May 22, 2007

If 40 is the new 20, we're screwed

Clearly I've seen too many commercials and watched too much retro navel-gazing TV: the ads say 40 is the new 20, and I say, I wouldn't want to be 20 again for all the proverbial tea in China. Were I to rerun the movie of my life, I would scratch 1980, for numerous reasons. The most obvious is political: the first presidential election in which I voted got us Reagan. And that was a highlight.

Sure, I had a great, no-maintenance-necessary body. More brain cells than I could addle despite drugs. But the strum und drag? The illicit rendez-vous, the intrigues, the betrayals, even my first love -- all that energy expended, only to wind up lovesick and on antidepressants. No, not my year. 40 as the new 20? What that says about our collective emotional maturity, I hate to imagine.

I wouldn't mind having the body, still, but the rest of it? Thank you, I've handed in my homework, have a couple of degrees behind me, and already recovered from a run-in or two with the age of grief. In the 25th reunion book I edited, one of my friends answered the question, what would your 1982 self be most surprised about about your current self? She said, "menopause and retirement -- looking forward to both."

The PBS two-hour celebratory "documentary" called The Baby Boomer Century made me want to hurl sharp inanimate objects at its host, narrators, writers, editors, and producers. Do we still believe we're going to change the world? Yeah, we're going to outlive our resources, drain Social Security, and live in a anti-smoking, anti-drinking, follow-your-bliss-off-a-cliff society. Sounds like a plan to me.

Women, incidentally, aren't necessarily in the work force by choice. Since 1973, it has been considered impossible to support a middle-class household on one salary. According to the documentary, we have had a "civilizing effect," on the work place. Seems a dose of Emily Post followed by a chaser of Miss Manners could have done the job for us.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote of a character in a short story, "The Dead," in 1980: "...Ilena thought it wisest to avoid complete mental alertness. That it was an overrated American virtue." I couldn't agree more. That baby boomer in the White House, lousy poster boy for cocaine rehab and a highly suspicious return to God, has demonstrated that this is not the time to pay attention. What we see, we would prefer not to. What we know, he refuses to admit. Iraq is this century's Vietnam, but no one is talking. If we were really the 20 of the baby boom years as portrayed on TV, we'd be shouting.

Or so I'd like to think. The much-touted longevity we can apparently anticipate is not something I'm looking forward to. 25 years out of college, the physical damage is done. I've already buried several of my friends, and at least one is terminal, another so close to a psych ward it terrifies me. I think it's the Gen Xers who took to the gym with a vengeance.

My generation (or at least I) went kicking and screaming. (That's about as much exercise as seems dignified.) My mother walks to keep her bones from crumbling, bored by every minute of it. I take calcium and Fosomex. The part of my generation that isn't "in recovery" does, after all, believe in "better living through chemistry."

Telling us smoking is bad is not new information. It may have been new to our parents in 1964, but now? Not so much. Yet now, in Wonderland, cigarettes must be fireproof, meaning if you don't puff in a timely fashion, the cigarette will extinguish itself. Evidently we are too old or stupid to remember Smoky the Bear's warning: "Only you can prevent forest fires." In Wonderland, I can scarcely see a tree for the 30-story condo. I wouldn't worry about the forest and me. Nature and I simply are not on such close terms.

Give me the tropics in winter, the mountains in summer, but give me the hotel, not the canvas tent; maid service, not roll-your-own-sleeping-bag; room service, not freeze-dried ice cream to be reconstituted over the campfire -- if indeed campfires are acceptable and not considered eco-terrorism.

I haven't been camping since I was old enough for "no, thanks," to become a complete sentence. (Besides, as last reported, I talk in my sleep, loud enough for an entire campground to hear me yell "fuck!") Three years ago our tents in Africa had carpets on the floor, 24-hour electricity, full mosquito netting, and complete indoor plumbing. That's as much of the outdoors as I have grown to prefer without a guide taking me to tour the wide open spaces.

Don't get me wrong: I loved our safari, adored swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands. My safari companion was 80; my Galapagos companion, 70; both are healthier than I ever will be.

However, I want to leave wild life in the wild. Wonderland's idea of wildlife is cockroaches, the invincible creatures of our era who dwell in our walls. Thank you, I'll take an exterminator's visit over scurrying roaches or the mouse who has taken up residence in my apartment. This would be Minnie, who searches here in vain for food. She (or he, could be transgendered) doesn't know where to find the menu drawer, my primary source for nutrition.

I'm hoping that Hannah Arendt's observation is correct: "Wisdom is a virtue of old age, and it seems to come to those who, when young, were never wise."

I have it on good authority that I was never wise.

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