Change of the guard

Note: I wrote this a while ago, before Emilia was born. It wasn’t quite right at the time so I let it season for a while. I have made some edits but did not change the references to our family of three.

The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left.”

– Jerry M. Wright

It is a frightening thing when you realize that all the mores, values and customs that make up the very core of your social self have shifted a notch on the scale away from current and in the direction of Mesozoic. This happens to all of us. There is nothing new in getting old. But from an anthropological point of view, there maybe something worth saying here about some of the details.

My first realization that I was no longer in the age group that could most viably claim currency was when I worked at the ranch camp in Ohio, and it centered around music. I was just 29, and I then still considered myself to be a young person, but my coworkers were mostly 19 years old and younger. When I said something about the Doobie Brothers and no one knew what I was talking about, I furrowed my brow a little. Similarly, I heard a song on the radio that was catchy, and I wondered absently at my coworkers who the group might be.

“T’pau”, said Geo immediately. I had never heard of T’pau, and at first I thought Geo was trying to eject a bit of apple skin or something from the tip of his tongue. Furthermore, the song was apparently already old news.


I started licking my finger and sticking it in the wind to see what was going on. I realized that I was somehow out of step with the cultural mind, although even then it took a while for it to dawn on me that there were people in the world who were fully ten years younger than I and yet were grown and developed human beings, and that that decade of seniority was the beginning of the difference between being young and being eveything else.

* * * *

I have several times reflected on the social manners of today’s young people — I guess I’m speaking mainly of the males — and entertained the thought that many of them seem to me to be not overly warm, even though they are, as a broad generalization, people I really like and people I would trust to run the country. At least, there’s something that I’m interpreting, maybe incorrectly, as unwarmth. I think of my own generation as self-obsessed, angry, unbalanced, compulsive, lazy, reactionary, and not very grounded. Broadly and generally, I mean. But still, I think of my contemporaries as warm, or at least polite in ways that make it easy to get to know someone. The generation coming into their own now are, generally and broadly, level-headed, just, honest, creative, energetic, helpful, intelligent, extremely capable, and not very excitable, but there sometimes seems to be something kind of flat about them in social interactions, and I have struggled in recent years to figure out whether I’m just misperceiving the situation or if there’s something fundamentally different about the way they interact with others.  

We (my better half and our better third) attended a block party. Angela and I familied late and we have a young daughter, so we frequently find ourselves in company with younger couples. Our best friends are younger couples. For me this makes for some strange little moments. This was such a moment. There were only two men present at first, we’ll call them…oh, Simon and Mike. Simon was hosting the party with his wife. We were in their backyard. Mike and Simon live nextdoor to each other, on the opposite side of the street from us. They were talking about something in a relaxed way. I went over and the two men interrupted their conversation to regard me, and I said…I keep reliving the horror…”so Simon, what do you do?” I added ” — for trouble or entertainment” just in time, because I could see immediately that asking what someone did for a living was “not on”. He looked at me as though I had asked him whether he took his lunch to school or rode the bus. As though my question had no meaning. He furrowed his brow and slowly, making a little mouth puff as though trying to solve for x without scratch paper, delivered himself of a single non-descriptive line about marketing in Redmond, and then made a joke — gracious chap — to the effect that in his free time “I just do what she tells me” and pointed to his young spouse.

I was suddenly grateful that I had seen him building a garden box like mine this summer, now full of thriving plants, and I steered the conversation into that more sensible arena, and Mike walked away to get a beer. But the light went on in my head.

"Let's not kill each other, how 'bout." August II of Poland and Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

I suddenly understood — right at that instant — that in social situations I use social forms that are no longer valid. In fact, it’s not particular forms that are invalid, but the formalism entirely. The way I learned it, first we shake hands. This establishes trust, because the hands are used to do harm to one’s enemies and are occupied most often by a weapon of one kind or another. A handshake — the open, empty hand extended — is the pledge of peace, or at least truce. Next, I honor you by asking something specific but sufficiently non-threatening about you. That’s why we have jobs, so we can ask this. You answer and fill in that information for a while, then return the ball to me by asking what I do. So then I go, and in this way we get to know each other a little bit, though in a formal way. And war is averted.

At some point this formal introductory pas de deux might lead into a more “authentic” conversation, as when your work with data mining software prompts me to ask how random information can be intelligently searched, and my documentation of geospatial imaging software gets you curious about who our customers are, that they should need to see the writing on a number 2 pencil lying on the ground in Tunis. But the entry point is very formal, and this formalism just doesn’t fly anymore. Kids these days… they just don’t roll that way.

* * * *

I’m baffled still as to how young people today get their conversations started, but what I’m beginning to see is that they get there without the formalized intro steps. Those, I believe, they regard as inauthentic. Authenticity is the watchword of the new generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, as I see it. Mike and Simon were probably just picking up a conversation that may have started organically months before. My walking up and asking what Simon “did” was like a big cloud of weird perfume wafting in from over the fence. I keep wanting to laugh and cry about this at the same time. It was such a doof moment for me. I’ve always been quick on my social feet, deft in conversations even when dumped midstream where I don’t know the lingo.

But more and more frequently I encounter the feeling that the most basic grid I overlay on social situations for navigation cannot be trusted anymore. The topography has become unlike the earth I knew. Is this what becoming a fuddy-duddy is really like for everyone? Do I begin to seek out people who understand what I’m doing when I extend my hand? Do I start distancing myself from young people because I cannot break the code? And isn’t the code designed at some level to keep me out anyway? Every generation rewrites the code for this purpose, so that they can disenfranchise the generation before and wrest from them the sceptre of world dominion. It has to be this way. No generation, certainly not mine, gives it up willingly to those following.

The penitent man just accepts the process of aging, that's what the penitent man does. Indy narrowly escapes decapitation.

But I am just starting out as a father. I have to figure this out. I can’t go play golf with men my age whose kids are finally in college. I’m not complaining. I’m looking frantically around, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade trying to figure out which stepping stones to tread on so that he will not fall through the floor while also trying to dodge the whirling head-cutter-offer discs. But see, that’s a reference from 1989, and maybe now there are no coded stones to step on. Maybe you just wing it.  


21 Responses to “Change of the guard”

  1. 1 jeni January 18, 2011 at 23:01

    Well said. I hear ya! It does seem that the world has tilted on its axis of late. Things just aint the same!!

  2. 2 kiwidutch January 18, 2011 at 23:51

    LOL, been there done that too! (still doing it in fact)
    Some months ago at a party (Himself an I were definitely the oldest ones present), conversation swung to music and all of a sudden a host of artist names I’ve never heard of had everyone animated except Himself and I… we smiled a lot to hopefully cover the blank looks.
    As soon as we got home I had a small Google and YouTube frenzy to enlighten me. Some of it was (sorry…wierd!)but others… well I was very pleasantly surprised!

  3. 3 jstwndrng January 19, 2011 at 09:20

    @Jeni, yes, it does feel like nothing less than a polar shift.

    @Kiwidutch, I would argue that music has for several centuries been the battering ram that youth culture has used to besiege and destroy the strongholds of their elders. Good for you for using the event to learn about new artists, but the point is made…you’re not leading or co-leading, but following.

  4. 4 Kip January 19, 2011 at 12:23

    Matt, once again you have hit the ten penny nail squarely upon it’s waffle-topped head! I work in an environment of both those younger and older, and really sort of stick to those closest in age. That said, I married quite a bit younger (14 years!), and, while that does not give me a natural “In”, it does help me keep in touch with those coming up. And the music reference….how I have lived that moment more than a few times! I will say, though, that there IS some very good new music in the world today, but there are many times I wish that some of the younger folks would realize the volume knob goes to the left, rather than proving their knob goes to 11!

    • 5 jstwndrng January 19, 2011 at 16:46

      Kipper, I laughed at this. You certainly are right there on the frontier between the new and “previous” youth cultures, aren’t you. You not only married younger but you married well, too, and the price is that you’re just going to have to learn how to dance to the beat of a new drummer.

  5. 6 Ami January 20, 2011 at 17:34

    Aw thanks for the compliment! I think that Kip and I are a different breed. It was never expected that either of us change our beat, but have ended up added a new beat to our existing dance cards. I have gotten Kip to love Slow Club, Elbow and Michael Franti & Spearhead. Kip has given me a love of Pink Floyd, Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix and Alan Parsons.

    And Tennesse Ernie Ford will always be a favorite!

    • 7 jstwndrng January 21, 2011 at 16:51

      Kip’s always been big on artists named Jimmy. Since you didn’t mention him and I KNOW Kip hasn’t given him up, I assume you were already a fan of Jimmy Buffett. It took all my strength to resist Kip’s soft-sell on Jas. Buffett over the years, and I emerged unscathed, although what’s not to love about “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. However, I now have an appreciation for the Beach Boys that I would not have had were it not for the influence of our mutual friend. I may give a listen to these scary-sounding bands you have mentioned.

  6. 8 Kipo January 22, 2011 at 19:06

    Among the MANY qualities that my Young Lovely possess, an appreciation for Jimmy Buffett is but one. As an aside, we went to our favorite restaurant tonight for a quick date night. I have had a professional relationship with the general manager of said restaurant, so as we chatted tonight, the topic of music came up. I mentioned some of the record albums I have recently converted to digital, and mentioned, among other favorites, Genesis. He asked me a question I have not been asked in quite a while: “What’s your favorite Genesis album?” Why, it made my night! For the record, Ami tolerates Genesis. Oh, his favorite? “Selling England By The Pound”. Mine? Varies by the day. This week, “…and then there were three”. My son reached up and stopped the turntable while the conversion was under way. I think I’ll leave it in, it makes me smile when I hear it!

  7. 9 jstwndrng January 22, 2011 at 21:54

    Genesis albums for me are like fruit; you know how they say your favorite fruit is the one you’re eating now. Each one fully places me back into a space in my memory that I love, even ABACAB (The only one I bought after that one was Invisible Touch, an album not included in the fruit thing for me). But gun to temple, I’d have to pick And Then There Were Three. I just really bonded strongly with that album. TT and WW would be runners up, since they were the first Genesis ablums I owned, and then Selling England in third place, then Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme in fourth and fifth, and Lamb and Duke would duke it out for sixth, and I suppose ABACAB and “the first one” would escort each other in the rear. I never owned Tresspass or the one with Mama on it. Oh yeah, Spot the Pigeon is in there somewhere, too, near the back. The thing is, on almost every album there’s one song (at least) that I could not live without. Watcher of the Skies; Cinema Show; Anyway and Carpet Crawlers; Blood on the Rooftops; Mad Man Moon; Burning Rope, Undertow and Say It’s Alright, Joe; Behind the Lines and Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End; Me and Sarah Jane and Keep it Dark. Even the foregoing list was hard to contain.

  8. 10 Kip January 23, 2011 at 08:24

    That is SUCH a good list! I agree with most all, and now will have to go find/listen to some of those I have not listened to in a while. I have gone on into We Can’t Dance. There are a few really good tunes on there, but it is also kind of Phil Collins pop. And “Live-The Way We Walk” is a double treat, with disc one called “The Shorts”, and disc two “The Longs”. I think I have the self titled album, the one with Mama on it, on cassette. Yes, I said it, cassette. Oh, and going back to Smallcreep’s, I found it, and have added that to the digital collection. I have forgotten how good that album is. Not a bad tune on there.

    And I do not know where the “O” Came from. I guess that’s what happens when you are feeding children and replying to posts!

    • 11 jstwndrng January 23, 2011 at 10:41

      I think the extra ‘o’ in your name is what caused your comment to hang up in “moderation”. As for We Can’t Dance, I think there’s a song about Driving the Last Spike or something on there that I would say was a really good piece, sort of more like a Duke song from a decade earlier. By the by, look at your Smallcreep label and see which songs are on each side. The way I understand it, if side A starts with Moonshine, you’ve got the misprint (AND I WOULD HANG ON TO IT). I think I had that one, but I’ll never know. It would explain why I always played the album starting with Moonshine and my surprise and irritation when the CD came up the other way round.

  9. 12 Tony Ramirez January 23, 2011 at 11:47

    Funny,I had the same issue with new hires at work, after some initial introductions, the topic of music came about. While co workers of the same age as myself ,discussed artists and concerts we have enjoyed over the years…as of late…the “younger set” have that goofy reaction of “who’s that?” I remember thinking to myself…where they have been these last few years!

    • 13 jstwndrng January 23, 2011 at 12:37

      Tony, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s pretty alarming when you start getting that blank stare more than just occasionally, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s legal to reject a candidate for employment based on whether or not they can name the three members of the band Cream?

  10. 14 Kip January 24, 2011 at 12:25

    Hmmm, maybe I DO have the misprint. So, the album is supposed to start with the Smallcreep’s suite of songs, eh? Driving The Last Spike is a bit Duke-ish, and one of my favorites from We Can’t Dance.

    • 15 jstwndrng January 24, 2011 at 15:54

      Well, well. Wikipedia says that the original U.K. release started side A with “Between the Tick and the Tock” but that the sides were swapped for the original US and Canadian releases. So I guess no story there. Anyway, that’s the way it should be played, to my lights, so that “At the End of the Day” is the last song you hear.

  11. 16 Librarian Girl January 27, 2011 at 17:15

    I loved this, and not only because I love a good T’Pau reference.

    It’s making me think about how I start conversations with people. I think I am usually the conversation starter when I am in a new social situation, and I never thought about how I do that.

    • 17 jstwndrng January 28, 2011 at 09:28

      It’d be interesting to hear you report back if you begin noticing how you start those conversations with strangers, and what, if any, social forms are being observed.

  12. 18 Librarian Girl January 28, 2011 at 09:42

    Many of my go-to conversation starters, I am finding as I think about it, are relational. Like, “how do you know {the host of the gathering]?” or if I see two people talking, I ask how they know each other. Or if they have a child with them, I ask how old they are, or something about them.

    Another one for me is getting people to talk about place. I ask if they had to come a long way to get here, or if they live nearby, or something like that. If they reveal what area they live in, I talk about/ask about that place. “Oh, I love Fremont. I heard about that new pie place there,” etc.

    I’m going to a party this weekend. More field research…

    • 19 jstwndrng January 28, 2011 at 10:11

      I like this a lot. It does not seem invasive or irrelevant or even as abrupt to ask how someone knows someone when they are at a gathering with those someones. Very interesting, thank you for reflecting and getting back to us on that. Come to think of it, that’s the kind of thing my Angela would ask. I might try that approach next time I get out, which might be in a decade or two. What new pie place?!

  13. 20 Librarian Girl January 28, 2011 at 10:30

    It’s just called “Pie.” I hear good things about it.

  1. 1 A friend for the streetcorner « Just Wondering Trackback on February 23, 2011 at 23:18

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