Like more than a few members of my generation, I had Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane “spoiled” for me by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. (A sign that I’m getting old: I feel the need to give some detail surrounding Peanuts, in case some youngster happens upon this text and hasn’t heard of Good ol’ Charlie Brown & Co. You know, because A Charlie Brown Christmas notwithstanding, Peanuts made its cultural mark via newspapers, and who knows what they are any more? And if I need to give detail on Peanuts, then I definitely need to give some on Kane, which isn’t even on Netflix.) Lucy happens upon Linus as he watches Kane on TV, and lets him know that “Rosebud was his sled.” Linus howls in anguish, and the rest of us howl right along with him — even if it isn’t until years later, when we finally see the film in question.
That’s just one of many instances when comedy has led me to culture though the back door, so that I know the funny reference before the serious referent. David Frye’s Richard Nixon: A Fantasy comedy album introduced me to Truman Capote and his interest in criminal life long before I’d ever heard of Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. (Upon arriving in prison, Nixon meets Capote, who cheerfully informs the ex-President, “I’m not in for anything; I volunteered!”) And I only recently discovered the humor in novelist Evelyn Waugh’s use of “Change and decay in all around I see” as the darkly gleeful declaration of a ruined paterfamilias in Boot. I read that twenty years before learning that it’s part of a hymn: Change and decay in all around I see/ O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I think about that grumpy old man more and more often these days, glaring and grinning as his world crumbles around him. There are lots of ways to tell that you’re getting older — having to explain your cultural references is actually one of the less humiliating ones — but fewer that indicate that you’ve gotten old. Not just old as opposed to young, but old as opposed to new. When every change seems like a destruction instead of a development. When the impending end of your own personal world looks like the end of the world at large.
There’s a tall pine tree visible from my office window, its graceful green conical-conifer outline topped with a weird flare of dead and dying branches. I call it the Crown of Bones. Of late, crows have been gathering in the Crown. I know it’s only ravens — known collectively as an unkindness — that are considered birds of ill-omen, but it’s hard to look upon that murder of crows and not think mortal thoughts.