I’ve been in a strange mood lately. The other day, a friend of mine who’s visiting and writing about the NASA Mars Rover launch posted a photo of the shuttle Endeavor on her Facebook page, and I burst into tears when I saw it. All at once, I saw in it the enormity of human potential and the fact that so much of what we’ve done in the thousands of years we’ve been on this planet is waste that potential, and it made me sad.
I recently got a screener for a new film called Shuffle, written and directed by Kurt Kuenne of Validation fame. It was a truly wonderful film – sort of It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Twilight Zone – and I related to the protagonist’s plight so much that it made me sob. Granted, I’ve never lived my life out of order, but I cried because living one’s life in order is just as daunting. Maybe more so.
Then, I came across an article talking about Lars Von Trier’s new movie, Melancholia, which is one I really want to see, because I’m a big fan of his work. Sadly, I can’t even spend the $7 it would take to watch the film on demand, but the idea of Melancholia put me in a Von Trier mood, and I ended up watching the film Manderlay for the first time last night, which is the sequel to Dogville. The movie was just OK, but I cried afterwards anyway, the way I do when I wish that my life were being lived as passionately as lives seem to be lived in fiction, unrealistic and impractical as that might be.
The thing that tied all these seemingly unrelated bits of a funk I’ve been experiencing together happened today, when I started noticing all the love my friends have been slobbering all over The Muppets across all my social media platforms. Now, this is a movie I’ve been wanting to see. Yet, as friends have been reporting back talking about how good it was, all I could think was how sad it is that nostalgia has become increasingly important to people my age. We’ve become the people who think that things were so much better in Their Day. We’re older. We’re “grown-ups” (whatever THAT means these days), and it made me sad.
This is not to say that I’m upset about getting older. I’ve never been someone who tries to hide how old she is, or worries about the gray hairs coming in. I don’t see the inherent value in being younger. I mean, sure your body stops doing what it used to, but so what? Get that hip replaced and keep on truckin’, knowwhatI’msayin’? But there is an emotional toll – one that I’d seen in people older than me, but didn’t really understand until now, and there’s something unique about the way my generation is experiencing it.
The Endeavor photo made me cry for the reason I cited above, but it was also due, in part, to the fact that I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little. I dreamed of going up into space. I wanted to go to Space Camp (and settled for watching the movie instead). I loved reading about space and astronomy. Then, I discovered my love of theater in seventh grade and ditched science for the arts. I don’t regret that decision, but there’s a small part of me that wonders what would’ve happened if I’d followed my love of science. Might I have ever been a part of the Space Program? Now, I’ll never know. Also, now there’s no manned shuttle program anymore, so I’ll really never know.
Nostalgia and the idea of wasted potential have been coming at me from all angles lately, and living in a new city away from the only home I’d ever known only exacerbates the effect. One’s thirties are a strange time, and it’s only now, being in it, that I can see just how strange it is. You’re at an age when you’re expected to have gotten certain things together: your career, your long-term relationship, your owned property, and your child bearing. If any one of those things isn’t in order, you’re suspect. Because all of those things, especially when combined, mean you’re a “grown-up,” and arriving at “grown-up” is the endgame, apparently. Your thirties are the endgame, and the rest of your life – kids getting older, grandkids, retirement – is all one long denouement. There’s a lot of pressure on one’s thirties that I think is unique to this age group, and that pressure forces us to look not at what we’ve accomplished, but what we haven’t, until all we see is wasted potential.
Which is kind of a sick way to live when you stop and think about it, but there it is.
Your thirties are also your first decade away from acceptable meandering. In your teens, you’re figuring out who you are. In your twenties, you’re just out of college and it’s expected that you’ll fumble your way along as you figure things out. Mistakes are expected, even encouraged. You’re supposed to do all your “living” in your twenties, because as we all know, “living” stops once you turn 30. We’re supposed to stop “living” and start what? Dying? That’s the only alternative. I know that’s not what people mean, and yet they’re perfectly happy to start “looking back” at all the “living” they used to do in their twenties as if it’s over and can never be recaptured. As if, once you turn 30, you don’t dance, or drink, or socialize anymore. Except that they’re not ready. They haven’t been looking back long enough to get used to it, or be resigned to it, so they resent it. Fight it. I think this has been the case in previous generations, but mine has better tools at its disposal with which to fight.
The current crop of thirtysomethings is part of the first generation to be able to really hold on to our youth. Before the internet, people were sort of forced to move on because retrieving the totems of their youth was just harder. You had to wait for those cartoons you loved as a kid to be rerun, and how often were you able to be sitting around waiting for cartoons? If you didn’t save your old 45s, 8-tracks, or cassettes, and the devices that played them, the music you loved as a youth was lost to you, relegated to the oldies station. You could re-purchase the music you loved in a new format, but were you really going to go all the way to Tower Records or Sam Goody or Coconuts or The Wiz to re-purchase a CD of that embarrassing pop band you loved as a kid?
Generation X, of which I am a member, is the first generation who can not only secretly get their hands on all the stuff they miss from when they were a kid because of better technology that allows them to not have to seek those things publicly, but they are also the first generation that used the internet to connect. We connected to each other, and we all realized that we weren’t alone in our desire to keep on playing Pac-Man or watch She-Ra reruns or read comics or watch Star Wars and E.T. And because we were able to realize quickly that we weren’t alone, we also realized it was nothing to be ashamed of, so we made it culture. Geek Culture is actually Nostalgia Culture; Collage Culture. As interested as we are in new sci-fi/fantasy stories, we’re much more interested in remakes of television shows and films. Adapting cartoons, comics, and books we loved as children into live-action films. And we reserve the right to be very, very upset indeed if those beloved stories aren’t done justice. We’ve made the world (or at least, the culture in this country) into our image, and that image can easily be silkscreened onto an ironic t-shirt.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say with all of this. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing that we’re so desperately holding on to our youth. I just know that the struggle makes me sad. I hate that there are cookie-cutter expectations of a person in their thirties. I hate that a thirty-something is supposed to feel guilty about enjoying things that are (arbitrarily) designated for “youth.” And yet, I understand that life is a continual process of moving on and moving forward, and perhaps holding on to the past – giving in to our impulse to hold onto the symbols of our youth in a way that generations prior weren’t able to do – is holding back our progress. We’re the reason that “pop music today sucks” and “nobody makes original movies anymore.” Because, as much as we say that we want original stories and ideas, all we do is hold onto, remake, pay homage to, and re-tell the stories and ideas we loved as children. And I’m not even going to talk about the fact that, when we’re not mining our own childhoods we’re mining other decades. We’re not the first generation to do this, but we are the first generation to make a freaking career of it. And now that we’re starting to run the world, no one can order us or expect us to do any differently. We’re becoming prisoners of our own freedom.
And I don’t know if it’s something we need to “do something about” or not. Is it our generation’s natural progression, or are we stunting our own growth? Is there a happy medium between growing-up and “life” not ending after 30? And how can we find value in what we do have rather than focusing on what we don’t?
I remember when that show Thirtysomething was on. I never watched it, because I was in middle school at the time, but all I remember about the show was that everyone was calling it “whiny.” Then, by the time I was a teenager, the creators of that show created My So-Called Life, a show with a protagonist who was my age about high-schoolers who are “supposed” to be whiny. These days, as I watch my My So-Called Life DVDs (what’s up, totem of my youth?), I find myself relating more to the parents on the show than I do to Angela Chase.
Maybe I’ll look up Thirtysomething on Netflix and watch it to see if it applies to me, because clearly they were “whiny” for a reason! Or maybe I won’t. Maybe instead of going back to look at a show, I’ll write my own show about what it means to be in one’s thirties. After all, I shouldn’t keep looking back to make sense of things, right? I should look inward and look forward.
Are we even equipped to do that anymore?