Whatever Happened to Tipper and Al?

We old folks aren't the zombies you kids think we are. Beware!

“It’s like finding out your parents are breaking up,” one of my young friends said mournfully when the story broke on Tuesday that Al and Tipper Gore were separating after 40 years of marriage, four kids and umpteen political campaigns.

The news did seem staggering. Once you’ve stayed married for four decades, what the hell could possibly come between you, if it’s not a bimbo from Argentina or a floozy documentary filmmaker? Plus, there was the whole Cinderella slant to the affaire de coeur between the Gores, who met at a dance while they were high-schoolers, courted through college (Al once said, famously, that he and Tipper were Erich Segal’s models for Love Story—a claim Segal mostly denied), and endured a whole string of tragedies: the near-death of their only son after he was hit by a car, Tipper’s battles with thyroid disease and depression, Al’s wardrobe choices in the 2000 election. (Earth tones!) Their infamously ardent kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention made America simultaneously cringe and sigh, as all over the nation, post-menopausal women sitting on sofas glanced sideways at their husbands, wondering: Where’s our fire? “We’ve been lucky enough to find each other all over again at each new stage of our lives,” Al said of his wife on that night 10 years ago. [SIGNUP]

And that’s the crux of it right there — the new stages. When you’re young and you look at old folk (bear with me here, mature friends; I’m preaching to the young ’uns), you don’t see new anything — you see monoliths, immutable pillars of resistance to change, purse-mouthed reactionaries muttering about the good old days over cups of tea. But getting old requires far more agility than being young. For one thing, it hurts just to get around. It’s hard to adapt to the changes that come flying at you: First it’s the VCR, then the DVD player, then Netflix and YouTube and OnDemand. Your kids grow up and leave the nest. You start getting tested regularly for many, many types of cancer. Friends begin dropping like flies. When you’re young, all you ever think about is getting laid.

Okay, so the changes we go through between, say, 55 and 80 aren’t as visually dramatic as those between 0 and 25. We’re pretty much us as we age, only growing a little stouter and a little grayer and a bit more stooped. But don’t be fooled into thinking nothing’s happening inside our heads. A spouse’s momentary thoughtlessness or careless unkindness may loom far larger set against the backdrop of decades of shared experience than it would for newlyweds. My mom once bought new glasses and wore them to the dinner table. When my father hadn’t remarked on the change by dessert, she was in tears: “You didn’t even notice!” My dad looked straight back at her. “I got new glasses two weeks ago,” he said, “and you never noticed them.”

We change, and keep on changing, all through our lives. You think, when you’re young, that you’ll eventually reach some peak, a point of stasis where you’ll be able to stop striving and maneuvering and adapting and just be. I’m learning it isn’t like that at all. Stasis is what death is for. Living’s far more complicated. People are like sharks: We have to keep moving, and sometimes that means moving on. It looks as though Al and Tipper are going to manage that gracefully, without titillating tell-alls about what went wrong. More power to them. For the rest of us, those who want to hit our 30- or 40- or 50-year wedding anniversaries, this would be a good time to remark on those new glasses, offer a backrub, or bring some flowers home for no occasion at all.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.