It's fashionable to reminisce about the 60s. Nostalgia seemed to set in early for the baby boomers, like premature balding; people were eulogizing the 60s almost before they were cold. But as the first of the ex-hip turn 40, sighing after lost youth has become a media epidemic bigger than drugs, more fun than the fundamentalists. The baby boom feels old; it likes to talk about the Good Old Days. Soon the middle-aged boom babies will be saying, "When I was your age. . . ." Their children will be bored and annoyed.
Some of us are already bored and annoyed. The 60s for me are like one of those long stories where nobody laughs, and you say, "I guess you had to be there." At some point, apparently, a whole generation of bra-burning hippies gave up its ideals, went to law school, and emerged four or five years later doing coke and driving Beemers. Now you are all, collectively, going through a mid-life crisis. Because there are a lot of you, and you like to talk about yourselves, the rest of us have to listen while you fuss over the first wrinkles and wonder why you aren't having fun anymore.
Some of us are not part of the baby boom. We don't really care what you were doing the day Kennedy got shot. We don't want to know about how you watched the war on TV, or how you wished you had been at Woodstock, or how you went to Berkeley and dropped acid and saw God. It's old news. I've read Tom Wolfe, I've read Fear and Loathing, I've seen Easy Rider. I used to play musical chairs to "Aquarius," and not the Ray Conniff version, either. I know as much as I care to know.
I wasn't born yet when Kennedy was shot. Martin Luther King was dead before I was out of diapers. The price of gas is as low now as any time I can remember. The first national election I can remember was in 1972; the first one I was old enough to vote in was in 1984. I graduated from college in 1986, and I don't remember the 60s at all.
The only thing strange about all this is how much it surprises people. Is it so odd to meet someone who walks, talks, thinks; goes out with you, legally, for a beer; and of life before 1970 remembers not sex and drugs but preschool and Spaghetti-O's? You are so amazed to find that not only have you gotten old, but that there is a new generation, people who don't remember what was so important to you. But all the skin cream and the running and the careers and the articles in the life-style magazines, everything that keeps you from feeling like has-beens, isn't going to make us go away. Last year, as the first of the baby boom turned 40, the first of the postboom quietly turned 21.
You seem to have believed that you were the first and last and only adolescents on the planet, that you invented coming of age and still hold the patent rights. You thought then that you were big news, born to be written up in the paper. You are older now, but not less self-centered. Now you talk about mid-life crises like you invented them, too. What's so new about being middle-aged that there should be an article on it in the paper every other week? You would think having a 40th birthday was a new fad, like Hula Hoops or Pet Rocks: something you might give to a friend as a bad joke. What about when you turn 70? I imagine the last of you, by 2030 or so, will be sitting in your high-tech rocking chairs in your holistic nursing homes, mumbling something about Ken Kesey or Kent State that your grandchildren will have heard ten times already. Like all adolescents, you thought you would be young forever; unlike most of us, when you did get old, you expected it to make the front page.
The baby boom was the Great Sellout Generation, but that isn't really what I object to. After all, going to demonstrations went out of fashion after a while, and dropping out got boring. You can't spend the rest of your life on drugs, and it's nice to be able to take showers. It's fun to drive high-performance cars, Europe is lovely, and you have to eat out once in a while. Espresso really does taste better than what they serve at Denny's. It's too complicated to keep track of who's oppressed where, and too depressing. If you're white and upper-middle-class and employed, it's much more pleasant not to think about it. Worrying less about the problems of the world and more about the house payments is what middle age is all about, after all. Besides, what have all the self-help books been teaching us for the past decade, if not that we shouldn't feel guilty about treating ourselves well?
Whether you're sighing for the 60s or eating sun-dried tomatoes in the 80s, anything you do or say or think about seems to automatically become news. Your materialism is a product of your self-centeredness--you have behaved like spoiled children all along, as if the world revolved around you--but the same materialism gives you control over the media. You are the market that advertisers want to reach; so the media give you what you want, and what you want is to hear about yourselves. You hear more about yourselves, you feel justified in your self-centeredness, you feel justified in spending more money on yourselves. Vicious circle.
The class of '86 (an inauspicious number) never had the luxury of thinking we were original. By the time we hit puberty, adolescent rebellion was already passe. We watched as the children of the 60s, who were going to change the world, gave up and sold out; and we weren't dumb enough to think that we could succeed where you had blown it. We've done the best we could: we've taken drugs and listened to loud music, done funny things to our hair, and made out in high school in the backs of our parents' Rabbits; but it hasn't been the same. All those years of inflation and bad poetry and wide ties, followed in more recent years by Star Wars and minings and bombings and interventions of various sorts, have taken their toll. I could tell you where I was the night we bombed Libya, if you really want to know; or where I was the day I heard John Lennon had died. I will admit to wanting to make a lot of money someday. I will admit to liking bands with names like Agent Orange. I will admit to being cynical.
Of course, it does change your perspective on money if you graduate from college $10,000 in debt. It changes your perspective on rebellion if your parents get stoned in the evening after work. It isn't always easy for someone with a science degree to find a job outside the defense industry, and refusing to register for the draft means more than forgetting to stop by the post office on your 18th birthday. Cynical or not, some of us still think about these things. It's not the baby boom that's going to fight the next war. It's more likely that the baby boom will start it: you are, after all, the Establishment.
You aren't my parents--my parents were 50s kids in crew cuts and tight sweaters--but you sure act like it. You're the people who want to impose curfews, to keep the Youth of Today off the streets and away from those terrible, dangerous Drugs. You disapprove of the music and you laugh at the haircuts. (Does this sound familiar?) You raised the national drinking age to 21. At least when you were kids you could get some glory out of Defying the System.
I remember that in tenth grade I thought that what happened to me that year--my first serious boyfriend, my first french kiss, etc--was more important than anything that had ever happened or would ever happen to me in my entire life. I was hopelessly emotional: when I wasn't ecstatic I was suicidal. All I remember now about that year was how important I thought it all was, and how disappointed I was, when it was over, to find that life went on in the most ordinary sort of way.
I imagine that's what the 60s were like, only on a much larger scale: that what you remember is not what you did--which was probably, in retrospect, trivial and juvenile--but the collective intensity with which you did it. There were a lot of you going through it at the same time, so I imagine you felt extra important. But if I'm right, if it really is the passion that you remember and not the particular circumstances, then don't worry. It happens to all of us. I think.
Anyway, my point is not that the 60s weren't really the way you remember them, although I suspect they weren't. My point is not to make excuses for the postboom, because we're not that great, although we do all right. My point is that I'm tired of hearing you talk about yourselves. The self-absorption that makes you think that because you're turning 40 everyone else must be just dying to know what it's like is what turned you into the materialist monsters that you claim to regret having become. You talk like you can't understand how you lost your idealism, but by filling pages, not to mention movies and radio time, with your feeling of loss, you end up demonstrating just how easy it was.
My point is also that some of us would prefer to live in the current decade. Some of us still have high ideals and think about the problems of the world--in our own cynical way, of course. So maybe those of you who would rather sit around and cry into your wine coolers about how nice it all might have been, could go do it somewhere else. Preferably another planet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Heather McAdams.