The Graying of America
VTR Date: September 13, 1987
Guest: Brown, David
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Brown
Title: “The Graying of America”
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, it wasn’t even just the other day…but rather some years ago…that a smiling young traffic cop came alongside my car stalled for a moment in Times Square traffic and said, ever so sweetly, “Come on, Pops. Move along there”, which as David Brown, my friend and guest today would suggest, ranks right up there – or down there – with having a pregnant woman, out of respect for your advancing years, rise to give you her seat in a crowded bus. And it happens – if we’re lucky – to us all. For it’s not just death and taxes that are inevitable these days. But, more and more so, it’s aging and growing gray…for we do last longer and longer (which generally is better than the alternative). And, since we’re here, still around, we probably should have at hand a kind of Baedecker to being here longer and getting around better…which happily, so very happily, has now been provided by writer, film producer David Brown in his absolutely smashing new Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray. This slim volume – and you really must read and savor it yourself in all its robust good humor and sly good sense – is in it’s own way the most natural possible product of the graying of America…and it comes so naturally from the producer (along with his partner Richard Zanuck) of such films as “Cocoon”, “The Verdict”, “The Sting”, “MacArthur”, and of course, “Jaws”…though David Brown, what a change of pace from the fantasies of Hollywood to the realities and practicalities of Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray. How do you account for that shift?
Brown: Well, the realities were always there. The fantasies were the bread and butter. That’s the way I made my living. But I had to live in the real world even in Hollywood.
Heffner: Well, you know, having read Brown’s Guide, twice now, and having given copies of it to good friends and having heard fro them how wonderful they think it is, I’m still amazed at the degree to which, as gentle a person as you are, and you are par excellence a gentle man, can, without being retiring, say about retiring, “Don’t do it”. Number one point in your book. “Don’t retire”. Why?
Brown: Well, because when your retire you accentuate the dying process. And when you work, at whatever you like, whatever you like to do most, if you’re fortunate enough to do that, you perpetuate living. You go on living. The ideal thing is to work until you die. It’s the best way to live.
Heffner: Do you think you would have said this and have written it, were we back a century ago or half-century ago?
Brown: I can’t imagine what I would have been like a century ago. Depends on where I was born, how I was born, whether I could write, whether I could read…all of that. That’s impossible. All I know is that I hope to make it, you know, knocking wood, into the next century, by working.
Heffner: What happens to the people who don’t continue to work?
Brown: They die before their death. I’ve seen them all. I’ve seen their vacant look. I know there are a lot of people out there who say, “I’ve been working all my life. Now I want to take off and retire for a while”, but I don’t know any one of them, I don’t think they’re telling the truth. I think all of them would like to be involved. All of them would like to be reeled back into the real world.
Heffner: But, David, you know, it’s true that…oh, a decade ago, a quarter century ago, the emphasis was upon getting people to phase down, to phase out, to get ready for retirement, to plan the ways they were going to vacation, the places they hadn’t been to, etc. What’s happened?
Brown: Well, what’s happened is that that’s a great growth industry. I mean photographs of babies now with their retirement age being calculated by some of our insurance companies. And I think it’s wrong. I think that cheerful con game that America’s played on people saying, “You work so that you can have a happy retirement”. I’m not for a happy retirement. I’ve never known a happy retirement. And I’m not a workaholic.
Heffner: What do your mean, you’re not a workaholic? Come on, I know you as a person who works and works and produces and produces.
Brown: Well, I do those things because I enjoy them. I also can put my feet up, for about a day or so, and think conceptually about things, take a day or two off. I’ve just returned from a holiday of all of six days.
Heffner: I know in your book you refer to having taken another holiday of six days and then gotten back to snowy Manhattan.
Brown: Well, I knew that I was coming home. I was checking the airline schedules the second day I was away.
Heffner: David, do you think you’re writing for…you say in the book, “Look I know I’m not…”, well you say you know you are writing for well-to-to people. You think only so?
Brown: No, not at all. Not at all. I’ve been poor, I’ve been less poor. I won’t say rich. But I do say that this book applies to people in al moderate circumstances. I’m sure when you’re at the survival level, you know, you’re not thinking about such things as retirement and all of that stuff. But this book applies to most people. I might say many ages, other than over 50 which is the age I targeted this book for.
Heffner: Over 50, my goodness.
Brown: Or, hope to be.
Heffner: Or hope to be. You know the question that I really should ask, most important of all is, what are the elements of your Guide? Here is a Guide, here is a Baedecker. What are the directions that you most importantly point to?
Brown: Well, in all cases, the work theme is the pervasive theme. And in order to work successfully, you have to have some kind of a life. I don’t believe in people who just live for work. So my book, Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray, deals not only with work, it deals with marriage, unhappily with divorce, travel, the alleged fading memory of some of us older people, alleged I maintain, travel, etiquette, death and various other subjects, including friendship, “Should old acquaintance be forgot?”, sometimes, “Yes”. And I tell why.
Heffner: Well, let’s talk first about this business about presumed loss of memory. Why do you put it that way?
Brown: Because my mother used to say to me, when I was thirteen years of age, “If you didn’t have your head screwed on…or attached to your body, you’d forget your head”. Only then it was called carelessness. I’m not suggesting that we don’t lose part of our memory as we grow older, but we retain a blessed other part of our memory, the ability to go down deep into our memory bank and recall the most extraordinary, wonderful things in great detail. I’m sure all of us recall what we did ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. I passed someone on the street the other day whom I hadn’t seen for forty years, recognized him immediately, but failed to recognize someone I had spent a lot of time with more recently.
Heffner: Of course there’s been so much serious emphasis lately on Alzheimer’s…
Heffner: And I think there’s nothing that frightens people my age as we go on in years as much as the possibility of forgetting. And then the forgetfulness that you seem to think comes rather naturally and normally, and perhaps even healthfully, as you march on, becomes a sign of something so much more fierce.
Brown: But Richard, if I may be technical and I’m not a physician or a psychologist, only a psychology major from Stanford University, the kind of disorientation that is the prelude to Alzheimer’s is quite different from the random forgetting. It’s when you have to ask someone within the same ten minute frame, the same question and then you forget the answer promptly. I think that AZ is quite different. That kind of disorientation is different from random forgetfulness such as, you know, “What did you say your name was?”, “You idiot, I just told you yesterday”.
Heffner: And you make the point that that kind of forgetfulness does happen. Of course, I have a wife who goes with me and says loudly to someone, “Well, hello Mary Jones”, to point out to me that we’re talking to Mary Jones.
Brown: Oh, absolutely, my wife does the same thing. I rely on her for those kind of things and I carefully avoid restaurants where I’m likely to see a lot of people who know me, but whose names I’m not able, conveniently, to dredge up.
Heffner: Well, I suppose you must do the same thing, try to solve that when my wife isn’t there to prompt me by thrusting out my hand and saying, “Dick Heffner”, so that I could get…
Brown: Always. Always. And, you know, if somebody persists and says, “Richard Heffner, you don’t know who you’re talking to, do you?”, you might be forgiven by saying, “What do you suppose made me forget your name?”.
Heffner: And you might reply, “the general contributions you’ve made to my well-being in the past”. David, here you say, on page seventy, and I found myself marking off so extremely many things in Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray, that almost every page has some notation. But you talk here about “the end” and you quote Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. But you’re not a raging kind of person.
Brown: No, not at all.
Heffner: How do you interpret that? What do you make of it? What do you do with it?
Brown: I make of that having a fighting spirit. Really wanting to live, wanting to live in the full sense, in every sense. That…it isn’t rage so much, but a determination, a zest for life, a lust for life, to coin a phrase.
Heffner: You know, you say that, and it’s part of the Guide. Now I’ll ask you a tough question. It’s like teachers…presumably teachers are born, not made. People who don’t go gently, but fight and do the right thing – aren’t they born, rather than made? Can anyone really take a Guide, can I really read David Brown and his Guide to Growing Gray and make use of it?
Brown: If one person’s absolute experience in life, myself, is of any use to another person…you’re looking at an almost pathetically shy individual. Somebody whose knees knocked when he had to make a speech in college on a stage; someone who would flee other than be surrounded by a lot of people. To this day I’m extremely shy, except when that red light is on. (Laughter) And I say, “Yes, I am an example of a very kind of a misanthrope, kind of a…what they now call a “nerd”. I was a nerd and I got out of it by looking at role models, by studying other people. I didn’t have a strong parental background or any of that stuff. The answer is, resoundingly, you can improve your life, your mental posture and everything else. Yes, you can go raging if you wish, if you, not just following my rules, but follow these universal…what I perceive to be universal truths, which is, you can change yourself.
Heffner: Even in these later years? You mean there’s hope for someone who has grayed already as I have?
Brown: I think I’ve changed more in the years since fifty-five and I think my wife would attest to that, then I changed…other than the childhood to manhood years. I’ve done my greatest changing in my greatest graying years.
Heffner: Why, David?
Brown: Because I was tested more often. I was out of work. I had to look for a job when I was in my fifties. I was out of a wife. I was being divorced. I had a son and I have a son, with whom we had differences and things. I was being tested in the places that really hurt. And I had to accommodate myself to new circumstances, to change, when my hair was turning gray. And that…those were not the things that grayed my hair. Really, I think my hair would turn black again as a result of the changes if there were some biological basis to that kind of transition.
Heffner: You know it’s interesting. You start off by mentioning so many of the major figures in our lives who are, beyond the pale of…what I would have considered some years ago beyond the pale…when I got to be sixty, I thought it couldn’t be. Now older, I still can’t quite grasp it. But you make the point that there are so many achieving, active, vital people who are way past that.
Brown: Yes, well we’ve all been told that retirement age, since the time of Bismarck is sixty-five. And Harry Hopkins and the Social Security fellows under the FDR Administration put it in granite, really, under the Social Security Act, and many corporations and insurance companies have adopted it. Now, as you’ve pointed out, we grow older and older and we have long years after sixty-five, if we’re lucky and if this present health craze does any good for people. So I think that we should be prepared at sixty or sixty-give or fifty-give to so some market research and say, “What are we going to do in the next act?”, Act III. What are we going to do? What would we like to do? And prepare for more work, more work. But work with pleasure because a lot of people hate their jobs and this is an opportunity to learn the joy of work, when that first cycle of work is over.
Heffner: Well, of course, while you’re correct about the push toward Social Security, which was a means of protecting people…
Heffner: …took place in the thirties and the forties, now you have someone like Claude Pepper, who as a Senator was pushing Social Security and that cut-off age and guaranteeing that we had something to retire to, now pushing for an end to the required retirement. Unfortunately, it seems to apply not at all to academics, but to just about everyone else. What then happens, David, seriously, what happens to those who are trying to move up? If you push the point about staying active, really active, not on a vacation, but at your work, what happens to those who are waiting to become thirty and waiting to become forty, in terms of getting the kinds of jobs we hold?
Brown: Well, I think that those of us who are growing gray and growing older have to go into our mentor years. As you know, many large corporations, a great many corporations are now recalling executives as mentors to their younger people, letting them share their expertise. This is…I’ve read an article very recently, in fact in U.S. News and World Report, on that very subject. And if you can’t become a mentor, which is great satisfaction, you know as a teacher what great satisfaction that is, then you go into a different business. You can’t stay in the same corporate body forever, unless you own the company and refuse to get off. I think that’s not quite fair. But I think you should be motivated to get on with you life in another related or unrelated field. And I believe it’s possible. I’m back to writing books, writing…something I haven’t done for fifty years.
Heffner: You’re not going to top making movies?
Brown: Oh, not at all. But I have a nice segue, if I ever decide to do that. I’ve always believed in diversification in life and in finance. And I think every one of us should test our resources and see what else it is that we can do in addition to what we do. I know that you do it in your professional life.
Heffner: What about…I don’t know why I, talking about segueing, segue from my professional life to depression, but I was very interested in what you wrote about the role of depression. You said that Helen had said to you when you said you were going to write about the subject, about getting over depression…
Heffner: …licking depression…
Heffner: …that she thought you were probably very well qualified in certain ways in doing that. You had met the problem. Why do you write about depression?
Brown: Because depression is endemic in our lives and particularly in the lives of older people. From my early fifties I was…the first intimations of mortality came into my life. I began to lie awake nights in the early fifties and say, “Hey, I’m past the half-century mark. My life is more than half over, probably two-thirds over by all actuarial statistics”. And I got depressed. And I get depressed at so many things. The only cure for depression is maniacal activity for me…and work. Work is the greatest therapy. I think Henry Ford, the elder, said that. Perhaps didn’t use the word therapy but that’s what he meant.
Heffner: And therapy, what other roles does it play as you see it playing in this aging process, getting gray?
Brown: The work? The other roles of work have to do with interpersonal relationships, the workplace is the place you meet people, it’s your extended family. You spend often as much time or more time in the workplace than you do at home. Heaven help you if those hours and days aren’t good. You’re in your family, you’re in a happy workplace. And if you’re not, get out. Find something else.
Heffner: David, it’s so interesting how contrary this wonderful little book and its advice and what you say, runs or ran to the perceived common wisdom of a decade ago about moving away from the workplace. Do you find that what you’re suggesting is the path that is increasingly or decreasingly followed? By those you know.
Brown: By those I know it’s increasingly followed. I received a letter by a prominent investment banker who said, “I wish I had read this book ten years ago. I never would have retired”. And it’s odd to me that a book can have that effect. Simply it’s talking to friends, really. Increasingly, we are getting more and more angry. We are mad as hell and we don’t want to get out. But that doesn’t mean we keep the younger people in there all the time. I’m lobbying for extended work and careers, other careers, and I think it’s possible and many people have demonstrated that it’s possible, more now than before. Besides years ago there was a great disenchantment with work. It was kind of “Let’s go to the desert island syndrome”, you know. “How can we drop out of society?” Well, I’ve known a lot of drop-outs and many of them even from the sixties, have dropped right in and they were going to stay in. What I mean by that…into the establishment, into the workplace, into the work environment.
Heffner: Of course there is that industry, as you called it before, to start the program, that’s pushing babies into planning their retirement or us into planning our children’s retirement. Now something has to give there.
Brown: Well, I think economically that the most affluent group of our population is the people over fifty. It’s always been a kind of canard of the advertising business. You can’t sell old people anything…they’re no longer buying the houses, they’re the ones that are going…they’re traveling, they’re buying luxury cars, they’re buying all kinds of things. There is still a huge market for older people without getting into health care and walkers and things like that. Those things will come. Nothing can stop that. But I do think that the retirement people are not as good a market as the non-retirement older people. They really spend their income.
Heffner: Of course, I wondered, as I read the book whether it was predicated on the notion of an ever-expanding economy, whether the retirement psychology wasn’t a reflection of a smaller America and your concept of working, continue to work until the very end. “It isn’t over”, as you quote Yogi Berra, “until it’s over”. Keep working. Whether that doesn’t presuppose that there is enough for this burgeoning population to do. Now the birth rate isn’t increasing as it had been for so long. But still it seemed to me that your book, your enthusiasms are based upon the notion of an ever-expanding economy.
Brown: I don’t think so, Richard, because I’m a Depression baby. I started my working career in the Great Depression of the 30s. I’m well aware that all of this can be, you know, over. I’m well aware that we can all be living in extremely reduced circumstances. Everything I say about work goes for a Depression Era. When I grew up in the Depression Era, it was easy to start things. Nothing cost very much…I’m not advocating Depression for that reason. But I’m saying that in, whatever the economic climate, there will be jobs to do, there will be needs to be dealt with. And I don’t think that I’m basing that…I don’t believe this…I don’t believe trees grow to the sky.
Heffner: What do you mean?
Brown: I mean I don’t believe in an ever-expanding economy or an ever-expanding anything. I believe in cycles.
Heffner: But how is there going to be room then David, for us, for you and for me and for the younger population…the youngsters, in their fifties and their forties and their thirties, in the American economy?
Brown: Well, you’re assuming that they’re all corporate people. I’m assuming a more entrepreneurial society as existed in the Depression Era. I’m assuming more people are going to have to start things by themselves. I don’t mean that they could buy businesses. Even now we’re becoming more entrepreneurial. More people want to go to work for themselves. This great re-structuring of American industry, a euphemism for lay-offs and economy waves, which is what we used to call them, is creating a lot of prematurely, not retired, but men and women who have nothing…they have no corporate base anymore and they have to go out and find things to do and many of them are finding those things. Not nearly as many as we would hope…and finding a much better way of life in working for themselves.
Heffner: Of course that’s the way you would guide them, too…
Heffner: …in working for themselves.
Brown: Yes. No, I don’t believe we’re going to have ever-expanding jobs within the corporate structure.
Heffner: David, Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray has a lot of practical things about it. Not just the larger business of “Don’t retire, continue to work”. What are the most important practical matters that you would put to those of us who are getting long in the tooth and on in years?
Brown: In addition to the obvious one of working until you die, it being the only way to live, I have a chapter, somewhat combustible, called “Let a woman in Your Life, Preferably More than One”. Now, lest you leap to the conclusion that this doesn’t have a high moral tone, let me suggest that hypocrisy is the lowest moral tone and some of my suggestions there are make friends of women. We’re living in an increasingly non-sexist society, I hope. And women are out there. Some romances may take place. Someone once said, “Life happens when we’re making plans”. No one knows what those relationships will do. I advocate a very passionate attitude toward the inevitable death, which will come to all of us. I deal with travel. I deal with etiquette and of course, with friendship and health, because I am a man who has been very much afraid of doctors and I have quite a bit to say about the medical profession. And I must say not all bad because I’ve recently come out of a hospital successfully and to my astonishment.
Heffner: You mean to your astonishment that you came out?
Heffner: Well I know it’s not all bad. And I’ve expected, from the David Brown I know to get a put-down of the medical profession. It’s not there.
Brown: It was more of a put-down when I wrote that chapter. Then I was interrupted by a sojourn in a hospital and I had to cite the exceptions because I had a very good experience, if that’ s possible in a hospital, with major surgery. But, listen now. You’re talking to a former official of the American Medial Association, non-medical. And I know about doctors. They’re like us…there are good ones and there are bad ones. I read just the other day that the essence of a medical education, this was in a book that Lewis Thomas reviewed just the other day, and I can’t recall the paper. He said, ”What you learn in medical school is, ‘If it’s working, don’t stop it. If it isn’t working, stop it. If nothing is happening, don’t do anything’”. (Laughter)
Heffner: And you respect that point of view?
Heffner: You feel better about the medical profession. You know, I didn’t pick up the “Let a Woman in Your Life, Preferably More than One”, mostly David, because I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Not and stay on the air, but to be able to go home and face my wife. But there is a lot of that in the book. You really feel strongly about that, the importance of that exchange between the sexes.
Brown: I feel very strongly that the feelings should exist. I don’t believe in a cut-off of feelings. I believe that men and women should be attracted to each other ad infinitum, but I don’t believe that one should go around shucking off responsibilities and leaving a lot of people around whom you’ve abandoned, who have abandoned you. I believe that the sexual urge is a very strong, life-sustaining one. And it goes on for all of your life, unless you permit yourself to be cut off from it. And society has this cut-off. They’re trying to tell us we’re old and we’re not supposed to feel that way. Well check a few retirement homes. You’ll be surprised.
Heffner: (Laughter) You won’t accept that notion about we’re not supposed to be that way, right?
Brown: I would accept that we are what we are. And I believe that many of our attitudes have been the result of society’s own brainwashing. We are pretty solid physically for a long, long time. I quote some medical people on that. Until ultimate senescence the body moves. We do live on reduced brain cells, but those that are left do a wonderful job of keeping us going.
Heffner: Thanks for the advice, David Brown. And thank you for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
Brown: Thank you for permitting me to be here.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.