women.

Because most people are just hitting their peak performance years at age 40, the pervasive pressure to remain everlastingly young can’t possibly be based on their skill or experience. So it must be purely personal appearance that the culture objects to.

What then, I was wondering, would the optimal age be? If, by drugs or surgery or magic wand, aging could be permanently arrested at the moment of greatest attractiveness, what age would that be?

Based on the age at which work-related ageism and bad-joke birthday cards begin, under 40 seems a reasonable point at which to start the guessing. Many people retain vestiges of baby fat and their features are still unformed at 20, so that is probably too young. Split the difference and you’ve got 30 which, according to a whirl around the web, is the age at which many women panic for the first time about getting older.

That leaves us with the ten years between 20 and 30. Let’s cut out three years at each end of that decade to account for different rates of aging and here we have it: the age at which no one could be slammed for being too old is somewhere between 24 and 27.

Which is, obviously, silly until you take a random look around the web:

  • “I always thought the perfect age was around 26, 27 and 28. Not that I’d be excited to almost be thirty, but at your mid- to late-twenties, you can enjoy your life.”
  • “I turned 27 yesterday. According to USA Today, most people under 30 would choose this as the perfect age if they could freeze their aging process.”
  • “At twenty-five you are at your peak mentally, physically, socially, emotionally, etc. You can do anything you put your mind to. You have no more obstacles to overcome.”
  • “Children have always wanted to be older, and adults have always wished they could reclaim their youth. According to market researchers, Datamonitor, 17 is where these two aspirations meet; the perfect age.”

Personally, I think this kid gets closest to the truth:

  • “The best age to be stuck at would probably be ten, because you know more than when you're six, but you're not as stupid as when you're thirteen.”

Or 20 or 30 or 40…


Legacy Matters

Much of what causes negative attitude toward older people, I believe, is the normal fear of death. If we, as a culture, do as much as possible to hide old people from view, we can ignore – or at least keep at bay – the instinctive terror of someday not existing.

Jill, at Legacy Matters (I like the double meaning of her weblog’s title), won’t have anything to do with this notion. She looks at end-of-life issues head on without flinching, and gives practical lessons in planning for the ultimate eventuality along a plea for leaving a more personal legacy – of leaving behind more than money and stuff.

Legacy Matters Banner

“…what you leave behind is the evidence of the life you lived," says Jill. "I want people to live fuller, richer lives and the way to do that is to realize that we all hang by a slender thread that could be cut at any time. I believe that we all should have a legacy plan so that we leave behind the gift of good records, the gift of good directions, the gift of family stories and the gift of ourselves. This is different from your traditional estate plan or your financial plan, but, in the end, may prove far more valuable to your family.”

In this, I disagree with Jill on one small point: not may prove more valuable, but will prove so. And if you search around Jill’s blog, you will find a large variety of information on how to easily tell your stories for future generations of your family.

There is also an abundance of well-vetted links on estate planning, aging, death and dying, wills, organ donation and a lot of stories on the astonishingly quirky ways in which people deal with our ultimate mystery.

Jill gives us death's lighter moments with links to The Last Words Browser and its companion, The Epitaph Browser. And don’t miss her piece on the amazing variety of choices people make in how they wish their remains to be handled. Who knew ones ashes can be pressed into a diamond or shot into space or made part of a coral reef. She also found a company in California that will create a commissioned work of art to hold the ashes of a loved one.

For all the talk of death at Legacy Matters, what comes through most strikingly is that in living well - in embracing the knowledge of one's own death and dealing with its practicalities - life becomes more precious.

“When death is only moments away,” writes Jill, “people think and feel love and they must say it. Why not think about those [you] love now, write it down in a letter, put it with your will. The evidence of who and what you loved is what you want to send into the future. It is your legacy and your legacy matters."

Ron in His Office

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Ron 1978

[circa 1978] Our on-again, off-again relationship, which spanned more than ten years, never lost that early rush of new-found romance. One day in 1988, I telephoned his office. It could not have been a week since we had last spoken, but they said Ron no longer worked there. They said there was no forwarding number. They said they had no other information to give me. And his home number had been disconnected too. As far as I know to this day, Ron was abducted by aliens.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
tatefox @ 2003-09-21 said:
Ronni, It’s great to visit the timeline again. Ten years is a long time. Were you both single?

ronni @ 2003-09-21 said:
Both single. We went our separate ways from time to time and didn’t asked questions when we returned. It was a good friendship in addition to romance.

virgorama @ 2003-09-21 said:
I'm assuming you haven’t tried to trace him? It would have driven me crazy...

airchild @ 2003-09-21 said:
That’s a sad ending, isn’t it? But at least you have wonderful memories like the poems he wrote you and such. Sounds very romantic to me :-)

davidfmendes @ 2003-09-21 said:
It’s sad and it’s beautiful at the same time.

einstein2 @ 2003-09-23 said:
bloody A L I E N S : )


Ronni and Ron

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Ronni and Ron at the Emmys 1977

[26 March 1977] Only the gods know why the The Stanley Siegel Show was nominated for a local Emmy. I don’t remember if we won that night – unlikely - but I do remember Ron. He taught me to like opera and he wrote heartachingly beautiful poems for me.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
av_producer @ 2003-09-20 said:
From the lighting, I was thinking The Godfather Hmmm...According to your timeline we could be getting close to Studio 54 days. Will we be going there?

ronni @ 2003-09-20 said:
I was at Studio 54 only once. Even in my younger days, I avoided clubs. I’ve never understood the point when you can’t hear one another speak.

lauratitian @ 2003-09-20 said:
Wow – that’s a great dress you’re wearing, Ronni

zinetv @ 2003-09-20 said:
Stanley Siegel, Stanley Siegel - I am not a fan of daytime TV and I think I saw this show once when I was sick. It made my flu worse. The picture is very romantic with the low key lighting and candles.


Learning Forever / Forever Learning

Several years ago, I went to Palo Alto to discuss the possibility of taking a job there running a website. On the afternoon of the third and final day of meetings, I was with the CEO in his office and in searching for some notes in my bag, I pulled out the book I’d taken with me for hotel and airplane reading: a life of King David by Jonathan Kirsch.

The CEO riffled through the book, asked some questions and we talked about it for five minutes or so. Then he said, in a surprised tone of voice, “You’ve never stopped learning, have you?”

I was surprised that he was surprised and he, a European by birth and upbringing, said that it was his experience, in the United States, that few people showed much intellectual curiosity past college or beyond what is necessary for their work. I refrained from suggesting he find a new set of friends, but he was not entirely wrong.

There has always been an anti-intellectual streak in U.S. culture starting in grammar school. The smart kids were teased unmercifully, even shunned, as “brains” when I was a kid and some stopped raising their hands when they knew the answer to avoid the backlash.

When Adlai Stevenson ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952 and 1956, he was attacked by Eisenhower partisans as an “egghead.” The language has changed since then, but John Kerry suffered a bit from this attitude too in the 2004 presidential campaign.

As common as this bias is, it is worse in regard to old people. Too much of the public discourse on aging is dependent on two generally-held beliefs: that learning stops when formal education ends (which is applied to everyone) and older workers can’t and don’t learn new skills. But age discrimination based on faulty assumptions is far from my point.

Learning is a lifetime endeavor and there is hardly any effort to it. In fact, most of the time, it’s damned hard to avoid. Curiosity helps, and when someone knows something you’d like to know, all you need do is ask. People love to share their expertise. Other times, a well-selected book or two does the job.

Books Not long ago at a Sunday brunch, another guest, a first-time visitor to my friend's home, looked around and said, "Geez, have you read all these books?" It was an awkward moment until a wittier friend made a joke.

The question could well have been asked in my home and most of my friends' homes. The answer is yes, they have all been read - and re-read. I consult them when I need a piece of forgotten information or to rediscover the richness of thought of a good writer or to "merely" revisit a pleasurable reading experience.

Learning new things, as we get older, makes new neuronal connections in our brains, improves cognitive ability and keeps our minds fit. But that is only the practical. Learning, like listening to music, expands our perspective, lifts us out of the ordinariness of our lives and graces our spirits.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the statesman and philosopher who lived during the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, knew a thing or two about the importance of lifelong learning:

“A room without books,” he said, “is like a body without a soul.”

Survey: The Media Blackout on Aging

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that on 1 July 2004, there were 290,769,279 people in the United States and 82,862,321 - 28.5 percent - of them were age 50 and older.

The Census Bureau projects that in the year 2020, the 50 and older crowd will have grown to 115,646,000 or 35.6 percent.

Those are hefty proportions of the population. Crabby Old Lady might even call it a trend - the newest wrinkle on the face of the cultural landscape. Yet, no major newspaper devotes more than a speck of space to what it’s really like to get older.

On Monday this week, Crabby conducted a single-day survey of the top 25 U.S. newspapers ranging from USA Today, which has the highest circulation, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and discovered there is a virtual news blackout on anything about aging, and what little is reported is concerned with disease, decline and debility.

But look at what other topics some of those papers consider important enough to single out for top-level sections:

  • Marriage
  • Dating
  • Religion
  • Bridal
  • Parenting
  • Kids
  • Education
  • Crime
  • Weird News

Maybe the getting-older stories Crabby was looking for were filed under “Crime” or “Weird News.” She forgot to look there. Or perhaps news editors think the Obituary page covers the topic well enough.

All of the four age-related stories Crabby found were filed under Health and three of them reported on: blindness in the elderly, the Medicare prescription drug program (isn’t that a dead horse now?) and osteoporosis. How’s that for a general overview on getting older?

The fourth story aligns nicely with this survey, though it is a disgrace that it is filed in the Health section. Marie McCullough, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a panel discussion [registration required] on aging and the media which included Steven Slon, the editor of AARP Magazine.

Slon made a point about language in relation to old people that warms Crabby Old Lady’s heart:

“[In AARP Magazine,] Steven Slon avoids certain words that other media outlets invariably use to describe older people, particularly a word he says ‘has the stink of rotting flesh.’

“That word is still.

“As in: At 76, he still goes to work. At 93, she still takes walks.

"’Why wouldn't they do those things? The word still is condescending and reveals the observer's bias,’ Ston says.”

Most of the rest of the story, too, supports everything Time Goes By and Crabby Old Lady stand for – until this:

“An AARP poll found that 77 percent of baby boomers never plan to retire. While Slon, himself a boomer, conceded this is partly because they haven't saved enough money, it is also because they want to reinvent, not retire from, worthwhile pursuits.”

If Crabby had been writing this story, her next question to Slon would be about the elephant in the room of boomers’ desire to keep working: age discrimination. Flipping burgers at McDonald’s and greeting shoppers at Wal-Mart is not the solution, so as positive as the story is, that omission leaves a big hole in it.

In her survey, Crabby also checked the topics columnists write about in the top 25 newspapers. Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post, who is also syndicated to other papers, writes an advice column for the under-30 set which left Crabby feeling grumpy. At least, she thought, there is 80-year-old Donald M. Murray, who writes so eloquently about being older in the Boston Globe, to balance the age spectrum. But one isn’t enough. Then she discovered, in the Seattle Times, a column titled “Growing Older.”

Woo-hoo. At last Crabby had found one tiny corner - in number 23 of the top 25 newspapers - with a regularly scheduled report from the aging front, something she could recommend to Time Goes By readers. And then she saw the topics of Liz Taylor’s (no, not that Liz Taylor) most recent seven columns: retirement resources, assisted living, eldercare, the disabled, dementia, exercise and a grandmother who is addicted to shopping.

Not that those subjects aren’t important, but there are thousands of stories just like them. In fact, that’s all there are in the mainstream media that, along with Ms. Taylor’s column, help perpetuate the pervasive negative attitudes toward old people. Where is the rest of the aging story?

When Crabby questioned one reporter by email about the kneejerk assignment of all stories about older people to the Health section, she was told, "Aging and health (or the loss thereof) go together like love and marriage, a horse and carriage, etc." Which pretty well explains to Crabby why she's fighting an uphill battle at Time Goes By to change faulty assumptions about old people and explain what it's really like to get older.

With more than 28 percent of the population older than 50 and growing every day, isn't it time that all sides of the aging story are made an integral part of our daily media diet? If there can be a section on Kids, there can be a section on Aging or, failing that, editors could at least assign a reporter to the aging beat who, unlike the one Crabby exchanged notes with, understands there is more to getting older than getting sick - that old age is as distinct a time of life as childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

How long will it take, Crabby wants to know, to lift the media blackout on the real experience of aging?

UPDATE: [19 March 2005] Crabby Old Lady erred. Abigail Trafford, at the Washington Post writes an excellent weekly column on aging issues of all kinds. "My Time" is published each Tuesday and well worth a regular read.


Ronni and Stanley Siegel

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061stanley1976

[1976] Everyone who works in television has one or two shows in their past they dislike including on their resume. Mine is The Stanley Siegel Show, a morning program broadcast on WABC-TV. Stanley was most notorious to the public for holding his shrink sessions live on the air twice a week. The joke around the office was, “Who do you have to f*** to get off this show?”

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
onepinker @ 2003-09-19 said:
Just love your old photos, ronni. It’s probably because I’m 52 and i fit in with the era!

einstein2 @ 2003-09-20 said:
You can almost hear the "canned" laughter.


Feeling Old Redux

category_bug_journal2.gif Last Friday, amba at ambivalog published a piece titled Feeling Old in which she remarks, “The surprise is that feeling old doesn't feel bad. It just feels - different, and in some ways, actually better.”

Explaining her surprise further, she continues in a Comment appended to the story about how the old have been complicit with the culture by refusing to accept their own aging, thereby losing “the boundlessness of our own inner dimension”:

“Old people have either been in total denial, pseudo-young, or they've sort of played along, like some blacks in the early 20th century playing along with the minstrelry stereotype - you know all the birthday cards about dentures and walkers. In other words, whether we are playing the stereotype or defying it, the real experience has fallen silently through the cracks.”

When a friend turned 50 last year, he was swamped with those birthday cards, and he was hurt because the overall impression from them is that you’ve hit the limit of the good times and nothing will ever be better again.

And that is just plain WRONG.

Like my friend has been discovering about himself, I’ve never been better at what I do. I’m smarter, I think faster, I make connections I was incapable of even a year or two ago. I have found depths of love and compassion I couldn’t get near when I was younger. I am kinder and nicer than I used to be because I’ve been there many times now and I know how hard it can be sometimes to just get through each day.

All my life, “they” told me people mellow with age and I’ve been waiting a long time to calm down. Perhaps I didn’t understand what they meant until now. Injustice, large and small, when it comes into my sphere, produces no less rage these days, but I am more circumspect now, able to step back and decide first if I can affect it and then choose the best course of action. In the past, too often, I ranted ineffectually.

As age has come upon me, I have lost most of the defensiveness I carried in younger years and I’m more willing to accept my flaws. That alone is a relief; a burden lifted. With the increased life skills I have accumulated – professional and personal – I am more confident. Another burden lifted. And now that death is no longer so far in the future as to be unimaginable, I have learned a lot more about amba’s “boundlessness of my inner dimension.”

My outer dimension has marched along in step with the inner. I’m chubbier than I was in my youth when I was hungry every waking moment of every day for decades to maintain the weight the age and beauty police demand. I’ve got little jowls now. There are bags forming under my eyes. My neck is beginning to show some crepe-iness. My hair is gray. And so what.

If I succumbed to a surgeon’s knife, I could not achieve these bits of inner growth and understanding that continue to arrive – with no effort on my part – because, I believe, desperately pursuing what frequently turns out to be a grotesque approximation of youth, necessarily changes one’s inner direction.

And besides, I'm curious to see what physical changes time, left to its own devices, will bestow on me.

To steal a line from Gloria Steinem, “This is what 63 looks like,” and I think it is time the culture accepts that without penalizing us. Popular culture, as amba notes, forces older people into prescribed stereotypes of ourselves or a distorted defiance of them. It has made no effort to find out and portray the real experience.

Getting older is – as we used to say in the Sixties – a gas. It’s not exciting in the way staying up late was when I was nine. Nor in the way it was when I got my first big-deal television job. It is better. As much new stuff – and more – is happening in my life as when I was young, but now I have decades of experience to parse it more intelligently, with more understanding and put it to good use.

We are not just older adults. Old age is as different from adulthood as childhood is from adulthood. Its exploration should be encouraged rather than hidden behind superficial masks of Botox. And that’s what I’m trying to do with Time Goes By.

Fortunately, I’m not alone. Every one of those people on my growing Older Bloggers list is doing it too. Each one was selected because whatever their topic, however big or small their readership, they are not letting the "real experience slip through the cracks." Every one is telling the world, every day, what it’s really like to get older.

Now if the rest of the culture would just catch up with us…


Christmas at the Country House

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Christmas 1975

[1975] Friends came to stay that holiday weekend with their five-year old. I had expected to be wakened at 5AM by the kid eager for Santa Claus, but n-o-o-o. It was the grownups who had to wake him when we got the “can’t waits" - a far cry from when I was that young.

[NOTE: For those of you who notice from the hair style that there is a time discrepancy - it's the Angie photo that's mis-dated and should reversed with this one.]

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Catskill Mountains Country House and Barry

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Country House

[1975] I lived with Barry (of whom I inexplicably have only this poor photo) for four years. Then he was a musician – guitar and banjo. Later he gave up music for computer programming.

At our weekend house, I taught myself to bake bread in a wood-burning stove, refinished a whole lot of solid oak furniture left behind by the previous owner, made curtains for every one of the 35 windows, took up quilting and reclaimed the gorgeous gardens that had lain fallow for several years. Let's call it my Earth Mother Period.

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COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS WEBSITE
einstein2 @ 2003-09-18 said:
Keep it up girl…

williambernthal @ 2003-09-18 09:24 said:
This is a fascinating story! Thanks for your fotolog, and thanks for your visit.

lauratitian @ 2003-09-18 10:41 said:
Mmm banjo-- do you think he still plays? What a dreamy house.

ronni @ 2003-09-18 12:28 said:
Not much, if any, laura. When we were together, he practiced every day with Maple Leaf Rag to keep up his finger chops. When he missed a note, he’d quietly say, "oh, s***," and keep going. The arrangement was deliberately complex enough that he never got through it without mistakes, and I listened to that every day for four years. Even now, when I occasionally hear the tune, I also hear "oh, s*** in my head.

oldfinland @ 2003-09-19 04:47 said:
You had nice setting for your Earth Mother Period!


Social Security - Part 15: Still No Democratic Proposal

President Bush is feeling so shaky about the success of his Social Security privatization proposal that he is no longer preaching just to the choir. Today, for the first time, he is allowing a few Democratic voters to attend his rally speech in Memphis.

And no wonder tactics are shifting; opposition is growing. Some Republican lawmakers have expressed doubt about the privatization plan and on the Democratic side of the aisle, it is universal. And earlier this week, David M. Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, who is a Republican, had strong words for Congress as he warned the House Ways and Means Committee that private accounts could not only “exacerbate” the Social Security solvency issues, but that failure to take other steps now

“…will gradually erode, if not suddenly damage, our economy, our standard of living and ultimately our national security.”
- Washington Post, 9 March 2005

Crabby Old Lady has discussed some of those excellent other steps in this series and the president has conceded that he might consider at least one of them – raising the salary cap above the current $90,000 on which Social Security payroll taxes are collected. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has proposed increasing it to $200,000 and, to Crabby’s astonishment, even Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has said he would consider it.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) revealed details of his Social Security proposal this week which includes - in addition to raising the age, over time, for full benefits to 68 and a version of private accounts - tying benefits to life expectancy at retirement age.

Crabby wants to know what this guy is smoking. According to actuarial tables, average life expectancy is now 77.4 years for men, but women’s is 80.1. Would women therefore receive lower benefits? Senator Hagel doesn't say. Blacks have a lower life expectancy than whites. Would their benefits be cut? What about, for example, a smoker versus a non-smoker? And other health problems? And education levels, which affect life expectancy? None of these questions are addressed. But certainly all benefits would be cut as life expectancy grows which it does, by a few months, almost every year.

The way Crabby sees it, no one knows how long any one of us will live. Some die much younger than statistics predict; others beat the forecast. So in paying everyone the same (as we do now, adjusted for number of work years and salary level), it evens out and no one is penalized by abstract numbers that have no meaning to individual lives.

Two other Republican senators released their privatization plans this week and they will be thrown into the hopper for consideration. It appears to Crabby that a lot of the proposed changes are being made only because the Republicans, with a majority in both houses of Congress, can - not because they are needed or useful.

Recently, in every speech Mr. Bush gives – even those not on the topic of Social Security – he repeats the mantra of his “assurance” that no new Social Security legislation will affect older Americans.

“I want all seniors here and seniors listening to know that nothing will change for you,” he said. “You will get your Social Security check. The government will keep its promise.”
- Washington Post, 10 March 2005

In harping on this, the president aims to pit Americans against one another along age lines, assuming that older Americans care only about their own well-being and not that of their children and grandchildren. That is a big-time miscalculation. Crabby Old Lady doesn’t even have children and she is hugely concerned that 30 or 40 or 50 years down the line, the wrong changes to Social Security will leave the next generations as poor as older people were before President Roosevelt created Social Security in 1935. And she is certainly not alone.

What's bothering Crabby in particular this week is that the Democrats continue to refute the administration’s misrepresentations, but they still haven’t come up with a plan of their own. Everyone - you, Crabby, future retirees and the economy overall - could lose if they don’t get off their dime.

So Crabby would like you to take a few minutes again this week to keep up the pressure on the president and your representatives in Washington. Let them know how you feel and if any of them are Democrats, ask them why they don’t yet have a Social Security proposal of their own.

...to be continued...

Social Security Privatization Series Index