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Old Dogs Teach New Tricks

New America Media, Commentary, Paul Kleyman Posted: Feb 13, 2009

An unlikely dog with an inelegant name, Stump, beat the geriatric odds last Tuesday by taking Best of Show at the ever-snooty Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Stump, you see, is a Sussex spaniel whose actual name is Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee. He won his way to page one of The New York Times at the age of 70, in canine-to-human calculation, or 10 actual turns around old sol. Hes the oldest pooch ever to get the judges nod.

Westminster judge Sari Tietjen told reporters she didnt know the handsome dogs vintage.

Hes just everything that youd want in the breed, and I couldnt say no to him, said Tietjen, who was quoted in the Times.

Were Stump, a reddish brown rake named for his short legs, a superannuated movie star, one would have to forget the grandfatherly image of actor and TV oatmeal spokesman Wilford Brimley. Think Clint Eastwood.

You see, its been a good week for a certain age. Take Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who glided the US Airways Flight 1549 safely into the Hudson River on Jan 15. He has been getting his due with interviews on the CBS news program, 60 Minutes, to The Late Show with David Letterman.

Known as Sully, Sullenberger, has earned every twinkle of the national admiration bestowed on him. He is whom Clint Eastwood has played for the last 15 years. He is cool, confident, and certainly wise in articulating his positive role in the depressed American psyche. He is white haired.

With nearly 20,000 hours of commercial jet experience, Sully, 58, is being celebrated for his aerodynamic sagacity by a system that only about a year ago extended his career from only two years to seven more years of potentially life-saving service. For 50 years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required commercial pilots to retire at age 60, despite evidence that older pilots bring loads of vital experience to the cockpit.

In 2006, the FAA changed the rule to require retirement at 65 because the agency began exempting older international pilots when flying into U.S. airports. Suddenly, long-standing claims of potential hazards due to slower reflex reactions gave way to statements that there was no good reason to bar 60-plus pilots. In truth, the old limit had more to do with business issues in the airline industry.

Although issues of fatigue or slower recovery from jet lag remain for commercial fliers past age 65, there are, in fact, no age limitations for American private pilots. One who hasnt stopped flying is Hugh Downs who turned 88 on Valentines Day.

The former host of ABCs 20/20 told me a couple of years ago that private pilots need to meet rigorous health and flight recertification tests to maintain their license at any age.

Downs told me, I wouldnt race cars, because reaction time is critical for that. But flying an airplane is different. Quick reflexes arent as crucial as experience.

Listening to Sullys textbook-calm voice on the air traffic control tapes released last week, who wouldnt fly anywhereat any ageknowing that his command is better than any floatation device?

Its easy to smile and nod in agreement, but America remains deeply discomfited by aging. Wheres the floatation device for millions of mature workers like my neighbor? Now close to Sullys age, she finds herself laid off from her prestigious media job at a major news organization and with dismal prospects. Despite a resume that would make other media professionals salivate like a happy Stump, she told me last week, They dont call back. She added, I think its my age. They see when I graduated. And I dont get a call.

The media world is in turmoil these days, to be sure, but I hear the same from seasoned workers in many fields, who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Nationally, age discrimination claims have been on the rise.

As American culture looks admiringly at Sully and even at a dog--a pooch that almost died from a serious illness and came out of retirement after four years to become the canine Rocky Balboa --American culture still seems to see our parents image of age when we look in the mirror.

So raise a glass to Sully and maybe a paw to Stump. But also wish the best of luck to the people being told to work longer to offset their 401(k) losses, to the older workers who are among the first to get pink slips and to my neighbor, who is the last to get call backs.

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