Tuesday, April 05, 2016


Fun With Aging

A few days ago the whole family was watching tv together when someone onscreen made a reference to the Cold War.  The Girl, 11, asked “how did THAT start?”

The best I could come up with in the moment was “it’s a long story.”  I’m not proud of that.

When I was her age, and even through high school and into college, the Cold War was a very real thing.  It was just a background condition of life.  Yes, it was starting to look a bit shopworn towards the end, but it still held power in the culture.  (If it didn’t, Rocky IV wouldn’t have resonated the way it did.)  When the American hockey team beat the Russians in Lake Placid, it felt important.  Cheesy pop hits of the 80’s were often Cold War allegories: “Shout,” by Tears for Fears, was about ICBM’s, and Sting hoped the Russians loved their children, too.  

It’s hard to convey now what it felt like then.  But to The Girl, I might as well be describing Periclean Athens.  

Aging is like that.  My lived reality is her ancient history.  

Doing the math makes it even worse.  Mathematically, the 80’s are as distant from now as the 50’s were from the 80’s.  Of course, the math can’t be right, because that’s just preposterous.


The math gets even worse when you figure out how old certain authority figures in your life were at given moments.  When Mom was the age I am now, I was in grad school.  That can’t possibly be right, but that’s what the math says.  

Aging has some downsides that are hard to ignore.  Aside from the whole “hurtling headlong toward death” thing, there are the noises one’s knees make in the morning, and the way that small print decides to get fuzzy at random moments.  There are the losses of people who were important in your life, whether through death or just through sort of wandering off.  Popular culture loses its coherence and becomes much more fragmentary and arbitrary, though (mercifully) also far less important.  The Boy, who is fourteen, is sometimes taken aback that I don’t recognize this song or that one.  I explained that at a certain age, you’ve earned the right to not give a single, solitary &*)&^ about Fetty Wap or Justin Bieber.  And I choose to exercise that right.

But getting older also has some real upsides.

The big one is pattern recognition.  It becomes easier to spot personality types and to predict behavior.  You learn the difference among implacable opposition, give-me-some-time-first opposition, and ritualistic opposition.  You recognize cycles.  You learn viscerally that time has a way of juggling priorities, and that it will again.  You get some distance on yourself, and either beat yourself up or, if you’re lucky, cut yourself some slack.  You start to see dynamics develop, and have a quick sense of “I know how this ends.”  That saves all kinds of trouble.  And you learn that rejection is survivable.  That’s a big one.

You get a better sense of yourself, which is nice.  And you get better at sorting out the things that won’t change from the things that will.  History suddenly seems a lot more accessible, since it’s easier to picture actual human beings, flaws and all, in different settings.  

The Girl is beside herself about this year’s election.  In her young life, it’s the first one in which she could actually follow arguments and land on her own opinions.  I share her fascination with it -- that poli sci doctorate came from somewhere -- but not her panic.  I remember that panic, but I don’t have it now.  Concern, yes.  Panic, no.  I don’t miss it.

Where the Cold War came from is a long story.  It’s all a long story.  But the plotlines gradually become clearer, even if the type gets harder to read.

As one of the older folks around here, I will mention that when I was around your kids ages, the entralling Nixon-JFK election and its debates were going on (both cold warriors, I might add) and the end of WWII was as distant as 9/11 is for this year's election.

As for TG's question, my socratic answer would be to ask her when the war with ISIS "started" and suggest that she pay attention as it evolves because it (and successor wars) might go on for another ten or twenty years. After all, the war with Al'Qaeda started in the 1990s with the first attack on the WTC and included three major acts of war a full year before 9/11 and ISIS merely reflects the same mind set in the middle east that was triggered by the first gulf war in the 90s.

BTW, my answer would be Yalta. And I would be sure to mention that it wasn't all that cold. Dozens of US (and Soviet) servicemen died in secret in the air war, particularly when electronic warfare aircraft penetrated Soviet airspace, and vice versa near Japan. The father of a friend's school chum was court martialed for celebrating shooting down a Soviet MIG off Japan in the 1950s. The wins and losses produced secret military awards and citations.
I have also noticed that my students are too young to remember the Soviet Union or the Cold War. They are also too young to remember that the USA and Iran were at one time allies.

They are also too young to remember that at one time there was actually just one telephone company—the Bell System. They were a monopoly, and they had many of the arrogant practices that one might have expected of a monopoly. For example, you were not allowed to buy your own telephone and connect it to their network—you had to rent your telephone from the Bell System and they had to install it for you. You had the choice of any color telephone, so long as it was black.

They were entirely self-contained, and their Western Electric division manufactured all their equipment for them. I still remember my indestructible Western Electric telephone—you could have dropped it out of a ten-story window and it would still work just fine. The Bell System even had its own research organization, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, which was probably the finest industrial research organization on the planet.

Those days are long gone. The courts decided that the Bell System monopoly could no longer be sustained. First there was divestiture in 1984, in which the local telephone companies split off from the Bell System to form several regional Bell operating companies. The now-reduced AT&T retained the long-distance service, the Western Electric manufacturing arm, and the Bell Laboratories research branch. Then Western Electric and Bell Laboratories split off from the long-distance service to form Lucent Technologies. Then Lucent Technologies was bought by the French company Alcatel, and then was bought by Nokia. The current AT&T is actually just a shadow of its former self, formed by the merger of several regional Bell operating companies.

The 50s are much farther from the 80s than the 80s are from the 2010s. Not because of time, but because of culture. The Pill really did change pretty much every social interaction in our society.

I like that Michael. Something about our culture has somehow preserved everything from 1966 on. On campus, I see clothing styles from every possible decade, including hats from the 1930s and 40s.

The 50s were pretty far away from the late 60s. I still remember the "Better Living Through Chemistry" poster featuring the round birth control pill holder -- on a door in a girls dorm. But then AIDS changed some of those same interactions to a remarkable degree, so that 1990 was pretty far away as well. There must be a fascinating social scientific history to be written analyzing the transition from Free Love to Friends With Benefits.
For what it's worth, our kids (now college-aged) learned a lot about basic Cold War concepts as we watched VHS tapes and DVDs of old "Rocky & Bullwinkle" cartoons. Yep, Boris & Natasha (and Fearless Leader & Mr. Big) opened the door to discussing the rudiments of (ex?)-Nazis, Commies and U.S. government Cold War policies and attitudes. Plus NASA, the FBI, big-time college sports, the government and more. Good times, and educational, too.
Beautiful post. I love the last line- "But the plotlines gradually become clearer, even if the type gets harder to read." Very wise advice to a younger generation who thinks every hiccup is the end of the world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
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