The great American secret is no longer sexuality but age. It is perhaps the last closet. Just the other day I was reading about a college classmate of mine - one of the great feminist and avant-garde artists of our time - and I learned to my surprise that she was born four years later than I was - that would have made her a very precocious thirteen at the time she entered college with me. Clearly she shaved a few years off her bio - and it is not my job to out her here - but it saddened me that our society still finds age the untouchable subject and that a brilliant artist would find it necessary to lie about her age to avoid being avoided as one of the seriously old.
Ageism is the great American disease that seems to have no cure. Old people are either idolized as sages to be ignored or demonized for overstaying their welcome and using the resources needed by the young. Men like Picasso and women like Georgia O'Keefe are seen as the grand exceptions to the general dottiness and uselessness of the aged. A great deal of attention is given to dementia - and it is a real problem - imposing impossible burdens on the caretakers who receive no help from the government - but little attention is paid to octogenarians who manage to make their art and their life have meaning long after the expired by or sell-by date that they carry in the eyes of society. Of course, the body takes a beating over time - but the mind can continue to function - and does a pretty good job of thinking and creating in a great many everyday humans.
It was not always this way. A playwright like Shaw was revered for his late-life work and for his longevity, and an ageing Churchill led the Brits to survival and victory in WW2. Europe was always more respectful of its aged - but with the arrival of fast food and postwar Hollywood's obsession with youth - the youth culture swept the world and respect for the elderly was its collateral damage. The great secret is that after forty most people do not feel their age. They remain who they were at twenty - inside. Oh, they may creak a bit, hoist themselves out of a chair using their arms, and they may grumble about the many tricks that time plays on our bodies - but the gains can be enormous ones. Not wisdom. You don't turn into a fortune cookie when you hit fifty. But the long view - that sense of proportion - and that respect for all living things comes more easily with age - if you are lucky enough to live a long life.
A few years ago I was honored by the Y in NYC along with "Fiddler" lyricist Sheldon Harnick, actor Joel Gray, and singer Barbara Cook, for being "resilient octogenarians." I was pleased to find myself in such good company - but I realized that we were considered exceptions to a rule - the rule being that as you age you lose interest in life and art and only care about the next meal and surviving to the next day. This is so untrue of the older people I have known and those I know today - that I was both honored and offended - if that's possible. Yes, I still write plays and books - one of which is "Spotless" a memoir of my boyhood in the 1930's - soon to be published, and at eighty-four I do take joy in my work. I recognize that I am privileged in doing so - but there are many ways to live a great older life - retirement is a tonic for those who have done hard manual labor for a lifetime - I appreciate that - but poverty is the curse that often accompanies old age. The notion that so many must choose between a life-saving medication and paying the rent is intolerable in a country as rich as ours.
What a great waste of human resources - this fear of ageing which often manifests itself in mockery of the old, and a disregard for the contributions they do make, and can make, to a world that may be dying of its illusions - that wars and inequality are the way it is - simply because it is the way it was - and that a fast-talking con man can save us all. There are better days ahead - pessimism is an excuse for not doing anything to make it better - and I hope all of you experience the joy and the sorrows of getting older - and even being old. So saith the guy who was born in 1932 and having seen more history unfold than most, is still fascinated by the joyful and delightfully dangerous experience of being alive. Forty-eight or eighty-four we share the same world - and hopes for better days ahead.