An Elder News Extra: 16 September 2009
REFLECTIONS: On Racism in America

The TGB Interview: Robert Lipsyte

Category_bug_interview Back in 2007, I appeared on three episodes of a PBS series titled, Life (Part 2). It was a load of fun and among the people I had the pleasure of meeting was Robert Lipsyte. Now, the second season of Life (Part 2) is being broadcast on the web in addition to PBS channels around the U.S. and Bob is the host this season.

Lipsyte175wYou have probably heard of him. He is a long-time city and sports columnist for The New York Times, the author of 16 books including In the Country of Illness: Comfort and Advice for the Journey (I highly recommend it) and such young adult novels as The Contender, One Fat Summer and Raiders Night. In 1966 and in 1996, he won Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award for distinguished reporting.

In 1992, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. In June 2001, he won the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature. A former network correspondent at CBS and NBC, Lipsyte won an Emmy in 1990 for on-camera achievement as host of the nightly WNET public affairs broadcast, “The Eleventh Hour.”

Bob graciously agreed to put up with a few questions from me about the new series and about what it's like for him to get older.

RONNI BENNETT: What is the goal of the Life Part 2 series?
Comfort and advice and moral support for the rest of the journey. You're not alone. Kind of what you're doing, Ronni, but with moving pictures.

RB: What one or two things did you learn from hosting Life Part 2, that surprised you?
How many active, smart, beautiful people - people called elderly or old - are out there leading meaningful lives.

RB: Episode one has been released online this week. Give us a brief overview...
I loved that discussion but was chilled by the one-on-one with Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, who talked about dealing with younger bosses. Learn their language and culture, she said, keep up with technology, dress cooler and never, ever say things like “The way we used to do this...” What about experience? What about the life we've lived so far? Makes me want to eat the young.

RB: Let's get personal for a bit. When you were young, what did you think getting old would be like?
Who thought about it? Did you, Ronni? I looked at my cranky, creaky grandparents and swore I would never be like them and if I started getting that way I'd swim out to sea. Actually, I thought my parents were always pretty old and didn't realize how full of life they really were until they were in their eighties and I was in my fifties.

RB: How is it different from what you thought?
I'm only aware of my “oldiness” as a reflection from those younger people who find me either invisible or in the way (sometimes both, crash!) and contemporaries who feel decrepit and complain incessantly about their health and/or being on a scrap heap. It's like years after an illness when people ask "How are you?" in that sepulchral tone that you suddenly remember that you had been sick.

RB: How are you most different from your youthful self?
I'm simply less sure of what I absolutely know. More than anything, compassion and the ability to see both sides really slows you down. I'm writing my memoirs, An Accidental Sportswriter: Lessons from the Locker-Room, and on every page I come up against my younger self and I often cringe at his righteousness and certainty. I've been interviewing people who were subjects and colleagues from those days and their memories reinforce that sense of change. Positive change, I think.

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about being young?
Time. That endless horizon of time to swing and miss and try again. I feel more pressure to get it right, right now, finish the new book, nail the next show, not so much before I die but before something else in life pops up and gets in the way, illness, a complication. Maybe it's not just time, but the sense that the time isn't empty, that tomorrow isn't promised and if it comes, there will be a list of chores.

RB: It is a cliché that people mellow as they get older. I haven't found that to be true for me. What about you?
You talkin' ta me?

RB: What is the biggest surprise to you – positive or negative – about getting old?
I think I've copped to getting older, Ronni, not to getting old. I don't know what being "old" means. Is it a condition? Of what? When my Dad died a few months shy of 101, I was 67. He was still sharper, more skeptical and yet more empathic than I was, but I could certainly move faster.

He lived alone and had only recently quit driving. We talked about being older a lot. Mostly agreed on things (finally!). We felt sorry for younger people who were unable to open themselves to take advantage of our experience without feeling threatened.

We enjoyed not having to be au courant (he was mostly reading ancient history at this point and re-reading the 19th Century novels of his early education). My kids, his grandkids, felt pressure to see the new movies and read the new novels so they could talk with their peers. We didn't (take that, Cathie Black!)

RB: What do you like best about getting old? Least?
Same answer to both questions - not dealing with the anxiety of being young. Yet there was an excitement and energy in that anxiety.

RB: People are fond of saying – joke or not - “If I'd only known then what I know now.” What do you wish you'd known when you were young?
That most everyone is as scared as I am. Especially in high school and college, I was intimidated by people, alot of them girl people and fellow writer people, who seemed so confident. They obviously knew what they were doing while I sure didn't. I was middle-aged before I figured out that they were just better actors. I would have avoided a lot of angst had I known that. I try to tell this to young people. The frankly scared ones don't believe me and the confident actors scurry away.

RB: How have your pleasures changed over the years?
Only in degree. I eat and drink more, bicycle more, read more, talk more with friends and family, and think about sex more.

RB: Ageism is a serious problem that diminishes old people in the eyes of everyone. What personal encounters have you had with ageism?
At the moment I'm very lucky to be the geezer host of a boomer show with Gen X staffers. But certainly as a sportswriter and an author of young adult fiction, I see the genre gatekeepers lust for the next new.

Far more importantly, I see the culture's readiness to discard, warehouse, disappear older people and MOST IMPORTANTLY I see, with growing bewilderment and some anger, the passivity of so many older people, the seeming willingness to let it happen. Take to the streets!

I think ageism is as important as racism and sexism and should make common cause. I think of the chorus of walkers in The Producers. Can you imagine that power unleashed? I hate the selfishness of some older people - Medicare for me but you're on your own - and yearn for a new version of Gray Panthers. Should we start something, Ronni?

RB: Much of the media about or directed at old people references boomers almost exclusively as though I (born in 1941) and you (born a bit earlier) and the rest of the 35 million or so pre-boomers are no longer of consequence. Is this a new kind of ageism, do you think, separating the boomers from the – well, ancients, I guess?
I call us the Classic Generation. I also remember as a young reporter in the Sixties wishing all that deadwood, the reporters in their forties and fifties and beyond, would get out of my way. I think every generation has to push through the crowd ahead. Watch the boomers get busted.

RB: What does this series have to say about age discrimination in the workplace?
We only deal with it frontally in one show but it pervades all the shows in the sense that we hope we offer the kind of support and advice that gives people the confidence of knowing they are not alone and can push back.

RB: Whom do you admire in terms of how they have aged? Do you have a role model for getting older?
That's easy. Dad. There were sags in his spirit - especially after he retired in his late sixties and when Mom died (she was 90, he was 94) but he bounced back. He was resilient. He came through the traumas of the Titanic sinking (heard it on his crystal set), WWI and II, the Great Depression, the wave of American murders of our best leaders and our foreign misadventures, and he got psychic scar tissue just from surviving. He taught me that nothing is as good or bad as your imagination can make it.

RB: After all the time you've spent over the past months concentrating on aging for this series, what words of wisdom about getting old do you have?
Not so wise and not always easy, but keep your old friends and make some new ones. Of all ages. Remember what gave you pleasure once - music, reading, gem-polishing, watching baseball - and reconnect with it. Practice portion control, shake your butt and don't give up until they zip the bag. Also - watch LIFE(Part2) and read Time Goes By. We're a community as long as we last.

This is a clip from Life (Part 2) episode one in which therapist Terrence Real discusses boomer marriage. It runs 1:44 minutes. You can watch the entire episode here at the Life (Part 2) website.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, sltmas: Winds of Summer


Oh, thank you, Ronni and Robert. What a gift this post: two gifted communicators sharing out loud from a user's manual (write one, anyone?) on what it's really like, etc. I love the straight talking, unsentimental, un-pop wisdom. Claim yourself now (no matter the age or phase). Bits of the mantra of Ram Dass;-) Be here now. I love it all. And I'm grateful for this life, for memory, for today, and for this blog.

Very interesting reading. I loved the answer to "If you knew now what you knew then..."

If I had know that everyone was an unsure of themselves - life would have been much easier....LOL

What a great interview! Thanks to both of you.

That was fascinating. Will go watch!

I have a friend who does couples counseling for gay couples. The YouTube made me think of something she told me once: "Mostly I'm just introducing them to each other. They've lived together for five years and they don't really know much about their partners."

It's not just heterosexuals who get stuck in these traps.

I too loved Lipsyte's insight that all those seemingly so confident people were just acting when I was hiding my adolescent uncertainties ...

Quite eye-opening and a refreshing read. Many thanks to both of you.

Outstanding interview. thanks Ronni and Robert.

I especially liked this part:

"He taught me that nothing is as good or bad as your imagination can make it".

"If I knew then what I know now -" I look back on my life and think of the things I worried about that never came to pass. Or about the problems that occurred and came out all right in the end.

I could have saved myself a ton of grief if I had known all that then.

I really enjoyed this.
'I see, with growing bewilderment and some anger, the passivity of so many older people, the seeming willingness to let it happen. Take to the streets!'
This made me laugh when I remembered the cartoon of oldies marching in the street chanting:
'Who are we? What do we want? Why are we here?'

Enjoyed this.
I like the "classic" generation of which I'm a proud member.
Do you wonder if 'going quiet' is just a smoke screen into which we escape the demands of youth?
It's actually nice and warm and peaceful under the covers of age, is it not?

Thank you both for this. Good, I say clapping my hands like a kid. I find most of me works well as long as I am stretching out the grey matter. When the day comes when I don't understand what you say, put me away....with a computer. :)

Loved this post. All those discoveries I've made along the way to getting old(er) confirmed, leading me to affirm that in many ways--all the ways that count really--these golden years are the best of my life!

Great interview. Add me to the march. We could start marching in Canada, then join up with the USA, walk all the way in our comfortable ass kicking shoes. Do more of these interviews.

What a wonderful interview! Thank you both!!

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