Category Archives: Aging

Remembering (or not) the royal funeral

Of course, I refer to the funeral of King Edward VII, on May 20, 1910.

Y’all remember that one? It was a biggie. I cite the first paragraph of The Guns of August:

I don’t mean to disrespect Her Majesty’s funeral yesterday, by any means. Based on all I’ve heard and the few photos I’ve seen (the reverence, the solemnity, the dazzling colors — except for the two disgraced princes in mufti), it was splendid — as it should have been.

I’ve just got this one on my mind because a couple of days back, I started re-reading the Tuchman book. I’m using the term “re-reading” loosely here, because I didn’t finish it the first time. After it shifted to the Eastern front, it seemed to bog down. All I remember about it was the incompetence of the tsar’s government (sort of like Putin’s in Ukraine), which gave me a bit of insight into why the revolution happened.

So I decided to start over, partly because I knew the first chapter was awesome, beginning with that portrait, excerpted above, of the old world that was about to end — that ruled by closely related kings, attending the funeral of their kinsman. He was known as “the uncle of Europe,” which Mrs. Tuchman explained thusly:

Anyway, I had remembered all that — not each and every relationship, or even the precise number of royal highnesses and such in the cortege. But I had remembered the main points — the pomp and splendor, the significance of this last gathering of the fam, and the general reasons why this was all to come to an end.

But I didn’t remember everything. And that’s my point. When I was young, I remembered any book I had read — no matter how much earlier — in absurd detail. Not photographic memory exactly, but I remember details clearly, and could quickly find them. Long before Google, I could in a brief moment find a quote I wanted in a book read 20 years earlier, by leafing through it thinking, OK, it was in the upper part of a left-hand page, and it was before this… but after that… a couple more pages… there! And when I got there, it was as I had remembered.

To some extent, that’s still there. And I remembered there were certain alarming ideas current in Germany at the time, and how I was impressed when I first read about them, thinking, As much as we make of Nazi ideology, this stuff didn’t just come from the twisted mind of Hitler a generation later….

But I had forgotten her portrait of the most prominent of those foreign cousins riding in the cortege — Kaiser Wilhelm II. “William” was glad his uncle Edward was dead. It meant, he thought, he — and Germany — would get more recognition, more respect. Note the way the author describes the kaiser’s reaction to Edward’s triumphant visit to Paris a few years earlier:

(Sorry about all the long screenshots, by the way. I would copy and paste much shorter quotes, but Google Books won’t let me, so I do this. I know it’s rather unsatisfactory. I don’t do it just because I’m lazy; retyping introduces a greatly increased possibility of errors.)

I’d forgotten what a cranky, needy child the Kaiser was. Of course, he comes across a lot like Trump — all that whiny me, me, me. Maybe it strikes me more strongly now because I first read that chapter pre-2016, when Trump was still this ridiculous figure from the 1980s whom we are all free to ignore.

Now, I think, Well, as messed up as our democracy not is, and as much as I like and will miss the queen, here’s another reason to appreciate that we don’t have a monarch. Think about it. As much as Trump tried to become king — on Jan. 6, and so often before and since — he failed. But imagine how much more awful things would be were he a sovereign, and his identification with the country were such that he was the country and the country was him? (Yes, I know this isn’t the Middle Ages and things were different by 1914, but there’s still the psychology of identification that lies at the heart of the idea of monarchy.)

Of course, if we had a monarchy, Trump would never have been the king. But let’s not get lost in speculative details.

Anyway, that’s not my point. My point is to bring up one of the few fun parts of getting older: It’s forgetting things, and enjoying the delight of rediscovering them.

It’s not that I’ve become a goldfish. I remember most things, and since I’m an intuitive type, I pretty much always remember, and can accurately describe in general terms, the forest. Which is what matters to someone who thinks the way I do. But I let go of a lot of the trees.

I first saw this coming on maybe 15 or 20 years ago (or, from my perspective, a few days ago) when I suddenly realized that I longer remembered all of the lyrics of every single Beatles song. I had always taken that knowledge for granted, and now there were many holes in it. Big deal, I was able to say to myself — those weren’t details I needed in my life. Still, it was a loss.

Then, about the time I entered my 60s, the delightful thing came along: I didn’t retain any new TV shows I saw. Oh, I remembered what Jethro did in “The Beverly Hillbillies” back in the mid-60s. But I could watch an episode of some British murder mystery and enjoy it in 2012 or later, and then come back in a year or so with NO idea whodunit, and enjoy it all over again. Because my personal hard drive was no longer adding this stuff to the database.

Which is awesome. Lately, my wife and I have been rewatching “Endeavour” from the beginning, and having a great time. Oh, something about a scene will be familiar; I might even say “I know this scene; this is the moment I realized the writers were basing this episode on ‘The Great Gatsby’.” But I still won’t know what’s going to happen. And there are episodes I don’t remember at all.

Which is great. It’s so much easier to be entertained whenever I want to be. I don’t have to look so hard for “new” content.

For some time, I’ve been thinking, What if this could happen with books, too? I mean, what if I could completely forget O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and start over and experience it for the “first time” again? That would be bliss.

I’m not there yet, by any means. But this bit of forgetfulness with the Tuchman book is a promising beginning…

Federer retires at 41. So… what will he be next?

Today, I almost tweeted a rather obvious (and therefore lame) joke about the retiring tennis star. Something like, “Federer is 41, poor ol’ fella…”

But then, aside from shying away from the obvious, I decided it was also wrong. In a way, Roger sort of is a poor old fellow.

His entire life, as short as it’s been, has been about being one of the best tennis players in the world — perhaps the best. His body, his mind, his spirit have all been entirely focused on that goal. And now, for the rest of his life — which will quite probably be most of his life — will lack that. Whatever he does next, it will lack that intense drive, that satisfaction.

So while he rightly claims his triumphs, he ends on a rueful note in this statement:

“I am 41 years old; I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years,” Federer said in an audio clip posted on social media. “Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamed, and now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”

So I do feel a little bad for him.

Of course, he’s luckier than football and, to a lesser extent, baseball players. His is a sport he can still enjoy for the rest of his active life. He can beat the pants off everybody in his neighborhood, and relax doing it.

But it won’t be the same.

A corollary, a little different from what I was saying above about Federer: Suppose he is really successful at his next career, if he has one. Like my wife’s first cousin, Tim McCarver. I haven’t talked to him in decades, but I don’t think he was filled with a sense of loss through all those years of live television — it would have shown, to the whole world. And he was very successful at it, winning three Emmys.

But because he was so successful, there’s something a bit disorienting to someone like me who is old enough to remember his glory days on the field. Look at how Wikipedia describes him now, at the age of almost 81: “James Timothy McCarver (born October 16, 1941) is an American sportscaster and former professional baseball catcher.”

The “sportscaster” comes first, and the “professional baseball catcher” comes next — with a former in front of it! This despite the fact that he was one of only 29 players to appear in MLB games in four different decades — having come up to the bigs in 1959, when he was only 17, and retired in 1980.

Yeah, he spent twice as much time as a sportscaster, but hey — to me, those were short years. When you’re a kid, years are much more than twice as long. And when I first saw him play in person in 1969 when he was with the Cardinals, it seemed he’d been a star ballplayer forever.

So I find myself wondering: When Federer is 81, what will people say he was? I don’t know, but when I’m that age, if I ever am that age, I’ll think of him as a tennis player. A great one…

Stop shocking me, people!

If seeing this movie is a childhood memory to you — or worse, you don’t remember it — don’t tell me about it.

Well, I suffered another shock today, of a sort that has become familiar.

I was reading my Washington Post app, and ran across a story that begins this way:

In 1993, I was nominated for homecoming queen at my high school in a conservative Southern California city. It wasn’t meant to be a political act. One of my girlfriends had suggested, “Nominate Trey — he’ll do it,” after the girls had agreed none of them wanted to parade around in a rayon dress from Windsor Fashions while being judged.

I was used to this. While most of my peers spent weekends at football games and rodeos, I slipped into black high heels and Russian Red lipstick and drove to Los Angeles, where I snuck into the clubs with my fake ID and innocent smile. That was just me being me….

It’s written by some guy named Trey, and the subject is the fact that Brad Pitt recently appeared in public in a skirt.

In any case, I’m sure you can see immediately what it is that I found shocking about this story.

Yep, there it is, at the very start of the very first sentence; “In 1993…”

What?!? I thought. You were hanging out with a bunch of high school kids in 1993? You, a grown man who wrote a column appearing in one of America’s leading newspapers, refer to one of those kids as “one of my girlfriends?”

What kind of a perv are you, sir? Are you one of those guys who hangs around, leaning against walls and saying, “Alright alright alright!”

Or rather, “I get older; they say the same age…

Of course, I’ll admit that I read far more shocking stuff than this — in a temporal sense — every day. Frequently, I’ll hear an apparent grownup referring to some event happening “when I was a little kid,” and the thing he’s referring to happened after (or shortly before) the recent turn of the century — which was what, about a week or two ago?

By contrast, 1993 was more like several months ago, or maybe a year. That was the year I turned 40. In fact, to nail it down further, the day I turned 40 was the day the Battle of Mogadishu happened.

This happens more and more, and I’m finding it more and more disorienting. So cut it out, people. The last think we need — or the last thing I need, anyway — is to hear people talking about events of the Clinton administration as though they happened during Charlemagne’s reign over the Holy Roman Empire.

Get a grip, people — before I lose mine…

Words I can’t seem to learn, or re-learn

I’ve noticed something lately, and I wonder whether it’s a function of aging.

I don’t don’t obsess about it or anything. I don’t focus anxiously on it like Catch-22‘s Yossarian, of whom Heller writes:

He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end….

But it does occur to me, when I have trouble remembering things I once knew (say, all the lyrics of every Beatle song) or retaining new information. I wonder, Is this normal, or is this… decline?

For instance, in recent days I’ve found myself looking up the following, to make sure I’m understanding what is meant by the writer using them. And I’ve been very conscious of having looked up all of them before, perhaps multiple times. But the definitions don’t stick:

epistemology — This one is important, and it gets used a lot lately because Trump and Trumpism challenge the very basis of knowledge, of what a fact is, of what is knowable. But I keep having to go, Wait, let me look that up again. And unfortunately, it’s sufficiently slippery that you can’t hold onto it the way you can, say, an apple. The short answer is that “Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief.” But that means it can be used all sorts of ways. Every time I run into this one, I picture myself as Kenneth Parcell on “30 Rock,” with a particularly bewildered look on his simple face.

neoliberalism — This is a stupid word. It’s nothing like “neoconservative,” which describes something clear, something of which examples abound: generally speaking, a liberal who turned away from the Democratic Party and other liberals post-Vietnam. But Wikipedia defines it this way: “Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism is the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism, which constituted a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus that had lasted from 1945 to 1980.” So… it’s classical liberalism, right? Oh, sure, pedants draw a distinction, but the distinctions are stupid. A neoliberal is someone saying, “Gimme that old-time liberalism.” The “neo” is a superfluous affectation. No wonder I can’t remember it. It lacks meaning.

tautology — This one’s actually easier to understand than the others. It’s kind of like, you know, pleonasm. Yeah, I know. I’m going to go ahead and forget “pleonasm” on purpose…

Maybe I should stop reading Ross Douthat. I’m pretty sure he’s used all of those words recently, sending me to Google them again. The showoff.

But it’s not just polysyllabic Latin- or Greek-derived words in English. I see the slippage in other areas as well.

For instance, I’ve had a lot of trouble relearning Spanish. I spoke it fluently as a child. The other day I happened to remember my landlady in Ecuador telling me how I sounded like a native after I’d been in country three months. She was being nice, of course, but I did pick it up ridiculously easily — helped by the fact that I was only 9 years old. My vocabulary probably wasn’t great at the point, but my pronunciation was already good, learned entirely from imitating the non-English-speakers who surrounded me all day, every day.

I especially have trouble remembering the gender of nouns (especially those that don’t end in “a” or “o,” and even those — such as mano — can fool you). Whenever I serve as a Eucharistic minister at the Spanish Mass at church, part of my duty is to help clean up the vessels afterward. Then we lock up everything. And on several occasions, I’ve wanted to ask, “Where is the key?” And I start to say it, and can’t remember: Is it “la llave” or “el llave?”

Most people whose Spanish is as bad as mine now is wouldn’t worry. They’d just say one or the other in the confidence that the native speakers would understand anyway, and be forgiving toward the gringo. Which they would, on both counts. I’m not satisfied with that. I want to get it right, or not say it at all. So I ask in English, rather than expose my failing.

Llave is feminine, by the way, as I found from looking it up yet again

kenneth

Today, all celebrities are more than 50 years old

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Harry Harris brought up AARP, which reminded me of something I noticed on the way out the door this morning.

All of a sudden, all truly famous celebrities, all the big names, are over 50.

That hit me when I noticed the latest AARP magazine on our kitchen table, with Steve Martin on the cover. Of course, we all knew Steve Martin was old — he was white-headed when all the world was young.

But the more I’m exposed to this magazine — I never pick it up, but I do notice the covers — the more I’m convinced that everyone famous is now older than 50.

Look at the recent covers above and below.

  • Dustin Hoffman — We boomers think of him as the ultimate exemplar of youthful angst. If he made a move on someone Mrs. Robinson’s age now, she wouldn’t give him a second glance.
  • Bruce Springsteen — OK, I get it: Everyone called “boss” is a white guy over 50, right? Except in this case, he’s more than 60.
  • Michael J. Fox — Yep. This time Marty McFly has traveled way, WAY into the future.
  • Diane Keaton — OK, we saw this happening over the years. What can be said about it? That’s life. La-dee-dah, la-dee-dah
  • Kevin Spacey — Again, not surprising.
  • Dennis Quaid — I remember when “The Big Easy” came out, and a review called him something like “our best breezy young actor.” I’ll always picture him with that crewcut, playing the brash young Gordon Cooper in “The Right Stuff.”
  • Brad Pitt — OK, I’m not sure this was actually a cover. I think this was something AARP does when they’re calling out a celebrity for crossing the line. Anyway, I read something recently about him and other big-name actors not getting the great roles any more, as Hollywood turns away from big names and relies on interchangeable young actors named “Chris.” I’d link to the story, but I can’t find it now.
  • Kevin Costner — Remember the goofy, gawky gunslinger in “Silverado?” Now he might have to turn to playing the crotchety, grizzled prospector, à la Gabby Hayes.
  • Ron Howard — Opie! I see Opie on those reruns now and I think of my grandson — not someone old enough to be a grandfather himself.
  • Denzel Washington — We’ve watched him get gray, but did you know he’s 62?
  • Cyndi Lauper — Now you know why she keeps dyeing her hair those crazy colors. It’s not just to have fun.
  • Sharon Stone — Which, of course, is why you don’t hear about her any more.

Sure, there are some recognizable celebrities who are under 50. There’s um, Taylor Swift! And that little Bruno Mars guy. And maybe one or two others. Dave Matthews? Nope — he’s 50. All those superhero actors named “Chris” don’t count, by the way. A celebrity needs to stand out distinctively.

When I was young, not even the OLD stars my parents liked were over 50. Take 1965, which I have written about in the past as the most fevered time American popular culture (it was for me because I had just returned from years in South America without TV, and soaking up pop culture was like overdosing on a powerful drug — but I don’t think it was just me).

Dean Martin was 48. Frank Sinatra didn’t turn 50 until the end of that year, and he seemed ancient! Kirk Douglas, father of the now 72-year-old Michael, was only 49. James Garner, who was born looking like somebody’s dad, was 37. Nat King Cole, who died that year and whose daughter now graces the cover of AARP, was only 45.

While all the celebs we kids were interested in were in their 20s, if not teens.

Anyway, that’s the way I remember it. Your mileage may, you know…

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