Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What do you call that unobtrusive age demographic between “high noon” and “dusk,” between “halfway” and “finish line”? I’m at the front of the pack of Generation X, a late 60s baby, born just before the moon landing, just after the last of the Boomers. Those of us who came into this life at the tail end of that tumultuous decade led our generation up the mountain and now we’re kicking our bucket lists down the other side toward the undiscovered country, the summer land, the last exit on the highway to the hereafter. (And no, I’m not talking about Florida. Not ultimately, anyway.)
I’m neither middle-aged nor senior citizen. I am exactly twice as old as my mother was when she gave birth to me and 17 years older than my dad was when he stepped off a plane in Saigon to begin his tour in Vietnam. I’m 34 years older than my younger self the year I wrote my first poem and hit my last home run. I’m 27 years older than the younger me who fell for a girl who would become the woman I share my life with now.
At 46, I’m just past halfway. It’s a funny place to be.
I’ve found that gray matters – the soft organ in my skull and the hairs on my head. I’ve had a long time to add to the database in my brain, so I’m more knowledgeable and presumably wiser than I’ve ever been. I’ve developed a sense of humor. People listen to me, respect my experience, and sometimes even take my advice. Yet sometimes I still find myself waxing nostalgic for the oddest things – dancing zombies and fingerless gloves and phones with cords and Tina Turner’s legs, Mad Max, fictional man-eating sharks, angry gremlins, the fourth Dr. Who, and the original killer cyborg from the future.
When I was young, I found it odd whenever my mother went on about her childhood as if humanity had reached its zenith in mid-twentieth century America – a time when, according to her, people never had to lock their doors and raised happy, wholesome children without even trying. She spun a fairy tale out of the fifties like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Yet if there is an unlikelier candidate for the apex of human achievement, it might be the 1980s, but here I am, pining for the Eagles and ET, telephones you didn’t have to carry around in your pocket, and a world with about 3 billion less people in it. And still, I wonder when the hell Cyndi Lauper got to be 58.
I call my mom at least once a week so we can gripe together about how confusing modern technology is and how we miss “good” music and taste and manners. And there are serious problems too, of course – the loss of the natural world, overpopulation, the rise of terrorism. But this essay isn’t about anything so momentous. It’s about childhood expectations and post middle-age angst. Is your life anything like you expected it to be?
Thirty-five years ago, I couldn’t wait to grow up. I fully intended to spend my time digging in Egypt like Howard Carter looking for another undisturbed tomb full of treasure and artifacts. Or maybe I would travel all of Africa as a wildlife photographer for National Geographic. I really had no idea that being an adult (once I finally gave in and became one) would have more to do with carrying a second mortgage than carrying a camera. It would have lots to do with getting root canals and taking the dog to the vet because he ate a sock and arguing with school principals about who really knows what’s best for our child, and not so much about ancient tombs or African wildlife.
But being an adult is also about open windows and the cool autumn breeze drifting through them. It’s about learning to appreciate all the things that make life worth living – the sound of the ocean or your child’s belly laugh, waking up next to someone you love, a book that scares the snot out of you when you’re alone in the house (oh c’mon, that’s fun), watching snow falling or the sun rising, the smell of coffee and the taste of chocolate, rocking a baby to sleep, holding a fossil in your palm, making someone laugh so hard they snort their soda. I could go on. But I have a point and I’m pretty sure I’m almost there.
My list of those things, the ones that make life grand, gets longer every year and everything on it ages like wine (or cheese. Let’s go with cheese. I love cheese.) So things that have been on the list since I was a kid – like petting a dog or looking for shells on the beach – are particularly potent. But I also keep adding things to the list. I was in my thirties before I lived in a place where the trees (and weather) changed in the fall. It was amazing and it made the list. It was just a couple of years ago that I first went swimming in the ocean at night. (And yes, I remember that scene in Jaws. Why do you think it took so long?) It was great fun and also made the list.
So here’s my theory about the difference between how I feel about things on the list and nostalgia. Nostalgia is about missing something that can’t be regained – a “simpler” time, our innocence, our youth. (Or in my case, Cyndi Lauper’s youth.) It’s all tangled up with those well-aged things that made the life’s-worth-living list when you were a kid so it’s potent stuff. (Writers love it. A few well-placed details can evoke powerful emotions. Ray Bradbury is a master at it. Read a few pages of Dandelion Wine and the next thing you know, the smell of freshly cut grass will remind you of your childhood growing up in middle America in the 1930s – even if you were born 30 years later and several states away from the Midwest). In a story or book, nostalgia lends the narrative a bittersweet edge. But in real life, it’s just kind of painful really.
So I needed a concept to counter nostalgia, especially now that I’m past halfway - something that reminds me I’m-happy-to-be-alive-right-here-right-now. And that’s where my not-a-bucket-list comes in. These are not things I want to do before I die, but things I want to experience every chance I get while I’m alive. They are not objectives. They’re things that bring joy or beauty into my life. It’s less about thrill-seeking and more about deep appreciation. It’s like a drawing of a sheep in a box.
- Cover via Amazon
Has anyone here read Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince? For those of you who haven’t, the narrator is a pilot who is stranded in the Sahara. Out of nowhere appears a strange, charming little person (the little prince) who we later learn is just visiting our planet. He asks the pilot to draw him a sheep (so that he can take it back to his planet). The pilot makes several attempts but the little prince doesn’t like his drawings. Finally, the pilot draws a box and tells him the sheep is in the box. The little prince is delighted. So the question here is why?
And the answer, for me, is my not-a-bucket-list.