Love in the age of irony, Part 4

Young readers write about saving the environment, the legacy of free love and how it's impossible to sum up a generation in a magazine article.


"Since You Asked" readers
September 19, 2002 11:41PM (UTC)

[Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.]

Twenty-eight and frustrated!

I am 28 and a bit frustrated. I think, more than anything else, your generation frustrates us. The world I live in (and will live in after you are all gone) is much more complicated than the world you faced in your youth. The problem is, many in your generation refuse to recognize that fact and continue to condescend to us and otherwise behave in an ignorant manner.

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I keep thinking of this encounter I had with a woman in her late 40s a few months ago. The day wasn't going all that well for me in the first place. And I almost completely lost it.

I was driving down California St. in San Francisco and smoking a cigarette. It was a Saturday and I had to go into work (a stressful job I hate but keep to pay for my student loans -- wasn't education practically free when you were young? I'm $100,000 in debt), but first I was going grocery shopping. I threw the cigarette out the window. OK, I know I shouldn't do that. But the next thing I know, this woman in a huge SUV was riding my tail honking and shaking her fist at me. She followed me for a few blocks. Finally, at the stoplight, I got out and not-so-politely asked her what her problem was. She said, "How dare you throw your cigarette out! Do you even care about the environment?"

You see, there is one issue I do care very deeply about, and that's the environment. But the environmental problems we face are much more serious than some fucking litter on a city street. I'm thinking of maybe global fucking ecological collapse and global warming, famines, drought, etc. I got red in the face angry, but didn't raise my voice, yet. I tried to politely ask how she could claim to care about the environment when she was driving a large, gas-guzzling vehicle. She said, "I take it to Tahoe, besides what's that have to do with your littering?" I lost it at that point. I said she was right, I shouldn't have littered. But it was her self-righteous attitude that was bothering me. I was screaming at this point, how could that bitch drive a gas guzzling monster and ask me if I cared about the environment?

She rolled up her window. I went back to my car and lit another cigarette to calm down. She didn't even listen to me. She certainly didn't see her own hypocrisy. I pulled into the store. There was a 40-ish couple strolling the aisles ahead of me. They stopped at the fish counter. The man pointed to some salmon. No, his wife explained, that fish was farm raised and that is bad for the environment. Do you have any "natural" (what does that fucking word mean anyway?) salmon? Yes, said the dopey 20-year-old know-nothing behind the counter. Well, the "natural" salmon was placed in the cart and the couple gave each other a brief "we solved another of the world's problems and we still got our shopping done" hug. The whole scene was such consumerist bullshit fantasy.

Yes, there are environmental problems with farm-raised fish. But meanwhile, we're fishing the "natural" fish to the verge of extinction. And these old farts walked away feeling self-righteous? I almost puked on the Phish-fan, know-nothing, jackass jerk-off clerk. Instead I opted for some tofu and tried to put the idiotic couple out of my mind.

Actually, your generation has grown to be a lot like the World War II generation. The WWII generation got back stateside with the attitude, "We just won the war. The world owes us a life of simplistic luxury and that's all there is to it." Your generation arrived at middle age in much the same way. We marched on some fucking antiwar, pro-civil rights marches and now we can do whatever we want. Except while the World War II generation had an attitude of attempting to forget what they had gone through, your generation wants its accomplishments writ large over everything they do. Not only was that couple buying fish, they were saving the environment. Not only was that old bitch driving a monster SUV, she was saving Pacific Heights from vile cigarette butts.

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Many other voices from "my generation" will chime in. Few will be as frustrated and angry as I am (at least I hope). But their stories, I think, will show that we live in a very complicated age. We don't have anthemic problems that are easily sloganeered to rally the mass "youth culture." We have very complicated and very controversial problems to solve. They are fundamentally different from the much more clear-cut (at least to me) problems your generation faced. We already have to solve them, carrying your parents on our backs. We can't do it with you up our ass too.

-- Name withheld by request

No black socks with shorts

Seeing my parents' generation go kicking and screaming into advanced age is a double-edged sword. It's at once oddly disconcerting while at the same time it is incredibly uplifting. It's strange to see, perhaps, the generation of the 20th century becoming mild, pudgy, balding consumers who are trying desperately to relive their youth or who are very accepting of the aging process. Ah, the contradictions!

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Like many youth of my generation (the children of you boomers), I have held the children of the '60s in very high regard. You brought about such wondrous and desperately needed change to the world. Not to mention the musical heritage you've bestowed upon us (a heritage that we've a hard time eclipsing).

In answer to your question about being young and in a relationship in the early 21st century: the lasting effect of Free Love is felt by youth today, despite AIDS and other frightening diseases that penicillin can no longer cure. Sex is frightening in many ways, and so is love, but in some ways not.

For example, some of the relationships that we have today and take for granted would likely never have been if not for you boomers. I am a white female, aged 23. Do you think in 1952 that I could have easily had a black lover? Or openly gay friends? Or a romantic interest who is 20 years older (well, prejudice against age is still rampant, but I'm sure you guys could fix that too if you wanted!)?

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We get a bit annoyed at you all when we see boomer entertainers like the Rolling Stones charge completely outrageous prices for their shows. And we wonder (more than you may think we do) where things went wrong. I hear Jethro Tull songs being used to sell cars and realize where some of the priorities and worldliness of your generation have been redirected. Have you simply given up or have you just gotten tired? In this regard, it's secretly refreshing to see the arrogant youth of yesteryear becoming AARP candidates.

Don't get me wrong -- it's a bit tough for us to see such powerful figures of the ultimate youth culture becoming potentially doddering grannies and grandpappies. The fact that many of you will not consciously succumb to the stereotype of an "old" person gives us hope and positive reinforcement about our own impending advanced age. You've not yet seen a reason to wear black socks with shorts, thank God.

This is why it's also so totally fantastic to see someone like my mother (at nearly 50) wear sexier clothes than I do. She doesn't feel old. And it's also so refreshing to see a group of guys like the Who bring Madison Square Garden to their feet with energetic renditions of music written 30 years ago (more contradictions, I know! Isn't that grand?) Such music is timeless, just as your generation is as well.

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It's humbling and healthy to see your heroes and contemporaries fall and grow old. It's at the same time remarkable to see people refuse to feel "old" and who think that age is truly, merely, only a number. You boomers have shown us that love and life cannot be confined by age. At least, not without kicking and screaming.

Off to see the Who,

-- Jennifer Carney

Oral sex

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You are our parents. You are the only vision of grown-ups we have ever really seen. We fully believe in your adulthood, but we are not terribly impressed with it.

I know that is a universal sign of youth, to be flippantly disrespectful of one's elders. You may be more interesting than your parents, but you seem less noble to us. You are hoping to save Social Security so that you have it when you retire, but none of us ever expect we'll see that money when we get old. AIDS exploded because you all slept with everybody. And most of you can't even use the Internet.

You all got to have sex like no other people in history. For one brief moment, sex had no consequences. People my age don't complain about condoms being like taking a shower with a raincoat on. We're used to it, the way you get used to wearing flip-flops in the shower at the gym so you don't get athlete's foot.

My 31-year-old sister thinks that oral sex is more intimate than vaginal sex; I'm 24 and none of my friends think that. I think that, because of AIDS, people my age wait longer to have sex with someone. But we are young and frisky and there needs to be a trade-off. That trade-off is oral sex. It's become much more casual than it used to be, a fairly normal first-date sort of activity.

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-- Julia Frey

The Age of Disillusionment

I happen to be quite young. Eighteen years, to tell the truth. And you want to know what it's like to be young? Damn frustrating, that's what it's like. You'll probably find it hard to understand, but there are just no causes left.

Your generation had Vietnam, the peace movement, flower power, Watergate and environmentalism. We have -- what? Sure, there's anti-globalism, opposition to the coming war against Iraq, a few other scattered things. And there would be some other, maybe less glamorous causes if somebody would care to take them up. But tell me, when was the last time you heard about a student protest on a campus? Nobody cares, that's the problem. The Age of Irony, indeed. We're so goddamn ironic, cynical and jaded that we don't think any cause is worth fighting for. The Me Decade is supposed to be over, but I sure don't see a sign of it.

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We look at the adults who have remained politically active and we laugh because they're so naive. We look at those who have gotten rid of their ideals to become CEOs and we make them our role models. Yes, it's a bleak picture. Young people are supposed to be idealistic, full of vigor and enthusiasm. Yet somewhere along the way, the idealism got lost. I notice it, even in my friends. They're good people, otherwise I wouldn't call them my friends, and they're certainly not self-centered. Yet few of them take an interest in politics, in how our country (Luxembourg, by the way, not the USA) is governed, in what's happening in Afghanistan or Iraq. They're not interested in high causes; they might even find them slightly amusing. I propose we rename it the Age of Disillusionment.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, and I hope you'll get a few e-mails that are more positive than mine, as well.

-- Frank Dondelinger

Keeping youth alive

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At 20, I hope to God I still qualify as "young."

My parents have kept their youth alive, really. They've kept themselves in shape, they've kept their sense of humor and their passion. My mother is beautiful and she sings and dances in public; my father is as at home with a guitar at a campfire as he is in the operating room, where he saves children's lives every day. Granted, they are very financially successful, so they are spared the day-to-day financial worries that make Botox such a popular cosmetic treatment, but I can honestly say that when I look at their wedding pictures from 25 years ago, they look exactly the same to me. They've kept their exuberance and passed it on to their children; we are forever grateful to them for loving us so much that they've shown themselves to us as not only authority figures but as human beings.

I think one of the major differences between your generation's parents and mine is that my generation's parents (I'm speaking really about my own parents, but most of my friends have had similar family-life experiences) tend to be far more open-minded and place far more trust in our own judgment. Gone are any traces of the '50s "little boxes all in a row" ideals; my parents enthusiastically embrace my individuality and my capability to make my own choices and learn from my own mistakes. There is no pressure whatsoever from them to have a certain career or to be friends with certain people or to stay away from certain substances; they would prefer if I dated only Jews (I'm currently with a delightful half-Mexican agnostic), but that's more of a cultural than a generational phenomenon, I believe. Premarital sex? "No problem, just be safe." Drugs? "If you can tell the difference between use and abuse, then go for it occasionally, but nothing harder than weed." Bisexuality? Um ... maybe they have a bit farther to go, but I really can't complain.

As for your generation, well, yes, you look like people who have not accepted their age. But this is a profoundly good thing. Please, please, never settle into the coffin of normalcy. Hold onto your passion. It doesn't embarrass us. It gives us hope that when we too grow up and even grow old, we can still retain much of what made us young.

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-- Jessica Langer

Male hippies run the world now

I hope I still qualify as young. Externally, at least. I am 25 years old as of a month or so ago. My analysis of my parents' generation is this:

In the beginning, there were two foci: the squares and the hippies. There were about six people in each group, and everybody else was in between. This included my mom, who was just a few years too young to be a hippie, so she just did drugs by herself to keep her hand in. Or my dad, who went to Vietnam because king and country told him he had to, because every male figure in his life had done so. He came back and became a hockey player, of all things, after two tours in 'Nam as a medic. I guess he hadn't seen enough blood and guts over there.

Generally, female squares don't matter. That's Laura Bush. Is she relevant? I don't think so. Generally, male squares went to 'Nam, unless they were rich. They got killed or messed up real bad. The ones who didn't went back to Squareville and raised Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and all the other kids that rebelled against the media-driven nightmare world we live in now.

Generally, female hippies became wives, mothers, worked careers or didn't -- but their vigor was slain on the altar of false feminism and free love. It didn't work out real well for them. Generally, male hippies run the world now. Evidence: Alan Greenspan was once tight with Ayn Rand. The male hippies either went through Vietnam so high they didn't notice a damn thing, and so retained their sanity, or they didn't go at all.

Against that backdrop, my answers to your questions: My parents grew up. All the other boomers I know grew up too. They had to, since there was nobody else around to run things. They don't cheat on their wives or husbands any more than the previous generation. If their parents spent any less time grieving over their lost youth, it was because World War II was a total shock to everyone in the world, and they never recovered. It damaged their introspective abilities beyond repair.

No one accepts aging, at least nobody with any damned sense. I stare at 25 every day in the mirror and know what it was to be 17. Already I mourn.

-- Jon Burgess

What's the difference between a punk and a hippie?

I remember when I was 20 in 1991 and home from college for the summer. My mother had purposefully left a Newsweek magazine on the kitchen table along with a plate of fresh-baked corn muffins and some now cold coffee. It had been sitting there since she had risen at 8 and it was noon when I moseyed into the kitchen. I tiredly looked at the magazine: "Twentysomthing" blared on the cover. Cued by the microwave's beeps, she entered as I choked down the warmed-over coffee.

"Did you read the article?" she asked, hiding her excitement.

"Not yet," I said. "Coffee."

She nodded and sat down at the table. "It's all about people your age, I thought you'd find it interesting."

"No," I thought, but I didn't have the heart to tell her. She loved articles that made me make sense. She still kept one in my baby book about how to raise kids without pigeon-holing them into gender roles -- "Baby X" it was called and it was all about having little girls play with toy cars and Legos. Twenty years later she has a new article with a new set of rules -- this set the world right for her.

I think the '80s were as confusing for her as a parent as they were for me as a teenager. Thank goodness for John Hughes movies, the perfect instructional video for disaffected youth. So I read the Newsweek article while she watched. It talked about how my generation was bored, unemployed and unmotivated, undirected, unimpassioned, disjointed, disillusioned, distilled ... I munched a muffin as I read. When I lifted my head, my mother caught my eye for an answer. I said "Well, of course we are, you guys did all the good stuff and the yuppies took all the good jobs. What else is there for us to do?" This statement then became her pet sound bite at cocktail parties for the rest of the summer. Frankly, the article upset me.

In the months and years that have passed since that article, it's crossed my mind many times. Generation X, the Lost Generation -- and how did my grandparents get the title of the Greatest Generation? All of this makes us sound like we don't count, like we're a burden to society -- but who's getting old now? Who's becoming the burden? Those baby boomers that told me I didn't matter. Like the Reagan years, punk rock and the Gulf War are meaningless blips on the radar of history. But raves are to love-ins what the Gulf War is to Vietnam, at least as far as youth culture is concerned. We've partied, we've protested, we've fed the homeless. I've even met people who have had wild, unbridled, unprotected sex (why they did this, I don't know but they did) and somehow we still don't count? Why? Because we happened after 1969.

What's odd about generationalism is that people fail to realize that the experience of being young and the experience of being older are at root the same, regardless of the cultural decor that surrounds an age. What's the difference between a punk and a hippie? Nothing. They are young, and anti everything they see as being wrong with their world. The specifics are different but the motivation is the same. It's a youthful protest that settles down with college loans, a job, a significant other, and a new VW.

So you asked what it's like to be young now and I tell you it's the same as it was for you with a variation of costume, soundtrack and set dressing.

-- A. Colvin


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