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Growing Old Absurd

Old people speaking their minds

getting so much resistance from behind

— Stephen Stills

Earl Fowler

Might have that quote slightly wrong. Memory’s not what it was, so far as any of us rusted-out relics of Generation Senex, now sinking woefully into the lumpen olderariat, can remember.

We’re mean when we’re loaded. We were raised on Wonder Bread

But give us a frigging break.

After we Methuselahian baby boomers grew up knowing precisely what Holden Caulfield was talking about in The Catcher in the Rye — all that teenage angst and alienation guff and whatnot, the familiar reflex recoil against all the phonies — we’re now being encouraged — even having fallen into dusty desuetude as old men with broken teeth, stranded without love! — to fall off a cliff and perish after running out of rye.

(Again, I may have the details slightly wrong, but you get the gist: I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.)

And after growing up with the mark of Cain on our brows in a Pleasant Valley Sunday of manicured lawns, cracked sidewalks and Meccano construction sets, Sears Silvertone guitars and pliable plastic combs, a place devastatingly limned in Paul Goodman’s 1960 book Growing Up Absurd, which argued, essentially, that the juvenile delinquents and beatniks and maladjusted non-conforming geeks, misfits and outsiders of that era might just have had a point, our generation is once again being perceived as a threat to society — this time as a dead-weight drain on the economy. Just not dead enough.

Declare the pennies on your eyes

More on Goodman later. The important thing for now is to understand that our old road is rapidly aging and we should get out of the new one if we can’t lend a gland. (Prostates will do nicely for starters.)

Or so we are endlessly admonished, in this epoch of deftly timed disloyalty and political tergiversation, by neoconservative scolds touchingly concerned about what a burden we’re becoming to our long-suffering children and grandchildren due to our unprecedented mass longevity.

They just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette

I can’t even begin to count (of course not: my mind is all runny eggs and squalor at this point) the number of reproachful editorials and captious commentaries I’ve read about how — as Christopher Buckley fulminated in his 2007 novel Boomsday — the only lasting legacy of the ungraciously undying Pepsi Generation in the U.S. is the already “mountainous debt, a deflating economy, and 77 million people retiring.”

Kilroy was here and here and here and here ...

As a humane solution to the vexing problem posed by our egocentric, intransigent existence, the Manichaean heroine in Boomsday proposes that boomers be incentivized (through such irresistible lures as free Botox and freedom from estate taxes) to pull the pin at 70. For as the “morally superior twenty-nine-year-old PR chick” and moonlit blogger has come to understand and bitterly resent, we avaricious consumers of the Earth’s precious resources are recklessly engaged in squandering her generation’s rightful inheritance on ersatz Mar-a-Lago golf club memberships and randy cruises on the Love Boat.

Love. Exciting and new. Come aboard. We’re expecting you …

Buckley, who served as chief speechwriter for George H.W. Bush when Senior was Ronald Reagan’s vice-president, is alive and kicking at 71, so I guess he didn’t take his own formula too seriously.

It tastes awful. It doesn’t work. And it won’t be long now till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down

A couple of years before his death at 77, Theodore Roszak, whom some of you original earth mother hippie chicks and echt hepcats will recall as the author of a bestselling 1969 look at the boomer generation titled The Making of a Counter Culture (a term Roszak coined, by the way), pushed back on Boomsday-style guilt-tripping in 2009’s The Making of an Elder Culture:

But what do parents like Buckley need to apologize for? That their parents produced so many of them? That they kept fit and lived longer? That they followed doctor’s orders and lived longer still? That they lived long enough to need a payback on the help they once gave their kids who were in many cases dependent on them for 20 years or more?

At least until the dual opioid and COVID-19 crises came along, longevity gains in developed countries should logically have been celebrated as one of capitalism’s greatest boons.

Life expectancy in Canada dropped to 81.3 years in 2022, a full year lower than 82.3 in 2019, but that was still a 20-year improvement on the average 60-year lifespans of a century ago. Life expectancy in the U.S. declined in 2023 to 76.4 years, the shortest it has been in nearly two decades and a worrisome indictment of the American health and social security systems. But given that the average American who died in 1920 was in his or her mid-fifties (there was no “their” category in those days), we’re not talking mere bagatelles here.

Rather than being applauded for helping to create our relatively prosperous, longevous North American society as the painted ponies went up and down, however, its aging members are now the subject of the same sort of adversarial hostility that our tranche of humanity received from the so-called Greatest Generation that produced us. We’re stuck on the couch as eternal Meatheads, with Archie Bunker on one side telling us to love it or leave it and Vivek Ramaswamy on the other, deriding us as hollowed-out husks who ought to just leave it whether we love it or not.

Roszak’s take in The Making of an Elder Culture:

Conservatives, especially the neoconservatives who came to power during the Reagan presidency, see the cost of an aging society as the prime obstacle to their project of building a corporate-dominated, market-based, highly militarized global economy. They have accurately seen the entitlements and the life expectancy now available to the many as the antithesis of a Social Darwinist ethic that serves the few. … Conservatives cannot turn back the clock on longevity; but they can make it so fearful and painful an experience that we will be ever more reluctant to pay the price that good health and long life demand.

As recent declines in longevity have shown, Roszak — who didn’t live to see the Trump administration’s disgraceful cheeseparing attempt to deny food stamps to 700,000 poor Americans during the height of the COVID pandemic — was being overly optimistic about the inability of billionaire bastards to turn back the clock on every progressive development of the 20th century, not excepting longer lives for the great majority of the MAGA hoi polloi hornswoggled into voting against their own best interests.

Of course the plutocrats have it in their power to do this. Are doing this. And will some more, with the pillaging turned up to 11 if Trump regains power a year from now. Roszak outlines how on the very next page. His focus is on the U.S., but his analysis certainly rings some bells in the Great White North — only a pawn in their game.

For is this (capitalism) not the economic system that that has delivered the productivity that makes life longer and richer for all of us? But, then, perhaps that has never been the objective of the corporate elite for whom the gap between have and have-not serves as the first line of defense for social privilege.

So, by way of upper-class tax cuts and profligate military spending, they have been rushing to cripple our economy so that there will be no way to meet the needs of an aging population gracefully. They have done a supremely clever job of burning money that might have been set aside for compassionate purposes. In the name of free trade, they have run trade deficits that make the nation far too dependent on foreign support for the cost of basic social programs.

They have reinforced the economic dogma that only corporate earnings, the Dow Jones Index, and the Gross Domestic Product shall be used to measure the wealth of the nation. They have shipped manufacturing jobs and indeed whole industries offshore, leaving manufacturing jobs and middle classes unprepared for unemployment or retirement and less and less able to afford decent health care.

Meanwhile, they have devoted themselves assiduously to building what Robert Frank has called “Richistan,” land of the $10,000 diamond-studded martini and the million-dollar time share, where the inequality gap between have-lots and have-less has reached proportions as dire as the poorest parts of the world.

The boomers’ first job as they assume direction of elder culture will be to repair the fiscal damage that has been done by 30 years of conservative budgetary sabotage and wrongheaded economic priorities.

Wait, what?

It’s time we stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look: What’s going down?

I was with Roszak till that last paragraph — which was published during the first blush of an Obama presidency that seemed to promise a lot more than it ultimately delivered, mainly due to Republican obstinance in Congress. In the rest of the book, Roszak sketches out a cherished fantasy in which 70 million American boomers are exhorted to dust off their counterculture values and transform their country in accordance with the ideals they formed in the Sixties:

My hope is that people who grew up on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the folk music of Pete Seeger, the protest ballads of Country Joe, the anarchic influence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the biting satire of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, the acid rock of Bob Dylan, the sociology of Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse, the Summer of Love and the Days of Rage, will not be content to spend their retirement years on cruise ships or feeding their Social Security income into slot machines at the nearest casino.

Right. And I’m going to be high as a kite by then. Maybe that level of self-delusion was sustainable in 2009 (especially if you smoked enough dope to bizarrely characterize Dylan as an acid rocker), but the revenge of the Orange Meanies in the last decade as the Empire struck back eviscerated the Sixties and landed those of us who started out growing up absurd right back in an Evangelical Christian, white supremacist dystopia of back-alley abortions. Donald J. Trump was born in 1946, the first year of the post-war baby boom. It’s his crowd delusions I recall.

As mathematician/satirist Tom Lehrer sang of a different but not entirely unrelated clash between progression and regression (the Spanish Civil War) in “The Folk Song Army”:

Remember the war against Franco?

That’s the kind where each of us belongs.

Though he might have won all the battles,

we had all the good songs.

One of the most pernicious ways that our budding boomer gerontocracy is reviled as a financial calamity — portending bankruptcy, backwardness and competition-killing stagnation for all — is that we simply don’t buy enough stuff. We aren’t expected to be invested in or remotely au fait about the latest vapid boy band or disposable It Girl or HDTV gizmo or i-Phone gadget. My AM radio still works like a charm, by cracky, and I still like that old time rock’n’roll. Alexa, go eff yourself.

Have another scotch and a second bowl of salted nuts while I reminisce about the days of old

And when we do reluctantly crack open those crumbling vintage wallets and beaded purses, we tend to have a well-seasoned eye for a bargain — like the $3 copy of Growing Up Absurd that I picked up recently at a second-hand bookstore, doing sweet Francis Ann to hike the Consumer Spending Index.

Interesting read.

In parts, you want to cringe because Goodman — as a bisexual cultural theorist of the midcentury who was fired a few times due to a more than academic interest in the sexual availability and  “existential reality of Beat, Angry (Young Men) and Delinquent behaviour” — evinces so little interest in girls and women. As he saw it, even the free-spirited women who hung out with the male Beats suffered from “penis envy” and were best suited for typing their manuscripts.

Those were the days, my friend. Don’t forget to visit our gift shop on the way out

In the main, though, his argument that socially alienated young American men of the 1950s and early 1960s were justified in their disaffection by a lack of meaningful work, spiritual sustenance, an honourable sense of community and sexual freedom (anyone for handball?), was well-documented and persuasive.

The cogent case he builds was implicit in certain movies from the Fifties (The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, East of Eden, West Side Story and pretty much any cheesy B-movie sci-fi flick you can think of) and literary works by American Beats or England’s Angry Young Men (think Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or The Outsider by Colin Wilson). But Goodman was able to draw on his wide reading, Gestalt therapy practice and personal experiences to assemble the academic scaffolding instrumental to capturing the attention of both student activists throughout the Sixties and serious consideration from the men in the grey flannel suits.

His bestselling critique of American society, which sold 100,000 copies in three years and was translated into five languages after a slow start, turning Goodman from an outcast and a gadfly into a sought-after social critic and self-righteous iconoclast who roamed New York for sex with young men, is essentially an argument that the prevailing cultural norms of the time were not preparing young people for a meaningful life, and that the American educational system was failing to nurture creativity and critical thinking. Chapters were published and republished in radical and mainstream magazines alike. Respected public intellectuals like John K. Galbraith and Kingsley Widmer weighed in.

We don’t need no thought control

Throughout the book, Goodman hammers away at the point that the young were not being taken seriously by “the organized system,” not being considered real people with “real aims in a real world”:

In despair, the fifteen-year-olds hang around and do nothing at all, neither work nor play. … If there is nothing worthwhile, it is hard to do anything at all. When one does nothing, one is threatened by the question, is one nothing?

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the position of the listless, utterly defeated Stan Laurel types I watched rubbing their heads and slurping gelatine concoctions along canteen rows of Formica tables at the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law spent her final years. The complaints, observations and long-winded, oft-repeated stories of the residents were humoured but never taken seriously by the overburdened staff, and it didn’t take a lot of perspicacity to notice the illusions of the selves they had once been slipping through the holes in their self-esteem buckets, dear Liza. Turn off, tune out, drop down. Saturday night’s all right for sewing.

How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?

Whatever their aspirations had been, and wherever they had been going in their lives, had collapsed and converged into where they now were. Who they had become could no longer be who they once were. In a sense, they were refugees from a future that would never arrive.

So far as the outside world was concerned, they were nobodies, nothing at all, voids shuffling the shortest distance between two points. Absences that faded into the joyless makeshift cabana by the parking lot, where they spit out the roaches and butt-ends of their days and ways into empty Folgers cans.

There but for the grace of God and socialized medicine go those of us still relatively healthy, notwithstanding our naps of crinkled rhinoceros skin and birth certificates caked with aquatic slime from the age of jawless fish. Slime is on our side.

The more competitive among our friends used to brag about their kids, finances or career achievements. It’s kinda funny (but not funny ha-ha) how, among status-seeking seniors we all know, it’s now de rigueur to demonstrate a dubious form of superiority and one-upmanship by transcending the incessant medical complaints of friends and acquaintances with ever more terrifying accounts of their own health horrors.

We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came

Which is why, keeping an eye on the world going by my window, taking my time, lying there and staring at the ceiling, Growing Up Absurd strikes me as germane to the condition of so many short-sleeved elders growing old absurd.

And how should I presume?

One of Goodman’s central arguments was that the American educational system was overly focused on vocational training and career preparation, to the detriment of a more holistic education that would foster critical thinking, creativity, and a sense of purpose. He believed that young people were being trained to be cogs in a machine, rather than being encouraged to think for themselves and pursue their passions. Given the stunning contraction and demise of liberal arts and humanities programs in the last 40 years, this complaint is all the more lamentable today. Now is the time for your tears.

No, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore

And who knows more about being a cog than a codger? Many boomers spent their entire lives in jobs that they may not have been passionate about but that at least provided their families with financial security. As they enter retirement, here in the afterglow of day, it’s not uncommon to be left with a sense of purposelessness and a lack of direction. If your identity was tied to a job that gave your life a structure and a compelling reason to get out of bed for 40 years, what are you, Mr. Jones with your pencil in your hand, when your mission is over? Do you even still exist? Who are you? I really want to know. Who, who, who, who?

I am the little mechanical girl followed into the clock by the little mechanical boy in lederhosen

As the outsized emphasis on vocational training underscores, the cultural norms that Goodman despised are even more prevalent today. Society places a supreme value on consumerism, materialism, and the accumulation of wealth, so much so that the incoherent petulance of an Elon Musk or mealy-mouthed prevarication of a Mark Zuckerberg are hailed as oracular. This can lead seniors — who spent their past playing real good for free — to feel like they have failed in life if they haven’t amassed a comfortable amount of wealth or achieved an acceptable quota of status.

If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

Another theme in Growing Up Absurd is the idea that young people were being taught to conform to societal norms, at the expense of betraying their true natures, rather than being encouraged to question them. Goodman argued that this led to a sense of alienation and disconnection from society, and that young people were becoming absurd as a result. Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Whaddya got?

Similarly, many seniors may feel like they no longer fit in with the cultural norms of their communities, if they ever did, or that they are no longer valued by society, if they ever were. This can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection, obviously detrimental to their mental health and well-being. Hugger mugger helter effing skelter.

And now I don’t even remember who shot J.R. Was it Lyle Waggoner? Jim Perry?

Finally, Goodman criticized the lack of meaningful relationships in American society, arguing that young people were being taught to value superficial connections over deep, meaningful relationships. He believed that this led to a sense of loneliness and alienation, which contributed to the overall absurdity of American culture.

Laughing on the bus. Playing games with the faces

This theme is perhaps most relevant to todays nursing home denizen, sitting on a chair by the bed like Andromeda, chained to shore, or Brünnhilde, stranded on that slippery rock, as she faces the inevitable loss of close friends and family members. Many struggle to maintain any meaningful relationship at all, particularly if they live alone or have limited mobility during their rambling randonnées through the halls of shopping malls or the Happydale Assisted Living Panopticon.

Now there’s something to which we can all aspire. Purposelessness, disconnection and loneliness in Yo Gabba Gabba! pyjamas. The dizzy, dancing way you feel slam dancing, stage diving in a punk underground scene, non compos mentis in the sangha of the dead. How terribly strange to be 93.

All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup

By 1972, after participating in various counterculture demonstrations and the first mass draft-card-burning protest during the Vietnam War, Goodman — once esteemed as “the philosopher of the New Left,” though he always eschewed Marxism and was consistently a strong proponent of Enlightenment values, pragmatism and American democratic ideals — had fallen out with vanguardist radical groups that considered his politics insufficiently insurrectionary. That was the year he suffered a fatal heart attack at 60.

Help me, I think I’m falling

“Confusion,” Goodman had observed in Growing Up Absurd, while addressing the superficial embrace of Taoism by Beat writers like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, “is the state of promise, the fertile void where surprise is possible again. Confusion is in fact the state that we are in, and we would be wise to cultivate it. If young people are not floundering these days, they are not following the Way.”

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments!

So maybe old people speaking their minds today are simply following the Way. Most likely to the casino. Little money riding on the Maple Leafs. The blue HandyDart bus is calling us. The blue bus is calling us. Driver, where you taking us?

To me, it smells like gelatine spirit.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here were are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious ...

Look at those jokers, losing that damn hockey game.

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We don’t SPEND enough?!! What heresy be this? Did you not, with pinched and wrinkled digits, extract 3 dollars in loose change to buy that book? Thanks, but I’ll stick to book boxes while I scornfully sneer at the extraordinarily misguided, using social media sales sites to try and extract 15…yes DOLLARS! for their Danielle Steele collection of six of the finest formulaic fornication forays into the grey shades of bored housewives ever published.

Replying to

Oh, I think we’re spending enough. Just not on the right things. We could even reduce the tax burden on middle class citizens if corporations and the pampered, predatory members of Richistan weren’t so adept at dodging fair tax obligations, and if it weren’t so bloody easy to spread the racist, classist myths that keep their enablers in office. No shades of grey there.

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