Love in the age of irony, Part 5

Young readers tell us that real sex is when you don't use a condom, that real love is always hard to find -- and that they don't hate baby boomers that much. Really.


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"Since You Asked" readers
September 20, 2002 11:11PM (UTC)

[Read Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.]

Real sex is when you don't use a condom

What's it like to be young? I realized this year on my birthday (26) that even though the professional world still regards me as inexperienced and green, I'm too old to be trendy and the only thing I have in common with Britney Spears is a pierced belly button. Basically I'm teetering on the rope bridge that hangs across the generational divide. Wait, strike that earlier statement -- maybe, like Britney, I'm not a girl, not yet a woman. Or maybe I am. What the hell is a woman?

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At my age my parents were both on their second marriages and raising four kids. They had careers, well-plotted lives and colorful stories about the fun they'd had when they were young, being that at the ripe old age of 26 they were officially adults. I'm still living in an apartment decorated with my family's cast-off furniture and my houseplants are all dead.

College is over, it was fun and went by in a blur. In fact it ended four years ago. I'm not sure where those four years went. According to my childhood dreams I should be either A) married to Mr. Wonderful, considering children, and working in a phenomenally rewarding job; or B)hiking Mt. Everest while dropping needed food supplies off to starving villagers. Instead I'm dating a truly wonderful guy who lives 1,000 miles away and working a job that I really like, some days.

Sex is a sport. Sometimes you have sex with someone you care about, sometimes you don't. "Real" sex is when you don't use a condom. That's how you know it matters. Otherwise, it's only slightly more personal than a handshake, and usually less sincere. The great guy 1,000 miles away and I have great sex, about once a month when we meet up. Otherwise we cross our fingers and hope the cellphone connection won't fade when we have our daily conversation. Sometimes, when we're both busy, e-mail must suffice.

Relationships defy definition. I've had a string of boyfriends and even a couple of fiancés,. Do you have to have "the talk" to technically be in a relationship? Do you have to have an engagement ring to be engaged? When looking back on these undefined encounters, is it accurate to call it a relationship if it's possible you were only "hanging out" for six months, a year, two years? Why is it that no one takes me seriously when I say I'm seriously involved with someone 1,000 miles away?

I know it sounds like I'm bitching, and I am, but truthfully I'm happy. I take great solace in the knowledge that I'm completely, blissfully normal. All of my friends are just like me. All of their friends are just like me. Even my married-with-kids friends are just as clueless as I am, though it's disheartening for me to know that adulthood doesn't come with the car seat and the mortgage. Maybe someday I'll wake up and be a real grown-up, and that's actually a comforting thought.

Then I see my parents. They're divorced (a few times over), hang out in trendy bars, drink Red Bull and vodka, wear clothes designed for people five years younger than me, date people five years older than me, and get their feelings hurt every time someone implies that they might be -- gasp! -- too old for their current behavior. So I console myself that, young or old, clueless or settled, where I am is where I am and that's where I have to be.

--Rebekah Gleaves

What will we tell our children?

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I'm 22. Finished college last year, have no use for my degree in this job market. I see hypocrisy and arbitrary conventions everywhere, and it makes me furious. I imagine it's pretty much how the boomers felt, but my generation refuses to handle it the same way. The boomers tore down illusions but replaced them with nothing (part of me wants to say they replaced them with drugs). After spending 20 years floating around in a void, the boomers gave up and adopted their own versions of what came before. Not totally content, they persist in trying to recapture the earlier freedom. My generation is floating in the same void, but not wanting to give up (or "sell out" in boomer-speak) we are faced with the impossible task of defining human existence for every life decision we must make.

I suppose it's pretty much the same old "why are we here?" dilemma of human existence. My generation, as much as or more than any before it, does not want to predicate our lives on an incorrect answer to that question. But without an answer, how do we go on? What can we expect from each other? What will we tell our children?

It's easy to see why boomers gave up. The uncertainty is almost maddening. The only stronger feeling is that picking the wrong answers just to have answers would be worse. We are also in the unique position of being a smaller generation than the one before us. In the prime of our adulthood, at the point when previous generations took the reins of society, we will be helpless against a giant voting bloc of sold-out, where's my medication, why can't you do things our way geriatric boomers. And we'll be slaves to their Social Security payments.

Isn't it obvious why so many of us don't seem to care? About anything?

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-- Matt Rosenberg

Baby boomers are great!

I feel that I am in the minority when I say this: I think baby boomers are great! When I look at all the freedoms we have today in personal lifestyle and choices, I know my generation owes a huge debt of gratitude to yours. That being said, I must also say that having dealt with the fallout of AIDS, herpes and a whole host of other unpleasant facts of life since coming of age 20 years ago, I really resent the hell out of being called a "baby boomer" myself. I know, I know, I was born in 1964, and by today's measurements that qualifies me as a member of your generation, but I know better.

At best, you could call me an honorary boomer. Until I can say that I had sex with a pair of twin-sister, nymphomaniac, political-science majors in the back seat of a '77 Trans Am in the parking lot of the local disco with no fear, before or after, of the consequences -- then you could call me a "boomer." Until then, you can refer to me and my peers, the ones who were old enough to know what was going on during the Sexual Revolution, but too young to partake, as the Bitter Enders. Too young to be a bona fide baby boomer, too old to be part of Generation X. We're the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"/"Risky Business" generation.

After living through the carnival of death that was the 1980s; watching what I thought was going to be one of the perks of being an adult turn into yet another way to die a horrible death, it really is adding insult to injury to now be lumped in with the baby boomers. You might as well say we were around for Woodstock or the moon landings! We're no more part of the baby boom generation than our parents were part of the World War II generation. That's like saying the baby boomers are actually part of that vaunted generation as well because they were alive during the Berlin Airlift.

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That is not to say that the boomers haven't contributed to our well-being. You guys made things easier for us in terms of freedom to choose who and what we wanted to become and make of our lives. Thanks to you guys I didn't have to worry about the draft, unwanted pregnancy, life-without-parole marriages and/or bachelorhood being equated with closet homosexuality.

Of course I wish I could have taken part in the sexual revolution during the '70s, but hey, things change. After my parents' divorce, and all the bloody battles that preceeded it, I had made up my mind that serial monogamy was the way to go (you know, like in the Woody Allen movies, or the July 1978 Time cover story on Warren Beatty). Well, every generation has its problems. For the boomers it was getting drafted and coming back from Vietnam in a body bag (or worse). For my generation and the ones that have followed, it's wasting away from AIDS. It's always something, as Rosanne Rosannadana would say.

Don't worry about getting older or being perceived as old. Just do what your generation has always done best: reinvent yourself. Being older has its perks and thanks to your generation that means a lot more today than it did for your parents. Who wants to be in their 20s forever anyway? Simply redefine what it means to be in your 50s. Use Ron Shelton movies ("Bull Durham," "Tin Cup") as a guide for what attitude to shoot for and Woody Allen in his last three movies as the example of what not to become. All the while aspire to the mature sexuality of the Walter Matthau/Glenda Jackson flicks: "House Calls" and "Hopscotch." Stop worrying about what some kid in a goatee thinks. You guys made it possible for that kid to have that goatee (and a job) in the first place. Just don't grow one yourself.

-- James Martinez

What about Stonewall?

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I am a 30-year-old gay guy, and I don't relate to any of what most of the other Gen-X'ers wrote. Nor can I even begin to comprehend the experience of the Boomers. I don't know any Led Zeppelin songs. I know some of the early Beatles, but not any of their annoying stuff that came later. I don't think I've ever heard a Grateful Dead song either, or at least I wouldn't know it if I heard it. The first pop idol I ever knew was after I came out, and that was Madonna.

I was raised in a cultish Pentacostal, dispensationalist tightly knit family/community. My parents might be "boomers" age-wise, but they were never hippies. My dad was stationed abroad during the Vietnam War, and my mom was here in the U.S. In my family women did not wear makeup or cut their hair or wear pants or even skirts that went higher than mid-calf. Men did not wear facial hair, or have long hair. We did not see movies or listen to popular music. We did not in general partake of the "world." During the Cold War we weren't worried about being nuked by the Russians, but the state of our souls when Jesus came back and the rapture took place. So, I grew up never having seen "Charlie's Angels," "CHiPs," countless bad '70s movies and bad '70s music.

In my teens my family became more secular: Lutheran. I came bursting out of the closet when I was 17 -- in the late '80s. With a father 20 years in the military and every single relative a Pentacostal, what was I thinking? Well, something had to give -- 13 years later and I don't understand the cynicism or apathy of my generation or any generation.

Every one of your young writers has mentioned AIDS. The first person I ever knew to die was a guy I had sex with when I was 19. He was 21. Yeah, it's a fact of life and it's been rammed down our throats whether we like it or not. Yeah, we watched Reagan and then Bush let millions die and listened to them spout the hypocrisy of "just say no" to a younger generation while the one before us hadn't even known the word "no." Yeah, things were a lot worse for gay people then -- prior to and even after the "sexual revolution" (and was anyone in your column going to give credit to the impact of Stonewall?), and it was a lot harder to come out then. But it wasn't a picnic to come out at age 17 in 1989, and I doubt it is even now. What is our choice? To become bitter and angry and asexual and to stop loving each other?

I have been in love, and I believe in love. But after my "first love" I realized that there was a lot more to life than just "being in love." Having that first love taught me that I had the capacity to be in love, and that it could happen. And love can be found in lots of different places. To the people who are wondering where are the normal, nice, functional people their own age to date, I say, "Get a life." Everyone comes with their baggage. Perhaps it's the arrogance of youth (of any generation) to expect that they have the right to a mate who is as perfect and as well-adjusted as they themselves. Good for them. Have a nice time writing melodramatic little odes to your lost youth.

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I'm not afraid of sex. Nor am I afraid of commitment. But I don't want to settle for either because I am afraid of the other. Being a grown-up means making choices, and realizing that some choices preclude the possibility of others.

The thing I wish I could say to the boomers and to the Gen-X'ers is "Just get over yourself." You're not the first generation in history, and you won't be the last. And to be fair, I think the Gen-X'ers have not so much taken on any label as had it thrust on us by a group of corporate demographers trying to sell us VW Jettas and lattes. Most everyone I know, including myself, doesn't think too much about "finding love in the age of irony." We are just trying to do the best we can. I've got news for you. Guys have always tried to score and get as much action as they can. There've always been people pushing the edges, and people trying to repress them. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

You had your Vietnam, we had our Gulf War, and now another generation is getting their Gulf War Part II. Have fun with it.

-- Kelly Kinney

Too many of us are on antidepressants

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I was born in 1980. There is a pronounced difference in how people receive you when they find out you were born in the '80s. I'm also from the South. In my house age was merit. My father would often say, "I've been on this earth 29 years longer than you have and I've learned a lot in this time."

Growing up, I felt like my parents and my teachers expected me to think I was wiser than I was. My parents' and teachers' generations had resisted authority the way no one had done for a long time. I suppose they expected that out of us. I have a bumper sticker that I got on a trip to Wyoming when I was 12: "Hire a Teenager While They Still Know It All." I learned in the '80s that youth is something to be ashamed of; that age inherently denotes wisdom.

On the other hand, I'm from a generation that wanted to be psychiatrists when we grew up. I read parenting articles in Reader's Digest when I was 8. I would think to myself, "My dad is just punishing me because he wants to feel powerful." I was right, but I think that those thoughts were unique to the pop psychology generation. Am I wrong?

Many people in my generation are sick and sad. Too many of us are on antidepressants who really just need love and a different life. "Issues," "complexes," "disorders" are not medical terms, but ways that people describe themselves. We are pretty pessimistic. Some of us are angry. Too many of us are trying to buy better lives, to buy our identity with overpriced cotton American Flag T-shirts. The counterculture is über-retro; they hate all the other people buying the American Flag T-shirts, but we all buy fake vintage reproductions. I think post-irony is the right word for our fashion. I think that this division, though, is not unique to this generation.

What is unique is our politics; we are incredibly fragmented. Maybe this is a reaction to being taught that color, sex, ethnicity, etc., don't matter. We learned that they do. Whereas my mother thought, "You're black, but you're just the same as me. Let's ignore our differences," I learned "You're black? Your life has been very different than mine. Tell me about it." We aren't seeking sameness, but understanding, and that is very slow going. Instead of NOW, we have the Transsexual Polynesian Scuba Diving Association. If there is one issue that we all hate, it is corporate America, but this is shared by most leftist political people today. Speaking at a demonstration can still, definitely, get you laid. Unless you're old.

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I feel like the way my generation is political is almost retro in a way -- living simply. We don't have TVs or cars, and finding stuff in the trash is ridiculously exciting. We also have a profound respect for our grandparents. Not liking your grandparents is very uncool.

I love living right now because I have the advantage of living in a world that has less oppression than the world my parents grew up in. I'm glad that I get to have sex before marriage and nobody cares. I'm glad that I can get drunk and ride the bus home alone. I'm glad that it's now called "the n-word," instead of something people say under their breath at family dinners. The world is certainly still very troubled, but there are a lot of really great things about it too.

-- Susanna Williams

You can't always get what you want

From MTV's "The Real World" all the way to the presumably educated and intellectual readership of Salon, it seems that self-pity and a pervasive, delusional narcissism have more to do with the failure of love in our time than irony or any other hip, po-mo buzzword Salon's editors might want to slap on it. I'm tired of being identified with self-appointed representatives of "my generation" (as if generational identity has any substantive meaning at all in the advertising age) who so witlessly yield to the notion that life and love are so damned hard in the good old USA. It must be the nature of being spoiled to take enormous privilege and good fortune for granted.

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There are places in the world where the youth are too busy resisting genocide, epidemic AIDS, famine, drought and indenture to Western power to worry about defining "the meaning of youth." We envy the fleeting idealism of the '60s generation -- essentially, a retread of gripes that precede the 20th century: people aren't getting enough good sex, men suck, we hate our parents, we love but envy our parents. The Rolling Stones made a pretty simple and telling analysis of this predicament back in those stupid 1970s: "You can't always get what you want."

Nevertheless, these letters have unintentionally explained for all time what it means to be young, at least in America. As much as anything else, youth is now and has always been defined by myopia. Despite our status as citizens of a nation of over 270 million people, we are all sure that our needs and desires are desperately important. We are all convinced that no one (except for that special someone or our favorite pet) truly understands us. We are all certain that, damn it, if we were running the world, there'd be no war, pot would be legal, everyone would be happy, and no children would suffer. We all believe down deep that we lead lives of destiny. Far too many of us genuinely believe we will one day be a world-class, superfamous important person and then everyone will love us.

Maybe love escapes so many of us because we have trained ourselves to fear and avoid what it requires: sacrifice, humility, compromise, pragmatism and, most of all, risk. Maybe part of finding love is learning how to stop being afraid -- of what we're missing or what we're getting into -- or, at least, to live with those fears because they are preferable to the alternative. Maybe the fairy-tale image of love we've inherited from watching too many movies and sitcoms is like the airbrushed, starving fashion model who not only confronts us with our imperfection but suggests to us that the mythic ideal is attainable. But love, I think, comes only when we are ready to yield the selfhood and a large measure of the freedom we've been trained to hold so dearly to another. I don't consider that challenge to be generational -- it's human.

-- Edward Tarkington (29)

Love forever

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As a 35-year-old married woman I found the responses in "Love in the Age of Irony" to be a sad indicator of where the generation was heading. That is, until it occurred to me that they can't be representative of their generation at all.

I work at a university in smallish town, and I can't begin to count how many of the students I meet and work with who are dating, in significant relationships, engaged or already married. Sure, there are some who don't seem to date at all, preferring to "hook up" and post to electronic boards complaining that nobody understands them. They often belong to the same groups who spend most of their free time playing video games and/or drinking.

Protesting that irony has ruined romance is just another excuse for those who have always found relationships too frightening or challenging. Here's some advice from someone who knows what is possible. Turn off your PlayStation, pick up a copy of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, skip the bar and head to the cafe instead. Amour pour toujours!

-- Jacqui Cain


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