A Pretty Boring & Quick Response to James

Well, I’ve clearly disappointed Rummel & in addition begun to suspect I’m not a baby boomer. It seemed to me I had all the marks: my mother had to leave the Navy because she was pregnant; I’m pretty sure this was a choice because both she & my father (who was in the Engineer’s Corps) saw the beginning of the end. My class was the largest one at Kenesaw High in years; the class that preceded us had only 8 in it, but we were a rather unwieldy 26, so many of our classes had to be broken into two. (Think of that next to an urban school, but we’ll move on from there.) They tried to flunk at least half of us out our first year in college because they just didn’t need all of us around. Anyway, I was born in Dec. of ’45.

Perhaps we baby boomers should have grandiose world-saving dreams – but those would be too various for such a poll. Maybe it is just the narcissism of baby boomers, but the answers were quite personal goals. Sure, it is likely to be people in their fifties & sixties who screw up the world or make it better during the negotiations of the next few weeks, but solving the problems of the Middle East would be for all but one or two an unrealistic personal goal, unchartable on a survey (& those aren’t people answering dumb polls anyway). These goals seem meager, perhaps, to someone of your age, but one thing we’ve learned is that our more idiosyncratic goals are not representative. In addition, we’ve taken our own measures and begun to understand our strengths & limitations. And, while we can go back to school, we are quite unlikely to have a full career ahead of us. We are, after all, beginning to think about retirement.

The personal (as all the American romantics never tired of pointing out) is the universal; few things are more personally important than health & wealth – or at least, unsickness and unindebtedness. Nor more universal.

Actually, I think some of you scoff too easily at writing. That is something we can do even as we become decrepit & confined to home. Edith Hamilton began her rich writing career after she’d retired at 65. Norman Maclean, another Chicagoboy of apparent great irrascability, didn’t write his tribute to his brother, long dead, until he retired from teaching his beloved British romantics. (Indeed, he was lucky to teach in another era, since his lack of scholarly publications would have denied him tenure today.) Benjamin Franlin’s best writing, his autobiography, was begun in his sixties. So, we can go on and on. The first novel of coming of age, written by passionate artists of their twenties is no larger a genre than the words of the aged – Adams letters to Jefferson & those returning from Jefferson, for instance.

James, were you thinking we should be deeper? Thoreau believes he is giving us good advice for life’s goals:

What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old! “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” The preacher, instead of vexing the ears of drowsy farmers on their day of rest at the end of the week- for Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not the fresh and brave beginning of a new one-with this one other draggle-tail of a sermon, should shout with thundering voice, “Pause! Avast! Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?”

This is from his great “Why” chapter, the second in Walden.

But, on the other hand, that seems quintessentially boomer. And I’m not all that impressed with it. Thoreau was a great writer, he handled language beautifully. He makes us pause & think. Still, I always also assign the chapter where he preaches to the Fields, who have arrived, fleeing the potato famine, and who have come to this new land to feed & raise their household of children. That chapter makes clear why Thoreau generally fled women’s company. The asexual, ascetic, hermetic, spiritual life is not a bad one. But it is not one that many of us choose.

Thoreau would scoff at my goals. Of course, they are scoffable for they aren’t real goals – they aren’t what I can do. But they are still what consumes me with worry and hopes. I hope my two older daughters’ marriages prove to be long and happy. I hope my third child finds a mate worthy of her & whom she deeply loves. I hope that all three find a purpose, that they are able to use their brains & their passions in useful lives that both challenge and fulfill them. I hope that my husband finishes his book & its Darwinian emphasis is appreciated & helps enrich lit analysis. I hope people read my posts. Actually, I hope neither of us gets Alzheimer’s – unless some miraculous cure has been developed – and it will most likely be by someone of your generation.

But one thing you notice when you get to be sixty is that the things you really worry about are, to a large extent, out of your hands. The list you link to, though, are things we can do: diet, pay off a mortgage, save up & fly to Australia. We probably won’t convince Mugabe & Chavez that Hayek was right; or suddenly develop the skills to negotiate peace in the Middle East or reach the underclass in America or reconcile those Arabs in European ghettos to modernism. We aren’t going to write the great American novel or paint the great American portrait. We aren’t likely to get a Nobel or even a Pulitzer. But we might do something. We might do something pretty good. But we have learned that that “good” may come by accident, surprise us. We recognize that our lives will be limited because we don’t have as much time as we once did.

Having fantasies in your sixties can be energizing, but we leave behind delusions as well as dreams. Youths don’t accept limitations & bully for them – those are the years of discoveries, inventions, exploration, pushing the boundaries. But ours are years of consolidation, respect for tradition, quiet assessment. Youth are the years of lyric poetry and maturity of history & conclusions. If society needed us to rebel in our youth, I think it needs us to conserve in our age.

7 thoughts on “A Pretty Boring & Quick Response to James”

  1. You are indeed a Boomer. Take a look at Strauss & Howe (Generations, 4th Turning) who came up with the really cool meme about social moments (not demographics) to define a generation. They defined the Boomer generation as those born between 1943 – 1960. I differ with them a little on the back end, since the social moment for Boomers was the JFK assination – which seemed to kick off all the 60’s events that followed. I was born in 1959 & vaguely remember Cronkite droning on the TV during the funeral. Anyone younger than me isn’t going to remember that event first-hand unless they were some kind of prodigy.
    For the record, here are the recent generations according to S&H:
    GI 1901-1924 (hero)
    Silent 1925-1942 (artist)
    Boomers 1943-1960 (prophet)
    X-ers 1961-1981 (hard-luck Nomad)
    Millenials 1982-2003 (hero?)
    Prophet generations are really great at the ‘vision thing’, hence they come up with really good & bad ideas to meet the crises of the day but aren’t so hot on the follow-through. As a prophet generation ages, their focus shifts from their internal goals to societal goals so they can leave behind a legacy. The first Boomers are now in their early 60’s so we’re just at the start of a long road redefining what America means (again) & how to respond to things like terrorism or whatever else becomes our next big crisis.

  2. My blog buddy CW and I define Boomers as people whose parents were of age to fight in WWII. Ginny is a Boomer in that sense, but my mother, born in 1946, is not – she is the youngest girl, and her parents clearly remember the depression and were too old to fight in WWII. Having parents whose parents were in that age group makes me an Xer. Having Boomer parents makes one a Y generation millenial.

    That is why I cut the Boomers off at 1966, not 1960 or 1964 – most people of the WWII generation quit having kids at 40, so someone who turned 20 in 1946, and could have fought in WWII, probably had their last kids in 1965 or 1966. But the years 1963-1967 were probably years of mixed Boomer / Gen X births. By 1969, pretty much all births were firmly in the X camp.

    I still agree with Ginny that the attacks on the Boomers out of this article are somewhat knee-jerk. Not that the Boomers didn’t ask for some of that, but also remember that all Boomers were not self-serving idiots – many volunteered to go to SEA.

    As for the writing thing, it came up as a goal for an awful lot of people. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s line:

    Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

    Most of the Boomers who really have something to say have already said it.

    One final note – one of the results of that poll that I see as very telling is that Viet Nam did not show up on those travel destinations. For a generation that was so consumed by that experience, I’m surprisded that not more of them want to go see what really happened. No curiosity? Cause of the day that is now forgotten? Or were the Viet Nam protests more a sign of generational cowardice? I want to go there someday, just to see where all those hand tools went that I saw Vietnamese “tourists” carting out of the USSR by the truckload.

  3. Mark – qualified? You’re a demographer? I actually do a bit of demographics in my current job – I work in market research now, and the definition I outlined above is a pretty good operational one for defining the broad behavior patterns in generations.

  4. John is certainly qualified. He holds Chicagoboyz Demographic Commentary Certificate # 029, which qualifies him without qualification to quantify all aspects of boomer demographics. In addition he holds Chicagoboyz Special Uncompensated Explosives Analysis Certificate # 028, which certifies his knowledge of booming demographics, and Chicagoboyz Botanical Certificate # 167 which quantifies his qualifications in blooming demographics. You cannot find a more qualified quantifier than John.

  5. I wonder if that’s all that is behind the Kosbats’ strong anti-Lieberman pitch, ageism. Ageism an d Statism are kinda similar, linked anyhow.
    The Nutroots are ambitious X-erBats on STRIKE, and Libernman is The Boomer Man — he be puttin’ and keepin’ ’em DOWN. Thus their continuous analogy to the Plantation – they be (gettin’) down on The Farm. The X-erBats want to be in Upper Management, not down slogging in the cubicles. The Internet is their dues-paying vehicle, their heritage.

  6. As a Republican, I like to see the Donks fighting among themselves. I also like to see them dividing into two parties in the general election. I wish this was happening in every Democrat primary and every general election in the country. I also like to see the more out-of-it wing winning. That means they will marginalize themselves in the general election. They need more time in the wilderness, it seems.

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