Tangled Up in ME

It’s finally happening. In spite of the plastic surgery, the Viagra, the three-wheeled motorcycles — the baby boomers are feeling old. As the Wonder Years fade to the Blunder Years, they’re gazing deeply into the unflattering mirror. They’re seeing wrinkles and gray hair. And they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re elders! Far out! Let’s mentor someone!’

Forgive me if I don’t camp overnight for tickets to that show.

Isn’t it enough that we’ll be the underpaid and uninsured chumps who’ll wheel them to the ‘bongo room’ at the assisted-living facility? Do we have to listen to them drone on about their acid-drenched weekend at Woodstock, too?

This is the generation that exhorted us to never trust anyone older than 30 — then grew up and proved the point by ushering in the long nightmare of social conservatism and permanent war that is our current reality. They promised a revolution and boy did they deliver. Safety net: shredded. Social Security: squandered. Liberalism: perished. Fairness: forgotten. Great Society: whatever. Do I even need to mention climate change? AIDS? The Monkees? So now they want to pass on their wisdom to the rest of us. Uh-huh.

OK, OK. I know I’m trading in gross generalizations here. I mean, some of my best friends are baby boomers. In fact, one of them just informed me that all alternative rock can be traced to Rubber Soul. (Really? Even Motorhead?)

I’m actually pretty invested in the notion of mentorship; I’ve always had a soft spot for geezers. I’m the afterthought child of pre-boomer parents, so I spent most of my childhood with a couple of taciturn members of the ‘Silent Generation.’ When they and their peers finally lurched out of their collective coma and began talking about the past, it was riveting.

My mother told me about her father’s struggles to find a job during the Great Depression, and about the hobos who came to the back door to beg for food. She spoke about her work as a Dorothy Day-style Catholic, and how the dawn of World War II, while it ended the Depression, plunged us into conservatism after a long and hard-won battle over fairness and class consciousness. My dad told stories of stumbling into anti-aircraft nests hidden in the woods in Central Park, and about the rumors that Japanese subs were in the harbor off the coast of Long Island. He told me about his search for college, and how he was turned down by one school after another because they’d filled their quota of Jews.

These stories had value because they were remote from my experience and therefore became a measure of it. They opened up the history of my country and my people like a knife opens a vein. It’s hard not to roll my eyes at the notion of boomers as mentors because their history is so pervasive. Is there a three-minute period of their collective experience that hasn’t been made into an hour-long VH1 documentary? I have my own acid-drenched weekends to (blearily) recall, thank you very much.

I recently slogged through a puff piece on Paul McCartney in the New Yorker (a magazine, incidentally, that has been scrubbed free of its wit and style by, yup, baby boomers). McCartney is perhaps the quintessential boomer: a banal, modestly talented guy who’s been elevated to genius status by an accident of demographics. But maybe, I thought, the New Yorker had managed to uncover some shred of wisdom from the 65-year-old musician. Alas. ‘There was one guy who wrote ‘Yesterday,’ and I was him,’ McCartney muses. ‘You have to pinch yourself.’

Such misty-eyed sessions of ‘those-were-the-days’ tend to dominate the landscape of aging boomer culture, as does a sort of innocent grandiosity. Al Gore more or less claiming to have invented the Internet is just one item on a long list of willful superimpositions: The Beatles as if there were no Elvis; free love as if there were no Emma Goldman; utopian communes as if there were no American Transcendentalists; student movements as if there were no Latin America; LSD as if there were no laudanum.

Given this inability to put their personal experience in context, it’s hard to see what boomers have to offer us in the way of mentorship. I think I speak for many when I suggest that as they become ‘elders,’ a higher road and more challenging practice would be for them to shut up and listen for a change.

Contributing editor Joseph Hart, 39, lives in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and is more of a hippie than he lets on.

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader‘s September / October package on mentoring:

  • The New Elders
    Eric Utne and career coach Richard Leider on mentoring, wisdom, and why boomers can still save the world
    interview by David Schimke
  • You Say You Want a Revolution?
    A boomer on her generation’s legacy and lessons learned
    by K.C. Compton
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