Not Like My Parents

Posted on 2014 December 11


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If youth only new; if age only could.” — Henri Estienne

When I was a kid, I swore I’d never turn into my parents. They despised rock-n-roll; they wouldn’t let me watch TV on weeknights; they seemed like old fuddy-duddies. As he got older, my father grew more alienated from society, more distant. He was still cheerful and active and friendly, but he developed a disdain for most people and their propensities. I promised myself I’d never fall into those traps.

Don’t get me wrong: my dad was a great man, loved by a great many, including me. Yet even he did that thing that old people do, where they become dismissive of the world and its follies.

I didn’t produced offspring, so I never had to test my New Age commitment to open-minded child rearing. But I did get older, and now I notice a tendency — not just in myself, but in others my age — to curl up into a curmudgeonly ball of grouch.

I’ve changed from a young leader of sit-ins to an aging critic of Occupy; from a believer in open marriage to a doubter of any kind of relationship; from one who hopes for the future of humanity to one who thinks most people aren’t worth the bother. What the hell happened?

Meanwhile, I look around and notice a remarkable number of middle-aged, overweight, out-of-shape men who sport graying goatees, a bad attitude, and long-suffering wives. Some of them are (or were) friends; I’ve watched as they soured over time. In youth filled with energy and enthusiasm, they now ruminate endlessly on how some group of bastards screwed up the world or how some guy they know (often, me) is a big jerk. What’s going on here?

It’s not just guys; women do it, too, in their own way. Their looks fade and they begin to panic, or they grow stout and resentful, or they start collecting cats. One woman I’ve known for decades — who had despaired as her mom devolved into a cranky old biddy — began to grow testy with me, abruptly lashing out from time to time. Despite her best efforts, she was turning into her own mother.

But why wouldn’t we be crotchety? Aches and pains impede us in our favorite activities; suddenly our preferred topic is health issues. Then there’s rapid technological change, which obsoletes our hard-won wisdom, and we’re pushed aside in favor of younger, more with-it people. And we gripe: 

“But I love the feel of a book!” 

“The things kids wear at school? All of it was banned back in my day!” 

“The best way to see a movie is in a theatre!” 

“This food’s got no flavor! They took out all the salt.” 

“People on TV talk so fast, I can’t understand what they’re saying!” 

“I don’t get it — cigarettes are bad but pot is legit?” (“It’s not called ‘pot’ anymore, old man. It’s ‘weed’.”)

Then there is the remarkable number of the late-middle-aged who simply detest rap music.

Perhaps, as we get older, we begin to notice the yawning gaps between our youthful dreams and our later realities. The wonderful careers that didn’t pan out; the kids we spent years raising who ended up decidedly mediocre; the spouses we once loved and now merely tolerate. (Half of all marriages end in divorce; most of the rest probably aren’t rousing successes.) 

For me it’s been hard — very hard — to accept that most of my life is over and I haven’t accomplished what I’d hoped for; that I’ve wasted much or most of my time here; that many of my own dreams finally got dashed on the rocks of reality.

I can only suppose that these same thoughts have crossed the enervated minds of many of my peers who, as young men and women, had charged into the battle of life with such drive and ended up slogging through the mud of disappointment.

How does one recharge the fading batteries? How does one start over in late middle age? Lest I fall into a permanent state of gloom — or, worse, lest I do turn into my parents — I’ve adopted the attitude that my life thus far isn’t so much a disappointment as a weird predicament, and that the challenge is to take what remains and build it into something interesting, useful, even worthwhile.

To begin with, I think I can be open minded about rap music. For instance: Lauryn Hill? … Okay, that’s kind of passé. But it’s a start.