Saturday, September 20, 2008

We Are the Dog (Aging, Nostalgia, Music)

September 18, 2008, 6:36 pm
Domestic Disturbances

Judith Warner

We Are the Dog

Tags: middle age, pop music, weddings

Chronicles of Middle Age, Chapter II (At Least): In Which I Attend a Wedding

Do you know what the youth of today are doing?

They’re listening to ’80s music.

R.E.O. Speedwagon, and Madonna, and Michael Jackson and Journey.

“Living on a Prayer” sounds just great to them, and “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” is a fist-flying, foot-stomping generational anthem. (Though you might be interested to know, in this age of idiocracy, that the original title on the 1981 album “Escape,” included the “g” at the end.)

I know all this; indeed, I am an expert in the Youth of Today, because I’ve attended two weddings of twentysomethings in the past year.

They were the first weddings of twentysomethings that I’d attended since the early 1990s, when the twentysomethings in question were my cousins and friends. The wedding I went to this past weekend was a first in a more remarkable way as well: it was the very first time I was invited as a friend of the parents.

Yes – a friend of the parents. One of those staid, faded people you remember from your own wedding, the vaguely known or (in our case this weekend) almost never-before-seen interlopers toward whom you tried not to show your utter lack of interest before slinking off to enjoy yourself with your friends.

“You don’t know who we are,” my husband, Max, said to the bride on Saturday night, “but thank you for inviting us.”

“Thank you for coming,” she answered, with a smile.

This was an impressive exchange. But then, I am generally much impressed with the youth of today. They strike me as earnest. Forward-looking. And sincerely, almost unbelievably nice.

According to surveys, they drink less, do fewer drugs and experience less anomie than today’s fortysomethings did at their age.

And, most shocking of all, they appear to like their parents.

They seem not to have the general disgust for older people and the distrust of their institutions — like marriage — that people of my generation did in the 1980s.

In fact, as Max and I lounged on a loveseat, watching the young people dance and whispering sweet nothings (“What?” I would honk. “Shout directly into the ear horn!”), a few of them cocked their heads sideways at us, and found us adorable.

“Awww,” they cooed.

It was nice to get this validation from the youth. Part of me thought, though, that we should do something along the lines of showing them How It Was Done, and get up to dance to “Billie Jean,” “The Breaks” or “Like a Prayer,” which were, after all, our songs. But another part of me was tired, having had a whole half glass of champagne over the course of the evening, and many other parts felt like they were being gouged by plastic flexicuffs, so tight and complicated were the supports holding my cantilevered body in place in my ambitious party attire.

Besides that, I remembered all too well the abject horror I used to feel, in my twenties, when people in their forties tried to dance. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Least of all, me.

For some clever part of me knew that the twentysomethings’ embrace of all the worst music from my past was, in fact, ironic. I also knew that my reclaiming of it would not be. Not any longer.

It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed lately, listening to the “classic rock” stations that are now — unbelievably — broadcasting the soundtrack of my life: bad music sounds so good once it becomes the music of your youth. All the songs you hated, all the bands you mocked, all the pop clichés you spurned because you were so much cooler than all that now sound so soulful, so very real.

This nostalgia for self is quite a shocker, particularly for someone who — like most people, I imagine — spent much of her youth striving to escape from herself.

How silly it is to cling to non-existent memories. To smile dodderingly at “Sweet Caroline” when I’m not really old enough to remember it from the first time around. To wax sentimental for “Hotel California” when I found it sinister in the seventies. To grin with recognition at “Maneater,” when in fact it has always made me grimace with pain. How weird it is to suddenly morph from a person who looks out at life through the jaundiced eye of studied irony to one who – children growing older, parents older still – grasps at life, buying Hallmark greeting cards with great care and attention and crying at weddings of people I’d never met before.

Last month, when Max was away for two weeks at the Democratic and Republican conventions, I discovered E-cards. I was missing him, so I sent him cards with setting suns and flying birds and blooming flowers and equally flowery words of love. I sort of sent them as a joke.

“Sobbing now,” he sort of joked back, in an E-card thank you.

What has happened to us?

Middle age, that’s what.

On Sunday, I had a phrase lodged in my mind, as Max and I drove home to D.C. from the Connecticut wedding, listening to the classic rock stations in state after state.

“I am the dog,” I said it was.

“You are the dog,” Max insisted.

It was a phrase we both thought we remembered from an article we’d read, early in our marriage, in Rolling Stone magazine. Max said it had to do with smoking pot: the author had described how, when she was young and stoned with friends, a dog’s entering the room could seem improbably hilarious (a “whoa … fur” kind of a thing), whereas, once she reached her thirties, pot-smoking had led to the quickly sobering thought that “You are the dog.”

I said that it really was about age: “I am the dog” when I realize I am all that I once found ridiculous.

I hunted the story down this week, thanks to a kind Rolling Stone researcher, and found that, in fact, we both had been right. “The Dog Is Us” had been written in 1992 by Marcelle Clements, who was revisiting an earlier essay she’d written in 1982, charting the end of her sixties cohort’s romance with smoking pot. (“Now the dog is us. And it’s not funny.”)

And she had concluded that her dog semi-metaphor hadn’t been about pot-smoking at all. The dog, she’d realized in her forties, was “indeed, me.”

There is much that is good about being the dog. It is to be connected, engaged, centered, happy. But there is a worrisome aspect to it as well. Professionally, I find being the dog to be a terrifying prospect.

Being at peace with the world doesn’t lend itself well to polemics. What if contentment heralds the death of having anything interesting to say?

I obsessed about this all the way through New Jersey.

Thank god for anxiety, is all I can conclude. And thank god for the dog.

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