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References fading into obscurity

By Greg Merritt

I am getting old and so are you. We’ve known it all along, but just refused to acknowledge it. It’s been rolling straight at us like one of those nineteenth century trains rolling down the track belching smoke, steam, and hot cinders and we find ourselves standing right in the center of the tracks. We try and jump off those tracks, but no matter how we side step it we keep finding ourselves smack dab in the middle of those tracks all the while that screaming black train with smoke billowing all around just keeps getting closer and closer. We choose not to look at it headlong and act like we don’t see it coming, but in the corner of our eyes we can see it chugging closer and closer. Occasionally, thanks to the distractions of life, we actually do lose sight of the train and forget that it’s even there, but then something happens that makes us realize that train is even closer than what we remember it being.

I’ll not orate on the fallibility of life, youth, and what happens after. Not that I have no thoughts or philosophies regarding the matter, but I’ll leave that for the theologians and philosophers to argue about since they claim to have all the answers anyway. Instead, I’ll talk about something I know nothing about: pop culture. Or more accurately, modern pop culture. I’ll confess, I really do know very little about today’s pop culture. Oh, I’ve heard of some of the names that we just can’t seem to get away from such as the Kardashians or Justin Bieber (he is still a “thing” now days, right?) but if you start talking to me about the latest TV shows, movies, popular music, and the movers and shakers of our cultural zeitgeists or whatever else people are into now days, I will probably give you a blank stare and then pretend I know what you are talking about while trying to turn the conversation around to something I can actually talk about with at least some degree of intelligence.

I like to think that I’ve always been a willing know-nothing about pop culture, but that really isn’t true. I managed to keep up with the pop-culture of the day until about the mid-nineties when the movie Titanic came out, and that was the tipping point where I crossed the line from being a hip, into-the-now kind of swinging guy and crossed over into the old-soul, curmudgeon that stands before you today. When Titanic came out I had no desire to see it and couldn’t care less about the millions who had seen it, the special effects or the supposed “story” of the movie which I have heard is chock full of loopholes (seriously, couldn’t Kate Winslet’s character scoot her butt over just a bit to let Leonardo’s DiCaprio’s character get on the raft?  Sorry 3rd class citizen – down into the drink you go and hope you enjoy Davey Jones’ locker! I will act appropriately mournful and then live a life I never could have lived being stuck with you – loser. It drove me nuts that we could not escape Celine Dion and were forced to listen to her omnipresent warbling no matter where you went and to this day I have not seen more than two minutes of that movie and I pine for those lost and ill-spent two minutes every day of my life.

My detour from the cultural trappings of the day wasn’t so drastic that people would see my long, white beard and call out “Thar goes Greg, direct descendant of Rip Van Winkle himself! Do not speak of things of this day lest you confuse and frighten him,” but rather it was a slow descent into pop-cultural irrelevancy. The pop-culture that I did know was still relevant in the late nineties, but as the years faded into the ether one by one they became less relevant with each passing year.

There are little events in all of our lives that serve to remind us just how old we are becoming. For some it’s that day when they lose a game or contest of some sort to their kid when they were actually trying to win. For others it may be when they hear that song they loved from high school now being played on the oldie station. That little injury that used to feel better after a night of sleep? Now it hurts for weeks. And how about the first time you realized that most of the kids in their 20’s would never even consider dating you because in their eyes you are some sort of middle aged or near-middle aged adult. Never mind that you wouldn’t consider dating them (well, maybe for one night you’d be willing to “date”) because now they seem like kids to you and haven’t you already done your tour of duty dealing with that drama when you were younger? However, for many of us those things are easily absorbed. No, it’s the chorus of uncomprehending stares from the younger ones among us that are returned when we rattle off a favorite TV or movie line that serves as the harshest reminder of our impending days of gumming our Jell-O while yelling at an even older Alex Trebek host yet another episode of Jeopardy! Or maybe that’s just me.

A prime example of this would be the movie Stripes. Released back in 1981 it starred Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, and was by all accounts a popular and successful movie chock full of immensely quotable lines. Why, that movie has a line for every occasion: “Lighten up Francis,” “That’s a fact Jack,” “Army training, sir,” “A lean, mean fighting machine,” and a whole host of other quotable lines – but these youngsters act like they’ve never even heard of Stripes when you spit out that perfect Stripes line.

How is it possible that the millennial generation and most Gen X’ers (my generation) could possibly have no idea of even the mere existence of Stripes? Oh yeah. Maybe because it is almost 35 years old and is only relevant to the times in which it was created so that only the people who were socially aware during the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, cold war era could appreciate it. That and maybe it really wasn’t as funny as everybody thought it was at the time. I suspect cinematic history is littered with films that were popular and quotable for their times, but have since been thrown upon the trash heap of forgotten movies. After all, even when it was released, nobody was confusing Stripes with Citizen Cain, The Godfather or even It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

I have to imagine our parents have a cache of movie lines in their memories that would actually be perfect for the moment, but if they were to recite them we would give them the same blank stare that we get back when we do a Stripes line. No, time marched on and has since created a multitude of here-today-gone-tomorrow type movies and our parents have learned, probably the hard way, to just pack up those dusty movie lines and keep them to themselves. Maybe they break them out amongst others of their age when they get together like old war vets retelling war stories that they’ve told hundreds of times before, but they certainly don’t drop them on the unknowing, uncomprehending younger generations.

Old age isn’t the wrinkling of the skin or the softening of the body or the appreciation of ointment cream. Old age is watching all of your pop cultural references fade into obscurity.

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