Nearly 8 Ways This GenXer Felt Old This Week

Nevermind Baby Grown UpYou may have seen this photo on various sites in the past week or so. The phrase, “A picture says a thousand words,” comes to mind. But, in this case, the image needs only three to get its message across — “You are old.”

Those of us who remember the release of “Nevermind” or the demise of Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, are supposed to feel their age when shown this image. But I was already feeling that way this week due to a variety of other harbingers of maturity.

A department head named Dakota.

I was reading a trade publication for work the other day and came to the section where they announce promotions, new positions, etc. There was a listing for a woman named Dakota who had just joined a company as director of one of their departments.

Disclaimer — I am not one of those people who thinks that a guy named Buck can’t be a sommelier or a woman named Ginger won’t land a “serious” job. But the fact that kids born in the era of Montana and Sierra are now leading groups of people in manufacturing companies made me realize that quite a bit of time has passed since the Heathers and Dawns of GenX entered the workforce.

Not a single person in my writing class understood my cultural reference to Rob Lowe.

In the GenX female dictionary, look up the definition of “hot,” and you will find the words “Rob Lowe.” So in the spirit of “show-don’t-tell,” I described a character as looking like Sodapop from The Outsiders. No one understood the reference. It was so off that many of them actually called it out in the notes they wrote for my workshop. When a classroom full of mostly adult women does not totally get Sodapop, you know that you’ve crossed the threshold of time. It makes me wonder if they even know C. Thomas Howell!

The contents of my purse.

I’ve been known to say that the size of a woman’s purse indicates her age. In college, we didn’t even carry purses out to bars, because the possibility of losing them in all the excitement that a $3-pitcher establishment offered was so great. As a female acquires more responsibility, the bag she totes around gains more stuff.

This week, though, it was not the size of my bag but what I found in it that made me feel my age. If the contents of one’s purse reflect that person’s life, I think that a child’s molar, reading glasses and a tube of Motrin for my pending fourth root canal sums it up tidily.

The fact that I went to college when pitchers cost $3.

Granted, it wasn’t the kind of place I seek out these days. But still…

Frances Bean is not a baby.

If the dude from the Nirvana cover is 22, then Frances Bean, Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, must be legal drinking age as well, or at least close. I could google this, but I’d rather retain the small measure of doubt that this is true.

I referred to a portable CD player as “obsolete.”

My daughter received a clock-radio-iPod docker for her birthday, so I removed the CD-player-radio combo we got from my FIL from her room, saying these words as I picked it up and put it on top of the whites load in the laundry basket to be carried to the basement. And while I realized how weird it was to call such a thing “obsolete,” I noted how she had never used it… of course because she has never owned a CD.

I realized I don’t have a Pintrest account.

Wait, scratch that. If I am a 40-something woman, I’m supposed to have a Pintrest account. How GenX of me to reject the mainstream 🙂

Gen X as slacker parents — not so much.

Does this look like the child of a slacker?

Does this look like the child of a slacker?

This morning, I was watching a segment on The Today Show featuring Jessica Lahey, an education and parenting writer, and Wendy Mogel, a family psychologist and author, on the importance of creativity. One of the guests commented on how offering creativity boosters like free play goes against the current trend of days filled with structured activities.

How ironic — the generation known for being slackers is raising its children with an intensity that appears to be unparalleled by previous generations.

As soon as Gen Y graduated into an awful economy, they became the hopeless unemployed basement dwellers who feasted off their parents’ generosity. But let’s not forget our roots. We were the original lazy generation, though no one accused us of being coddled by the latch-key lifestyle of many of our formative years. Yet, I’m sure the phrase, “They aren’t willing to put in the hard work,” has been uttered about every generation when they entered the workforce, especially those gifted with poor job prospects.

Research does show us, though, that each generation has some defining characteristics, and Gen X is supposed to be filled with free thinkers who value family and personal time. And I know that as we matured into our parenting years concepts like “free range parenting” and the like gained notice (though maybe not popularity). But so has the “helicopter parent.” So what’s behind the intensity of the current parenting generation’s practices?

Not only are our kids over-scheduled (which, in turn, suffocates our families and ourselves with commitments), but we do things like put them in sports leagues that require incredible amounts of practice time, increasing their risk of injury to growing bones and joints, or sign them up for other endeavors meant to help them stand out among their peers. I used to work with an orthopedic surgeon who said he does procedures on teenagers that were previously only done on ex-athletes whose joints wore out in middle age. Where I live (and I think it’s the same in other major urban school districts), kids test into the good public high schools, which means that they spend their middle school years being tutored on top of their normal academics and have to hope that they won’t get an A- in gym, which would sink their GPA too low to compete. This kind of thing is only good if you are in the business of test prep or treating anxiety disorders.

Some of this is forced upon us, such as the choice between spending the equivalent of a college education on a private high school or tutoring and test-prepping your child for a shot at a good free education (something most of us were raised to expect in this country). Work schedules make it tough for some people to offer blocks of free time in one’s bedroom or backyard, and many schools have addressed the need for after-school supervision with structured programs.

This problem has been chronicled over the past several years, and Wendy Mogel isn’t the first child expert to warn us against neglecting free play. Why does it seem that we are still heading in the wrong direction?

I can admit that some of the intensity that taints my parenting is self-inflicted. When my child wants to do everything, it’s hard for me to say no. I listen to parents “lament” their weekends dominated by their children’s schedules, and I detect an air of superiority in their “Oh, we’re just so busy,” that has me questioning how productive my family’s weekends are. When I see my kids’ toy room and could submit a photo of it to The Weather Channel as a post-disaster scene, I wonder if they have too much free time on their hands.

But Wendy Mogel said on The Today Show that mess is the work of creativity, so we have that going for us. Perhaps next time I feel belittled by a fellow parent’s weekend field-to-course-to-court odyssey, I can sigh and talk about how da Vinci’s parents must have had to live through such assaults on their household order as we do.

Apparently those sacrifices we make with our feet when we try to cross through the land of 10,000 Legos are, in fact, part of the formula for future success. I heard only the end of this part of the segment, but experts have determined that creativity is a key trait of business leaders. While I have issues with guiding a child through life with only the goal of a well-paying job in mind (see We Are More Than Our Metrics), perhaps this will get more people on board with the idea that we Gen Xer parents should chill out a bit.

Rockin’ summer like it’s 1977

I wonder if the winner of Shaun's shirt still has it or if she sold it at a garage sale to get the money for a Duran Duran pin.

I wonder if the winner of Shaun’s shirt still has it or if she sold it at a garage sale to get the money for an Adam & The Ants pin.

There’s a preteen in my life, and it isn’t the eternally embarrassed 12-year-old who surfaces from my subconscious for random visits.

She is the 10-year-old who is completely into the Disney Channel sitcom, “Good Luck Charlie,” and the music of its star, Bridget Mendler. At some point within the past year, my daughter has turned into someone very similar to the preteen from the late-70s who also was obsessed with another actor with a budding musical career.

At least she hasn’t chosen Justin Bieber or Big Time Rush. My mother couldn’t say the same thing for me, though. I was fully committed to the teen idol du jour of 1977 — Shaun Cassidy.

Life around here is like a mirror between the decades. It occurs to me to compare and contrast teen idoldom of the times.

My daughter asks me to download a bunch of Bridgit Mendler songs to iTunes (unaware that they often come in a collection called an “album”). I received the gift of “Da Doo Ron Ron” as a single and on Shaun’s self-titled debut album (baffled that my mom didn’t understand why I wanted both). A true fan would be embarrassed not to hear him at 45 and 33 rpm.

My daughter asks me who my favorite singer is, hoping that I’ll say Brigit Mendler. (For the record, I pulled the following names off the top of my head — Morton Harket of A-ha, Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode and Paul McCartney.) In the summer of 1977, I posed this question to my mom every 10 minutes, “Who’s better? Parker Stevenson or Shaun Cassidy?” For some crazy reason, my mom preferred Parker Stevenson.

No, Mom, Shaun Cassidy is cuter!

No, Mom, Shaun Cassidy is cuter!

My daughter researches the cast of Good Luck Charlie online and finds out that Eric Allen Kramer used to have a pony tail (which my husband confirmed after watching a rerun of Frasier). I learned all about Shaun Cassidy’s birthday, favorite color and what he wanted in a girlfriend in Teen Beat magazine.

Bridget Mendler launched her musical career with the support of the Disney hit factory. Shaun Cassidy began his with the help of reliable covers.

But in 2013, the world has changed, and there are differences for today’s young fans.

Back in 1977, not all teen idols were multimedia. If you were a fan of Leif Garrett or Andy Gibb, you didn’t get to see them on television every week. Your only chance was an occasional appearance on American Bandstand, and you had to keep on top of the TV Guide listings to know when that was happening. If you loved Ralph Macchio or Scott Baio, you didn’t get to hear them on the radio or, better yet, 37 times a day on your stereo. You were limited to their weekly show and print media like Tiger Beat and its ilk.

Fast-forward three-and-a-half decades and we’ve gone well beyond multimedia to mass merchandizing. Not only can today’s preteens see and hear their idols anywhere and as often as they’d like, they can bask in them with head-to-toe fan gear. Bieber Fever even extends to oral hygiene. The lucrative boundaries of fandemonium hadn’t been explored fully in the 70s.

So, let me stop and be thankful again that it isn’t Justin Bieber. At least the actors on Good Luck Charlie aren’t featured on toothbrushes or floss.

Calling All Brady Bunch Fans — Did Oliver Jump the Shark?

Remember this guy?

Remember this guy?

Tonight my children were introduced to Oliver of “The Brady Bunch”. (But not in real life… on TV.) My husband and I disagree about Oliver. I love him… thought he was adorable and that it was exciting that the Brady’s got to have a younger cousin living with them. My husband feels that it was “jumping the shark.” GenXers… what do you think?

 

The Song That Changed Everything

Venus and Mars were all right that night.

Venus and Mars were all right that night.

In July of 1994, I was a young lady in the latter half of her 20s building a career, hanging out with friends, playing volleyball at North Avenue Beach and packing up her apartment to move across the alley from a studio to a one-bedroom.

One Friday evening that month, I took a break from the boxes and newspaper to meet a friend whose friend’s band was playing at a bar two blocks away. Something felt very different about that evening. I told myself it was buzz about the move.

At the bar, I was introduced to a guy who was cute, seemed nice and was a friend of a friend of a friend, which was considered something along the lines of an endorsement. We struck up a conversation that was very much like many others I’d had in bars on Friday nights… until a song came on that I would never expect to hear in a crowded Halsted Street drinking establishment, “Listen To What The Man Said,” by Paul McCartney.

In that moment, when the bouncy beat launched into, “Anytime, any day, you can hear the people say,” something changed. We were no longer two kids in a bar in Lincoln Park having a superficial conversation about how much we liked the Bulls. We connected on a deeper level.

I felt safe revealing my music nerd self and told him how much I loved Paul McCartney. He said that although he wasn’t a Beatles fan (I made sure that changed), he did like songs from Wings because they reminded him of his childhood. Was this love at first sight?

Maybe it was love at first discussion about rock music, a pastime that continues to this day. One of my favorite things is to talk about music with my husband. It probably always will be. The other day I asked if I was really going to be 72 years old sitting around listening to 1984 and talking to him about Van Halen. He confirm that, yeah, I probably would.

When we married three years later, we actually chose different McCartney songs for our first and final dances. This one was too tied to the magic of that first chance meeting. There was something so spontaneous about how it happened, and it is at its most perfect left as the song that brought us together.

My Walkman, Eurail Pass and Depeche Mode

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

I did a study abroad semester while in college with old friends and new, but my constant companion that term was a cassette tape I picked up in Cambridge, England, that featured two albums by Depeche Mode… Black Celebration and Music for the Masses. Not everyone is moved by such a thing, but I couldn’t imagine a more amazing possibility – one cassette, two albums. It was maximum use of Walkman capacity in an era when all my possessions needed to fit into a backpack light enough to drag around the Continent for a month.

Music for the Masses was a very big release at the time, and the songs seemed to be everywhere inside and outside of my headphones. It was played often at the pub where we hung out, and I sometimes can taste the combination of salt & vinegar crisps with lager & lime when I hear “Never Let Me Down”. We all have those albums that serve as a soundtrack for a time in our lives, and this was it for my first stint in Europe. I spent a lot of time on trains and buses that term, and I never left our house without my Walkman and Depeche Mode. It was essential as bringing your own sheet to the youth hostel and wearing comfortable shoes.

At one point during the semester, I was in Paris. It was a week of emotional ups and downs. I was staying with my “French brother,” the exchange student our family had hosted just a few years before with whom I was close. I was also waiting for a letter that never came from my boyfriend at the time. A trip to Brugge was in order.

As my train pulled out of Gard du Nord, a man sat next to me who looked and smelled like he spent most of his time in places far less luxurious than Paris’ least glamorous train station. The stench was overwhelming. On my Walkman, “Black Celebration” began. I stifled tears.

By the time we rolled into Brugge, the man had been ushered along, and things were looking better. I met a fellow American (he spotted my shoes), and we spent the afternoon and evening comparing notes on our study abroad experiences. I missed my hostel’s curfew and ended up throwing stones at the window for someone to come down and let me in. It was an interesting evening.

One of my favorite things in the world is the idea of music as a time machine. Those two albums definitely bring me back to 1989. But the timeless quality that is woven into just about anything Depeche Mode does keeps them as two of my favorite albums to listen to anytime.

Where would I be without the Columbia House Record Club?

In the 80s, Columbia House Record Club was God’s gift to young music fans interested in building their libraries. I remember those card stock ads falling out of our weekly TV Guide and bothering my mom to let me spend my babysitting money on signing up for those 12 albums for a penny plus a bonus. All I had to do was purchase a certain number of additional albums over the course of 12 or 24 months, and I would fulfill my contractual obligation and pack my record collection full of the day’s favorites.

Some summer during junior high, I wore her down and received her permission to sign myself up. It was one of the headiest days of my life.

I had never paid close attention to what was offered by Columbia House, so filling out that first form was difficult. The Club offered mostly selections from the Top 40 lists of recent years, like Air Supply and Carly Simon. But there were enough gems in there to satisfy my taste for new music and add to my collection of the classics.

Prince CharmingOne of those was Adam & The Ants’ Prince Charming. It was the first album I opened on that auspicious day of my inaugural delivery. I can still remember Stuart peering at me all war-painted wearing pseudo-military garb in ruffles and the flashiest colors imaginable. The band was absent from the cover. Didn’t matter… Adam was the man. “Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me your handsome.” INDEED!

It didn’t take long for the needle to hit the record and blast those tribal beats out of the speakers my dad constructed to match with my hot pink and French Provincial décor. I wonder if my mother regretted her decision to let me join the club as much as I doubted my sanity for downloading Katy Perry’s “Firework” onto my kids’ iPods. But that album, and the dozens of others that followed, brought me tremendous pleasure for years to come. I still own all of them. (It took two weeks for my kids to dismiss Katy Perry.)

A couple of years ago, we had guests over for an impromptu “afterparty,” and I boasted that I could offer our guests anything they wanted to hear. One of them thought he was putting me to the test when he asked for Adam & The Ants. Of course, I delivered …as did Adam & The Ants …as did the Columbia House Record Club.

The Columbia House Record Club is a dinosaur now, distinct for more than a decade and probably irrelevant long before it folded. I was still a member in the early 90s when CDs replaced albums and cassettes. I’ve got to say that I prefer the immediacy of the iTunes world. How else could I download Andy Gibb for an instant New Year’s Eve devotion? But I will always have fond memories of Columbia House and the joy of getting all that great music for the price of a few albums and a penny.

In the beginning, there was a kid, a Classic and Croce

This week I step further into the mysterious world of midlife. And to celebrate, each day, I will post a song that holds significance from my past.

Let’s start with my first love song… Time In A Bottle by Jim Croce

I first learned the true meaning of love in the back seat of a Malibu Classic.

I was five years old, a passenger on the weekly journey to the A&P and Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime, along with my younger brothers.  My mom, who patiently endured the back-of-the-car antics of the five-and-under crowd, always had the radio on.  Time In A Bottle was in heavy rotation on our town’s biggest AM radio station, and just hearing the song in my head brings back the sensation of looking out the window watching life go by at 30 miles per hour.

I can’t remember what intersection we were at, but I can picture the stop sign, the crossroad and the overgrown grass around the old bungalow that occupied the corner lot amid the new houses surrounding it.  The theme from M.A.S.H. was ending and Time In A Bottle began.  By the closing notes of the song, I realized that love was more than just a word.

If I could make days last forever… if words could make wishes come true… I’d save every day like a treasure and then, again, I would spend them with you.

It dawned on me… each moment that passed, I was getting older.  Each moment that I aged, my parents were aging too.  I panicked at the thought – kids make parents grow old.  By having us, they were committing to a life limited by the passing of time.

So, for the next several months, I thought about how I could stop myself from growing up.  By doing so, I would keep my parents young.  But despite actually thinking something as crazy as being childless would stop time for them, I knew that not growing up, for a child at least, was impossible.  These were the sands of time, slipping out of my desperate little hands, and I was helpless to stop them.

And I have never been able to listen to Time In A Bottle without feeling the twinge of regret I knew as a small child.

Ironically, Jim Croce died shortly after releasing this song.   I knew this as a child, because the DJ often said, “That was the late Jim Croce…”  His death brought even more meaning to the lyrics.  It was a reminder that I would not be the five-year-old in the back seat of the Malibu Classic forever, just like Jim Croce wasn’t a recording artist forever.

Now, I realize that my reaction to this song was right in many ways, aside from the idea that people won’t age if they don’t have children.  Parenting is a sacrifice. Moms and dads commit their lives to their children.  Raising a child speeds up time immensely.  Jim Croce was right that there never seems to be enough time.

Years later, I have kids of my own.  My youngest is seven, and he has inherited my sensitivity to sad songs.  Even those that don’t have heartbreaking lyrics speak to him with their melancholy melodies.

I told my son this story about Jim Croce’s song.  I laughed when I told him about my strange first reaction to the lyrics, hoping that he would find this silly.  Like many children, he says he wants to stay with me forever. But I know that I will hang on to him much longer than he will need me.  He and his older sister will never fathom how much I love them until they become parents themselves.

There is something about the vulnerability of love, whatever form it takes or relationships it creates, that ties back to Time In A Bottle.  Love can be sad, like the melody.  It can be sweet, like the lyrics.  It can last forever and not long enough.

A couple of months ago, I heard the chiming first notes of Time In A Bottle while switching radio stations in the car.  In the back seat of our MDX, my son listened for a bit, frowned and, in a sad voice, asked me to turn off the song.  Then, he turned toward the window and watched the world go by at 30 miles per hour.

I know how I got here, but now what?

40 sign

The number may change but the forces of change do not.

This general topic has been in my head for about a week, and I wanted to write about it but couldn’t find an anchor for the concept. There’s that great line from the Talking Heads song that goes, “How did I get here?” But what I’m experiencing is slightly different from that.

Today I saw this piece in the New York Times about the difference in how people remember themselves from the past and how they perceive their future selves. It’s interesting, though probably not surprising, that studies show that people tend to have a better handle on who they used to be versus the person they will be. The gist is that people underestimate how much they’ll change over the course of a decade, even into their 60s, after they’ve had several decades of experience as an evolving adult.

Here I am at midlife, and I’m a bit baffled by the idea that, like I did when I was nearing my twenties, I need to consider what I want my future to entail. When I was decades younger, I didn’t really think much about being in my 40s, but when the fleeting thought did pass through my mind, I pictured a fairly static and stable lifestyle that I could ride out through my remaining years. Now I realize that this isn’t the case.

For example, as a 40-something, I need to think about my lifestyle (career, educating kids, geography and a whole bunch of other stuff) and how I want to guide it as I become more “mature.” There is the whole retirement thing, but there is also the idea that perhaps I don’t need to be tethered to a particular market (or climate). My concept of the best kind of lifestyle has changed as I’ve worked a family into the mix and developed richer personal interests. My values have also changed, and I want those to be reflected in my life’s work, both the paid and unpaid.

I had a similar decision to make when I chose a college major, and my parameters were different… and so were my influences. I had fewer responsibilities to others, but I also came of age in the 80s, when opportunity had a different ring to it. My parents played a big role in guiding me, and their own experiences colored their perception. Like many people, if I was sitting in front of that book of majors right now, I’d probably make different choices. But given the input I had back then – from myself, my family and the world around me – I can see how I came up with what I did.

One of the points people make in the comments following the New York Times piece is how personality doesn’t change over time. How does that account for the development that takes place in people over time? I think it’s all about context. The core of my values were the same, but how they manifest themselves in my life has changed over time. So, it’s possible that I am made of the same “raw materials,” but time puts us in different situations, teaches us, provides us with different experiences and brings different influences into our lives.

Every generation blames the one after

Courtesy of Time Magazine from 1990

Do you remember being called a “slacker?” Maybe no one used this term to describe you personally, but if you are a GenXer, I’m sure someone said this in reference to one of your friends, roomies, co-workers or classmates.

I’ve noticed a number of reports popping up about the current generation of 20-somethings, and so many of the complaints are identical to the ones made about us 20 years ago.  Young adults are returning to their parents’ homes to live.  The 20-somethings, pampered and coddled as children, and unprepared for life.  This new generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as the previous — they want everything without having to earn it.

A recent post in the New York Times blog Motherlode from a 20-something sets us straight.  These comments cannot be applied to everyone in her generation.  And, I’ll take that a step further… these comments can be applied to any generation.

Twenty years ago, GenXers frequently were cast as a woeful lot.  Kids who should be adults doing things like living in mom’s basement apartment, taking a lower paying day job because it freed up time to play in a band at night and squandering a bachelor’s degree on a job at a gas station in order to escape Midwestern winters.  Two decades later, where are these people now?  Of the three referenced here, two are successful entrepreneurs and the other has advanced significantly in her chosen career.  I know many other stories of humble and questionable young adult beginnings.  From what I can see, how one chooses to spend their years before 30 has less to do with their success afterwards than we sometimes fear.

My guess is that similar comments were made about Baby Boomers in the late-60s and early-70s, kids who spent their time partying and protesting the war when they should have been working in responsible jobs with respectable haircuts.  A walk through The Haight in San Francisco echoes of young adults who eventually moved on and out, creating lives that measure up to the standards of adulthood that we use to judge the generation behind us.

Based on what I’ve seen as a middle-age GenXer, I’m not too concerned about this “entitled” generation.  I worry about plenty of other things in our future, but very little of it has to do with a minority of people who will probably make it okay in the end.