By now even the most die-hard fans of "Survivor," the summer TV
sensation, are probably tired of hearing sociologists, psychiatrists, commentators and
even comics pontificate on the meaning of the series.
I reluctantly found myself hooked this summer, along with millions of
fellow viewers. Id like to think that it was because I was using the material to
make fascinating connections about the state of our society. Id like to pretend that
I watched the show for only the "right reasons," not as a voyeur responding to
the basest of human machinations and intrigue.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that it was just plain old good TV and a
perfect summer idle pastime for an hour a week.
I once asked my English students at Santa Monica High School in California
to write about an entirely hypothetical situation where they would have to choose the
people who would leave an overcrowded bomb shelter. As it was based on a suggestion in the
National Council of Teachers of English journal, I had some backup when one of the parents
complained that I was teaching my students to be "turncoats"to betray
The idea of the composition was to stimulate young writers to think about
the human qualities they most valuedcertainly provocative, but, I hoped, in the best
sense of that word. I had also provided an alternate assignment for those students too
squeamish to imagine conditions under which they might banish their fellow survivors.
Well, guess what: I was ahead of my time, for that is what this recent TV make-believe
exercise in survival of the fittest did.
Im not going to join all the voices analyzing our penchant for
ruthless victory in a quest for riches or any other possible lessons of the series.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to comment on one aspect of the island experiment about
which Ive heard very little.
I understand that we only glimpsed snippets of each island dweller.
Without truly knowing Rudy, the elderly Navy Seal who made the final four, and without
disparaging his recorded heroism in military service, I must register my anguish that he
is being touted as an example of older Americans, akin to John Glenn.
I would hope that all the cliches we have held about aging arent
reinforced by Rudys example of absolute inflexibility, narrow-minded bigotry (only
on this show could someone use the words "queer" and "fag" so often
and not be derided), selective memory lapses from a lack of interest rather than brain
cells, and defensive and judgmental postures. Being old doesnt mean that one has to
be a crusty curmudgeon. Being old doesnt mean that one has a right to be
insensitive, prejudiced or nasty in ones dealings with others.
Rudy gives people over 60 a bad name. Just as many "Generation
X-ers" resent being labeled as such, I am reluctant to be viewed as the kind of
person Rudy is merely because of my date of birth. I would hope that the qualities I
admire, those of broadmindedness, acceptance, civility, tolerance and kindness, would have
been exemplified in someone chosen for the spotlight as a representative of Rudys
The most wonderful older citizens I know are not narrow-minded. While they
may have formulated certain philosophical beliefs from long examination and experience,
they have learned from the lessons of life to accept other viewpoints. Certainly being
raised in the 20th Century has taught most of the "seniors" I know to be
flexible, to roll with the punches. Otherwise, they could not have transitioned into the
digital, computer chip world in which we now live.
Rather than dwelling on constant comparisons of the "good old
days" with today, healthy elders remember their lives fondly but embrace the
challenges of our current world. For example, we didnt all walk miles to school
through snowstorms, and many of us realize that we would find todays curriculum
requirements much more stringent that were ours.
Actually, I am several years younger than Rudy, so I dont know why
Im feeling so uncomfortable with his being such a stereotype of grumpy old men. But
then again Im not in my 30s either, and I think people might lump me with his
generation. So I guess I am just issuing a rejoinder.
When we allow racial and gender-based epithets to be bandied about because
they are only the words of some "old" man, I think we are in dangerous
territory. Should we applaud the person holding such views simply because hes
survived long enough to "get away" with stating them?
The book "When I Grow Old I Shall Wear Purple" posits a blessed
time in life when, as old people, we are allowed to dress as we choose and be as impolite
as we please. While I might buy the dressing part, I reject the uncivil accompaniment. I
hope I never use age as an excuse to demean segments of society unfairly or give myself
permission to be cranky. I hope, however old I grow, that I will be receptive to change,
to keep an open view of the possibilities of life and people.
When I grow old I may wear purple, but I plan to still smile at, and with,
the people I meet.