I haven’t written much of the election because why would I? It’s awful. But I’ve followed it as closely as anyone, in particular articles trying to understand how the people who cling to this narrow idea of what it is to be an American came to cling to it. And this article does it best so far.
The despair of the white middle-class baby boomer interests me because I have a dad that fits that profile. While he knows enough to detest Trump (probably mostly just because he’s non-military), he is very fond of reminding everyone that they’re all doomed — that America was at its best when he and his peers were in charge, and now that they aren’t, we’re all fucked. I love my dad, so I try to dismiss his fearmongering as the kind of anger that you’d expect from a guy whose wife no longer knows him (but whose care, he will rant loudly to you, he still has to pay for). Alzheimer’s sucks. I know this. But when he calls you and tells you how screwed you are, because the same disease runs in your blood, ready to pounce…when he tries to scare your husband into flash-forward previews of his future with you, the disease-carrying spouse…when every single political and non-political moment gets viewed and reflected through a lens of Back In The Good Old Days (“when men were men and women were women,” he used to add, though he has since stopped, having decided that this, at least, is culturally too off-base even for him)…it becomes harder to dismiss.
My mother was my father’s filter. She reined him in when he became too bitter or morbid or intractable. (Is this an ideal relationship? No, but what relationship is?) She called him on it, and he would in most cases realize how nuts he sounded, and say something humorous instead and defuse the situation. With my mother ill and no longer able to do this, I thought I would try, but it seems I do not have the privilege of rebuking him. He just shoots back with more dire predictions about the fuckedness of our future, as well as the futures of any children we might have. Before you ask, yes, obviously I brought up therapy — but as that NYT article describes well, that generation of men, mired in that culture, do not take well to such suggestions. My father certainly didn’t.
His own family could well have used it. His mother spent most of the first part of his life addicted to sleeping pills, only rousing long enough to give birth to a second son. His father spent many long hours on the road as a door-to-door salesman, making precious little to show for it. I mention this only to point out that that gooey-sweet Leave It To Beaver lifestyle that my dad vociferously pines for did not exist for him. Common sense dictates that it didn’t exist for a great many of these old white guys vocally pining for it these days, either. So what’s with all the rancor, the deafening cries for a return to the good old days? The good old days, before social services would even notice if your dad beat you? Before anyone would believe you when you said you were sexually assaulted? Before there was anywhere to go if you found yourself living a decidedly un-Cleaverly life — which, just to take a wild guess, not many people in fact were living?
Rose-tinted glasses, I know, I know. But this goes beyond just only remembering the good about your past. This concerns actually rewriting your past to fit a culturally-established narrative dispensed through various media, both of the time and up to and including today. And because, as previously mentioned, Alzheimer’s runs in my family, I am very uneasy about the idea of rearranging one’s past to suit one’s memory. Natural Language Programming, for example, scares the living daylights out of me. Add sensory details to memories to build them up or take them down? No! No. I’m not adding to anything. Not consciously. Because I know all too well where you end up when your unconsciously (inevitably, in my case) because fucking with what you thought you knew. And it’s in a ward where they guard the elevators so you can’t escape, and talk to you like you’re five. Because you might think you’re five.
Depression is a common companion of those with dementia. It starts out as anxiety management and then, as it gets worse — often precipitated by a move to a care facility, as was the case with my grandmother who called me to bring her scissors with which to slit her wrists — full antidepressants are prescribed. Happiness isn’t really the goal anymore because people aren’t really comfortable measuring that. Manageability is the goal. Doctors get together and try to make the great big black hole of suck that you have become, more manageable for everyone else.
So when you know this is coming, what do you do? When there are people you love who you know will be in the line of fire of your diseased instability, what do you do? There’s precious little worth doing, I suppose, but one has to do something. One has to feel one is doing something.
Mostly, I observe. What I see eating at people around me, I try to avoid. My mother-in-law, for example, obsesses over her appearance. She despairs at every wrinkle and blemish and panics over the graying of her hair. I see the seeds for the same behaviors sown in her daughters, whose selfies are lovely and endless, and who cannot be eaten with without hearing a long lecture about carbs, calories or cleanses. So. I don’t take selfies. I figure that if that’s a potential snag in your self-worth, later on — regardless of how easily I can sit here and point it out to myself, and say I don’t or won’t care — I want to avoid it, if possible. No pictures, beyond those required by others and quickly forgotten, even now.
I’m also leery of privileging my youth as some shining paragon of perfection that will never be witnessed again. I know the 90s are now just far enough away for people to reflect back on them with nostalgia, but while I too have fond memories of Rugrats, koosh balls and tamagotchis, I’m uneasy about resurrecting them. Because I see what the boomers have done to their childhoods — adopted the media narrative of that time as one of, instead, their own lived experience — and I…don’t want to do that. If I can avoid it. I don’t want to be threatening the children of the future with tales of how much better I had it. It won’t help. It doesn’t. It just makes everyone defensive and miserable. And since, thanks to the disease that is mine to inherit, I know I’m already going to do that anyway…I’m in no rush to beat it to its sad punchline.
And boomer dads everywhere, especially those who have lost someone or are constantly losing a little bit more of them every day, need to realize something. You aren’t beating anyone to the punchline, either, by wallowing in your despair and lashing out at anyone who tells you you need to drag yourself up out of the pit. You won’t bring back the 60s; you won’t bring back June. Ward Cleaver, if he existed, probably would have spent many a night crying alone under the weight of things. Because things are heavy. He lived in a time when getting any sort of help suffered a heavy stigma.
You, however, do not. So please. Get help.