During our awesome toddler-dominated New Year's Eve party, we tuned in for the last five minutes of what most of America probably hopes was Dick Clark's last stand. It seemed to us like a bit of funny after too many bottles of champagne, but of course the minute the stroke survivor appeared, our stomachs sunk. Clark extolled the neatness and order of the Times Square fete with the enthusiasm of a....I could whip out some witty analogy here, as Virginia Heffernan did rather mean-spiritedly in the NY Times, but Clark's aged determination doesn't seem like a joke or a metaphor to me. It seems familiar. So I'll say it -- Clark did what he did with the enthusiasm of my late dad.
My dad died this past April of pancreatic cancer. It's a late-presenting disease; turns out that the lethargy, lack of appetite and scattered, distant nature of his communications were symptoms of his disease -- which made my brother and me feel abashed after the fact, since we'd been pinning his Beckett-like distance from life on lifelong drinking and a bad attitude. One thing I remember now about my dad is that, despite the waning of his physical self, he did keep trying to express enthusiasm. He'd make "yummy" sounds at holiday dinners, though he just pushed his food around his plate; he'd greet his grandkids with a hearty how-de-do even when he couldn't get out of his chair. Even in his last days, bed-bound, he'd lock eyes with me when I brought news of a potential new job; he was barely there, but he was all there for us.
I'm sure that Clark's ego helped propel him toward the falling ball last Saturday, but so did his sense of duty. Duty of that kind -- a feeling of your own steady, fated place in the world's hierarchy and your need to fill it-- is such an old guy concept. I abhor many things associated with such impositions of obligation; militarism, for example. But I can't help but be touched, at times, when I see an old guy acting upon it. Masculinity may be mostly a power trip in our traditional hierarchies, but it's also a burden, and in these delicate moments of concord its weight feels soft and heartbreaking.
I'll be sad when today's old guys are all gone. (Old gals, too, but that's another column.) Another one I appreciate is that guy up in the corner, Dan Schorr, NPR's cranky personal historian. What will we do when he's gone? I treasured my "older" dad, as I still do my mom, for bringing direct knowledge of a time before my own era into my life. When these old guys and gals go, we'll have to start thinking about taking their place as the bearers of the polis's memory; I don't know if I'll ever be ready for that.
All that said -- on another level, I agree with my brilliant pal Emily, who declared, when Clark came on TV, that it was a sign of our imminent apocalypse. The gods of nature are pummeling us with hurricanes, tsunamis, and brush fires, a hand puppet spring to life is in the White House, and millions seem to care more about the next round of American Idol than the fate of their fellow human. In light of these developments, Clark did indeed come across as an Orwellian figure -- the paralyzed , yet still controlling, voice of a Draconian regime. Old guys,after all, aren't always sweet.