Now that Geneation Xers are clutching their pearls as they age well into their 50s and society reassess the cultural impact of so-called misfits born between 1965 and 1980, I’m resisting the reflex to throw up a little in my mouth.
Gen Xers got the full New York Times treatment online Tuesday and it was almost too much to bear after some of us have spent decades swallowing Baby Boomer propaganda from Rolling Stone Magazine and Hollywood.
For those of us born in the early 1960s No Man’s Land transition between the Xer’s and Boomers – groups sometimes known to us as twin towers of tedium – we forsaken “in-betweeners” face our mortality after lifetimes of striving in a nameless corner of American life.
We are not Xers, nor are we really Boomers. We’re too early for one, at the tail end of the other. So we make fun of both.
We came into this world at the intersection of black and white TVs and technicolor Camelot – but too young to remember either. To this day, Boomers are identified as being born between 1946 and 1964, but that’s never seemed right to me or anyone I know who is my age.
The self-aggrandizing mythology of Boomers, with all its tired legends, just doesn’t apply to us.
We weren’t “raising Hell” in the 1960s as Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone, used to brag. We Tweeners were learning how to spell and how not to poop our pants. We didn’t cry when JFK died, unless you count teething. I was exactly 1 on Nov. 22, 1963 when Walter Cronkite broke into programming to tell America that the young president had been shot in Dallas.
My mother used to tell me that I pretty much slept through it.
The Civil Rights era? I read about it in school. I don’t remember being aware of the MLK or RFK assassinations in the moment because I was 5 in the summer of 1968.
Vietnam? I vaguely remember being at a parade in downtown San Jose with my parents and seeing some long-haired guy with a red face and raging eyes pick up a rock and try to throw it. There was a tussle. We ran, including mom in her good pumps. But then order was restored. The parade continued. We went to McDonald’s afterward. We went home.
But truthfully, I can’t say with certainty if this really happened or if I dreamed it.
Either way, that was my brush with the Vietnam War. By the time American troops were withdrawn in late 1972, I was 10. I was 12 as the last Americans were evacuated from Saigon.
For me, Vietnam – like JFK, MLK and RFK – was a massive echo that rang in my ears and shaped my life long after the last bullet was fired. The upending of generations in Vietnam was not felt in my neighborhood until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my hometown of San Jose became Ground Zero for an influx of immigrants from Vietnam. These new residents would make America better with their heart and industry. But their arrival was heralded by the trumpets of racism, including from my own Mexican American community which had felt the lash of being new immigrants years earlier. Yet it joined the chorus of intolerance by talking smack about “boat people.”
Only now do I realize how this American tradition of dumping on immigrants in a nation of immigrants was actually a foreshadowing of the open intolerance of Trumpism today.
On the positive side, my generation experienced a brief era of openness and tolerance. I started high school in 1976, the Bicentennial year, when America was celebrating itself and an end to the Vietnam War. I didn’t have to fear a military draft as millions of American boys had before me. On music stations, we could hear Santana followed by Earth Wind & Fire followed by Journey and Led Zeppelin.
White kids and African American kids and Mexican American kids all listened to Richard Pryor and all thought his visionary humor spoke to them. You started to see the first elected officials of color in significant numbers in the late 1970s, as well as women rising in politics and the workforce. Universities became more diverse. Though maligned today, disco music moved diverse groups of people to fill clubs and dance together. This included gay people who were out and proud just up the road from me in San Francisco.
I remember my late 1970s high school years as being peaceful, diverse and happy before the inevitable backlash. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was assassinated in 1978 when I was 16. John Lennon was killed when I was 18. Affirmative action was attacked in the courts while I was still in high school. The country grew conservative in 1980s during my college years. Societal gains of the 1960s were re-branded as failures. “Liberal” became a slur and liberals let it happen.
Meanwhile, we all thought Bill Cosby was the coolest guy around. Whoops. We thought O.J. Simpson was awesome. Whoops. We can’t even say Michael Jackson’s name out loud anymore or play his music because of all we know to be true about him today.
No wonder the generation after us went in another direction. The Gen Xers embraced grunge music. Gen Xers wore Sony Walkmans in public, listening to their music and drawing further inward and away from what society told them was desirable.
They had commercialism and consumerism shoved down their throats and they rejected it. The unvarnished power of rap told stories ignored in the 1980s of Morning in Reagan America. Filmmakers such as the late great John Singleton told unsparing stories of life on racially segregated American streets.
Gen Xers were just starting to come of age when America finally acknowledged AIDS.
They were super young when being young, dumb and in love became dangerous. Because of this, and for many other reasons, my teasing of Xers has always been gentle. I feel much more kinship with them than Boomers because, even though I was a little older than them, I was trying to figure it out as well.
If anything, my generation of Tweeners has been lucky. If I had been born 10 years earlier, in the 1952 heart of Boomer country, I might have had to go to Vietnam. If I had been born 10 years later, in the 1972 prime of Gen Xers, I might have gone to the first Gulf War. I grew up in peace.
My generation came of age just before AIDS, a backlash against diversity, terrorism, an explosion of gun violence, perpetual war and a resurgence of white nationalism. The moment in time between 1961 and 1964 produced Barack and Michelle Obama, who symbolized hope and change in America before a cultural backlash swept in the worst of the Baby Boomer excesses embodied in Donald Trump.
It’s been the story of my generation: Walking the tight rope between the best and worst of the American experience.