Love in the age of irony

Young men and women talk back to their elders about life, sex and the new rules of engagement.

By Cary Tennis - "Since You Asked" readers

Published September 16, 2002 7:25PM (EDT)

Riding San Francisco's L Taraval streetcar home from work one afternoon last year, sitting across from a rangy, athletic-looking young man with a goatee, I realized I was no longer young.

For several years I had been passing as, if not young, at least not old, not irrelevant, not a clueless asshole with neither respect for youth nor even a memory of what it's like. I'd been getting by. I'd been a rock musician and a careless bohemian and I knew how to slouch and avert my eyes, move with insolent slowness and ape a kind of apathetic teenage coolness. Truth be told, I still felt like a teenager: wary in public, like a visitor without a hall pass, fearing rebuke, trying to stay low and blend in for my own safety.

It was the young man's glance, or rather lack of glance, that shocked me. For I had developed over the years a subtle but habitual gesture of recognition of youth, a nod of the head that spoke of solidarity, that said, as the gap of age grew, that I still was on the side of youth and not with the adults. And I expected some recognition in return, some validation that I still held a marginal membership in that world of endless energy, quick-witted alertness and physical power.

It's true that a certain caution had crept into my life. Because of the penury that my slacker ways had brought me, I had been disguising myself as an adult in order to make money. The disguise had been getting better and better. For a period, I wore ties and slacks and leather shoes. In an epic gesture of accommodation, I had cut my hair. But even though I no longer looked particularly young, I thought my pedigree of youthfulness shined through.

That afternoon, though, it was not the shock of being called "sir" for the first time. It was more like literally ceasing to exist. It was the shock of being passed over in that arrogant and effortless way youth in its delirious solipsism has of passing over whatever is not shiny enough, quick enough, lustrous enough to warrant attention. This was the first signal that, as one letter writer put it recently, youth of today avert their eyes from my generation as if we were derelicts on the street.

So, being curious about this passage into irrelevancy, and realizing that only those who truly have forgotten what it's like to be young fail to realize that they are old, I inquired of readers of the "Since You Asked" column what it was like to be young today, and what my generation looked like to them. The responses were numerous and quite moving. The issues they raise seem well worth thinking about and acting upon. Youth cried out that we seem selfish to them, that they see us as a lucky and indulged generation, and that struck a chord and held out some hope. For if certain ills of our world do stem from the selfishness of a whole generation, then the generation that follows, seeing our faults, might correct them in its own march to power.

Therein lies a bridge between us, although one fraught with ironic self-recognition. That is, it's still about us, isn't it? Even as we inquire of youth, what we inquire is, "How do we look?" Indeed, some letter writers pointed that out, while many others raised the myriad challenges particular to this age that cannot be laid at the doorstep of the boomers: AIDS, for instance, and its attendant effect on sexual relationships; the Internet boom and crash in which young and old conspired equally; the explosion of information and options about marriage, childbearing and work that, even absent a '60s-engineered dismantling of social institutions, would make formerly clear choices fraught with ambiguity.

So listening to the young needn't be a narrow exercise in self-recrimination; only some of the letters address the endless cycle of generational conflict. What is more important is that youth define itself and that others listen. One letter writer, Suzanne Morse, a young academic who has studied how the media portrayed "Generation X," pointed out that the media has too often talked about youth and too rarely to youth. "In other words," she said, "it allowed the media to impose their perceptions of younger people on the younger generation without actually giving younger people a voice to define themselves."

So here is a chance for the boomer generation, through the supple and democratic medium of the Internet, to hear the voices of those in their 20s, and perhaps to respond. They are angry words at times, baffled words, words of quiet despair and bitterness, but also words of resigned hope and proud perseverance.

One hopes some good may come of this, that some people, hearing these raw and honest words, will be inspired to work, to change, to keep listening. For it would be sad indeed if we, the generation of the "generation gap," blithely changed places with our elders, learned no lessons from our war, and quietly became what we beheld.

-- Cary Tennis


I'm 28. Hope that's youthful enough for you.

Being in a relationship today is like walking into a hail of gunfire with no bulletproof vest. You take your life in your hands every day.

Condoms, condoms, condoms. Of course. Always.

You try to date guys your own age, but they really only want anonymous fuck bunnies. Fuck and run, fuck and run, fuck and run. I'm tired.

So you decide one day, "I'm only going to date rich older men. To hell with my neo-feminist ideals; bring on the sugar daddy! But every man over 40 who's single with cash always says right before you have sex, "We need to talk." Then he tells you he has herpes. (Thanks to the carefree '60s, '70s and '80s, I guess.)

Plus the old guys always act like they are so much smarter than you. Well, genius, if you're that fucking smart how come you didn't know your wife was fucking the guy who built your patio? How's that alimony treating you, asshole? Why can't you keep it up? Why am I here?

If you let a guy pay your way, he will treat you like a prostitute and you will eventually feel like one.

So you date younger guys. Or at least you try. At least they want to have sex all the time. So that's a bonus. Sort of. They have enthusiasm if anything, but it's sort of like an all-you-can-eat buffet at Denny's. It wasn't great, but at least the portions were large.

You find a long-term guy. Or so he says. He's 31 and Jewish and his parents would give you both their kidneys if they could just marry this sucker off. He's the last of his friends to be single. He wants to be in love with you. He tries. Only you don't know it's all an act. You take the conversion classes. You pick out your new Hebrew name. You wonder if you'll have a boy or a girl first. You never see the signs that he's a classic narcissist -- an obsessive-compulsive anal-retentive control freak. You never stop to ask yourself why, despite everyone's best efforts, he's single at 31 and has been for ages. You never ask that question until he disappears for two days and then calls the police on you when you show up at his apartment to find out what's going on.

Right, sorry. I didn't realize that you couldn't fit me in among your alphabetized CDs and color-coded slacks. Sorry for disturbing the order of your sad, lonely life with my new sheets, pillows and gifts. I didn't mean to mess your life up by adding love to it. Motherfucker.

You eventually decide to stop calling severe psychological disorders "charming personality quirks" and take out an Internet personal ad. You remind yourself that you were the prom queen for christ's sake; surely someone will want to date you. People used to like you, right? You like your work. You're a size 2-4 depending on the time of the month. You get asked out lots, just not by people who aren't alcoholics or drug addicts. You're really excited when your in box fills up. Then it tops 100 in less than five days and it's too much. You realize half these yahoos didn't read your profile. They just looked at the picture. You just delete everything.

Then you adopt a dog and stow the gross of condoms behind the waffle iron you never use. You just give up. It's not worth it. You'll never be able to afford a house anyway. You'll never be able to afford kids. You'll certainly never see a Social Security check. You just pray that you die in your sleep sooner rather than later.

Wait!!!! Is that the phone? Maybe it's him! My guy, my dream, my hope, my salvation ... Nah, it's probably just someone I owe money to.

Ah, youth. Wasted on the young, my ass.

-- Katy Medders

Love and irony

One uninvited guest of the last 30 years is irony. Life today, as we all know, is constantly self-aware. "The Daily Show" has replaced the evening news. David Foster Wallace has replaced Allen Ginsberg. Reality TV has replaced sitcoms. Advertisement has replaced everything. Irony is anathema to love; it is its opposite. Irony takes a large world and makes it very small, conceals it within a turned phrase; love freezes the world, expands a point into the universe. Lou Reed, who has spanned our generations, sings that love is "turning time around."

I have not been in love. So maybe love is not any of those things. Most of my friends my age (22, 23) have not been in love, either, even the ones who have been in ultracommitted, I can't live without you type relationships. It is something, but it's not love. Perhaps we're holding out for something that isn't there. In the meantime we date, date and date some more. Properly protected, there's no harm in getting laid while waiting for The One to sway her hips in our direction. Maybe modern birth control reinforces this; condoms turn sex into a "yes, but" affair. But with all that sex, can a true love make herself heard? It worked for your generation.

Life since last September has not only been ironic, but also stained with the possibility of radical human evil. Unlike the hippies who begat us, I don't think we have the confidence that we will change the world forever for the good, or even that this is possible. We have to think local. Italo Calvino writes of one way of escaping despair: "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

The simple sentence "I love you" is the most powerful one in our language. It does not discriminate based on wealth, race or intelligence. Love is an unconditionally good thing, but the promise of it is a weapon, accessible to all. When I fall in love it will be with the fervor of a born again finding his Lord Almighty. Car commercials, budget cuts, half-caff lattes and existential loneliness can go screw themselves. Instead of irony and fear is certainty: this small thing, this love -- I know, we know.

Of course, there are so many things in relationships between indifference and self-obliterating love, and not everything that is self-obliterating is love. Love may strike like a flash flood or may swell slowly over the course of years, but it will exist as long as we believe in it.

Fighting for it.

-- Alexander P. Nyren

Beatlemania vs. Batmania

I think one of the key experiences in my cultural development as a child was sitting in my parents' living room in 1989 at the age of 9, reading a story in the society section of Newsweek about the merchandising campaign behind that summer's "Batman" movie. The writer had dubbed the craze "Batmania," and it seemed to my somewhat naive 9-year-old mind that there were larger forces at work -- perhaps I was mistaking commerce for something more profound.

Anyway, I wondered aloud to my father if this so-called Batmania could be something important, something to remember. I had an idea that each generation has defining events, and was there a chance that this one was mine? My father flatly replied, "No. Nothing will ever be as big as Beatlemania." And that settled it.

I still think about that comment, years later. I think it still colors a lot of my perceptions. Dad was very specific: What would be bigger than Beatlemania? Nothing. Absolutely nothing that came out of my generation, no defining event, could ever hope to achieve the lasting significance of Beatlemania. I don't know if Dad was consciously trying to perpetuate a sort of cultural imperialism of his generation, or if he was mistaking a personal reaction for larger social significance, or if he really was right: American culture being what it was in the early 1960s and before, no single event could ever have as much of an impact. I still wonder.

That's what it's felt like to me. There has always been this shadow hanging over my generation. This applies to any area of culture, from lifestyle to sex to relationships. I know other baby boomers and fortysomethings who have told me about the great sexual revolution of the '60s, the complete accessibility to any kind of carnal pleasure and the total eradication of any kind of traditional value system that would inhibit such pursuits. Sex as metaphor for social revolution, I suppose. Today that seems impossible to me -- unthinkable, really. My relationships with women have been very small in comparison. I certainly wouldn't claim to speak for every man and woman born between 1970 and 1985, but as a 22-year-old male, I don't sense that there's any sense of history or global purpose or importance: It's simply two people getting together and doing their best in a world that's much, much bigger than both of them. I think the majority of my generation regards love and particularly sex as a completely personal act, with little or no political or cultural impact -- that's certainly how I view it. Perhaps that has led to some problems, particularly in regards to HIV/AIDS.

Regardless, it's like sitting around listening to, say, Sleater-Kinney or the White Stripes. I truly believe that the music being made by these groups is the most important music in the world. But there's that little nagging voice in the back of my head, cocking its eyebrow and saying, "How on earth do you think the White Stripes could possibly stack up against the Beatles?" And I don't know how to answer that voice.

-- Andy Sturdevant

Activism and idealism

I certainly don't think your generation is anything like what your parents were like, though you do seem to have a vast repository of a particular brand of nostalgia that I'll call "activist/idealist." Just this weekend I debated my dad's claims that people are growing up to be so much more superficial, disengaged and passionless than they used to be. He sounded like a cranky old man at the age of 47, except that he wasn't bemoaning a decline in morals in the traditional sense, but a lack of spirited engagement with the world. He maintains the Internet and TV saturate us with so much that younger generations learn to passively accept these virtual realities as their own experience.

I'm 27, raised by parents who caught the tail end of the hippie era and have always been crazier than I am. Maybe that's because they had me when they were 20 and divorced shortly thereafter, but it seems to me that they're still trying to get their lives together, still trying to figure out what they want and how to be happy.

My dad always told me to experiment with life, with relationships, to do what makes me happy. He bought me my first bong, read me Richard Bach and Tolkien, and made furniture with fairies and flowers on it. My mom took another route and became a divorce lawyer, remarried and moved us to Connecticut. And now, neither has retirement savings or health insurance, one had cancer and still smokes, while the other has a host of new-age illnesses that no one can fix. I think of my parents as representative of the baby boom era, with their combination of passion, self-delusion, freedom and irresponsibility.

I say, as it has always been, there are many things both worse and better now, and it all balances out in the end. I may have a shorter attention span thanks to so much surfing on the Net, but I'm passionate and engaged and I've learned from my parents' example -- and the threat of AIDS and nuclear attack -- to be strategic. Key rules I've lived by:

1) Experiment safely: Date people of different races and classes, but make sure they don't trample over you.

2) Change jobs, but only when you've got another lined up or at least savings to see you through.

3) Look ahead for the breaking point in a relationship so you can leave first.

4) Pay off debt and put some away in a 401K.

5) Avoid musicians and artists at all costs unless it's solely a one-night stand.

6) Try to change the world because it's really messed up, but do it within the system or else you'll burn out.

I fell in love with someone who balances me and makes me happy, not someone that sets me afire because I know that kind of passion is part delusion and always temporary. I've tamed my freedom a bit for the joys of a genuine commitment, but unfortunately, it hasn't appeased that hunger you talked about, that unfillable spiritual emptiness.

I used to wait for the magic wardrobe/cairn/mirror to appear, the one that would take me to my real life in another reality, the one that would finally give me the sense of abiding comfort that I'd been missing. But then I thought about all the time I was wasting just waiting, and tried to follow the advice of spiritual texts that say the key to happiness is learning to appreciate what you have. It hasn't really worked, but what else can you do?

In the end, I'm more like my parents than I'd like to be, and I feel sometimes like the parent/child role has gotten switched. They don't have the answers either, and they've made a lot of mistakes, but they sure have had a lot of fun along the way.

-- Rachel DuBois

AIDS and divorce

I'm not so very young, but I can tell you what it was like to become sexually active after the dawn of AIDS. I was born in 1975, and everyone my age wears a condom every single time. It's expected, and the men don't complain. In fact, many sexually active women from my generation never even tried hormonal birth control. If we need to use a condom anyway, why bother? Besides, the pill is way out of most college students' budget. Sex without a condom (using the pill or a diaphragm) is considered a luxury built into long-term relationships. A discussion about switching birth control methods is a declaration of trust, and a commitment to stay together for at least another season.

Among my peer group, there is a growing positive attitude toward marrying young. Marriage doesn't seem to carry the same shackles that it used to. Children of divorce grew up watching their fathers cook, clean and do laundry, and their mothers fix the toilet, change the oil and cut the grass. The idea that husbands and wives have different roles is a foreign notion to many people my age. My husband and I view marriage as a piece of paper that makes it easier to deal with other pieces of paper -- specifically the rectangular green ones with pictures of presidents on them. We've saved thousands of them on car insurance and health insurance since the wedding. When you hear about people who got married in their early 20s, they don't necessarily have "traditional" values. They may simply want to share the love, the dental and the 401k.

-- Heather Wiatrowski

We hate you guys

OK, you asked. To begin with I will let you know that these days I don't even consider myself that "young" anymore, being in my early 30s and having bought a house last year. However, I am obviously younger than you, and since you asked what you members of the '60s generation look like to us younger folk, I will give you the perceptions of this one Gen-Xer, which I know from conversations with my peers is not an unusual opinion.

We HATE you guys.

We have spent our whole lives growing up being told how "important" everything that happened in the 60s was. We have had the remnants of your hippie culture shoved down our throats since birth. We have heard how "No generation ever celebrated being young the way mine did" repeated like a mantra to deny the fact that almost all of you didn't actually do anything in the '60s besides take some drugs (if you have ever seen the movie "Rivers Edge," the scene where Ione Skye and Keanu Reeves are in school listening to their teacher talk about "the '60s" pretty much sums it up).

Meanwhile you wander around looking like fools, doing anything to avoid feeling old. So yes, the answer to the questions "Do we look like doddering fools? Do we look like people who have not accepted our age?" is yes and yes. I really do have respect for the people who made significant cultural and political innovations in the '60s; I just know that most of them actually did it in the early '60s, then everyone jumped on the bandwagon after the hard stuff was done.

OK, I don't want to pile on here or seem excessively hostile. I think that even if things did "quiet down" a little in the '80s as far as drugs and sex are concerned, kids have been drugging and screwing just as much if not more since the '60s as they did then. The perception that things were "wilder" back in the '60s has more to do with the fact that it was a new kind of thing then combined with the unwillingness of the boomers to admit that they are old.

Anyway, that's just the opinion of one soon-to-be 33-year-old.

-- Jotham Stavely

Political activism

I'm 19 and in college. Speaking at a demonstration these days will not get you laid. It might get you looked at funny.

Up until last year, I thought my generation was a repeat of the '80s -- career-driven, self-interested. When Seattle happened in late 1999 I was 16, and that was something I found inspiring. It showed me that there were other people out there who cared about the direction of the world. I was involved in local activism stuff in New York City in high school, around issues like police brutality and the drug laws, but for my generation the '60s is like some distant memory or dream where people had lives that were interconnected with history. Kids who care about issues have a tough time surviving with MTV around telling everyone to drink up and party hard.

The sexual revolution pretty much just left us with no idea what to do. No one "dates" anymore -- you "hang out" and "hook up." You know someone's your boyfriend or girlfriend after you've hung out and hooked up with them for a while. Courtship is abolished, I guess.

Most girls nowadays don't want to consider themselves feminists. They think it makes them seem pushy or shrill, I think. I'm a feminist even though I'm a guy, but that's because I know enough to know there's no contradiction.

After 9/11 I think there was some sense that our generation might be entering history, that we might have something to do all together. Unfortunately, that was thought of in pretty militaristic and apocalyptic terms. And since there hasn't been a horrifying terrorist attack since then, the end-of-the-world sense of last year has pretty much gone. Things are sort of back to normal.

To me it seems like your generation stopped its war in Vietnam but then stopped short before changing society. That was the promise you didn't follow through on and now we've got to pick up the pieces, but I'm not sure we can with all this mental pollution everywhere. It's gonna be tough.

-- Sam Hayim Brody


I wish I could say that being young and swingin' in today's world was a fabulous good time, and it damn well should be considering all the possibilities out there, but all I could think about when reading your questions was how wimpy my generation is. Not just when it comes to the pursuit of true love, but it seems in the pursuit of any and every dream.

There are just too many choices. As a child raised by multiple baby boomers who've held on strong to their own youth culture, I'm jealous of the freedom they experienced in breaking through the ceilings and rewriting all the rules. While I'm grateful that they've given me so many options in how and why and where to live my life, I can't help but be resentful that now I have to consider whether I would rather sleep with women or men, with or without the black leather accoutrements. And if I choose not to pick a personal fetish, am I boring? I could be and do just about anything, and that thought leaves me paralyzed with indecision.

And I am not alone in this dilemma. It seems like all my peers are having the same difficulty. Off trying to do their own thing, they don't know whether to stick with what they started with or try something new. We're a generation of those annoying people at parties who are always looking around to see if maybe there's more fun happening over there.

Since now we don't have to get married for money or to bolster familial connections, we're free to hop relationships for the rest of our lives. We don't have to stay with one career. You're as likely to hear about a virgin-till-marriage 25-year-old as you are to read about a 23-year-old who put himself through college as a male prostitute. There is no more national youth consensus on what we want to be. Those with even a mild interest in self-analysis, therefore, find ourselves always thinking, always wondering, always trying to define ourselves and be different.

I know I'm making huge generalizations. I know that confusion about one's future or one's love interest is not limited to my generation or to people under the age of 35. But to be honest, getting laid has never been my problem. Sex and relationships are definitely out there to be had. The problem lies in how we approach love and the making of it once we're in the middle of it. We spend too much time worrying about where this hand goes or whether that girl is the one. The legacy of our beloved partying parents is that they gave us the opportunity to try everything. The challenge is to figure out what to do with the smorgasbord of deliciousness we've been presented with, without the structure the previous generations took such joy in smashing.

-- Alayne Freidel


He asked if they looked like doddering old fools. Doddering old fools, she repeated incredulously in her head. Like the generation that preceded his?

No, they only looked like doddering old fools when they worried about what they looked like. She remembered her '60s radical boss, an intellectual who chose to take on his father's tool-sharpening business. He only seemed old to her when he was concerned about the effect of the advancing years on his hipness.

Otherwise, she was grateful to his generation. Grateful for the progress they pushed for, the culture they cultivated, and especially for those who did not succumb to greedy, self-righteous Republicanism as their idealism faded away. And in a more frivolous vein, she was grateful to them for having enjoyed their youth. They enjoyed it so much that they extended it.

She was grateful that because of this generation that refused to get old, she would not be as restricted by her age as women once were. She could have her cake and eat it, too. She could wear blue jeans and a sexy short haircut at age 55, and this would not even be considered eccentric. She could look forward to the oncoming years, rather than blow out a single birthday candle with dread and resignation.

And she felt that maybe, as they aged, this generation that previously warned against trusting anyone over 30 would change the unhealthy American obsession with youth. Or maybe they would keep chasing after it and searching for it in pretty little bottles. She hoped they would celebrate their young hearts.

-- Amanda Vassigh

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