May 05, 2013

Everyone's Alive: Suspended in Cultural Time

This is too bizarre to take for granted: there are regular, daily news items about Rihanna (25) and Betty White (91). One is a quarter of a century old; the other is zooming towards a century.  Both work full time on popular projects, with the elderly Betty having an upper hand because she does so (presumably) sober.  

The news of Valerie Harper’s (73) terminal brain cancer is an emotional gut punch. That she’s accepting of her early demise is inspiring. What’s shocking is she’s poised to be only the second member of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast to leave us.
Freaky Fact: as of May 5, 2013, IMDB shows that of the Top10 billed on the 1970 cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, only Ted Knight has left us, in 1986. He was a year younger than Betty White.

Even Freakier Fact: go back to 1961 for the top 10 billed of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and only 3 of them have died. This means that Carl Reiner (91) and Rose Marie (89) are still with us, along with, of course, Dick Van Dyke (87) and Mary Tyler Moore herself (76), who may well be the Good Luck Degrees of Separation that keeps so many essential people alive and creative for so long. 

I Want To Live Forever

The obvious answers as to why we have such a wide span of generations alive at one time would be modern medicine and better education about how to live a healthier life. For instance, so many of the people name checked so far were once smokers. Health education got them off cigarettes, while modern medicine practices (both scientific and natural) may have repaired any damage from the habit.

That we now have the chance to live longer has certainly created new problems. The medical and insurance industries are feeling the strain of longevity. Government programs like Social Security and Medicare are not financially equipped to handle mass longevity. And even though our internal organs can now make it to 90 and beyond, can our knees? But does that even matter anymore?

The internet has created a toy box of instant cultural knowledge with no age limits or era boundaries. We also live in a magical moment of little historical constraint. It is a cultural gift to be alive right now because so many of the people that have contributed to the arts are still here to share their stories and their talents. 

A 13-year old can discover the musical magic of Tony Bennett (86) and not only benefit from 50+ years of his ongoing catalog, but also study his philosophies on music, art and love via book and documentary (The Zen of Bennett). He has dedicated his life to contributing quality to our culture and has no plans to stop until he’s dead. At this moment, he is both staging a 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and protesting against assault weapons (both items covered here).

Living to an old age is now possible, but to do so with a quality of health that lets our elders keep fighting (like To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s copyright battle) for the contributions they’ve made to our culture is unprecedented.  We live in a time when historical figures can still share their gifts and influence our progress. They are, inadvertently, an inspiration for younger generations to be motivated to actually do something with every decade of our lives.

You May Be Too Young To Rock

A common piece of advice musicians share about improving one’s craft is to find out who inspired your favorite artists and listen to them. Then listen to who inspired those people. We’ve no excuse for ignorance because all of these educational touchstones are just a Google search and a stream away. If you’re lucky or motivated, you can also still see or chat with some of the musical titans who have inspired musicians for over 60 years.

It’s absurd to have it be no big deal that most of The Rolling Stones are alive or half of The Beatles are when so many of the people who motivated their long careers are still not only alive, but active.  The list includes:
Chuck Berry, 86 (above)
Fats Domino, 85
Little Richard, 80
Jerry Lee Lewis, 77
Don Everly, 76, and his brother Phil, 74
Wanda Jackson, 75
Dion DiMucci, 73

Even though Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley left far too soon, you can still talk with the guys who helped make their seminal recordings, like Elvis’ Sun Sessions guitarist Scotty Moore, 82 and drummer D.J. Fontana, 83; or Holly’s Crickets’ bassist Joe Mauldin, Jr., 72, and drummer Jerry Allison, 73.

We have the privilege of living in a time where we can see all of these people, either performing or at conventions where they gladly sit and answer intricate audience questions about what kind of microphones were used to get that drum sound.

It seems the biggest misconception about rock & roll is that it’s for the young. Turns out that just like the other original American art forms of jazz and country & western, rock is about endurance rather than speed. Not only do we get to learn from their contributions as we navigate new music technology, they help us master it. It’s an analog-to-digital baton pass that benefits us all.

Living Forever in the Reel World

My bathroom is a shrine to Old Hollywood, first erected in 1999. Today, only one wall (above) has Golden Era stars that are still alive. Two days after I first noted this fact, Elizabeth Taylor passed away. I hope I’m not jinxing it for Zsa Zsa Gabor (96), Doris Day (89) – who are retired by illness or choice, respectively - and Sophia Loren (78) who still works when motivated.

The 4th survivor on my wall is Debbie Reynolds who is only 81 years old. It seems she should be far older, but she got a young start. She is our still-vibrant link to Old Hollywood and is willing to share with her latest book, Unsinkable (nicely reviewed here by our 90 year-old gossip maven Liz Smith who still churns out a vital daily column). 

Shirley MacLaine is a year younger than Miss Reynolds. She (along with 81 year-old Angie Dickinson) is our surviving link to the Ring-A-Ding-Ding Rat Pack who still works in at least one movie a year, every year. 

My fascination with artists still alive started with an April 7, 2008 piece from Roger Friedman, AfterHeston: Who’s Left, wherein he lists roughly 85 names of those from Old Hollywood still alive, with Doris Day being his youngest entrant when she was 84.  I immediately turned it into a document to keep track of when those listed finally passed on and at what age.  A scootch over 5 years since it was published, 39 of them remain. The more recognizable names (not already mentioned) include Eli Wallach (97), Olivia deHavilland (96), her sister Joan Fontaine (95) and Kirk Douglas (96).

Those that remain from this list includes the aforementioned Carl Reiner, who has been busy doing publicity rounds with Mel Brooks (86). Hear for yourself with the 2013 interviews on separate WTF podcasts and a Judd Apatow sit-down that their comedic minds remain sharp and fast. We learn from them that age deteriorates the body, but not necessarily the mind. Maybe mental fitness is as controllable as physical fitness – do we get to make some choices that influence the outcome?

Meaningful Longevity

We live in a time when dying at 70 feels like being taken too soon and living to 100 can be a realistic expectation.  But pumping up the stats on actuarial lifetables is just cold math without quality of life. We can take good care of our hearts and bodies, but what about our souls?

That answer may be on a recent Live With Norm MacDonald, where Larry King (79) talks about never losing his curiosity. This need to know more has taken him from radio to being a cable news pioneer to staking his current claim in internet broadcasting. While other major entertainment and news industries are still fumbling with how to survive and thrive in a technological world, Larry embraces whatever is needed to keep sharing meaningful information.

Elders are keenly aware of the technological divide, and they have a choice in which side to be on. The majority of those listed above have chose to keep contributing (when physically able) because it has become so much easier to make their past and present part of the on-going conversation. It now takes less physical effort to remain connected to the global mind source hungering for information, inspiration and motivation.

The gift of meaningful longevity is now available to anyone.  Age is no longer a handicap, even for those with physical handicaps.  It’s not even The Eternally Young (aka Baby Boomers) who have made this so – they, too, are benefitting from the same elders they once railed against.

Modern health knowledge gives us some choice in our rate of physical decay. The cyber world has freed us from many physical limitations. We are in the early stages of the revolution of living forever, even after we’re gone. It is a welcoming frontier because so many elders remain to show us the options for aging and thriving with grace. It is an honor and a gift to be suspended in cultural time with you all.