Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Memento Mori

I. The Jesters

Saturday Night Live was originally a rebellious experiment in television programming. Watching the 40th Anniversary Special Event Edition Whatever, I felt like I was watching a (well-deserved) celebration for the cast and crew. I suppose I was. It was often classy and reverent, and occasionally even funny.

Still, the montage of clips and rush of skits showed one thing above all else: everyone got old. Some of the original cast almost look like caricatures of old people now, gray-haired, puffy, a little confused and slow, awkwardly and stiffly telling jokes that must have been funny back in their day.

I see Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. They're both master songwriters, undeniably giant talents. Great guests. It's going to be a very sad day when they both pass. But it seems to me they are trying awfully hard to convince themselves (and us) that they're still vital in every sense. Their plastic surgery, testosterone supplements, and hip clothes have the opposite of the desired effect on me: I look at them and think about how old and frail they look, and how it's sad they can't embrace themselves and the age they are.

I have an intimate understanding of the deep insecurities that often drive artists. But what do these 2 Pauls have left to prove to anyone? Is it really that important to show "you've still got it", especially when your creaking voice reveals you don't? (Check back with me in about 25 years.)
McCartney, Martin, Simon: Collectively over 210 years.

Big changes were evident in some of the younger newcomers. Even a few years carve difference into their faces and bodies.

I had some brief moments of remembering some funny stuff, and some thoughts of what a cultural force Saturday Night Live became even as it ossified into the new comedy establishment.

I can recall SNL being a part of my world for nearly my entire life. I remember finally being old enough to stay up and watch it (and Rock'NAmerica, which followed it!). I still watch SNL, but now I watch it days later, on demand. And as each year passes, I find it less essential, less bold, less interesting. We're both getting old, I guess.

My primary takeaway from the 40th special was a kind of existential dread. Perhaps it was an art piece, an extended metaphor for life. It seemed great at first, but then it seemed like the jokes wore thin, it went on a bit too long, and was kind of sad at the end.

I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one feeling this. Externally, superficially, Eddie Murphy looks like he's been stored in his original packaging for the last 20 years. But seeing how awkward or even terrified he seemed on a stage he'd once dominated, I bet he was thinking the same thing I was: Has it really been 35 years? Look at all these old people. What am I doing here? What happened to us? What happened to me?

He didn't tell any jokes. He spoke briefly, somewhat seriously, and then vanished.

We're all going to die some day.

II. Things Fall Apart

The second law of thermodynamics, briefly: Entropy wins.

Even if you take great care of the physical things in your life, the entire universe is fundamentally programmed to destroy them. You and your things become scratched, pitted, discolored, stained. Damaged. Broken. Parts will need to be replaced.

I think of this as the dentist tells me the crown he installed 10 years ago needs replacing. 10 years of crushing, masticating, protecting have worn it down. An air-powered tool rips the old crown off, shattering it into fragments. The whine of the dentist's drill sounds just like the air gun in a tire shop. He stops briefly: his tool's burrs have worn down and need replacing mid-task.

At home, the dishwasher's door spring fails, a canary in the coalmine. Days after you replace it, the dishwasher starts making terrible noises while refusing to fully clean dishes. It's like a teenager. Then you suddenly realize it is in fact a teenager, and well past its typical lifespan.

Even a well-cared-for machine is subject to relentless entropy. You might take great caution, but some jerk backs their truck into your vehicle and BOOM. 10 years of maintenance mooted almost instantly. Order moves closer to chaos.

Sometimes there's no apparent cause: the amp that should work just doesn't anymore. Music, silenced.

Perhaps you're luckier and your electronic devices merely become obsolete or unsupported before they physically fail. In some ways, this kind of digital Alzheimer's is worse. A perfectly "good" combination of hardware and software ends up discarded simply because the world has moved on. You could keep trying to use your device, but it becomes slower, more confused, and has increased difficulty connecting to the newer devices around it.

I try hard to take care of the things in my life. At the same time, I try to avoid becoming too attached to them in any sense. I know they're all headed for the scrap heap at some point, and prior to that, they're going to get beaten up to some degree.

III. Vanitas

One day, you realize you've crossed some kind of halfway point. You're not sure when you're going to get where you're going, but you know, maybe even hope, that it will probably be sooner than you'd like. (Better that than the crushing boredom that leads one to exclaim "when are we gonna get therrrrrrrre?")

You tell yourself that you should really try to appreciate every moment of it. The scenery, the sensory input, the feelings good and bad, the thoughts, and memory's hall of mirrors. Time passing, swerving, rushing by.

Even the damage -- you want to learn to appreciate all of that, too. This proves to be very, very difficult at times. Sometimes you can find beauty in the scars and dings and wrinkles, but perhaps too often, you think of how the doctors described your nerve injury. The word they used was "insult".

That's how it feels. Can one learn to appreciate insult? I guess that's the height of comedic appreciation, right? A roast?

You consider that perhaps this is the point: To learn to appreciate all of it, for what it is. You need age to really appreciate youth. You cannot appreciate perfection without inevitable scuffs and wear. You cannot appreciate the present without some kind of past. Perhaps the more of a past you have, the more you can appreciate the present. Maybe a certain amount of history is a prerequisite.

You briefly wonder what you would give to go back just 10 minutes. 10 hours. 10 days. 10 years. Would it be worth it even if you had to sit as a passenger and watch everything unfold the same way again? Would you even want the ability to choose a different road, knowing how those changes would ripple out endlessly?

You look at the past, flying away from you as you are blown backwards into the future, pieces burning away like a space capsule on re-entry. The beautiful, awful past. Visible, ungraspable, tantalizing.

There it goes.

Modern Vanitas by Vinny Vieh
A Vanitas by Pier Francesco Cittadini from 17th century school (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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