Something Is the New Something Else

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(I want to apologize to those of you who've left me comments over the past couple of months. Since I moved to a new host with new software, I was unaware that my comments were being saved for moderation without any notification to me, so I had no idea. Much appreciated.)

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I’ve been looking at this photo for most of my life. Not continuously. You know what I mean.

It was taken over 40 years ago, at a birthday party for my grandfather. The old man is in the middle of all of his grandchildren, ranging from little kids to young adults. I’m there, hair too long and too blond, wearing thick wire-rimmed glasses, looking like a John Denver cosplayer.

My grandfather, whom I adored, at whose knee I sat for hours as a kid, listening to his stories, was old. Hobbled by back injuries, his face drooping from nerve damage after lymphoma surgery, he probably looks older and more feeble than he felt, but he was old anyway, a relic, navigating his final lap of life with a little help from a cane.

It was a surprise party, as I recall, the kind of party you throw when the clock is ticking and life needs some celebrating. He would live another 14 years, long enough to get a peek at the lives of all those grandkids, but this was a special moment. It was his 60th birthday.

You’d understand the appeal of this picture if you were me, currently experiencing the final 10 months of my 50s. Next July I will also turn 60. It’s really not too early to start planning a surprise party.

We all develop a theory of special relativity at some point. We realize one day that we’re the same age as our parents were at some point that we remember well. We suddenly note that our children have reached some milestone that meant something in our own lives. We look at them and at ourselves, and we say, nope. Not me. Not at all like me.

But there’s a slightly different theory, and we all know it. We have to, if we’ve been conscious and breathing for more than a couple of decades. For a while, I was tempted to chalk it up to the cliché, assuming it was just another effect from early baby boomers, the healthiest, wealthiest, and most self-centered cohort this country had ever produced.

This generation defined the culture of its youth, and developed its own special relativity. This was the bunch that popularized “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and when they drifted into their own 30s they defined age upward; 40 became the new 30, 50 became the new 40, and pretty much everything old became new again.

I’m not sure I believe this anymore, or else I was discounting the ripple from that particular self-regard. It’s the older ones who disorient me these days, those born during the Great Depression or even earlier.

Carl Reiner is 95, born during the Harding administration, serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, reaching fame on television years before I was born, a familiar face and presence for most of my young life and apparently nowhere near the finish line. He’s been seen in the “Ocean’s 11” films, he’s written a slew of books in recent years, and he’s an active presence on Twitter, if you can imagine.

Reiner is also long-time friends with other famous nonagenarians, including Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks, and particularly Rose Marie, who became famous as a child performer in the 1920s and whose life is about to hit theaters in the new documentary, “Wait For Your Laugh.” I want to know what these folks were eating for breakfast.

It’s not just aging celebrities, although they’re the easiest to document. There’s a YouTube of Baby Rose Marie, singing on film nearly 90 years ago. It fascinates me, which is partly why I watched “Our Souls at Night.”

This film, based on a Kent Haruf novella, is a Netflix production, released for streaming on Sept. 29. It’s the third act of a cinematic meta-story, pairing two of the biggest movie stars from my youth, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, an unexpected encore to “Barefoot in the Park” in 1967 and “The Electric Horseman” a dozen years later (they also made their screen debuts in the same film, 1960’s “Tall Story,” and played an estranged couple in “The Chase” in 1966).

I was a little disappointed by the slow pace and often lifeless dialogue, but on a second viewing I formed a more generous opinion, seeing it for what it is: a slight, sweet film about two senior citizens, finding companionship and even a bit of romance in their golden years, life slowing down but not over, not nearly over.

And they don’t seem very old. The glamour of their superstar heyday has washed out a bit, and Redford in particular either affects or owns the cautious, awkward gait of an older man, but they’re not the 80-somethings I remember from old photos. Fonda, who leans into age with long, gray hair and grandma jeans, still sparks with a liveliness I can only hope for, and Redford comes across as just a slightly slower Sundance Kid. Half a century has bred only familiarity, not contempt or pity. They seem about the same.

I watched because of nostalgia, and came away with hope. It’s not just the actors; both are around the same age as my mother, and she seems to be about the same, life a bit slower but not done yet.

It cheers me up, at any rate. As would a surprise party. No worries, though. We’ve got some time.

Chuck SigarsComment