Sunday, January 26, 2020

Thomas Cole's "Old Man Country"

Thomas R. Cole is the McGovern Chair and Director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. His work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, and PBS. Cole has served as an advisor to the President's Council on Bioethics and the United Nations NGO Committee on Ageing. His book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is Senior Editor of The Oxford Book of Aging, which The New Yorker cited as one of the most memorable books of the year. Cole's book No Color Is My Kind: the Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Desegregation of Houston (1997) was adapted into the film, The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, which was broadcast nationally on over 60 PBS stations. In 2007, he co-produced Stroke: Conversations and Explanations, a prize-winning film about the invisible world of stroke survivors.

Cole applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders, and reported the following:
From page 99:
My tears are the closest thing I know to transcendence—the emotional experience of being swept up by a benevolent force beyond my thinking self. The music is a prayer filled with love. It is thrilling, expansive, hopeful.

I don’t think Downs yearns for God. I think he finds God in the purity of the highest forms of music and the most advanced forms of physics. The Greeks considered music to be a branch of physics; they showed us that harmony arises out of numerical ratios of sound waves. Instruments and voices produce vibrations that we hear as music--music that bursts into beauty and then fades silently into the universe. Listening to Downs makes me think about the beauty of aging, the beauty of each of us bursting into life and fading away after our lives have run their course.

When I ask Downs to talk about his own experience of deep old age, he talks about masculinity, particularly the challenge of reconciling manhood with physical decline. “Are you less of a man now than you were 30 years ago?”

“Well, it depends on what category you want to say,” Downs replies. “Sexually, I’m much less of a man. Athletically, I’m much less of a man. Intellectually, I think I’m more of a man than I was then, in what I pursue and what I enjoy and take pleasure from.” At the same time, he believes that he is more accepting of being an old man than when he was in his sixties:
It bothered me when—I bet I was not quite 60—when somebody wanted to help me out of a car. I was offended. Why would they think I needed help? It doesn’t bother me now that people think of me as old, because I am, and it is comfortable for me.
Throughout his career, Downs has challenged ageism—stereotypes of and prejudice against old people, along with discrimination in employment, inadequate and demeaning nursing home care, and a general cultural story of aging as decline. The PBS program Over Easy, which won an Emmy in 1981, set out Downs’ critique of ageism by emphasizing the uniqueness and value of all individuals, regardless of age. In 1979, when he was a mere child of 58, Downs published Thirty Dirty Lies about Old, an important popular book challenging pervasive negative stereotypes about aging and old people. Downs takes on such “lies” as: “Old Age is an Illness;” “Old people have no interest in sex;” “Intelligence declines with Age;” “You can’t do anything about getting old;” “Older people stand little chance in a country that accents youth.” Downs characterized these “lies” as sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, sometimes well-meaning and sometimes vicious.

“If we hang around long enough,” he says, “loose lies will victimize all of us.” In the end, Downs argues, it is a mistake to think that we have
This page gives a good sense of how it feels to read the book. It offers a good example of my encounter with one elder, Hugh Downs. It doesn’t provide a view of the book as a whole.

Old Man Country explores how twelve men face (or faced) the challenges of living a good old age. All who appear in this volume are highly accomplished. Some are friends. Some are strangers. Some are famous: Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Reagan and Carter; Denton Cooley, the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart into a human being; Ram Dass, his generation’s foremost American teacher of Eastern Spirituality; and Hugh Downs, veteran TV broadcaster and creator of The Today Show.

The excerpt on Page 99 offers a glimpse of Downs’s successful, wide-ranging career. Over the course of this dizzying career—he worked in a puppet show, a soap opera, a game show, and hosted The Today Show from 1962-1971—he grew up professionally at the same time television emerged as a mass medium. As news programs sprouted up, he shaped them by developing his signature persona as a calm, thoughtful, and reassuring television presence. His smooth and affable demeanor secured his place as one of the most trusted news people in American television.

Before the interview, I had no idea that Downs was a polymath and tremendous adventurer whose career took him all over the world. In 1982, to cite just one example, he learned that scientists had determined more precisely the location of the earth’s axis at the South Pole and were traveling to mark the new spot. Downs contacted the head of the National Science Foundation and asked to accompany the team to Antarctica. On December 10, at 6:10 PM, he picked up the fifteen-foot bamboo pole (the South Pole is literally marked by a pole) and planted it in the correct position.

As the excerpt from Downs also shows, Old Man Country explores four basic questions that every man faces as he moves into the last stage of life: Am I Still a Man? Do I Still Matter? What is the Meaning of My Life? Am I Loved? The book suggests that, in deep old age, men (and women) can flourish if they have good and positive answers.
Visit Thomas Cole's website.

--Marshal Zeringue