On Turning 40

About a month ago, I turned 40. It’s often thought of as a landmark age, like those milestone ages throughout your teen years or when you turn 21 and you can finally drink legally. It’s also usually defined by one simple, irrefutable fact: you’re getting older. My 12 year-old son is only too quick to point this out. And, in my opinion, he should.

Now, for many people, simply admitting this is worse than actually speaking Lord Voldemort’s name. If you don’t believe me, take a look at pop culture all around you. Everything it seems is geared towards our sense of vanity. “Use this cream and you’ll look ten years younger.” “Take this pill and you can perform like a man half your age.” There’s just something about us that makes us yearn for yesteryear. As Don Draper put it, it’s “a place where we ache to go again.”

But should we? Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You Can’t Go Back Home Again.” Due to the effects of time and distance, the world has a way of changing on you, even while it feels quite familiar. As Carl Wilson wrote last year in a New York Times op-ed (h/t Jennifer James):

Long before we had much life to look back on, North Americans my age knew that nostalgia was a sickness. It’s not that we were aware the term was coined to describe the crippling melancholia that overcame many 17th-century Swiss soldiers when war took them away from the bucolic mountain landscapes of home. It was that, being in our teens and 20s in the early 1990s, we had grown up in the penumbra of the great eclipsing nostalgia of the baby boomers, with their 1950s “Happy Days”; their 1960s (the Greatest Decade Ever Told); and their serial losses of innocence, via the Kennedys’ assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, etc. — a record of revirginization to rival any evangelical chastity-pledge campaign.

But is that explanation too simple? A reaction to the poetic waxing of Baby Boomers about how they changed the world back in their day? I suppose that may explain part of it. After all, Boomers not only make up a very large cohort, they came of age in the television era and learned how to master the medium to transmit that nostalgic yearning across the planet.

But to say all Boomers act like this is too easy. My dad is a Boomer born in ’46 and he has no such use for nostalgia. As he told me when I was in high school rediscovering his old collection of albums “I lived through all that shit once before. Why do I need to go back and revisit it?” After I moved from DC/MD in ’99, one of his favorite artists was Staind. I knew a fair number of Boomers back then. But I didn’t know too many who would listen to Staind. Or Stone Temple Pilots.

So, to see the explosion of ’80s and ’90s revivalism is, to me, frankly a bit revolting. Because at its essence, it’s the sort of thing that I would think Gen Xers would see as merely repeating the nostalgic mistakes of the past. Taken to an extreme it’s downright delusional. I’m sure many of my fellow Xers have stories of Boomer-aged family members that couldn’t stop living the dream. For them, it’s always 196X, Ed Sullivan is still on the TV and JFK might even still be President.

As for those of us turning 40, we already lived through those neon colored clothes. And Wayfarer glasses. I couldn’t stand a lot of that stuff then. And guess what? I still can’t stand them when I see them now. Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon in my old age.

Or maybe not. Because, there’s a very real danger that comes with living in a nostalgic fog: a lack of relevance. Ultimately, that’s the fight we’re all fighting against yet we never acknowledge it. Nobody wants to be told they need to be put out to pasture. We all want – and even need – to feel like we can do something meaningful and necessary. Maybe once you turn 40, you start asking yourself that question more: Can you still have an impact on this world? As a dad, I can say “Absolutely.”

But for many, that may not be enough. I know it isn’t for me. Which makes being alive in this day and age so great. Because you can learn stuff online. For free. Try doing that while your President was proclaiming how proud he was of being a Berliner. Or while you were watching some movie with Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in it.

And it’s not just learning stuff via online courses. We have apps for your phone that help you monitor your health. Apps that let you take books with you practically anywhere in the world. There are more ways to communicate with more people in more ways now than at any time in history. And you can do it from practically anywhere, provided you’re willing to take the time to learn how. There’s that relevance thing again. It’s easier to do almost anything from anywhere now. But only if you’re willing to try it and engage with it.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read up on programming in Go whilst listening to Morning Parade.

  • http://twitter.com/MelissaSChapman Melissa Chapman

    this post TOTALLY resonated with me– I am PROUD to join you in your 40 club on August 25th- my fav part : Maybe once you turn 40, you start asking yourself that question more:
    Can you still have an impact on this world? As a dad, I can say
    “Absolutely.”

  • http://professorpinch.wordpress.com/ Professor Pinch

    Thanks. It was just one of those things where I looked around and between all of the 80’s/90’s revivalist nonsense, I just couldn’t take it. We all saw what happens to folks who get stuck in an era: they get stuck. And yet, I see large swaths of our generation falling into the same trap.

    You can’t be an effective guide – or parent – if you fall into that trap. Plus, as my dad said “I already lived through all of that once. Why would I want to relive it?”

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