Gen X at Midlife without a Sports Car?

Check out this piece from Forbes.com .  The writer spends some time moaning about the state of the GenX midlife crisis, and I think it is interesting.  For many years, I grumbled about the unfortunate position GenXers were put into, especially being on the older end of the generation and leaving college into a nasty job market.  Moaning about our lot, especially in comparison to the Baby Boomers, is a generational imperative… a result of our apathy, our disaffected disposition.  The tone of this piece certainly begins woefully, and like many articles and essays of its ilk, wraps with the silver lining of how many things GenX does have going for it.

This reminds me of something I saw the other day on The Today Show.  Al Roker was interviewing a financial expert on the — gasp! — increasing trend of grown children not leaving their parents’ home.  Wow!  How did this come about?!  Al even said something to that effect, feigning (I hope) mild surprise on this odd state of young adulthood.  Well, I think Al was around in the early 90s when many of us were still living with mom and dad, post-graduation and then even a few years more.  In the news cycle, perhaps enough time has passed to make this new again, but I recall the same topic covered ad nauseam by media when I was not living in my parents’ home but paying a decent portion of my paycheck for a studio apartment the size of my patio in the pre-dot-com 90s.  (This says a lot more about the size of my apartment than it does the size of my patio.)

The article certainly calls out the role of circumstance in a generation’s misfortune or good luck.  I am not entirely sure that I agree that things are so dismal for GenX.  The writer says that GenX has hit its “collective wall,” and I am assuming that is measured only in terms of earning power.  True, GenXers have suffered through two horrible economies.  And, they are approaching what has been understood to be peak earning years during one of these downturns, but this is all based on assumptions of how things are “supposed” to work.   And hasn’t each generation had to suffer through their own challenges and bask in their own advantages based on the circumstances at the time?  We can’t continue to measure ourselves by the generation that has come before, precisely because things are different.

My parents are on the initial crest of the Baby Boomers, and they never had a sports car or any of the other trappings of the midlife crisis.  When they entered their forties, they had the pleasure of paying for college for three kids.  My neighbor who just turned forty has been rolling around town in a new BMW convertible.  It’s all situational, and perhaps it doesn’t have as much to do with what generation you are in as it does choices you have made (my parents starting a family in their early 20s), and whether or not you have benefitted from the economy past, present or future.

Did the stock market downtown hit your retirement savings or the income you live off of in retirement now?  Did you start your career expecting to stay with the same company forever and have a great retirement pension, or did you know going in that it was completely up to you to save?  Do you have a huge environmental mess on your hands?  (This, I think, is the worst legacy we’ve received, and it is multi-generational.)  These things are generational.  But many other factors can influence the outcome of one’s life too.  Perhaps the GenX midlife won’t be associated with sports cars, but it might be associated with something else… like launching a second career, entrepreneurialism or re-inventing one’s life.  Regardless of what it is, it also a reflection of personal circumstances as it is of birthdate.

Record Store Day — Something I Can Get Behind

How many of you feel sorry for the younger generations — and even the youngest of GenX — because they did not partake in the pleasure of purchasing their music on vinyl?  …I thought so.  I know there are still some very cool record stores around, but it’s not the pastime that it once was for pre-digital generations.  Record stores evoke a different experience now, I think, though I continue to enjoy a good browse through them.

In my current town, Laurie’s Planet of Sound exists today.  In my hometown, the Wooden Nickel comes to mind.  These places existed all over the country.  These places were the destination point where fans connected with their favorite artists, discovered new music, and flipped through the albums, posters, rock magazines and other assorted record store goods for sometimes hours.  The dudes behind the counter (almost always dudes) were either totally into almost any artist you came in to find, or they completely minded their own business and kept their nose out of yours.  Either way, I didn’t mind.

Recently I found a website for Record Store Day.  I had heard about this last year, but after the fact because I am completely middle age and don’t hear about cool stuff like this before it happens anymore.  (Renewing our subscription to Rolling Stone has helped only slightly.  I retain more from the political/social/cultural features than anything else.)  I stumbled across it again this year, and although I do not anticipate recognizing any of the artists slated for the new releases, I do know their ambassador (Iggy Pop), so I feel relatively welcome to engage.

The thing is, I spent hours upon hours in my town’s local record stores.  I was a record store snob.  I rarely visited the chain stores in the mall, and when I did, I often made comments about their poor (or non-existent) selection of Gang of Four or early-career Depeche Mode.  (I often hear my teen self laughing at my midlife self when I download music from iTunes now.)

Kids these days — there, I said it — have no idea how indulgent it is to commune among the album bins with a BFF or boyfriend on a Saturday afternoon under the somewhat watchful eye of a record store employee.  Recently, a friend of mine talked about a record store her mom owned, recalling the massive cardboard ham and eggs that dangled from the ceiling during the release of Supertramp’s Breakfast In America.  I totally remembered those promos!  I can see them hanging in my favorite record store.  I could probably even give you the dimensions if I thought hard enough.  When I think about it, the hilarity brings forth a chuckle — giant ham and eggs to sell an album?  It was all so innocent.

There is a lot to be said about the experience of listening to music on vinyl (another post, another time), but my memories of record stores also bring back that bittersweet feeling of desperation when a new album was on the verge of selling out.  Yes, albums could sell out.  The store could be out of stock with no hope of replenishment for a month.  Four weeks was way too long to wait for a beloved new release!  I remember hiding the last copy of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy at my local record store, hoping that the next potential purchasor would walk away without a thorough search in the artists nearby, but the record store dude must have watched me place it among the Ms.  Not ten feet from me as I pretended to peruse the A and B artists, he pulled it out and handed it to the man.  (Fortunately, my parents had already secured a copy for Christmas morning.)

I still have that album, along with hundreds of others comprised of my husband’s hefty collection, many of his dad’s old jazz records and a handful of albums I’ve bought at garage sales and antique stores.  Last year, a friend of ours put me to the test.  When I asked what he wanted to hear, he said, “Do you have any Adam & The Ants?”  Maybe he really wanted to hear them.  Maybe he thought I couldn’t deliver.  But I did — both in digital form and on vinyl.  I can picture that album, Prince Charming, sitting among the very few Ants albums our record store had… “Adam” with his war paint and pirate-inspired ensemble.  I can remember my thumb nail cutting into the shrink wrap that encased the cover when I got it home.

I don’t remember the specific occasion of every album I purchased, but I do recall more than I probably should.  How about you?

Things This GenXer Learned To Appreciate In Midlife

There are some things our younger selves just don’t “get.”  I am not talking about the typical “responsible adult” stuff that we all (or most of us) have to accept as age creeps upon our shore, like mortgage payments and 401Ks.  Rather, I am talking about things that require a certain perspective that is gained over time to truly appreciate.

Recently, I read a post by another blogger on the topic of things she doesn’t get.  And that got me thinking about things that I appreciate now that I missed when I was younger.

Risk. Perhaps some people take more risks when they are young and become more conservative as they age.  For me, I think the opposite is true.  As a young person, I only took risks when I had no idea what I was doing was risky.  I may have had big and different ideas, but I frequently wavered when I needed to stand up for the choices I wanted to make, and I ended up doing a lot of things simply because it was the safer option.  Did I go for that philosophy or English major instead of selecting a field of study that provided more defined career options?  No, I graduated with degree that would help me get a job.  Did I take that job teaching English in Japan when the appeal of “broadening my horizons” was so strong?  No, I chickened out when they told me I would be living in a closet without a phone.  Did a follow up with a major rock music promoter after he was impressed with an event I put on for a charity and asked me to call his office to schedule a time to talk about working for his company?  No, I figured he was just being nice.

Granted, it’s easy to assume the outcome of rejected paths would be much better than it might have turned out in reality.  But I am glad that I have loosened up a bit in my midlife and have begun to act on my instincts more and conventional wisdom less.  I hope I have the guts to keep going.

Bob Seger.  Where I grew up in Northeast Indiana, Bob Seger was an artist who earned single-name status, and at group functions of all kinds, people shook it to his back-to-the-basics anthem, “Old Time Rock-n-Roll.”  I knew he had other songs, but at the time I was very into newer acts and very frustrated with my hometown radio’s resistence to the artists I was seeing on MTV, so I took a bit of offense to a certain extent when I heard someone encouraging people to reject the new.  His music irked me, and I refused to enjoy anything he recorded.

But, a couple of years back, I found my finger hovering over the preprogrammed station buttons on my car stereo when a Bob Seger song came on the radio.  I dismissed it as a guilty pleasure, but then I stopped changing the stations more often when I heard his music.  Eventually I began to admit, “Yeah, I like a few Bob Seger songs.”  This past summer, I found myself responding to a post on Facebook stating that, “I woke last night to the sound of thunder… how far off, I sat and wondered,” was one of my favorite lines from a song.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a fan, but I do appreciate his music now that I’ve actually really listened.  I’m a writer, and even if I don’t relate to everything he covers in his songs, I enjoy hearing how he tells a story.

I think this is a universal thing, opening up to an artist you’ve refused in the past.  Several years back I forced my husband to come along with me to see Depeche Mode — a band not guitar-driven enough for his tastes — and he had a great time.  He ended up really liking their music and the performance.  I can probably name a handful of other artists I now appreciate, but Bob Seger is the one that really surprises me.

LMAO.  It’s not that I didn’t laugh as a young person.  I laughed hard.  I laughed so hard that my stomach muscles hurt.  But, I was under the impression that laughing was a given… that I was entitled to that kind of entertainment all of the time.  I took it for granted, even thought it was one of my favorite things in the world.

When I grew up, I realized that laughter does not come with a guarantee.  People don’t just automatically laugh at things when they are older.  There is a lot of serious business to attend to, and some grown-ups get so caught up in these things that they no longer pursue laughter.  And they sometimes block it out entirely.

There is a lot about getting older than can bring you down, certainly.  That is why I appreciate having things to laugh at.  A couple of months ago, I was at a small gathering when one of my friends said something that touched just the right nerve. I responded with much heartier laughter than the comment deserved.  For whatever reason, I was receptive to that break in reality brought on by unchecked laughter.  This exists in all of us when we truly — even momentarily — let go of our troubles for the sake of just enjoying ourselves.  It feels even better now to laugh than it did all those decades ago.

Anything you now appreciate that you didn’t before?  Comments welcome!

Child’s Play

The house is silent. Sunlight streams in through the bare branches of the trees.  I stop shuffling around our toy room and take in the view for a moment.

My attention turns to the blocks on the floor. This is the final pile of toys that I need to put away in my effort to clean up my children’s toy room. Generally I ask them to keep this room tidy, but occasionally the Clean-up Elves visit.  Today is my kids’ lucky day. I’ve been focusing on organizing, containing, shelving and purging.  But in front of these blocks I rest.

The space that surrounds me looks like an ad for The Container Store again, expect for this pile of primary-colored wood in front of me.

In this moment, I have no particular place to be aside from in front of these blocks. I pick one up, truly feeling it for the first time in ages. I feel the corners and smooth sides against my palm and the pads of my fingers. The weight of their mass evokes an impression of sturdiness. I perceive the potential… how many things you can do with these blocks.

I line them up according to their size.

I line them up according to their shape.

I pile them together according to their color.

I put blue and yellow together. I make a checkerboard pattern with the red and blue cubes.

How far can I stack these blocks into the upper reaches of the room?

I build a pile that creates a rocky hill for a tiny imaginary woman to climb. I have never scaled such a landscape, but the lady in my mind will.

Children recreate the world as they see it and want to see it with these blocks. They lose themselves when they need to and when they can. And they “live” in those blocks. Why don’t adults do the same thing?

My children grab five minutes before walking out the door for their play. We hear often how important it is for children to discover through creative activity. Why does it stop in adulthood? Why is it not essential to our development? After all, we are still growing.

I am convinced that our generative abilities are the source of value in our contributions, even moreso in an era where machines can handle a lot of things. Why do we not nurture that through things as simple as these wooden blocks?

My mountainous pile is done, and the clear plastic shoe box that holds these blocks sits to the side. It is time for me to put them all neatly in this organizational vessel. Instead, Ileave them in the sunlight and walk away.

Letter to My Senior Self

Until midlife, my exposure to seniors was limited to my grandparents and occasionally grandparents of friends of mine.  Seniors were people who bought candy for their grandchildren and made them waffles on an ancient waffle iron.  I never really considered their circumstances, health, lifestyle, etc. until I entered my thirties and had the context to better understand these things.

Seniors are great, of course, and I know more now than I ever did — or at least I know them better.  But, sometimes I hear about some strange logic, unshakable habits or inflexibility that has created some sort of impass in a senior’s life, and I think about how they might have made different decisions at a different life stage.

People love that old expression — “Hindsight is 20/20.”  But what about foresight?  I mean no disrespect, but I think that some seniors could benefit from advice given to them by their midlife self.

So, I’ve come up with this idea — my letter to my senior self.  Although some of what will be included are mistakes that I’ve witnessed seniors making, several things are pieces of advice that people have learned through their own experiences as seniors.  I haven’t put it to paper yet, but it will look something like this…

Dear Senior Self,

If you have the same doctor you did when you were 40, it’s time to consider a new doctor.  Chances are, any doctor you had at age 40 is approaching the senior stage of life themselves.  Experience is great, as long as your doctor keeps an open mind about new practices and developments.  Remember, you’ve witnessed too many “seasoned” professionals who miss things because they were over-confident with their past experiences.

If you are taking medications and spending time away from home, bring more medication than the exact amount for the days you planned to be gone.  Perhaps it is an excuse, but you’ve heard people say too many times, “Oh, I can’t stay.  I only brought the exact amount of medication.”

Let people take care of you.  Independence is great, but you aren’t keeping any of it by refusing help.  You might get more mileage out of it if you do accept assistance.  Keep in mind all the times you had a 102 degree fever with two children under three at home and you had to decide between bundling everyone up to get to the pharmacy for Thera-Flu or waiting eight hours until your husband came home because no one else was there to help.

If you can’t come for at least a week and help with your newborn grandchildren, hire a post-partum doula for them.  You know that they will forever worship you. (I will likely be a senior when my kids have children.)

Yes, you need a cleaning service.

Love & Best Wishes,

Midlife Self

Time Has Spoken

A few weeks ago, I was cranking Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell,” reflecting on how what I vaguely remember was the theme for the video… or at least what I think was the theme for the video.  Actually, I was under the impression that this was the theme of the album in general — age and the surprise Baby Boomers felt at life’s midpoint.  Of course, the specific lyrics of this song are less broad, but this is my interpretation of Asia’s general message.

And, I was thinking about how I am currently middle-age, driving along, listening to a band that formed when I was a teenager, and the irony of how that band sang about the angst of lost youth at a time when I had youth, and now I don’t but I am still listening to them.  I thought about how their videos were in heavy rotation on MTV, and yet their lyrics had little to do with the lives of the MTV viewing audience at the time. But we all still listened and purchased. My husband even had a massive Asia poster in his bachelor apartment, though it was there to cover up a hole in the wall.  And now their music has far more relevance to me.

As I pulled up to the stoplight at Irving, Lincoln and Damen, a beggar was walking by the cars, and I rolled down my window to give him some change.  When I looked at his face, I saw that he was probably the same age as me.  This guy may have graduated from high school when I did.  Though his skin was much more tired and weathered than that of your average forty-something, this was one of my peers — not an older man, not a young person.  He was my age!

Why I was so shocked, I have no idea.  Maybe the song rendered me too reflective to handle this exchange of charity with my normal indifference.

When I was a teenager, I only thought ahead 10 or 15 years to where I would be in life. Aside from some very driven people, I imagine that the future is a mystery for many.

I wondered if this guy knew that he would be doing this when he was listening to Asia on the radio back in the 80s. When I was a senior in high school, I did my term paper on homelessness.  I had no idea that someday I’d be handing a couple of quarters and a dime from the change holder in my car to a guy who could have sat next to me in study hall.

Belated Goodbye

I was recently cleaning out my closet, sorting through a pile of t-shirts I set aside last year.  I hadn’t worn any of these tees in quite some time, but each time I cleared my closet of worn out or unwanted clothes, I could not part with them.  Last year, I put them in a pile at the back of one of my shelves and said, “If I don’t disturb this pile for a whole year, then I need to get rid of these next summer.”

Again, this collection of t-shirts sat untouched for the remainder of the year.  Having every intention of honoring my commitment, I looked through them one last time.

There was the “This Is Spinal Tap” anniversary t-shirt kindly given to me by a former client.  Despite my love for the movie, an ill-fitting black t-shirt with the cast of Spinal Tap on the front just didn’t need to stay in my closet.  Perhaps it would find love somewhere else.

Beneath that was the burgundy MGD t-shirt from 1998.  Burgundy, MGD, 1998 — enough said!  I couldn’t remember why this was even in my “hard-to-let-go” pile, but I suspect it had something to do with my vanity over getting too old to wear a beer brand.

At the bottom of the pile, I unearthed a t-shirt from my former employer, featuring what was at one time the company’s new logo.  Now, I regularly tell my husband to chuck all of his logo polos, but this one has been around far longer than any of his.  I absently mindedly began to fold it, and as I set it in the give-away pile, I had a flash of emotion that reminded me why it was still even here.

That t-shirt was like a necklace from an old boyfriend.  I had had a hard time moving on from that job in the way that sometimes people have a hard time getting over broken relationships.  Like many relationships that aren’t really about love at all, that job represented a time filled with good friendships, exciting work and accomplishment… the proverbial “right place at the right time” situation.

When I left full-time work to pursue a part-time career after having my children, I was shocked by how difficult it was for me to disassociate myself from my former life.  I had always prided myself on my mature perspective that there was more to life than professional accomplishment.  I was “above” judging people based on their employment.  Yet, living without that kind of daily success at the office proved much more difficult for me than I had ever imagined.

What hurt even more was that others seemed to be moving on themselves.  No one else seemed to have the same feelings I did.

I was finally able to let go of that t-shirt this year.  And as I dropped it in the paper bag destined for the Salvation Army, I felt relief.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve felt that twinge of sadness for the old me. Mom was right… time heals all wounds (or at least most).

As for the pile, it is much smaller now.  Pretty much the only thing that remains is my Puffalpalooza t-shirt from the mid-90s.  How could I possibly get rid of that homage to children’s television pioneers Sid & Marty Krofft?

It’s All About Perspective

The other day, I was stopped several cars back from a stoplight at an intersection near one of our city’s selective enrollment high schools.  As usual, the kids paid little attention to the crosswalk and floated among the stopped cars, choosing whatever crossing spot was most convenient to their starting point.  It was one of those times when I realized how “grown up” I had become.

A group of six boys, likely about 16 years old, walked in front of my car.  Among the guys with pimply faces and awkward fashion was one very cool kid.  He was the most confident among them — with a smooth walk, clear complexion and chilled out demeanor.  And, he was the only one smoking a cigarette.

As a teenager, that cigarette would have essentially been invisible to me.  I would have admired all of his coolness and ignored his short-comings.  I didn’t smoke as a teenager, but there was no way a bad habit like that would get in the way of my admiration.  My impression is that these days, with decades of additional warnings about smoking health hazards and, now, stigma, people perceive smoking as a far greater offense than they did in the mid-80s.

And, from my grown-up perspective, that cigarette was a concerning flaw.  This is probably a kid with the charisma to set an example.  What a missed opportunity it is for him to set this one!

And a few years from now, when my daughter enters high school, will this guy be something else all-together?  Will my daughter see through the charms of a teenage boy who can pull off wearing capris when he is smoking a cigarette?  And is he such a bad kid for doing so, or just misguided like so many other young guys from previous generations?  In the words of the supergroup Asia, I suppose only time will tell.

No Longer Naive… Or Naive Again?

I wish I had the same enthusiasm for the mundane that I did when I was in my 20s.  It’s not that I was a boring person, rather, I was not challenged by the boring.  I understood that some of these mundane tasks were part of a bigger picture in a way that I do not today.

When I had my first apartment, I cleaned it every week.  Granted, it was smaller than the patio in our back yard, but I dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the kitchen, wiped down the bathroom every single week.  And I enjoyed it.  I was charged up by the idea of taking care of something that was my responsibility.  I paid the rent.  I earned the money to pay that rent.  I found and interviewed for the job that paid me the money to pay the rent.  It was all me – all my responsibility and completely my accomplishment.  As small as it was, that apartment – and my ability to pay for it – was a major source of pride for me.

It’s the same thing with the boring work that I was given at the temp jobs I had over the summers during college.  I liked temping because I often found myself in an air conditioned environment.  The fact that I didn’t need to wear a uniform was a bonus too.  Being a temp, I’d get “projects” like typing written lists into a document on the computer or filing huge stacks of purchase orders.  I’m sure these were the kind of things the permanent assistant would put at the bottom of the To Do list.  But, I would do these things gladly, accurately and quickly.  My temp agency’s clients would be big fans of my work by the end of the day, and I’d be pumped from the praise.  It didn’t matter that just two years prior I had graduated from high school in the top 10 percent of my class… I was proud of my temp work.

These days, I’m not so naïve… or maybe I am suffering from a kind of reverse naivite that affects people when they become so jaded almost nothing impresses them about themselves anymore.  I often feel that way, sitting in my not-cleaned-weekly house with a back patio that is larger than my first apartment, avoiding transferring almost twelve months of photos from my computer to my online photo site.  These things just don’t inspire me enough.  Where has my sense of accomplishment gone?

Because I work only part-time, my professional life doesn’t provide when it comes to a steady stream of ego stroking.  And, when I see my former colleagues from my office-with-a-window days, I can tell that their good work doesn’t give them the same boost it used to.  And, I have no interest in making my children’s accomplishments mine.  That is a slippery slope I hope to never go down.

Despite my four decades of living, it appears that I need a little more wisdom when it comes to having a sense of accomplishment.  Maybe I need to take some risks.  Maybe I need to admit that I have more to learn than I ever thought.  Maybe others my age feel this way too.  Maybe I should grab the vacuum or take care of that pile of filing that has been sitting on my desk for months… get back to the basics.