As I see my 50th birthday looming ever nearer (as of yesterday, exactly 8 months away) I’m impressed by the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the world around me says I’m old. Some of it comes from embracing antiques such as newspapers (I read at least one a day – and I mean the kind that you hold in your hand, not the kind you scroll through with a mouse). Some of it comes from my ineptitude with modern technology (I’ve been reading a book about Twitter in anticipation of an interview for the radio station, and my head is swimming with jargon that might as well be Ancient Sanskrit. Help me, Mark, help me! ) Some of it comes when you read about the coveted 18 to 49- year old sector of the viewing audience that advertisers crave (which leaves someone like me feeling like a peer to Albert Schweitzer and the Queen Mother) or when I come across a book in my studio which is titled: The Power of Experience: Great Writers over Fifty on the Quest for a Lifetime of Meaning. It’s idyllic on the surface, but lurking beneath that title is something else.
All of those are rather unsubtle ways to be told that you’re past the midway point of your time on earth. A more subtle means came yesterday when I watched a match on the Tennis Channel which I had not seen in its entirety since it was originally played more than thirty years ago. The TC is replaying a number of classic matches from Wimbledon, including last year’s spectacular battle between Federer and Nadal which many call the best tennis match in history. What caught my eye yesterday was a replay of the 1975 men’s final which I remember watching with enormous interest as a high school sophomore. On one side of the net was top seed and defending champion Jimmy Connors, who the previous year annihilated Australian Ken Rosewall in straight sets as part of a year-long rampage which left him far and away the best male player in the world. He was young and cocky (which I couldn’t stand) and played with a ferocious power game that really shook the game to its foundations. On the other side of the net was the classy, dignified, cerebral Arthur Ashe – winner of the first U.S. Open but otherwise a player who had never quite managed to put it all together in most of the biggest tournaments – due at least in part to his intense involvement in various aspects of the game outside the court. No one gave him a chance against Connors, except maybe his Great Aunt Bertha. And even she, in a betting situation, would probably have been reluctant to lay down money on an Ashe victory. There was every indication that it would be another thrashing, as bad or maybe even worse than the one delivered on the head of Rosewall the previous year.
But in one of the most stunning upsets in tennis history, Ashe defeated Connors – and convincingly. In fact, the three sets Ashe won were by the same lopsided score as Connors scored over Rosewall in ’74 – 6-1 6-1 6-4. To be clear, Connors did manage to win the third set 6-4, but in no way did it ever feel like Connors was riding back in triumph. It was just a little hiccup before Ashe reasserted himself and cruised to his astonishing victory.
What does this have to do with me buying a case of Geritol for myself? It’s because at the time this seemed like the most exciting tennis match I had ever seen in my life – and Connors seemed like a finely tuned corvette in the company of earnest but sadly outclassed jalopies – on this occasion done in by a much more subtle, nuanced player who found ingenious ways to use Connors’ power against him. But at the time I could not imagine tennis being played any more ferociously or powerfully than this.
And now? I watched this match yesterday and felt like I was watching a badminton match rather than a tennis match. Compared to the power players of today like Rafael Nadal or Andy Roddick, Connors looked like Shirley Temple- or maybe Shirley Temple’s elderly aunt. That over- states it a bit, but I was truly astonished to see how much the game of men’s tennis had changed in thirty years and how the men of this earlier generation – even someone like Connors – often looked like they were blipping the ball back and forth like that ancient video game Pong. And last night, fueled by my thirst for reminiscing, I went on YouTube to watch other great matches from yesteryear, like the U.S. Open women’s doubles finals from the same year, in which Margaret Court and Virginia Wade edged Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals in three hard-fought sets. Same thing. At the time, it was like I was watching four lady-like Godzillas scratching and clawing for the title. More than thirty years later, it seemed quaint enough to be something from the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. It was actually pretty entertaining, all the same- but nothing like the game we see today with players like Venus and Serena Williams or Lindsay Davenport, who would have rolled over their illustrious predecessors like an air craft carrier over soap bubbles. And when I think about ‘then’ and ‘now’ simply in the game of tennis, to say nothing of just about every other facet of daily life, I am staggered. To think that the house I grew in which I grew up in Colton, South Dakota had – at least when we first moved in – one of those old fashioned phones which hung on the wall and didn’t have a dial (the operator had to connect you to whoever you were calling) and now we each have our own phone riding around in our pocket and with it we could call Bulgaria if we so desired. Astonishing.
It’s funny- even while I still lived in Decorah (and we moved away when I was 14, so I had to be younger than that) I was already an Old Man In Training. One of the things Marshall and I loved to do with our classmate Jackie Bahr and others would be to sit and reminisce about the “Good Old Days” back at West Side Elementary School – as though we were war veterans remembering boot camp from several decades earlier . Except that we were looking back maybe five or six years at the most. “Remember the lockers that were inside Mrs. Rouse’s room? Remember the Cowboy Play we did at the end of the school year? Remember the song we sang? Remember the last lines of the lyrics? ‘We’re the folks from Rocking R’ (for Mrs. Rouse) ‘and from Circle W’ (for Mrs. Winger.) Remember where we lined up for lunch? Remember those little orange-colored lunch tickets?” On and on and on . . . And now I’m old enough that I could theoretically have grandkids lining up for lunch tickets in that same school!
What does all of this add up to? Not much, I suppose. For me it means just an increasing awareness that time flies – and faster than we maybe would like it to – but also that the longer we live, the more we have to remember and cherish. And as a tree with 49 rings in its trunk, I’m grateful for each and every one of them and for all that are yet to come. I just hope that however many years remain to me will be filled with plenty of excitement and not too much bewilderment.
I have already had more than my fill of the latter.
pictured above: Jimmy Connors serving to Arthur Ashe on the hallowed Centre Court of Wimbledon, which this year – for the first time – sports a roof for inclement weather.