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