Thursday, April 06, 2006

Age discrimination

Although many laws have been enacted to prohibit discrimination based on age, protecting those over 40, in practice violations happen every day. There was once a time when old age was respected and revered. Younger adults were considered too inexperienced for any leadership position, as those were reserved for the learned. This is still a case in much of the world. I remember a story an old musician friend told me many years ago. He had visited China, soon after it became possible again, and someone had politely asked him his age. He said, jokingly, that he was a hundred years old. His hosts took this literally and seriously, and from that time on people came to see him and bow down to show their respect for the old wise one. He couldn't retract his words as it would have been an insult to lie. All elders were taken good care of by their families and the society itself. How wonderful that sounds compared to our tendency of sending an aging family member to a home and telling ourselves that he/she is cared for, so our conscience could be clear.

The purpose of my writing is to talk about a slightly younger group of people, those that cannot pretend to be twenty- or thirty-year-olds, but who might be in the prime of their lives, creative and with all the wisdom they have managed to collect. This society of ours often thinks of youth as their idols and heroes. Granted, a young person can run faster, can have more nimble fingers and many young bodies, if well kept, please more people looking for 'eye-candy' than those a couple decades or more older. But where is the wisdom, the experience and the know-how that can only come from having lived through life, with its difficulties and also pleasures? Of course, we all age very differently: Altzheimers can strike a person of 40 and there are others who also have less and less to give as they grow older. In the arts, such as music, there are instrumentalists, and even conductors, who are truly 'geriatric' before they have reached 60, with no creative spark left. Yet others are just starting to bloom, once the highly competitive 40s and early 50s are past. It is incredibly hurtful to hear a self-made expert call a wonderful violinist a 'hack', 'past his prime' or 'uninteresting', just because he is no longer young. Of course an age comes when an instrumentalist cannot control the movements of his fingers quite as well as before, but even then he or she should not be forced to disappear into retirement and oblivion. These people should be our greatest teachers and sources of inspiration! They are the ones who relay messages from bygone era, from their own teachers.

While in my early teens, I showed up at the door of a famous French pedagogue while visiting Paris. He had previously written to me that he was too old to teach any longer but I tried my luck. At first the old frail man in his 80s was angry but then asked me to take my violin out and proceeded to give me an incredible lesson. I learned more during those two hours than from someone else in a year. He wouldn't accept any money, and once I returned to Finland I sent a pair of old-fashioned black shoes that went over the ankle (my teacher in Helsinki knew what style and size!). I got the sweetest thank-you letter as reply.

It is amazing to hear from a number of people, in the arts in particular, who have been deeply wounded by age discrimination. For instance, somewhere in this country I bumped into a singer who had been dismissed from his opera company. His voice was 'showing his age', he was told. Yet he said that after his last role, European guest artists had praised him for his youthful voice, supposedly in front of his former employer. There are many instrumentalists with similar stories who have confided in me. Perhaps the person guilty of such cruel demeanor should take a good look in the mirror and realize that possibly the wrong individual was forced to retire. Naturally everyone who feels they have been discriminated against, whether the cause being age or AIDS, could fight it in the court system, but most of these victims are too emotionally injured to pursue this course of action, and it can become awfully costly. Public, of course, should often be enraged, but in most instances they are kept in the dark by a cozy arrangement between the media and the perpetrators. Much hasn't changed in this area since the overly friendly relationships between the mafia and the police many decades ago.

Those of us who have watched the documentary on the incredible Cuban 'Buena Vista Social Club' and listened to their music, realize that none of that fabulous music-making would have been possible with younger singers and instrumentalists. Now, just a few years since the filming, many of these fantastic artists are gone. Respect age and rush to hear and see performers who are in their upper years, as soon they may not be with us any longer! On the other hand, the little, cute sex-kitten might have turned into an old hag in the meantime, and if there was little substance to start with, there isn't going to be anything left when the youthful looks are gone.