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Monday, 11 August 2014

The Tyranny of “Still”

Last week, a news anchor was interviewing 74-year-old Tom Hayden on one of the cable news channels. I wasn't paying attention so I don't recall which channel nor why he was being interviewed but the anchor's introduction certainly caught my ear.

You remember Tom Hayden, don't you? Yeah, yeah, he was married to actress and, later, fitness guru Jane Fonda but he is much more important as an anti-Vietnam war, civil rights and radical activist of the 1960s.

In fact, it is arguable that the Port Huron Statement - manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that he mostly wrote – helped give birth to “The Sixties.”

Nicholas Lehman once wrote of Hayden that he “...changed America,” calling him "father to the largest mass protests in American history” and in the 50 years since then, Hayden has continued his political activism inside the system and out.

He served eighteen years in the California State Assembly and then the State Senate, has taught uncounted university courses on political movements, written a slew of books and has never stopped agitating for a more perfect democracy. His most recent organization is The Peace and Justice Resource Center.

If you know only the barest bones of post-1960s politics in the United States, I don't think it is possible not to know at least something of the importance of Tom Hayden's life and his non-stop work.

That's a long way around to tell you what caught my attention on that cable news show I thought I was ignoring: the host ended his brief introduction by saying, “...and Mr. Hayden is still active.”

Surely you have noticed that not infrequently, similar things come in batches. Within a day of the Hayden “still” introduction, this headline in an upstate New York newspaper dropped into my inbox: “Prize-winning poet still at work at age 86.”

(Emphasis added in both cases.)

I first wrote about this demeaning reference to old people as Crabby Old Lady back in 2005:

”Mainstream media just refuses to treat older people as adults. It infantilizes us every time reporters express amazement that Crabby and her peers are capable of feeding themselves.

“This is most egregiously obvious in the ubiquitous use of the word 'still' as in, 'At 82, Jane Smith still walks three miles every morning.'”

As I noted in that story and to his ever-lasting credit, the then-editor of AARP Magazine, Steve Slon, banned the word “still” in that context from his magazine.

A year and a half ago my friend, geriatrician Bill Thomas, author of What are Old People For? and this year's of Second Wind, weighed in on this particular language issue:

”The word “still” is intended as praise but actually serves to wound and diminish older people. The prominent place it holds in our lexicon, reminds us that, when it comes to people living in the latter decades of life, success is defined by the absence of 'change, interruption, or cessation.'

“It is a peculiar conception of human life that equates 'success' with a lack of change. Our use of the word 'still' reveals an ordinarily unstated assumption: In contemporary American society, any deviation from the parameters of vigorous adulthood, by definition, carries the stigma of failure.”

Bill finishes with up with this important reminder:

”Healthy happy people are meant to grow and there are crucial moments in our lives when that growth compels us to leave one stage of the human lifecycle, and enter into the next.

“It is our culture’s inability to see the value of 'life beyond adulthood' that traps them in a desperate and ultimately doomed effort to continue living as adults.

“This is the tyranny of ‘still’.”

I can't say it any better.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Adams-Henry: A Hungarian RapZody


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Ciao, Ronni. I think it's an excellent idea to make us think about the "little" words that define our lives and "still" is definitely offensive in certain cases, yet less so - I think - when one uses it oneself about oneself. It can be just a form of recognition of all that one can still do, and an affirmation.
(I've finally figured out why I was having trouble posting! It was very frustrating, particularly last week with all your excellent and eloquent posts that spoke to me deeply ... as did so many of the contributions of your readers. Belatedly, thank you all.)

YOU CAN’T SEE!

The title sticks with me from a recent experience I, a graying 73 yr old had while driving in an alley near my home.
As I came up behind the USPS loading docks on my right and their parking lot on my left, dodging pot holes and driving no more than 20 mph, I slowed as I came to the rise that goes by the exit, on my right, from the parking lot for postal customers and for the drive-thru mail box customers.
A car came out of that parking/drive-thru lot in front of me as I drove. I stopped short and the woman (probably in her late 30s to early 40s) turned her car toward me to go down the alley. Her car was inches from mine.
When she got beside me, she rolled down her window and declared, “You are driving in
the middle of the road. You need to get on your side.”
Now please, I was in an ALLEY which is narrow by definition and used for loading/unloading. There are no “sides” to an alley. There is stopping while another goes by, courteous awareness of who has right-of-way, which I did. She continued with, “You can’t see, you shouldn’t be driving.”
What I said (and I am not proud of) —the initials are BS—and the declarative sentence is “Do not denigrate me because my hair is gray.” I was so angry, I didn’t point out the obvious details I actually do see. She continued to say “You can’t see!” so I rolled up my window and continued on my way going to get a sandwich for my evening meal and was keenly aware (SEEING) that I needed to cool off before I ate anything.
That was Friday, this is Monday. I have told the story and how I reacted and felt so angry to several people. This morning, I am not so angry as interested in the declaration: “You can’t see!”
Physically, I can see very well--cataracts have been removed, lens implanted and I use glasses for reading most of the time. I’ve been told I see things others have passed by daily and not seen. I see animals in rocks--you know, like Charlie Brown and Lucy looking at the clouds and seeing animals. I sometimes see mountains when there are only molehills--so that is a defect.
What I can’t see is what that woman had on her plate that day. What made her so defensive about her edging and turning in front of a moving car? Why did she feel the need to “blame” me for her situation in that spot? (I had actually been ready to say, “It’s okay” to her “Sorry.”)
Though we were in an affluent community at that point (I’m not affluent, but I do have all I need to live comfortably unless a disaster strikes.) could she have just put a check in the mail that really stressed her to the point of distraction?
Could she have just gotten news that her aging mother could no longer drive, so she was going to have to help her while she also has a daughter and or son to drive to school/dance class/soccer practice? Since I can’t see, I don’t know.
I can see this: My perspective of individuals who appear affluent—live in big homes, drive new, expensive cars, wear the latest fashions—high heels and make-up to go to the grocery or to go shopping—is that they have it made and do not need or want my understanding.
I doubt a person of her apparent age would have been subjected to the same vitriolic statement, YOU CAN’T SEE! because she really was making a statement about my STILL having a drivers’ license.
I can see, also, that mistakes are made by us all in our everday lives--regardless of our age. And, I can see, when I put my mind to it, that discernment—the ability to judge well situations and our own complicity in those situations—is a way in which I need to be more aware.
All that to say, yes, I am STILL driving and STILL learning daily that there is more to seeing than the viewing of physical phenomenon. I am STILL learning to check my attitude and perspective.
I am STILL learning to see that we are all in this rat race together. I am STILL learning to take time to be STILL.

How about "despite"? I was half-listening to a NYC all-news station over the weekend and caught a reference to three musicians in their nineties who are making great music DESPITE their ages.

If mainstream media would stop hiring "children" to write about or interview older American's, we wouldn't have this problem. You cannot expect a twenty something to think of anyone older than 40 as being a viable human being. I see this ageism every day here at the Center where there are no employees older than 50.

I think this is much ado about the obvious. The use of "still" or "despite" is a shorthand way of observing that most 86 year olds are no longer writing poetry nor are most 90 year olds making music. These individuals are the exception. For sure, healthy elders are still doing what ever it was they always did perhaps at a slower pace. The truth is that as we age, some activities are no longer possible for the majority. News stories are about the unusual.

Ah well, my cranky fingers can make art, shelve books, and this week cushion me when I fall on my face. I still fall despite myself and have been falling for 72 years.

I agree with Trudi"s comments on the subject.

There was a well-written story in the Seattle Times this morning about a 92-year-old man who's been repairing manual typewriters for decades.

The article respectfully describes him as having good eyesight and remembering details about machines manufactured a century ago.

The word "still" does not appear, and why should it?

"news stories are about the obvious" is what we knew, that is not so much the case anymore. And may not have been so much the case in the past--propaganda has been with us a loooong time.
As the recent posting by Ronni suggests news stories too often today are "planted" for purposes other than the story.
I do concur that we may be too sensitive re: some use of language, but it is not wrong for us to examine that which is said to describe the aging. We can see the possibilities of how language can be used subtly, subversively. It might not be as directed as we think, but without our using our radars to at least detect possibilities, we can become stigmatized into a nonentity, a liability, if you will.

I went to high school with Tom Hayden (anyone who cares can find out where). He was my editor at the school newspaper and encouraged my talents, which i STILL use! Believe it or not I dated his best friend my entire junior year because he won a coin toss but deflected to his buddy because he thought i was too tall for him. I might STILL be too tall for him, ah hahahahah
Tom will continue to stir things up till "they" carry him out feet first. It's in his personality.
People will say whatever they want about us, and so what? We do what we do regardless. Everyone should lighten up.

Yes, we have to keep reminding ourselves that what is so insulting to us is really just a manifestation of the fears of others.

That doesn't excuse it.

By the way, possible to make the print on this site larger? It's awfully small. Thanks.

Trudi said it well. Personally, I am very grateful that at 73 I can "still" do many things. In my opinion, it is fear of losing one's abilities with age that colors perceptions of a slight when none is intended.

I think the objection to using the word 'still' when applied to an elder is that it implies that elders can no longer do the things they used to. In many cases that's true. But it is also another way of stereotyping us and that's the objection.

IMO, that old saying from our childhoods wasn't true then and isn't true now, especially in these days of Facebook, Twitter, etc.: "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you." They can and do--just ask anyone who's ever been the victim of bullying--or stereotyping.

I agree that we can't imagine a slight in every word, but I think Trudi, Brenda and Darlene state the case for "shades of difference" very well.

I agree with Stephanie and Trudi - after all these years I've learned to pick my battles. Usage of that word is not one. I use it myself, asking acquaintances and former work friends if they are "still" working - not to imply anything other than that maybe they have moved on to something else, just as "still" living in town, "still" on that city committee, etc.

I profoundly agree with Bill Thomas, and with Ronni, about the nefarious uses of "still" when referring to elders. But when I think of that word, what I remember first is a song of Paul Simon's. forty or so years old now: "Still Crazy After All These Years." Great song, and a great use of the word.

If nothing else, this subject of stereotyping brings me to grievously understand and empathize with those people who suffer enormously from a more serious form - with the disgraceful racial profiling, in particular. Cannot imagine living with the harsh division of "them vs. me/us" for an entire lifetime.

I prefer to stick with, "Still Crazy After All These Years."

Shelley, you can change the font size yourself. In the View menu at the top of your browser, you can Zoom larger or smaller. Or just type CTRL + to increase (CTRL - to decrease). But if you are using a phone, I haven't a clue. I hope this helps.

Back when I was an editor at Boston Magazine I shared an office with Carl Oglesby, the founder of SDS and a friend of Hayden's. I STILL remember what an incredible writer he was and how much I learned from him.

There is that word.

Still.

"Oh, here comes Barb's ex husband Joe, and look, he's still walking upright."

My neighbour said this to me:

"You are so cute."

What?

Does cute refer to the fact I am a senior weeder?

Still weeding after all these years?

Maybe I'm the new Darth Weeder.

There is young cute but what is senior cute?

This is getting curiouser and curiouser.

Still wondering.

I still like your blog

Great post, Ronni. I looked "still" up in the online Oxford English Dictionary, and the adverb form alone has 4 meanings. FWIW, I'm inclined to agree with you. Context plays a big part, but when media talk about elders "still" doing whatever, it sends a subtle but strong message that it's surprising...and it sends that message to a large audience.

Could that message ( Mary J) also be offering a counter example to the notion that getting old means giving up all that gives you joy and meaning? That would be a positive, hopeful message : Old people are not universally disabled but many, perhaps most, are enjoying, doing, being, living -- STILL.

I agree with Nan and do think we "seniors" should not look for slights or "subtle messages" in the use of ordinary words. We should not act like the PC police. Personally, I think "still" applied to old(er) people is admiration and perhaps a bit of envy.
(Personally, I dislike the use of "cute" to anyone over 25, and I am several times 25)

My experience with the “still” tyranny is more along the lines of finally accepting it is okay that my various passions in life have each had their own designated time span and then burned out of their own volition even though I was sure at the time my enthusiasm would last forever. There was the city I knew was going to be my true home (lasted 15 years). There was the spiritual community that would be part of all my life forever (4 year duration). The dream job I just knew I would stay at until retirement age (I escaped at 40). Living in France forever . . . the list goes on. Many other “forever” passions lasted one year or two years or whatever they were meant to last.

For me, someone asking if I am “still” doing something is a completely innocuous question on the part of the interlocutor. It just means, what are you doing now. At age of 70 I have several activities I am passionately pursuing now. Will not mention what they are, lest that put a hex on them and shorten their timespan unduly!

Confession: I may have been guilty of using the “still” word judgmentally myself, if only in my thoughts regarding someone: Are you still living in that same town? Are you still doing that same activity after all these years? Are you still in that situation you talked about decades ago? Move on, already! Heed the rhythm of your inner butterfly!

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