Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Germinating with Generation X
Growing Old in Slackerville
July 2009 Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts

Have you ever wondered the trick to looking good at your high school reunion? The trick is to not have looked all that great in high school! For folks who peaked in physical beauty during their teen years, I hear this is a bit devastating. However, for people like me, who spent much of high school with bad skin, bizarre fashion sense, and a series of awful hair days, I’m not afraid of walking into that reunion hall. I wasn’t the Homecoming Queen. In the past 20 years my appearance has worsened in some ways, and improved in others. But, it is undeniable that I have gotten older. It creeps up on you, this age thing. In many ways I feel the same at age 37 as I did at age 7 or 14 or 21. Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, documenting British youth through the decades, revisited the same children throughout their lives, in increments of 7 years (most recently in “49 Up”). The notion behind the series is that a person’s personality is in place as it will be in adulthood, by age 7. Watching the different participants living their lives is fascinating. And it’s true, their personalities are set by age 7. You can watch it run through each of them like river. It’s also obvious the aging process of life. Oxygen-- it makes us all kinda rust like road salt on an old American car.

Being 37 means that my wrinkle cream must also be pimple proof.
It means sometimes I get asked if I want my “senior discount” (!), and other times I still get carded when I buy beer. The first wrinkle I ever noticed was a deep crevasse forming between my eyes, ingrained from decades of squinting. If I could go back in time I’d slap my teenage-self silly, and then slap a pair of sunglasses on her face. Soon after that first wrinkle, a Mexican friend commented, “¡Tienes muchas canas, Ellen!”…“¿Canas?” I asked. What are canas? “Grey hair, amiga! Canas! You are muy grey now!” I streaked to the closest mirror and pulled back my hair, revealing abundant white streaks at each temple. Damn Irish genes. How did I not notice this happening? Maybe it happened all at once. Maybe I had a super scary nightmare and it gave me all that grey hair, like, overnight. Then came the wrinkly neck, the chubby elbows. Fat accumulating in strange places, entirely resistant to the most rigorous exercise routine. An age spot! Like a beauty mark, but not. Like a big freckle gone wrong. Sometimes, in particularly dry seasons, my hands seem to be about a billion years old. Parts that were once so effortlessly firm, and quick to heal now suffer the effects of gravity and years. Yet, my eyesight and hearing remain phenomenal, as does my genius sense of smell. I can run farther than I ever did as a teenager. I have a wealth of experiences which calm me and guide me—things that upset me like crazy in my 20s are of no consequence in my 30s. In certain ways I am both better and worse.

There is beauty in age, in living and surviving. In an air-brushed nation like ours we don’t appreciate it or emphasize it enough, and the result is an army of Hollywood face-lifts gone wrong. Arizona has a big market for plastic surgery-- with surgeons operating out of mini-malls throughout metro Phoenix--for people who panic about the aging process and get nipped, tucked, enhanced. Luckily, my lackluster looks taught me at a young age that self wasn’t ever really about appearance, but more about one’s mind and personality—so, getting older doesn’t really bother me much. I think about all the changes in the world I’ve seen, the people I’ve walked the planet with, even if it was just for a short time—Salvador Dali, Gilda Radner, Harry Nilsson, World War 2 veterans, Mother Teresa, Moe Howard— I wouldn’t trade it to be younger.

My 20th high school reunion is this summer. It’s certainly a milestone, marking the passage of time, and makes me think about my place in history. Has it really been 20 years since that rainy June day in the school stadium? “We are sexy, we are fine, we are the class of ‘89”.
With my Scorpio rising sign, I tend towards sentimental, and have been reading many books about the 20th century, the amazing ways things have changed, and the fundamental ways things have not. I come from a place called Generation X. We brought you hip-hop, and alterna-rock. We wax lyrical about our 1970s toys, like the Big Wheel, Light Bright, Atari and our old record players. Schoolhouse Rock forever lives in a back closet of our brains. We used to be best known as the Slacker generation, and for our appearances in John Hughes films. We have roller-rink dreams, full of flashing lights, glitter and scratch-n-sniff stickers. We are hypnotized by pop culture in a way generations before us were not, wearing our Bart Simpson t-shirts, wanting our MTV, and listening to our Walkmans.

Folks of our generation cannot say we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot, something that seemed to galvanize the generation before us. Some of us may remember when ML King was assassinated, or Bobby Kennedy. The moon landing 40 years ago. Some may remember the end of the Vietnam War. Star Wars. Most of us remember 3 Mile Island, Cuba’s Mariel Boat Lift, John Lennon being assassinated and the attempt to assassinate President Reagan. Mt.St, Helens. AIDS, Safe sex. Just say no to drugs. The 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and the disaster that same year at Chernobyl. The falls of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. The first and second Gulf Wars. The Internet. The deaths of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. The “Y2K bug” (which wasn’t), and the “Dot.com” boom and bust. Naturally 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and “An Inconvenient Truth” have all changed the world forever, for all of us. And now, children born today will always take for granted that there could be a black president. They will always know this is possible in a way that I, as a child, could not.

When I was a kid first starting kindergarten, in 1977, things were not much different than how they were for my Mom going to school in the 1940s and ‘50s. My grade school even had the old-fashioned bolted-down wood and cast iron desks, with the ink well that we never used (and at the time weren't even sure what it was for). My classroom was straight out of the 1920s, with dropped pendant lights and the original chalkboards. In first grade, 1978, the school was renovated. They pulled out all of the old desks, replacing them with the now ubiquitous molded plastic-seated metal-legged desk/chair combos. They dropped the ceilings and installed fluorescent lighting. I remember standing out in the schoolyard, looking at the pile of old wooden desks ready to be taken away, and thinking to myself " This means something". Like I was standing at the edge of the future, looking back at the past. By the mid-1980s we had computers in our classroom.

I sometimes read old magazines from the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and the advertisements really drive home how different the world has become, as far as the mainstream, and the youth culture, and how "plugged in" everyone is now. It's kind of fascinating, this instant information—sorta’ addictive, yet somehow not all that fulfilling.
Generation X was the first youth culture to grow up during the birth of the Information Age, and for this reason, we will be the last to remember a more simple time, which was not all that long ago. We joke about it- the days before cell phones, DVDs, the World Wide Web, and Wii--we’ll tell our children about it like how our elders told us about their trading-stamp booklets, and coonskin caps. The internet forever changed the way we communicate, shop, and do research. What’s cool is how it’s eliminated all sorts of boundaries allowing people to self-publish and promote music, art, writing. It also allows folks who live in the hinterlands, like me, to have access to the same goods and products as city folk. However, I think the human race is bound to go dumb, because the Internet has become an auxiliary memory bank for many of us, myself included. I don't need to remember the actors in that movie anymore, or who wrote that book. I'll just "Google it"! Maybe someday people will stop writing things by hand—maybe those synapses that connect to our brain for that task will simply just wither away from neglect.

There are man-made structures on this planet that have been standing since long before we were born-- ranging from native cliff dwellings, and century old brick storefronts, locally, to ancient temples and villages thousands of years old, globally—and they will remain long after we’re gone. There are things that don’t change—and are remarkable in their constancy. There are giant Sequoias that have been living for more than 1,000 years, and canyons that are still being carved. My time on this planet is brief. I wonder what the legacy of my generation will be, to someone writing history in the next century. What technological and scientific advances are being conjured up at this very moment that might affect the future? What political decisions might change the course of time? It’s fascinating to watch changes happen, all of it, from me personally-- getting older, maybe wiser--to my community, to the world at large.

Speaking of changes--my 20 year reunion. I thought people who went to their 20 year high school reunions were old fogies, but turns out they were all just in their late 30s, like me. Will it be like the movies? Am I going to get bumped on the head and wake up back in 1989? Is someone going to get stabbed with a ball-point pen? Will Romy and Michelle be there with John Cusack? No, probably not. I know it won’t be as exciting as it is in the movies. I’m sure I’ll have lots of boring conversations with people I’ve recently become semi-reacquainted with via Facebook. Lots of reminiscing about Run DMC, Aqua Net and acid-washed jeans. Butts will have grown and hairlines will have shrunk. Photos of children will be shared along with work tale woes, and over-consumption of open-bar booze. Fresh faces and braces giving way to crows feet and canas. We’ve all got some miles on us now, and we’ve never looked better.

Ellen Jo Roberts was born in 1972, and graduated high school in 1989. She has been married to the same dude for 14 years, and driven the same car for 11. She lives in a 95 year old house in Clarkdale, AZ. Read all about it at ellenjo.com

1 comment:

  1. Ellen Jo:
    One: This will not be the first time you've heard this but you are a fantastic writer. Flickr isn't really the venue for any of us to shine in this manner, so it is great to see this other creative side of you.

    Two: Thank god I am not the only person who feels this way! I turn thirty - eight in a few weeks. I also graduated from high school twenty years ago (1989). It doesn't scare the crap out of me. I am all too happy to tell someone how old I am if asked. I did not enjoy ages 6 through 35. My twenties were the worst. The process to reaching forty is simply surreal. Surreal in that I still get carded and at the same time referred to as "ma'am" by younger people. I know.

    Three: Grey hairs? I got' em too. The thing that freaks me are the Curse of the Mummy hands. I saw on my own person a few night back. Where did those hands come from?! It scared the living crap out of me.