The Thinker

The years, they pass so quickly now

So I was wasting time in my hotel room this week and found the TV Land Channel. It was M*A*S*H night and they were playing shows from its first season, which by my recollection was 1972. I must have been watching one of the very first episodes because it was full of characters that would disappear within a few years including Major Burns, Trapper John and Colonel Blake. I knew it had to be first season because the show was pure comedy and had yet to take on a serious tone. In this episode Hawkeye and Trapper were spending inordinate time annoying and embarrassing Majors Burns and Houlihan.

It was great to see an old M*A*S*H episode. Like most families back then we were glued to our TV when M*A*S*H was on the air. The show lasted much longer than the actual Korean War, embarrassingly long, in fact. The actors that made it to the show’s end eleven years later by then looked really aged. Jamie Farr was 48 and Alan Alda was 47 when the last episode was filmed. But in 1972 they all looked fresh. Alan Alda, who I remember most recently playing Senator Arnold Vinick in the last two years of The West Wing, looked in The West Wing about as old as John McCain. There was a logical explanation for this. They are about the same age. (Alda is actually a year older and is 73.) Nearly forty years have passed since the first episode of M*A*S*H was aired. Alan Alda was actually 36 in 1972, but looked much younger. Alda though is one of the lucky ones. At least he is still alive. Larry Linville (Major Burns) died in 2000. McLean Stephenson (Colonel Blake) entered immortality in 1996. Harry Morgan, who was already pretty old when he played Colonel Potter, passed away in 2008 at the age of 93.

Age happens. Aging is fine when it happens to others, but not so fine when it happens to me. Because I, like most of the baby boom generation (and our remaining parents still with us) actually remember when M*A*S*H was on the air. Goodness, Richard Nixon was president when it first aired, and it did not go off the air until Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office. Likely, most Americans have little or no memory of M*A*S*H, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Laugh In, or the original Star Trek, or The Bob Newhart Show because they were not even alive or more interested in Saturday morning cartoons. Some small minority of them might watch an episode of M*A*S*H on TV Land but are unlikely to try to follow the series forty years later. It has about as much appeal to them as The Lawrence Welk Show did to me. What was with all those dancing ladies in high heels and champagne bubbles anyway?

I was fifteen when M*A*S*H first aired and I remember it like it was yesterday. Like most of us aging boomers, I am having a hard time grasping that nearly forty years have passed by since then. Where did all those years go? My recollection is pretty hazy, but I guess I must have been busy because they passed in a haze. Mentally, I am 18 or so but a glance in the mirror confirms that I am age 52 instead. Little incidents like this bring home how quickly life passes. I don’t look for them; I just stumble across these incidents periodically. When I do I get a feeling of vertigo. I want to look at myself in the mirror and pinch my face to verify I am still in this world. I mean, it’s practically 2010 already!

Another incident occurred at the hotel on Monday night. I found myself at the front desk talking with the hotel manager, a woman named Kelly. I did a double take when I saw her title because I figured she was a clerk. Gosh, she looked awfully young to be the manager of this large hotel. Before I could check myself I blurted it to her aloud. “I’m 26,” she said cheerfully, and then she went on to tell me that this is the fifth hotel she has worked at. She is 26 and running a suites hotel for one of the Marriott hotel chains. When I was 26 I was making my first acquaintance with a Wang 2200-T “calculator”. It would transform my life, leading me into a career in information technology. I sure was not up to the task of managing anything, particularly a hotel. Paying the rent was challenging enough.

Twenty six is exactly half my current age. I was 26 in 1983. This woman was born in 1983. In fact, she is just seven years older than my daughter, who may be attending community college and who is quite responsible but is someone who (in my mind at least) is maybe fourteen or so. Some part of my mind was also 26 while I was talking with this manager. Some part of me had not spent the last twenty something years married to my spouse and was checking her out. Then I realized: I am probably older than her father!

I wish there was a pill I could take that would tell my brain, “Well, you are basically an old coot now.” I need this wakeup call because my brain continues to disbelieve the facts. The body may be temporal but the mind likes to operate under the illusion that it is immortal. The incongruity can at times be wrenching. I saw my mother go through this process during her long decline. Mentally she was pretty sharp until a few months before she died. Her body could just not keep up with her mind.

Will I even be alive in another 26 years? According to insurance actuary tables, because I am a male I am more likely to be dead than alive at age 78. Most likely I will beat the odds, as both my parents lived into their 80s. My father is still amazingly spry at age 82. One thing is for sure: should I encounter another hotel manager age 26 when I am 78, I will not only be old enough to be her grandfather, but potentially even her great grandfather.

My oldest brother recently announced that their daughter was pregnant. She has several more months before she delivers her baby (she is 21) but when this blessed event occurs it will also mean that I will be a great-uncle. Doubtless in time other nieces and nephews will follow her as parents. My daughter says that she has no plans to get married and she finds the whole idea of having a baby ghastly, so I am unlikely to be a grandparent. Yet at 52 I am a virtual great uncle already. I am likely to have this title for others of Generation Z.

So perhaps this is why whenever I travel anywhere I am scouting for possible retirement communities. On Sunday my youngest brother, who I was visiting prior to enduring the business part of my trip, took me to Fort Collins, a city about an hour north of Denver. It is rated as one of the most livable retirement spots in the country (unless you don’t like snow). It hugs the Rocky Mountains and has a beautiful and expansive main street, plus it has all the advantages of a college town (Colorado State University is located there). While I am not sure living in the west agrees with me it is a place to consider. My wife and I also plan a trip to the Pacific Northwest in the next few years. Along with seeing places like Crater Lake and Mount St. Helens we will be watching the towns and cities we pass through, and wondering if any will call to us as a beacon for our retirement years.

Perhaps acting my age will work if I take active steps toward fogey-hood. I need to purchase striped shorts, Hawaiian shirts, golf shoes and white socks that go halfway to my knees. I need to check the prices for Polident and the cost of AARP membership. Age is calling me but I am proving amazingly tone deaf. It is telling me to accept that I am a rapidly aging American.

Right now I mainly prefer to remain in my state of denial.


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