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One Good Thing About Getting Old: Knowing a Thing. Or Two.

by on March 07, 2018 5:00 AM

The algorithm elves at The New York Times have figured out that I’m not getting any younger. Check out the headlines on four of the items that graced their “Recommended for You” list the other day:

It’s a truism that “they” know everything about us netizens. But how, specifically, do my friends at The New York Times know I’m in the gray zone? I checked my Times account page: nothing there about my birthdate or interests.

I thought about where I’ve been lately, cyberspatially speaking. Last weekend, the soundtrack to some HBO movie or other included a cover of “The Weight.” My movie-watching companion thought the boys in The Band sang, “Take a load off, Granny.” I said I was pretty sure the words were “Take a load off, Fanny.”

We went on YouTube to listen to the original. At that point, my movie-watching companion had better things to do, and went and did them. Not me, though. The Band’s harmonies got me thinking about Jefferson Airplane’s harmonies. So maybe it was my way-back machine visit to the album rock gods of 50 years ago that tipped The Times off.

Or was it my perusal of the Wally Moon obit? I mean, who other than an alte kaker would read about the life and death of a uni-browed outfielder who played for the Dodgers and the Cardinals from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s. (Just think: Right around the time Moon was hitting the last of his 142 career home runs, the Band began backing Bob Dylan.)

In any event (as my dad would say), The Times seems to know I’m getting long in the tooth (as my dad would say), so I may as well tackle the question raised by that last item on The Times’s list: Is it true that getting old is a blessing?

I doubt a lot of young people think so. When I was young I had a sneaking and wholly irrational suspicion that old age was preventable. The alte kakers I knew had let themselves go. When I saw my dad oofing and oying as he collapsed into a chair or hoisted himself out of one, I vowed that would never happen to me.

Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but it probably isn’t too far off, either. But here is what I have begun to appreciate about getting older: I know stuff. I don’t mean to boast. In many cases – OK, most cases – my knowledge is about as deep as the water in an arroyo during a drought year. But I know about a whole lot of stuff, especially stuff that has happened in the past 100 years.

Some of what I know about I learned the easy way, by living through it: JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, Vietnam, the Cold War, the moon visit, Watergate – the usual Baby Boomer touchstones. But thanks to my parents, I’m also one degree of separation from the first half of the 20th century: the age of Babe Ruth and Benny Goodman and FDR, of fedoras and curvy cars and rampant discrimination against anyone who wasn’t a heterosexual White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male.

Like Gramps telling the little ones about the days when people tied their horses to hitching posts on Main Street, I tell my students about the days before skyjackings and terrorist attacks when you could walk your sweetie to the jet way instead of picking her up or dropping her off at the curb.

At every turn, I try to show them how things that happened in the past resonate in the present. Like an ace checkers player, I jump from the Spanish-American War to the rise of Fidel Castro, to the Mariel boatlift, to the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba.

Think they‘re impressed? One of my journalism trainees just submitted story about gun violence and what her peers think we should do about it. Here was one student’s suggestion:

“Put more funding into education/counseling/career exploration. Possibly provide students with lessons of life and social skills instead of beating them to death about the War of 1812.”

Nothing wrong with any of the lessons this source wants to add. But I’m going to continue to beat my classes to death about the War of 1812 and all the other nasty and ennobling episodes of the human saga for one simple reason: The world is an utterly baffling place. About the only way to make the slightest shred of sense of any of it is to start by knowing how we got here.

On the other hand, there’s what my dad used to say about a person who was none too swift: “If he knew what he was doing he’d be dangerous.”



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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