What my sixty (plus) years have taught me

A more recent musing, published here in March 2022, just before my 60th birthday. I recently turned 61, and not much has changed since.

Children’s programming (according to my parents) in 1966.

Like others of their generation, my mother and father took the “benign neglect” approach to parenting, so every evening my brother and I found ourselves propped in front of the television set, TV trays and dinners before us, and we watched the reports about the Vietnam War as we made our way through our Swanson fried chicken and mashed potato entrees. This was the late 1960s, so there really wasn’t much else to watch as we ate, and though the war was never discussed either in school or at home, we knew about it well enough.

My own kids are 13 and 12 now, and I guess my parenting style — as it is for many of my generation, especially those who live in New York — can be called “grave concern” instead. Over the past three years, their mother and I have had to assuage their fears about COVID (we’re all going to die), climate change (we’re all going to be burned alive), and Donald Trump (our country is going to be run by an idiot for four more years). This makes the 1960s look almost quaint. Therapists never had it so good. Neither have bartenders, especially mine.

I’ll be turning 60 in a few days, one of those taking-stock milestones that come around every ten years, so as my body and my mind edge into decrepitude (well, further into decrepitude, anyway), I made a little list of a few cultural and political disasters to which I’ve been privy during my past six decades to see if there’s any general conclusion I can get out of it. Join me, won’t you, with a glass of something alcoholically bracing as I tick them off:

  • The Vietnam War (and the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Africa generally, South America generally, not to mention my parents’ marriage)
  • Watergate (in my social studies class I learned how government was supposed to work; watching the Watergate hearings I learned how government actually worked)
  • Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another more maladroit Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, and that’s just the executive branch (the most admirable and courageous politicians of my lifetime have been an absurdist playwright and a TV comedian from Central Europe, which tells you something)
  • SARS and the swine flu (fondly remembered, these)
  • Chernobyl (the gift that keeps on giving, apparently)
  • 9/11
  • Air travel (never particularly attractive, especially after 9/11)
  • 1/6
  • Television comedy
  • Higher education (for that matter, K-12 education too)
  • The Internet (not since Gutenberg has so much stupidity been shared so rapidly by so many)
  • Contemporary American fiction and drama
  • Canned wine

I could go on, but neither you nor I want that.

I know there are those of you who cavil that I’m leaning a bit into the negative side of things. Fine. Let’s look at a few of the most commonly cited achievements of mankind over the same period:

  • The polio vaccine (sure, try that now)
  • The Internet (see earlier list)
  • The end of apartheid in South Africa (good idea; we should end it in America sometime)
  • Wider selection of good beers in the supermarket (I’ll give you that one, and you’ll have to take it, because beer bloats me these days)
  • The legalization of marijuana (it just makes me want to urinate)
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall (peace in Europe had a bit of a run there for a while, true, but there are new walls going up all the time, apparently)

And now, to wrap it all up, Ukraine. Top off that drink for you?

With age, they say, comes wisdom. Not for this sixty-year-old; any chance my kids will be the benefit of parental wisdom will have to come from my wife, who’s got it all over me in the wisdom department. I can only suggest to them responsible drinking, but I fear an unpleasant visit from Family Services. I’m not sure what kind of wisdom is going to emerge from Ukraine anyway, let alone all the rest of it.

Maybe the best I can do is a trite observation. These days the word “evil” is bandied about quite a bit. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different definitions of it, though, which if nothing else is proof positive that they’d all be wrong. In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray, apparently a pessimist himself in the end, posited “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America,” which comes closest to the way I look at it, but that doesn’t really tell us what evil is.

I don’t know what evil is either. I can’t even get my DVR to work. One thing I am pretty sure of, though, is something that the late, great P.J. O’Rourke suggested about “trouble” in the introduction to his book Holidays in Hell, a collection of essays about his travels to the Gaza Strip, Belfast, Managua, and other unpleasant locales in the 1980s. “Trouble” serves as well as “evil,” but given the current social climate and O’Rourke’s tendency to colorful and occasionally offensive language I should probably just paraphrase.

His point was basically this: That evil does not spring from any particular group of people. Evil does not spring from Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Hutus, Tutsis, the Japanese, the Chinese, Canadians, or Americans. Evil does not spring from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or atheism. Evil does not spring from Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Capitalists, Conservatives, or, God bless ’em, Liberals. Evil does not spring from adults or children. Evil does not spring from men or women or any given gender variations thereof. Evil does not spring from people of a particular skin color, a particular age, or a particular height or weight.

Evil springs from the human heart.

Ribbon cutting

Over the past few days I’ve been putting some finishing touches on a redesign of this web site, which debuted over twenty years ago as Superfluities. Since then it’s gone through a variety of iterations as my interests and indeed my life have evolved, and with the onset of my sixtieth birthday earlier this year I thought it was once again time to take stock of this writing, which has wavered between the sublime and the ridiculous, most of it leaning towards the latter. A self-consciously modest admission, perhaps, but nonetheless true.

When it began back in the 1990s, blogging itself was the killer app of its day, long before the launch of social media platforms like MySpace (2003) or Friendster (also 2003); Facebook was a mere glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Now, two decades later, the internet is filthy with abandoned blogs, though many of them have since been deleted, their expressions lost to the ether. For me, blogging was a way to share my own writing with what I hoped would be a wider audience, and for a time it was. As Facebook and Twitter became more popular, however, blogs became less and less so, and in an odd way social networking and connection suffered too, at least when it came to the publication of lesser-known writers. Blogs, posted on the World Wide Web, were universally available to everyone, and many invited comments from its audience, no matter their origin; I myself landed a few paid writing gigs with the likes of the New York Times and the Guardian as a result of my blog posts. Sites like Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are dependent on users forming groups of friends or followers, shutting out those who may not orbit in those circles, as wide as they might be; because you follow someone, they don’t necessarily follow you back. The circles are insular, and the feeds move too quickly to encourage anything but superficial engagement. Not to mention that, in the blogosphere, there was no character limit, nor was there much of an invitation to the short sharp shocks of a Facebook post. While blogs required a bit more technical know-how than a Facebook or a Twitter, the bar to entry was extraordinarily low if not non-existent, and what one learned on the technical side was, at least, transferable knowledge that could be leveraged in other pursuits.

I spent many years blogging about theater as both a critic and a playwright, and I had something of a reputation, but I don’t write about theater any more and have moved on to other pursuits. Nonetheless, in putting together this relaunch, I’ve noticed a few interests that have remained central over the years. In the past few days I’ve reread some earlier essays about Vienna, about T.S. Eliot, about my own background, and they more or less remain current concerns, even if since their original writing my views have evolved and my affinities broadened somewhat. I’m making a concerted effort to revive my interest in this writing itself, and hope that if you visit here you’ll find a more concentrated effort and more frequent posting than I’ve been able to exhibit over the past few years; over the next few weeks I’ll continue to repost a few essays that I’d like to preserve, but I’ll do my best to come up with new writing (now they call it “content”) too. At 60, I’m less argumentative and I hope more open-minded, and perhaps that’s because marriage and parenthood does that to you. There’s still plenty to write about, though, and I hope I still have a few things I hope to say that I hope are worthwhile to hear.