The first clue to make a strong impression was, appropriately enough, a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle. It said "actress Tierney," and I instantly went to jot down Gene. Except that there were five not four boxes to be filled. I woke my brain up to recall Maura Tierney, a TV regular since ER had been considered daring. But my instinct was troubling. Who else would have immediately thought of Gene Tierney, the Laura of ancient fantasies, but all those Turner Classic Movie people? Had I gotten old????!!!
I sought out more clues. When I boarded a bus, the young people who had taken over the front seats didn't jump up to offer their places but a couple gave me an expectant look that said they would do so if I begged them. One lobby guard earned his place in the flames of Hell when he said I would be allowed into one of his elevators if I could show him my Medicare card. An acquaintance assumed I had read an article on the benefits of honey that he had written for the AARP magazine. The neighbor upstairs cautioned me not once or twice but three times to walk carefully one day because there was a lot of ice on the street. For her I was not merely old and fragile, but blind!
But bless her, her exaggerated concern steeled my resolve. Instead of wondering how ancient I had grown between one birthday and the next, I decided to drop astrology for gerontology as my favorite hard science and get some answers to what was going on. It loomed as an odyssey worthy of Homer and would surely produce findings reassuring to the calendars that I had used up.
The odyssey lasted only until my eyes dropped on the TV set in my living room. I suddenly knew what the problem was. I had been conveying a fatalism invisible to birth certificates but contagious for anyone exposed to afternoon television.
Not everyone has a schedule that condemns them to being in front of a television set while the sun shines. Most have the freedom of working in the offices of an insurance company, of keeping those Big Macs coming, or of sitting in a cardboard box on a warming sidewalk vent. Those who have never experienced afternoon television have no more in common with its victims than Rimsky-Korsakov has with the infield fly rule. By this I don't mean the programming. If anything, all those reruns keep alive issues that we had when young and now offer invigorating continuity for never having been answered. For instance, why did so many fools invite Jessica Fletcher to their homes knowing she would bring a stiff with her? Do all homicide victims die of a subliminal haematoma? Did Claude Akins ever take a day off? Time has stood still for some mysteries, and they have become richer --- and made us more robust --- for it. It gives us a sense of infinity rather than mortality.
But then we have the commercials where frailty is a requirement. The truth is ugly but simple: Advertisers assume the daytime audience is not only old but in an advanced state of decay. Those not suffering from dementia or cancer or Parkinson's have bleeding gums or leaking bladders. The fortunate ones are those who only have difficulty climbing staircases, climbing into a bathtub, or not hearing what the clown sitting alongside is shouting into their deaf ears Eighty-five-year-olds have been warned: They are going to suffer socially unless they get dental implants and canes that can do their walking for them. Hospices don't have as much built-in gloom and certainly not as much profit potential.
Every day brings commercials for Brilinta, Symbicott, Chantix, Epcluse, Cosentix, Dupixent, Eliquis, Embrel, Humira, Mayvret, Ozemprice, Olissa, Otezia, Reticare, Systane, Theraworx, Taitz, Xelianz, Xyza, and Xarleto. Don't ask what specific ailments they allegedly cure. Don't even bother about the ten additional ailments they will induce (not so allegedly, to judge by a quavering-voiced warning) if taken. The important thing is that after swallowing them, gray-haired people in dockers and canvas shoes couldn't be happier chopping up celery in their kitchen. And they are the survivors, those still spry enough to hang on to a glass of water to wash down their pills, capsules, and caplets. And why not smile and look wise? Their only remaining responsibility before leaving the planet is to pay for their cemetery plot so their 50-year-old children will be able to buy more iPhones.
Granted the logic of the advertisers is flawless. If Saturday morning on cartoon shows is the ideal time for pitching fatally sugared cereals and sodas to children, weekday afternoons were invented so that the retired, the homebound, and the temporarily bed-ridden could be exposed to the wonders of any product with an x or z in it that could --- but not always --- cause uncontrolled vertigo, diarrhea, or giggling so better check with a doctor before turning uncontrolled dead.
All that is the explicit part of the message. But stuffed into it are extras like the cotton wads in a pill bottle. For one thing, the happy addicts are shown almost always in a home setting --- the kind of home that has a TV set offering all-day access to medicine commercials before, during, and after hacking up the celery in the kitchen. If they are ever shown outdoors, it is as they fast-walk on some private property that may be because they are exercising to stay healthy or because they are trespassing on private property. But the much more penetrating message is its seriality: It will be shown afternoon after afternoon at the identical time until the viewer has indeed crossed Jordan to no longer be all that distant from Quincy. Nobody said Reality TV couldn't also be Interactive TV.
Just a coincidence that I haven't sensed those crepuscular shadows of age since I stopped watching afternoon television?