By Earl Fowler
“The fear of turning into our parents … is what turns us into our fucking parents.”
A character in Kevin Barry’s tremendous new novel, Night Boat to Tangier, makes that acute observation. And it’s surely steeped in enough grains of truth to brew a two-four of whatever our departed dads used to down during the hockey game on Saturday night.
But the warning only goes halfway. A deeper truth, I think, is that the fear of turning into us … is what turns our children into our fucking parents.
(Only probably with less fucking, as Ms Kastner underscores in her brilliant essay on this site titled “The New Unjoy of Sex.”)
Here’s the thing. Every generation has its teenage Holden Caulfield moment in which it is righteously repelled by the failings and hypocrisy of its predecessor.
Our parents, roughly comprising the so-called Greatest Generation, settled into becoming the men in the grey flannel suits and stay-at-home Suzy Homemakers during the staid 1950s. After enduring Great Depression childhoods and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, why wouldn’t they embrace relative wealth and quietude?
The slide toward conformity (and I’m speaking very broadly here; there were hundreds of thousands of exceptions) was a response to what our parents had been through. It was also a make-America-great-again reaction to the disorientation and excesses of their parents, the Lost Generation that came of age during the First World War.
The Baby Boomers rebelled against the conservatism and don’t-rock-the-boat ethos of our parents, of course, and we’re justly proud of our contributions to the civil rights, feminist and environmental movements.
But as it always seems to do, the world has gone to hell in a man purse under our watch. Our children (again, I’m madly generalizing here) are busy climbing the corporate ladder at Apple or adding up rows of figures in dynamic careers as certified professional accountants. (Oh, and just as an immaterial point of interest: If you feel you have to adopt a national advertising campaign trumpeting that CPAs are “not boring,” yep, you’re boring.)
Here’s my theory. There are two ways humans can behave: a) more liberal, more carefree, more progressive, more fun than their parents; or b) more conservative, more earnest, more inclined to a consumerist view of what the good life entails, more careworn.
Do you remember the sole ambition of Tom Rath, Gregory Peck’s character in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, at the end of the movie? He fends off his boss by saying he just wants to “work 9 to 5 and spend the rest of my time with my family.”
The days of working 9 to 5 are a quaint anachronism, of course, but Rath’s attitude is precisely that of many Gen Xers and Millennials we all know: Try to control your tiny planetary allotment and keep your head down.
Personally, I’m grateful I was born just before Elvis and James Dean hit it big, and I wouldn’t exchange the experience of growing up in the Sixties and Seventies for anything. But I get why our kids roll their eyes at our generation’s self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement.
When I talk to my daughter or my son, I’m usually not the one who says things my mother or my father would have said. It’s them. My hardly ever fucking children. I keep waiting for one of them to say “hell’s bells” or “dirty sidewinder.”
Still, even in one’s dotage, revenge can be sweet.
If we can pry them loose from their consoles and headsets, the grandchildren are due for a swing back in our direction any day now. The smothering blanket of helicopter parenting virtually ensures it.
Calling out around the world, are you ready for a slightly used beat?