Those who know me best have always called me an “old soul.” As a child I was most comfortable around the classmates of my older siblings; as a teenager I was hard-pressed to choose between listening to Glenn Miller or the Go-Go’s. My closest friends from my college years aren’t from college at all, but instead are the seasoned editors and sales reps I fell in with while working part-time at the LA Weekly. When I started writing lengthy profiles in my early twenties, I was attracted not to young or even middle-aged subjects but to women and men well into their twilight years. I hung out with Marta Becket, an elderly ballerina who ran an opera house in Death Valley and still danced en pointe. I documented the last months in the life of Jack Smith, the beloved Los Angeles Times columnist, spending many afternoons in the living room of his Mount Washington home. I traveled to Long Island to drink with Budd Schulberg, who was 84 at the time, and chat with him about why What Makes Sammy Run?—his 1941 Hollywood novel—had never been made into a film.
It wasn’t just advanced age that bound my subjects together. They were continually looking and moving forward. They kept their minds engaged even as time did everything in its power to slow their momentum. Consider Julius Shulman, the architectural photographer who turned 98 the year I began trailing him for a feature for this magazine. Eighty-one years after he took his first photograph, he was still shooting, as curious and cantankerous as ever. The last party he attended—a scotch tasting in his honor at my house—was just another occasion for everyone in the room to adore and flatter him. You couldn’t help being inspired by the way he embraced life.
I thought of Julius when I read this month’s Well-Being column, about the efforts being made in Los Angeles to halt the aging process. We recently reinstated the column after a ten-year hiatus, not only because it covers topics that interest our readers, but because L.A. is one of the nation’s innovators in matters of health and fitness. Residents of places like Ikaria, Greece, and Okinawa, Japan, exceed life expectancy rates. What do they have in common? They conduct their lives at a more leisurely pace, they are neither solitary nor sedentary, and they consume a diet low in fat and, in Ikaria, plenty of wine (I’ll drink to that!). Despite the traffic, we move fast in L.A.; because of distances, we’re not as social or spontaneous as residents of a remote island can be. And Lord knows, our air quality is not as good. But we can control our level of engagement and our enthusiasm. It’s not a matter of how many wrinkles crease the skin, but of how determined we are to keep our skin in the game.