December 16, 2010
Young=Good. Old=Bad: A New Philosophy of Aging
The drive out of Los Angeles is a culture shock. Huge billboards continually reinforce that everything you thought was right about your life is wrong. The massive signs reinforce the need for botox, facelifts, wrinkle smoothing and breast enhancements. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn; it is bad to grow old.
So much for my coming birthday this sunday. It’s a surprise that nobody has remade the classic film Logan’s Run, a science fiction fantasy where people are routinely killed as they reach their thirtieth birthday, by a society that hates ageing. One man called Logan has the job of rounding up people who are getting ‘old’ until he suddenly realises he’s got a major problem on his hands; he’s 29. His solution is to go on the run.
Big hoardings on the side of freeways are still something of a culture shock to the Englishman abroad. It was only last year that the House of Lords held a legislative debate after some local traders had the audacity to erect billboards next to the M1 motorway. Advertisements aside, the other thing is true of cultures throughout the west; you are supposed to stay young forever or there’s clearly something wrong with you.
One of the peculiarities of the Los Angeles acting scene is something that’s almost unheard of in London, although probably not for much longer. All of the headshot photographers offer a retouching service with the ability to photoshop your eye bags and worry lines, in case, God forbid, the casting directors think that you are actually human. As a natural by product of the relentless advertising campaigns, I jumped at the chance when having my first headshots done, although my photographer wasn’t actually that good with the photoshop programme and he initially changed my skin tone so it looked like I’d just risen from the grave and was auditioning for a remake of ‘Thriller’.
On your birthday it never helps to compare yourself to other people who were born in the same year. So as for the fellow babies of 1974 who include Jimmy Fallon, Kate Moss, Christian Bale, Robbie Williams, Alanis Morrisette, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hilary Swank, I say bah humbug.
My friend Aaron Freeman is Afro-American by birth, a comedian by trade, a Jew by choice, and relentlessly happy. On asking how he is, his reply will invariably be ‘it’s the best day of my life so far. Every day above ground is a good one’. Whether or not he really means it, I don’t mind. He says it with such conviction that I believe him 100%. As the years roll on and I see more and more people being returned to the earth, people who are younger, less fortunate or simply the recipient of bad luck, I appreciate every day I get to see the sunshine. And in Los Angeles that really means every day. God is good to the people of Southern California (well, barring the bankrupt economy, a totally inadequate public transport system and the huge hardships facing underfunded communal organisations).
The day isn’t over yet. Last week I was at the Stax Museum in Memphis where soul music was born and some legendary music was recorded. My tour guide was the local Rabbi, Micah Greenstein, who is possibly the most influential clergyman in the Bible-belt city. He pointed out that some of the locals had reached great heights before the age of 40. When Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, there were four “civil rights giants” in the room. The ages of the others were 33, 34 and 35, while Dr King was killed at the age of 39. Only one of the four, Rev. Dr. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, is still alive. He takes groups on tours of the National Civil Rights Museum and Rabbi Micah related to me how Kyles makes his presentation. “We were a youth movement. We were all under 40 in that room and we changed the world,” so the only question I have for you kids is, “What will you do to change the world BEFORE you turn 40?”
I think of a family friend Nicola Blake who tragically passed away last month at the tender age of 33. Her deeply kind and thoughtful nature leaves a lasting legacy in the world for her son, husband, parents and sister.
The Jewish community’s super-achievers included the great Rav Nachman of Breslov (gone at 38), while the big wide world also included Bruce Lee (32), Harry Chapin (38) and a host of rock n’ rollers – Jimi Hendrix (27), Jim Morrison (27), Kurt Cobain (27), Richie Valens (17), Eddie Cochran (21) and Buddy Holly (22). Bye bye, Miss American Pie.
With this coming birthday, the pressure really is on. The fact that I’m turning 36 has a deeper Kabbalistic significance. 18 is the number associated with life because the Hebrew letters spell the word Chai (Hebrew for ‘life’), so 36 is a double-portion of vivacity. It’s also the age that the Baal Shem Tov began revealing his mystical teachings and started the spread of Hasidic wisdom that completely transformed the Jewish world as we know it.
Not only that, but I’m also way behind the programme according to Kabbalah. As we were taught in yeshiva, for the unmarried Jewish male, it’s just one big world of inadequacy; “he who has no wife is not a man, for Scripture teaches that God created them male and female and called their name Adam” (Zohar, Genesis 55b). The Talmud comments that “he who remains unmarried impairs the divine name” (Yevamot 63b) which isn’t exactly a great recommendation for staying single and playing the field. As one rabbi said to me last weekend, “there’s only one Hugh Hefner. I’m really sorry but he’s just not a viable role model. Marcus, get married already”. There was never this sort of pressure from my teachers at acting college or yoga teacher training, but they were never into using the great educational tool of guilt.
Birthdays and New Years are a good opportunity for asking the question: what sort of legacy do I want to have? England is still fairly obsessed with the legacy of Princess Diana z”l, who died at 36 and left an image that has kept the British media with adequate material for the subsequent 13 years. Just as they were beginning to run dry, quite inconveniently, it turns out that Princess William’s fiancée is going to be wearing Diana’s engagement ring. This is virtually a second coming. Nobody has mentioned the Oedipal implications, so I won’t either. But I do plan to hold a sequence of Royal Wedding parties here in Los Angeles, so watch this space.
What about if you don’t reach your greatest achievements by the age of 40? It’s ok. The great Rabbi Akiva didn’t even start learning the hebrew alphabet until the start of his fifth decade, and the forefather Abraham wasn’t actually a father until 86. George Bernard Shaw achieved the Nobel Prize at the age of 69 and the late great George Burns was still performing, and smoking cigars, until shortly before his death at 99. There’s more than just hope for us; the majority of people don’t reach their peak until middle age. Just don’t tell the admen.
This is all well and good but I’d better run, otherwise I’m going to be late for my birthday lunch with the plastic surgeon.