Independence Day 2016
How to Combat Ageism

Growing Old in a New World

Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to the final episode of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, ended now after 42 years of weekly broadcasts.

The show had been recorded the evening before at the Hollywood Bowl and President Barack Obama called in live to mark the moment. It was funny that Keillor did most of the talking, hardly letting the president speak at all.

I wasn't a particular fan of the program nor, as some, did I dislike it either. I tuned in now and then and over those many years I became familiar, of course, with Lake Wobegon, Guy Noir, Lives of the Cowboys, commercials for Powdermilk Biscuits, the townsfolk at the Chatterbox Cafe and all the rest.

Prairie Home Companion has been a part of my personal cultural landscape for most of its existence. Even though, sometimes, a year or two or three went by since I had last heard the show, it was a familiar presence each time I returned, one of the small pleasures I could count on that defined the times during which I have lived.

On the same day as Keillor's last show, I read with my early morning coffee that Elie Wiesel had died at age 87. Elie Wiesel? The Auschwitz survivor who dedicated his life as witness for the 11 million slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust?

Elie Wiesel, the teacher, the writer, the humanitarian, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient dead?

“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” reads his Nobel citation. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”

It is, I guess, such an homage – and there have been many others - that made me think that somehow Elie Wiesel was immortal.

I was barely out of high school – just three or four years - when I read his first book, Night, a powerful memoir of his teen years in the Nazi camp at Auschwitz-Berkenau, a book that once read can never be forgotten.

As my introduction to the Holocaust, Night was so hard to read, such a horrible shock to learn what had taken place at the camps (they skipped over those details in my school) that I could hardly keep reading. And I couldn't not keep going either.

It's been nearly 60 years now and I haven't stopped reading Holocaust literature, always returning to Elie Wiesel. He's been with me all these years and it never occurred to me that he would die.

About a month ago another cultural icon died, the boxer Muhammad Ali. He was 74, having lived for many years with Parkinson's syndrome.

I worked with him twice, many years ago. Once over a period of a couple of days at his home in Chicago for a television interview and again for another TV show about American sports legends recorded at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

It is difficult for me to explain to other people how little I care about sports. It is so central to the American experience that people have trouble believing me. But it is true; I have zero interest – as though I am missing a gene.

And that makes me an almost perfect example of the reasons for Muhammad Ali's universal fame. Not celebrity, that describes something too fleeting and unimportant for Ali. It is his fame – in every corner of the world.

Even I care about Ali. As Robert Lipsyte explained in The New York Times obituary:

”In later life Ali became something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus. He was respected for having sacrificed more than three years of his boxing prime and untold millions of dollars for his antiwar principles after being banished from the ring; he was extolled for his un-self-conscious gallantry in the face of incurable illness, and he was beloved for his accommodating sweetness in public.”

I got to see that sweetness up close when working on the sports show. When he walked through a public area, people of all ages – kids, teens, grownups, old men and women – wanted to shake his hand, to hug him, to bask in his aura of humankindness. He was bigger than life and eminently approachable.

Like Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Ali came along in my life when I was just a few years out of high school and he has been there ever since floating around edges of my consciousness.

Garrison Kiellor, Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Ali. They are more than cultural icons, they are embedded in my worldview, contributors – with thousands of other people, events and things – that define for me the era through which I have lived.

And now they are gone.

It keeps happening these days as the actors in the mise en scene of my life drop away to be replaced with the newer people, events and things that help define the later, different eras that people younger than I inhabit.

Of course, this is as it should be and has been since the beginning of time. Still, that doesn't mean I'm not a bit discomfitted when, as with the departure of these most recent three, the narrative of my era becomes a little bit emptier.

It's not that I am a stranger in a strange land. Yet. But I am feeling somewhat forlorn today living in a world that is a little less my own.

Comments

Lovely, thank you.

Beautiful, Ronni

Just this morning there was another report of a death of another iconic individual. This was someone I had been aware of at some point in time, but had pretty much forgotten about for years; even a decade ago, I couldn't have told you whether he was alive or dead. But he was a very interesting person, and another of those in whom something fierce burned, whose death leaves the world a little less interesting. Stephen Gaskin, who helped found The Farm commune on 1,000 acres of Tennessee land in the early 1970's, died at his home there yesterday morning, at age 79.

You took the words out of my mouth..............again. Thank you Ronni for your elegant writing that means so much to so many of us elders. I hope you have a wonderful peace filled day. :)Dee

"It's not my world anymore." I remember my mother saying that. I'm beginning to know what she meant.

Of course, the other side of this is that we -- at least I -- don't recognize the names of so many people who will become to the young what the icons you mention became to us. I'm particularly aware of this when I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I'm not keeping up, and I don't know whether I should be disturbed about that or not.

My husband and I were having a similar conversation while driving through town the other day, lamenting the demise of a large home in our neighborhood. It has been torn down so as to subdivide the estate into smaller lots so more people can live at this prestigious address.

I was telling him about a tv documentary I had been watching where the discussion was about how the earth is changing every day yet people like to believe that the earth is static. Just as with people who come and go in our life, so the earth is moving and shifting and becoming something different every day. The narrator said that people do not like to think this true as they want their world to remain the same. People, places, and things.

A beautiful tribute, Ronnie. Having grown up in those times (I'm 77), their names resonate with me—they were part of my life. But I do try to become familiar with some of the names that are part of the current culture, especially in music. The new music is hard to take, but I try to give them a nod by actually listening to the new bands being featured in the late night shows I watch (doing my little bit). These are the names that will carry the culture forward.

I remember first noticing this in my 50s--your world dies, but you somehow live on in a foreign country. Like many, I keep up sporadically (when it seems fun) and don't when it doesn't.

One of the bad parts about being young is one that we oldies tend to forget. The intense pressure and urgency of "being cool" is a young trait I definitely don't miss. I do miss those touchstone people as they leave us, though.

I've been feeling much the same and can now see how life unravels, one thread at a time, for older adults. And, hopefully, makes it more acceptable for us to let go when it's our time.

As it should be Ronni, as it should be. Thanks so much for the wisdom of your observations...

My thoughts exactly. And you've expressed them so beautifully. dkzody touched on another thing that speaks to me -- the way our world keepings changing. We can revisit the places of our childhoods, but they won't be at all what we remembered and we are forced to face the fact that time has indeed marched on.

When my mother was in the nursing home, that notion of a changing world was strong. There was a woman there who always asked visitors to take her home. It occurred to me then that the "home" she was speaking about was not only a place, but also a time, and I've remembered it ever since.

Enjoyed the topic and your eloquence, Ronni, and like the "mise en scene" usage, as once I cooked furiously. And Jean, I'm with you about the NYT crosswords these days. And Paula, how I don't miss that pressure!

In addition to those well-remembered people, my own familiar interests and habits are evolving into others that suit my older age. That's not worse, it's different. And I actively look to new pursuits or ideas, especially as I feel the melancholy rising within.

It takes a bit of time to overcome the feelings of loss, while adjusting to the rapid changes going on - and reestablish the familiarity and comfort of the 'big picture.' I think the internet can be a source of inspiration and also a font for frustration and anxiety. It must be managed as we choose.


What a lovely post and tribute! I'm so glad I read it. Although from the title I thought it would be have an entirely focus and I almost skipped reading here today.

No one every believes me either when I tell them I have zero interest in any sports...yet I love movies about sports: Tin Cup, Field of Dream, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc.

P.S. Color me embarrassed for my errors above! I really need to learn to use the preview feature before publishing comments.

As I watch my 94 year old mother understand less and less, the unraveling image is a good description. The threads she holds on to are just shadows of a life and places she remembers.

My grade ten students were shocked and glued to the book "Night."

It is a most poignant account of abuse. The writing is exceptional. Courage, determination, hope, survival.

TIme passages:

Sometimes I drive past the house I owned years ago.

A memory lane drive.

There was a woman gardening in front of the house yesterday. First time I ever saw someone there. I stopped, rolled down my window and said bonjour.

The woman put down her trowel and walked over to my car. I explained I lived in her house a long time ago, and was then commuting to university by train.

She was surprised. Said she has two grown children. The houses on both sides of her house had changed hands three times since I moved away.

***

I loved reading the comments above.

***

Mohammed Ali:

The CD sound track of the movie "Ali" is in my car.

One song

"Hold On."

By R. Kelly

is like a distant light on a deserted highway, you are the driver.

Oh no, spelled Muhammad Ali wrong.

My fault!

At the time I moved to Minneapolis, Garrison Keillor had a local radio show that didn't interest me all that much. But he was also the morning host on a Morning Show, and that I listened to religiously. The music was an incredible mix of folk, classical, country -- it got me to listening to country music for the first time. But mainly it was the talk - he is a talker. And also the guests that stopped by, just for the hell of it. A sheep farmer, for example, who wanted him to play "Sheep May Safely Graze." Garrison would also have competitions growing spontaneously out of whatever he was talking about. Poetry, for example - he said that he learned poetry in school, and wondered if any of us listeners could recite a poem - without looking it up - that we still remembered from school days. He recited one. And then came calls, people terribly proud when they could get through the whole poem they remembered.

But one woman I won't forget: she called. Sounded nervous. Then started to recite - but suddenly stopped, unable to remember. Garrison said in his soothing voice that he was about to do a news report, so she should hang up and think some more.. She obeyed. And when she called back, all of us at our kitchen tables cheered her on as she triumphantly recited the whole thing.

It was a wonderful way to start the morning every weekday. And when Garrison went on to become Big, choosing to develop his local show rather than continuing the morning show, I was enormously sad. The early versions of the PHC were better than the later ones, and like you, Ronni, I didn't listen all that often.

Garrison is still very much alive. He will do, in fact, one more farewell show at the Minnesota State Fair this August. But just for the locals (who were, I suspect, miffed that his last show was in Hollywood and not here..)

That's enough. He is also a fine fine writer and is writing a memoir now -- which the NY Times reporter who was at the last show in California said he would stand in line to buy!

There's nothing I can add except thank you for the terrific post and I so agree with Mary J. and others: it's not my (our?) world anymore. I wasn't a big fan of Garrison Keillor either, but he was part of that world. As Ruth-Ellen observed, though, he's still here and has projects lined up for the future. Wish I did, but 18 months after being involuntarily retired from my job, I haven't reconnected. Another signpost that, as I approach 80, it's not my world anymore.

Nearing 60 I am beginning to feel the world is a foreign country, to use Paula's phrasing. Not just because of the passing of people in the news (director Michael Cimino of Heaven's Gate infamy also died this past week). But also because of the passing of those more close. Although I'm no longer close to most of them, I come from a big extended family. Mom had 7 siblings and Dad had 9. One by one we cousins (16 of us on Mom's side and 22 on Dad's-- I'm one of the youngest) have watched all of that generation and their spouses pass away. And now we cousins are on the front line, one already gone and another now is seriously ill. As it should be, yes, of course, but still...sad.

The words that others have used in describing your post resonate with me. Beautiful, lovely, elegant, eloquent are words I thought of when reading your post.

Or as another Icon would have said, "Just mahvelous dahling."

I'm not a sports fan either, so can relate to that. I hadn't known M. Ali outside of the boxing ring, so that was interesting.

My family is also in the stage where elders are gradually dying. A cousin (my opinion of him has increased) said, in a cricketing analogy that even I appreciated, "Its like all the wickets are falling. And *we're* now becoming the elders".

“It is time for us to let go of both our fantasies of eternal youth and our fears of getting older, and to find the beauty of what it means to age well. It is time to understand that the last phase of life is not non-life; it is a new stage of life. These older years—reasonably active, mentally alert, experienced and curious, socially important and spiritually significant—are meant to be good years." (p.xi)

Great quote. To be free of the 9 to 5, childrens demands and societal demands allows time for quiet reflection and the sheer joy of solitude ( if sought) or opportunity to pursue an interest not previously allowed due to work or family committments.

I suspect there is a stage where whatever sex we are, we are no longer compelled to posture and preen ( in all its forms) to attract the opposite sex ( even that term today is outdated .... perhaps 'attract ones partner' is a better decription). As a man, there is a point in time where one just says - 'I am what I am, the 6 pack just aint gunna happen'. Mind you that doesnt signal a descent into slovenliness. A man should always maintain a good standard of grooming. It intimates a certain persona of confidence, self awareness and style, which I know contradicts what I just said about 'letting go' but hey, there are some standards that must be maintained. Nothing too esoteric or puncey mind you, more or less understated and resolute ( our other halves like 'resolute' - it's an attribute they weighed up carefully when they chose us).

It is often said that in our youth we are very much shaped by external forces; our behaviour, dress, speech, friends, music and events to name a few, but these things just dont resonate as once they use to as we age.

Most of us have all the freinds we need ( and some of us too many that we cant keep them all happy) and indeed there is a definate part of the ageing process whereby we actually shed those friends borne out of kid's school and work liaisons to focus on those soul buddies, those poor souls who like flies in a web have not the skills or aptitude to escape our gaze ( yes I am joking!). We are certainly less moved by dress trends ( for fear of looking like a sock full of walnuts) and consequently spend less time pretending that we actually look good in anything, content to seek out those garments that hide the most ills. Music, well, it surely comes from another planet these days " enuf said”.


Returning to thoughts of nostalgia and melacholly, there is a sense I have that, we are programmed to be optimistic about our situation. We are always ruminating about the various phases of life; youth, adult, mature, old age and infirmness. All our discourse is about putting a positive spin on each phase. The reality is that none is better than the other, it is life no more no less. We make of it what we will.

Happiness is absolutely a state of mind ( and yes this is stating the bleeding obvious). So each of us has to reach into ourselves and truly examine and identify what makes us happy. Each of us will have a different formulae to achieve that nirvana. In different proportions this will be reliant on others.

I think the luckiest are those who are very content with their own company, for they are the true survivors. They are often held up for ridicule for being reclusive, but of course who are we really to judge. To be entirely happy with your own company says something about ones alignment to the physical and spiritual world, for arguably one cannot be truly at ease unless these two components of the human existence are in balance. As much as some of us try to excoriate any spiritualism from our lives, some spirituality lingers in most of us. I have met very few people in my life that dont have a sense of the spiritual side of the human condition. Notwithstanding formal religious teachings there is not a single human civilisation throughout our known history that doesnt have some signs of a spiritual awareness. Perhaps this just coincides with an awareness of mortality nothing more nothing less. Nonetheless, our quality of life, our happiness, particularly in the later years requires some internal resolution of this issue. An absence of such resolution breeds contempt of ones situation and most of us are hard markers.
I recommend some deep thought and the internal agreement of a firm position. Sitting on the fence is not a good recipe for a peaceful twilight. Reduce the internal conflicts in all areas. Rack and stack if you must, its yours to decide. Be brave, be resolute ( remember ... Her indoors likes resolute !! ). Good luck on your journey.

Hmmm, we have more in common than I thought. I also was never a fan of "Prairie Home Companion" (I always thought: what's wrong with me. everyone else loves it, but I find it kind of boring). And I, too, am no sports fan. And yet I, too, will miss them all.

If you need proof that all of the old icons are gone, just watch any edition of TMZ.
I dare you to tell me who any of the so-called "celebs" they are talking about are or what they do.

"It's not that I am a stranger in a strange land. Yet. But I am feeling somewhat forlorn today living in a world that is a little less my own." These two elegant sentences rang the bell of truth for me, Ronni...and I thought "it's as if something is subtlety encouraging us to think about making our way to the edge of our "nest" and trying out our wings."

• I wanted the word to be "subtle-ly" but these new fangled devices keep on correcting my spellings :-(.

Fabulous!

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