When I left for college, my father warned me that I might be approached by an FBI agent, asking about his political activities. At the time, that seemed ridiculous, the product of narcissistic, paranoid thinking. But in my junior year, a guy from the Dance Club – in which I was very active – began asking me questions about my dad. Through some research, I discovered that he had been working out in California, trying to sabotage the Cesar Chavez grape boycott. I realized that maybe my father’s paranoia wasn’t so crazy after all. Using the Freedom of Information Act, my father ultimately received roughly 5,000 pages of FBI notes, with many of the words redacted (meaning crossed-out!), supposedly to “protect” the identity of the agent who was following him. I spent hours pouring through these files a number of years ago, and was stunned to read that the FBI knew that my sister and I were being ostracized by our so-called friends because of my father’s political beliefs, and that my mother lost many dear friends and family members to the fears they had about being associated with “a Communist family”. You can read more about this in Colin Dabkowski’s article in the Buffalo News:http://www.buffalonews.com/spotlight/article727714.ece
I was on the treadmill at the gym the other day, frantically trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there lately, and wanted to know why. I don’t know her well and could have manufactured some story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth, that my 97-year-old dad had just passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze, wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that he was in heaven now, and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I believed that he was in heaven and as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…
She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do… Apparently, distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she then said that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believed that “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims”. Again, I was hooked, and as I looked at her, I know I must have appeared surprised because she looked back at me with a slightly uncomfortable smile. And then went on to say that she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now, as this was a “teachable moment.”
I said that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. And she asked me, didn’t I think that the “Koran incites Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” I replied with certainty, with whatever knowledge I have accumulated since 9/11, that that was untrue.
This really bugged me, a kind-hearted, well-meaning person swallowing Fox News whole. And it really upset me that the media is so compelling that good people can believe such nonsense.
I learned the hard way from my father not to run away from difficult conversations and to stand up for my beliefs. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, he was called before the Senate House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?”. The first time he was subpoenaed before the committee, he challenged its legality. And the second time, he used the first amendment, declaring his right to freedom of speech. As a result of the first committee hearing, he was “blacklisted” from work in the U.S., and ultimately sold life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. He also became a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in attempt to give voice to working people.
It was not until I was well into my 30s that my father admitted to me that he had been a member of the CP, but had wanted to protect me in case the FBI approached me with that question. That might seem like crazy-thinking, but the FBI actually did follow my father – and consequently, our family – for half a decade, employing agents to observe meetings where my father spoke, reviewing documents he wrote, including plays and memoirs, and even observing the fall-out we experienced in our family, as a result of being persecuted by the government.
After my mother died, my father told me another reason why he left the Communist Party. He didn’t want that admission to have negative repercussions on his CP colleagues and friends. He was a working class Jewish man who had strong convictions and was loyal to his friends, risking a lot to stay true to them. He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government, although he was challenging an economic system that, even more so today, creates haves and have-nots. He was simply a very effective labor organizer who mobilized workers around issues of wages and benefits and fair treatment on the job. In doing this work, he was simply executing his first amendment rights to speak out about his beliefs. I believe that the world was a better place because of people like him.
So what to say to my friend at the gym, who seems to have drunk the kool-aid of misinformation in the right-wing media? What to say to many of my fellow Americans who are now stumped about whether to support a wealthy businessman for President whose personal and political interests are intertwined or an evangelical politician who would happily turn our country into the United Christian States?
There are many ways to fight disinformation and work for a better, more equitable world, through organizing, writing, teaching, and just speaking to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And we must not be afraid to do so.
The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.
It is nearly one year ago that my father passed away. On that day, the headline of the Buffalo News proclaimed, “He was a man with a purpose”, with a smaller headline saying “Manny Fried, a guiding presence to area’s actors, writers and social activists, dies at 97.”
Anyone who observed my father as he surpassed the 80-year-old mark, then the 90-year-old mark, and eventually the 97-year-old mark wondered what kept him “so young”. At age 80, he was still jogging. At 90, he was still acting, writing and going to political meetings. And at 95, he performed a one-man autobiographical show, sitting on stage at a reputable Buffalo, New York theater, telling stories about his life with passion and vigor, for over a month of weekend performances. As heirs to 50% of our father’s genes, my sister and I hope that we can only be so lucky! The other side of the family is gifted with tons of creativity, but unfortunately rifled with bi-polar disease and plenty of medical problems. The former we welcome; the latter, we rationalize were the result of poor “lifestyle choices”.
What is it that keeps people ticking for a long time? My father claimed it was a function of good genes from his hearty immigrant parents who lived until they were nearly 100. That, coupled with eating judiciously (he had a sign on his fridge that said “EAT LESS”!), consistent exercise, and staying involved intellectually… He had a rough life trajectory, but developed a resilience he absorbed from his father, who told him, “When you fall down, you get up.” In the 1940s and ’50s, as a labor organizer for the radical Electrical Workers union, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than “taking the 5th”, and saying that he refused to speak on the grounds that anything he said could be used against him, he refused to respond to the Committee’s questions, challenging the right of the Committee to exist. He was unable to find work in the U.S., and ultimately worked for a Canadian company, and also wrote plays about his life experience.
As I move closer to what we define as “young old age” in our society, I am recognizing the elements of my father’s life that continued to fuel his sense of purpose. In fact, just about everything he did mirrors much of the research on aging and longevity as a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices. According to some twin studies, around 20-30% of an individual’s lifespan is related to genes, and the rest is due to individual behaviors and environmental factors which can be modified. Other studies demonstrate that some people have fewer choices than others, particularly given the greater environmental pollution in poorer neighborhoods, and differential access to quality health care for poor people and people of color.
Dan Buettner, in his Blue Zone project, traveled around the world looking for key areas that foster centenarians, people who lived to be 100 or more. He wanted to know what factors contributed to a long life.
Beuttner and his team spent seven years studying four “Blue Zones” where they met people who were aging in an extraordinary way. They interviewed dozens of centenarians, worked with local medical experts, and studied local cultures and lifestyles. Buettner said that each Blue Zone revealed its own recipe for longevity, but many of the fundamental ingredients were the same. Ultimately, he identified nine common lessons of living longer, which he felt were deeply embedded in the cultures they studied.
He found that the Italian island of Sardinia has the highest number of male centenarians in the world; Okinawa, Japan has the longest disability-free life expectancy; and in Loma Linda, Calif., a community of Seventh Day Adventists has a life expectancy that’s around ten years more than that of other Americans. What contributes to these long-living elders? Buettner says that first off, they eat a healthy diet and they get “natural” exercise, where physical activity – like walking around the community or climbing up and down hills – is a natural part of their daily lives.
They remain socially engaged in their communities, whether it be in a village or with a group of strong friends and family in which they are valued. And these centenarians continue to find meaning or purpose in their lives. Buettner describes 104-year-old Giovanni Sannai of Sardinia, saying,
“He was out chopping wood at 9 in the morning…He started his day with a glass of wine and there was a steady parade of people coming by to ask his advice. That’s one of the characteristics of the Sardinian Blue Zone — the older you get, the more celebrated you are.”
For those of us who don’t live on an island, or in a culture that reveres old age, how will we shape our lives moving forward, to maximize healthy aging? It is not “natural” for older people to disengage with their lives; in fact, contemporary aging research provides evidence of the importance of being involved in activities that inspire interest or passion, whether it be with one’s family and friends, in volunteering to help others, or in any endeavor that creates a sense of purpose and brings older people in contact with others.
Clearly, one of the hardest things about growing older is loss – loss of friends and partners whom we outlive. In observing my father, I saw that when many of his contemporaries had passed away, he continued to be surrounded by younger people of all ages who were both inspired by him, and revered him as the “elder” in Buffalo’s labor movement and theater community. I believe that this buffered the pain of overwhelming loss, and provided a critical community of friends and colleagues who sustained him for many years.
How can we create a sense of community – through family and friends, or a social or political group, or an artistic endeavor – that engages us, provides support when needed, and challenges us intellectually?
Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.
Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
I was always taught to respect my elders and I’ve now reached the age when I don’t have anybody to respect.