On the day I am writing this, I have just learned that Olivia Newton-John died.
There are already thousands of tributes to Olivia all over the Internet that are led by that image of her from near the end of “Grease” when she got her hair done up, put on a leather jacket, painted on a pair of skin-tight leather pants and, briefly, went “bad” in order to really appeal to John Travolta’s not-really-bad-at-all Danny Zuko.
If a “Grease” picture of Olivia isn’t included in her obituary, the most-likely image being used is one from the video of her massive 1981 hit “Physical”, a song so huge and world-conquering that 40 years later, Apple took the title for a TV series. Tim Cook & Co. aren’t dumb. Calling the show “Physical” created an immediate reference in the minds of a generation of moms who got into aerobicizing, and 13-year-old boys who had just discovered girls and MTV during the early days of the Reagan Administration. We don’t even have to watch an episode of that Apple show to recall that memory of Olivia in her workout outfit as she caused a room full of sweaty obese clowns to grab their chests with third-degree heart attacks. (And never mind the oiled up, muscle-bound “studs” each wearing a banana hammock that have now burned an image into my brain that I will never be able to unsee.)
The title sells itself.
Like anyone who was a star when you are a kid, and especially when that star is someone you had a crush on when you were 10, you find yourself shocked by how young you remember them, and how old they really are at the time of their death. When I was 10 and stood in line with my parents and hundreds of other people to see “Grease” at the Liberty Theater in Puyallup, Washington (just one single screen at the old Liberty) I still thought I stood a chance with Olivia. Look, I was only 10. In my mind, the possibility that one of the biggest movie and music stars on the planet would dump John Travolta for a Cub Scout with a Wolf Badge was totally realistic to me.
Back then, Olivia was 29. And while I was sweet on Olivia, to my fifth-grade self, 29 also seemed “old.” Even at my naive and inexperienced age, my concepts of age and age gaps were both out of whack and spot on at the same time. And more than four decades later, those concepts are still front and center, and even more dramatic in my everyday mind.
Today, I am still 19 years younger than Olivia. But, today I am 54, which means Olivia was 73 at the time of her death. And now, that 19-year-gap seems a lot closer than it did when I was 10. And yet, at the same time, 73…Just doesn’t seem “old” to me like 29 did.
Maybe this is what goes on when you are told things like, “Fifty is the new 30.” You let yourself think that aging isn’t going to happen to you. Some things let you freeze time. When I was 10, I could come home and watch re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver” (which were about 20 years old at that time) and now, more than four decades later, I can still find those same episodes somewhere on TV or online. I am still, in some ways, that 10-year-old kid. (R.I.P., Tony “Wally Cleaver” Dow, who passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 77.)
But, as much as I might think I am still young, the truth is this “kid” is now dealing with all kinds of things that 10 year olds never worry about.
Right now, I have a sore shoulder that requires physical therapy. I also have plantar fasciitis that has bothered my left heel for six months. And then there is a nice case of tennis elbow that, despite its name, had nothing to do with playing tennis, but resulted from an afternoon I spent cranking on a socket set to put a bench together for my wife. My everyday doctor has me taking statins for high cholesterol and my podiatrist has me taking something else for a toe fungus that he tells me might never go away. Oh, and this week, I visited a specialist about taking a sleep apnea test. And while I was waiting for him to appear, a technician took my blood pressure, which, of course, was high.
I’m not saying I’m ready to pack it all in. But, as one of my favorite musicians, Neil Peart, wrote back in 1991 (when I was just 23), “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” And whether it’s a sore foot that isn’t getting better, a prescription for high cholesterol, or the death of a crush I had when I was in the fifth grade, signs of that limited-time deal are showing up more and more. They can’t be ignored, no matter how physical you might think you are.