Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generationby Joe Queenan
From the bestselling author of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon comes a vintage Queenan tirade chronicling the evolution of his own Baby Boomer Generation. How did a generation that started out at Woodstock and Monterey end up at Crate & Barrel? How did a generation that promised to "teach its children well" end up with a progeny so evil they/i>… See more details below
From the bestselling author of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon comes a vintage Queenan tirade chronicling the evolution of his own Baby Boomer Generation. How did a generation that started out at Woodstock and Monterey end up at Crate & Barrel? How did a generation that promised to "teach its children well" end up with a progeny so evil they could give Damien from The Omen a run for his money? And what is so fascinating about porcini mushrooms? Professional iconoclast Queenan shows how a generation with so much promise lost its way by confusing pop culture with culture and mistaking lifestyle for life.
Queenan on The Sixties: "Baby Boomers who never saw Hendrix, did drugs, locked or loaded an AK-47 in country or bedded down with a girl named Radiance now all pretend they did. It's like those Civil War reenactment buffs who have drunk so much Wild Turkey they actually think they were at Chickamauga."
Queenan on Death: "A generation whose primary cultural artifact is the Filofax has enormous difficulty shoehorning death into its schedule: it's inconvenient, time-consuming and stressful. 'We don't have time to die this afternoon; Caitlin has ballet.'"
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.51(d)
Read an Excerpt
Throughout history, generations imbued with a messianic complex have inspired a wide range of powerful emotions. The Jacobins who decapitated Louis XVI inspired dread. The insurgents led by George Washington inspired admiration. The twentysomething barbarians who accompanied Genghis Khan on his pitiless campaigns through Central Asia and Eastern Europe inspired despair, the young Germans who put Hitler's name in lights inspired horror, the fresh-faced Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who built the cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens and Beauvais inspired awe.
Baby Boomers fall into a somewhat different category. As convinced of their uniqueness as the Bolsheviks, as persuaded of their genius as the Victorians, as self-absorbed as the Romantics, as prosperous as the ancient Romans, the Baby Boomers, despite a very good start (the Freedom Riders, Woodstock, Four Dead in Ohio, driving Nixon from office, Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy), have never put many points on the historical scoreboard. Feared and admired in their youth, today they inspire little more than irritation. Not outright revulsion, not apoplectic fury, but simple, unadorned garden-variety irritation. With a bit of contempt thrown in on the side.
The single most damning, and obvious, criticism that can be leveled at Baby Boomers is, of course, that they promised they wouldn't sell out and become fiercely materialistic like their parents, and then they did. They further complicated matters by mulishly spending their entire adult lives trying to persuade themselves and everybody else that they had not in fact sold out, that they had merely matured and grown wiser, that their values had undergone some sort of benign intellectual mutation. This only made things worse, because they had now compounded the sin of avarice with the sin of deceit. Besides, it was useless to deny their monstrous cupidity; banks keep records of this sort of thing.
They had not been the first generation to sell out, but they were the first generation to sell out and then insist that they hadn't. Here was their central tragedy, the poisoned well from which all their unhappiness flowed. They were conflicted. They were flummoxed. Their center would not hold, because they were no longer centered.They could not process the information that their guilt was misplaced, that no one in the United States of America would ever blame anyone for devoting every single moment of his life to the pursuit of filthy lucreas long as he didn't try pretending that he hadn't. The heartbreak of the Baby Boomer generation lay in the fact that they could not fully enjoy the wealth they had moved heaven and earth to acquire because they felt tainted by their ravenous greed. Baby Boomers would have turned out so much saner and happier if they had ripped a page from the Founding Fathers' playbook and said, "Yes, I chopped down that cherry tree. And then I securitized it into four equal tranches, with the first two splices reverting to the underwriter. You got a problem with that?"
Clearly, this refusal to own up to their own acquisitiveness is not the Baby Boomers' only broken promise. They said they wouldn't become crass and vulgar. But they are. They said they would never become horrid conformists. But they are. They said they would not be ruthless materialists. But then they embraced a complete Lifestyle Über Alles philosophy, carping and caviling at dinner parties over which local bakery sold the best sourdough boules, which kayak shop offered the most attractive warranties, which brand of grappa was most culturally authentic. It was a generation that once prided itself on questioning authority. Now its only questions were referred to authorities like Williams-Sonoma: "Is l'aceto di Modena superior to l'aceto di Reggio? Is Calasparra or arborio rice more desirable in preparing paella a la valencia?" Their utopian visions of peace, love and understanding had been replaced by balsamic dreams.
In the end, Baby Boomers didn't deliver on any of their promises. Instead, they were a case study in false advertising. They professed to go with the flow, but it was actually the cash flow, and they most certainly did not teach their children well, as they were too busy videotaping them. Instead, they took a dive. They retreated into the deepest recesses of their surprisingly tiny inner lives. They became fakes, hypocrites, cop-outs and, in many cases, out-and-out dorks. And the worst thing was: Most of them didn't realize it.
CERTAINLY NOT MR. Dog Guy. One day last summer I was sitting on the veranda of my elegant, well-appointed house overlooking the Hudson River when a Jeep Grand Cherokee drifted past with a twee Alaskan malamute trotting about twenty yards behind. As the Jeep inched up the street at about five miles an hour, the dog meekly scurried along in its wake, occasionally soiling people's lawns. The dog and the vehicle soon disappeared around a bend in the road, but five minutes later they were back for the return leg of their little jaunt. When the dog attempted to do his business on my wife's beloved flower bed, I made it my business to scare him away with a stick. The dog clambered off and that was that.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I observed the Jeep and the dog making their rounds early in the morning and late in the evening. The driver, about forty-five, was not from the neighborhood. Neither was the dog. The dog usually had the good sense to stay away from my lawn, but he invariably managed to take a dump somewhereelse. The two quickly became a kind of local legend. Everyone felt sorry for a pet unlucky enough to have an owner who was too lazy to get out of his car and actually walk the poor mutt. Everyone wondered what kind of a creep would own a beautiful dog like that and not only refuse to walk it, but refuse to clean up after it, and who would then compound that offense by driving to someone else's neighborhood and encouraging his dog to defecate all over strangers' properties. My neighbors proclaimed him a creep, a lowlife, a swine, not to mention a very thoughtless and insensitive human being.
All this he was. But he was more, much more. I had often seen Dog Guy yammering away on his understatedly elegant cell phone in his fully loaded vehicle while multitasking his debonair trophy dogand I knew exactly who he was. He was a consummate Baby Boomer, the kind of person who was too busy to get out of his car and walk his dog because his time was too valuable. Without a doubt, Dog Guy had conducted a costs-benefits analysis and decided that he would lose more money climbing down from the car and walking the dog than if he stayed inside on the phone talking to his broker, his personal trainer, his mistress.
Eventually, Dog Guy and Dog stopped coming around. Lusting after fresh conquests, they had no doubt invaded another unsuspecting village. Or perhaps hired a live-in bilingual dog-sitteryes, at roughly the same time, I had seen an ad seeking the services of just such a person on the bulletin board of my local laundromat. Yet the memory of those three weeks lingers to this day, for in the capriciousbehavior of this individual I first recognized an important truth: that before the Baby Boomer Era, this sort of nationwide sociopathic behavior had never existed. It is true that throughout our history, there had always been uncouth people who thought they were better than everybody else, people who had decided at an early age that the rules did not apply to them. But they were invariably rich people, so it was possible to attribute most of their baronial incivility to decades of inbreeding. Moreover, they were never terribly numerous and rarely came into direct contact with ordinary citizens.
This is what makes the Baby Boomers different: They're stupefyingly self-centered, unbelievably rude, obnoxious beyond belief, and they're everywhere. Until the rise of Baby Boomers, America only had to deal with a few thousand geographically spaced people who acted like pigs. Now it has millions of them. This is the downside of prosperity.
The adventures of Dog Guy, underscoring not only the failings of my generation but also my own shortcomings as a human being, finally moved me to take a stand. How did I intend to do this? After studious reflection, I decided to draw up a formal indictment of my generation. It seemed that someone should try to get all of our crimes down on paper so that future generations could use it as evidence against us and also learn from our mistakes. In this sense I was preparing an amicus curiae brief for our children and the children of our children, mindful of Cokie Roberts's astute observation that we are all our mothers' daughters. And, by extension, our fathers' sons. And our grandparents' grandchildren. And so on and so forth.
In preparing this indictment, I have tried to stick closely to crimes that any sensible person of any other generation would find actionable, and not merely indulge in personal vendettas against people I despise, like Ben & Jerry. Wherever possible, I have endeavored to avoid invoking such nonspecific terms as "lameness," for lameness is an almost universal Baby Boomer characteristic and by definition incorporates many of the accusations contained herein. I have attempted to enumerate attitudes as well as actions, thoughts as well as words. And I have also recorded quite a few pertinent observations about attire. If I have omitted any high crimes of which Baby Boomers have been found guilty as charged, I apologize in advance. But I don't think I have. Here then is a list of the essential habits, values, neuroses, prejudices, blind spots, fashion notions and idiosyncrasies that make Baby Boomers so thoroughly unbearable.
The cult of the tyke. The way Baby Boomers "parent" their menacingly precocious children is less child worship than devil worship. They simply cannot accept that children are only sources of pleasure to the twoor, in the case of Melissa Etheridge, threepeople who brought them into the world, and usually only because those in question hope to one day convert them into animate revenue-generating streams.
True, it is probably unfair to hate the child accessory just because it is named Jenna, Jared, Josh, Jason or Jordan and started studying Manchurian aikido and the oud at age two. But then again, how can one not? Baby Boomers, by spawning children so vile they could give that kid inThe Omen a run for his money, have put the rest of society in the awkward position of wanting to see children who have not yet attained the age of reason put to the sword.
In many cases, these children don't have a prayer to begin with; since birth they've been groomed as stalking-horses for their parents, who have handcrafted them in their own odious images. A friend of mine runs a fine suburban restaurant. It serves traditional American cuisine in a traditional American setting. Its walls are adorned with old paintings, posters, bric-a-brac. Most patrons find it charming. One day, a family arrived for lunch. They seemed harmless enough. After the meal, the parents approached the owner of the restaurant and announced that their ominously pert ten-year-old daughter had something to say. The owner hoped the girl would compliment her on the peach cobbler or the Cajun chicken. She did not.
Instead, pointing to a mounted deer's head high on the wall, the girl proclaimed, "I think it's disgusting that you have that poor animal's head hanging from the wall." She then departed, accompanied by her proud, beaming, morally reenergized parents, fresh from a bracing midday catharsis.
Here we have the nuclear Baby Boomer family at its most repulsive. First off, we are in the presence of the precocious child, wise beyond her years, possibly as a result of the colorful, oversize Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle flash cards to which she was exposed as an infant. Second, we are confronted by the voluble child, oblivious to the time-honored dictum that children should be seen and not heard. (In deploring the cult of the child, Andy Ferguson of The Weekly Standard once observed that if small childrenknew so much, how come we didn't put them in charge of the Federal Reserve?) Third, we find ourselves crossing swords with the diplomatically protected child who is smart enough to realize that if she expressed her opinions to the owner of a busy, crowded restaurant sans parental aegis, the owner would probably jam her opinionated little mug into the Ligurian Pansotti with Walnut Pesto. Provided it was the special that day.
But in the end, it is the parents who must be blamed for the satanic exploits of their loathsome progeny. And in this vignette, we witness numerous components of the Baby Boomer psyche. For starters, always pick a fight you know you can't lose, in this case because the restaurant owner is unlikely to tell your kid to go screw herself. (It is amazing how rarely one hears of a Baby Boomer family bursting into a rural Arkansas roadhouse and demanding that the owner tear down the Confederate flag because it is offensive to African-Americans.) Next, try to seize the moral high ground in a situation where your target isn't even aware of the moral law he has transgressed. (It wasn't the restaurant owner who shot, beheaded and mounted the deer, and it's not like this was the only commercial establishment in the country with a deer's head on the wall.) Finally, wherever possible make use of the tried-and-true Proxy Attack, by assigning your kid the role of Child Javert because you don't have the guts to do it yourselves, you tragic wieners.
Quality time. Master of the Universe dads spend an hour a day with their children and expect to be awarded the Croi de Guerre. Juggler Boomer moms make teddy bearpancakes once every four years and expect a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Whenever some fatuous journalist wants to make a point about what a superb, well-rounded individual some villainous plutocrat or hideous journalist is, he always mentions that the person takes off every Friday afternoon to go to his son's baseball game or to take his daughter ice-skating. So did Lucky Luciano. Maybe it's true that the Boomers spend a lot of time with their families, but so did the Borgias and the House of Atreus.
The unseemly search for the Fountain of Youth. It has always been possible for a small number of people to remain cool well into middle age (think Cary Grant, David Bowie, Samuel Beckett, Katharine Hepburn). But it has never been possible for a large number to do so. Harrison Ford showing off his naked chest in three consecutive movies (Six Days and Seven Nights, Random Hearts, What Lies Beneath) is a perfect example of Baby Boomers' refusing to accept the passage of time. No, the earring will not help. No, the Stones big tongue T-shirt actually dates you. And please do something about that spiky hair; Halloween is still six months away.
The concept of the "statement." It started with statement buttons ("Dylan Is Divine," "Proust Is a Yenta"), then spread to statement hair, statement clothing and statement drugs. But before long it spread to everything. Ultimately, there were statement houses, statement cars, statement motorcycles, statement bicycles, statement mountain bicycles, statement appliances, statement dogs, statement children, statement adopted children, statement names for statementadopted (a.k.a. "pre-parented") children. There were also statement wives, who differed from trophy wives in that they did not have to be young or beautiful; indeed, their preposterous hideousness could be an integral part of the statement. There were statement ties, statement shirts, statement footwear, statement bumper stickers, statement magazines, statement graves, statement gyms, statement diseases, statement CD collections. Statements have become so ubiquitous in this society that when people go out of their way to avoid wearing clothing bearing any kind of message or logo, they are only doing it to make a statement about statements.
Never-ending self-reference. Baby Boomers act like no one else has ever heard of Baby Boomers. So they constantly have to broadcast obvious autobiographical data like "I campaigned for McGovern" or "I got teargassed during the 1971 antiwar protests" or "I used to go out with a Puerto Rican girl who touched my perfect body with her mind when I was at Oberlin." Actually, the rest of American society knows this particular drill. They've been hearing it since 1968. They may not believe every sacred shard of this arcane mythology, but they know it. By heart.
The edgy-maverick paradox. A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for Forbes in which I blasted Paul Allen and David Geffen and Larry Ellison and all the rest of those populist plutocrats for playing air guitar or wearing gym clothes or appearing barefoot in magazine photographs. They were all billionaires many times over, but theywanted to portray themselves as rock 'n' roll billionaires. They wanted to show the Great Unwashed that they could get down. Sorry, guys, not this millennium. Each and every one of you is Babbit Redux, the Man in the Gray Flannel Track Suit.
At its heart, the disjointed feelings of billionaires about their own ersatz coolness offers a glimpse of the fundamental Baby Boomer problem writ large. How do I sell pork belly futures by day yet still keep that Diamond Dogs edge by night? The answer: You can't. You made your bed, now lie in it, sahib. The boots, the bike, the beard, the Buddhismthey're only going to confuse the kids.
As every generation in every society in the history of mankind has had to learn, much to its sorrow, trying to stay cool long after it is desirablemuch less feasibleis undignified and sad. This is particularly true of what the French refer to as l'hipster de droite (the right-wing hep-cat), who dresses in le style vieux jeune homme (old young-guy wear). The frantic attempt by roly-poly middle-aged Republicans to evince an aura of coolness because they possess one (1) Smashing Pumpkins record and two (2) suede jackets with virtually imperceptible leopard spots is utterly unbecoming. It is not now, nor has it ever been, possible for middle-aged Republicans to be cool. This is, after all, the party of Lincoln. Remember that look?
The passing of the cosmic buck. Baby Boomers like to take credit for everything good that has happened to this society in the past three decades, but invariably blame anonymous miscreants or wayfaring strangers for everything bad. Thecivil rights movement, the Beatles, the ouster of Richard Nixon, the Rolling Stones, the rise of feminism, Jimi Hendrix, increased racial tolerance, Janis Joplin, a dramatic drop in the number of lynchings. in the rural south, Creedence, a lightening-up of society in general, and the first two Allman Brothers records are all incontestable Baby Boomer victories, trophies that are constantly pulled down off the shelf and flaunted in the faces of despairing Gen Xers, who can never hope to attain such Olympian heights of pan-terrestrial idealism and multicultural flippancy.
But when it comes to accepting responsibility for everything that has gone wrong in American society during their long cultural suzerainty, Baby Boomers are nowhere to be found. They know that the crack epidemic is a direct outgrowth of enlightened sixties attitudes toward recreational drugs, but they prefer to blame it on a pathologically self-destructive underclass. They know that they personally destroyed Broadway by failing to identify Phantom and Evita as the cultural equivalent of Adolf Hitler's reindustrialization of the Ruhr Valley, but they like to pretend that well-heeled lepers from Japan and Brazil are responsible for Andrew Lloyd Webber's baleful career. Faux Democrat Baby Boomers know that it is impossible to believe in equal opportunity and still send your children to private schools, but send them they do. Baby Boomers know that they are responsible for Billy Joel, guitar masses, disco, Chevy Chase, a cookie-cutter Fisherman's Wharf in every coastal city, personal wedding vows, school busing, Robin Williams, Anson Williams, Paul Williams, Dennis Rodman, Chris Berman, ABBA, John Denver, Kenny G, John Tesh, Jessica Hahn, Huey Lewis & the News, Les Miz,the Gap and Michael Flatley. But when the check for all this carnage arrives, they suddenly go absent without leave. A classic example: demanding their parents admit that Richard Nixon was Beelzebub, but adamantly refusing to admit that Jimmy Carter was Bozo.
An absolute inability to accept the ordinary. One of the most inane Boomer brainchildren is the concept of the Everyday Epiphany, the cosmic koan, the Richter scale emotional event that could happen anytime, anywhere. The result: The ordinary has been rendered extraordinary and the extraordinary rendered prosaic. In olden dayssay, 1963the average person lived in a world where Bar Mitzvahs and First Holy Communions and debutante parties and weddings and funerals were enormously important events fraught with significance that spoke volumes about the human condition. But if you went to see a baseball game, you understood that you were only going to a baseball game. If you took your son out to the ballpark, you were not doing it because you felt that it was an essential rite of passage, a sacred bonding experience that fused your progeny's atman with the abiding spirit of Ruth and DiMaggio and Gehrig and Koufax, phantoms who still patrolled the sacred groves of the green cathedrals. Nor did you suggest that your child was now privy to some shrouded mystery of Ken Burnsian provenance, requiring that one perform the secret Bob Costas handshake in the dark caverns of Ultima Garagiola in order to gain access to the Temple of Lupica in the Forgotten City of Cleveland Alexander. You were simply taking your kid to see the Astros. It was not that big a deal.
Because Baby Boomers are obsessed with living in the moment, they insist that every experience be a watershed, every meal extraordinary, every friendship epochal, every concert superb, every sunset meta-celestial. Life isn't like that. Most meals are okay. Most friendships work until they don't work. Most concerts are decent. Sunsets are sunsets. By turning spectacularly humdrum occurrences into formal rites, Baby Boomers have transmuted even the most banal activities into "events" requiring reflection, planning, research, underwriting and staggering masses of data. This has essentially ruined everything for everybody because nothing can ever again be exactly what it was in the first place: something whose very charm is a direct result of its being accessible, near at hand, ordinary.
Tasteful self-absorption as a way of life. Baby Boomers honestly believe that self-indulgence is okay if it is herbal, organic and all-natural, and that greed is acceptable if it includes a cognate self-actualizing component. In fact, greed is only okay if it is naked and predatory. Camouflaged greed can only lead to bad things like moderate Republicanism.
La vita e mia. The typical Baby Boomer has an unshakable faith in the personality-transforming powers of summer vacations. "I went to Italy, I was exposed to a simpler, more innocent lifestyle, it changed my worldview." Get real, bwana. You went to a hapless second-and-a-half-world country, you were treated royally by a bunch of peoplewho hate your guts but who desperately need the cash, and then you came back and bored everyone stiff with the details and the hellish slide show: Cinema Paradiso di Chuck e Becky Milsap. If your vacation was such an emotional watershed, how come you're still the same schmuck you were before you left? There's nothing wrong with believing that your life is more exciting than other people's. But we don't need to see the photos, and if you insist on emailing them, we will just have to hit the "delete unread" button. In the end, it may be true that your entire life is a movie. But it is a home movie. Not even your children would volunteer to watch it.
Retroactive political correctness. When the new one-hundred-dollar bills were introduced in 1996, the beaver fur around Benjamin Franklin's neck had been removed, because Baby Boomers deem the use of animal pelts as clothing depraved and immoral. This was a classic Baby Boomer stealth operation: Let us impose our own values on hopelessly misguided historical figures, administering a retroactive woodshedding to one of the greatest men this country ever produced. By stripping Franklin of his fur collar (North America was actually built on the fur trade), the Treasury Department had fulfilled several criteria of the classic Baby Boomer confrontation. First, as touched up previously: Unlike Davy Crockett, Nathan Hale, John Brown, Martin Luther King, Daniel Boone, Susan B. Anthony or, for that matter, Benjamin Franklin, who went up against some pretty tough customers, Baby Boomers love to pick a fight they can't possibly lose, because their adversary is weak,outnumbered, old, decrepit, poor or dead. Second, they love to impose their values where they are least likely to have any effect. Third, they are determined to do everything in their power to ensure that the past becomes as vapid and stifling and predictable and uninteresting as the present.
Suffering by association. A dysfunctional penchant for vicarious participation in other peoples' tragedies, this might be best described as virtual misfortune hunting. Unlike their parents, who actually lived through the Great Depression and in many cases fought in World War II, Boomers tend to claim as their touchstone experiences events that happened somewhere else to someone else. My Lai. Woodstock. Altamont. The Tet Offensive.
Baby Boomers love to act as if the bullets James Earl Ray used on Martin Luther King also winged them. We should be so lucky. Get a few Campari spritzers into a Baby Boomer and he'll tell you that when Malcolm X or Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or even that goofy-looking harmonica player from Canned Heat died, a part of him died with them. And then there is the classic Boomer parlor trick of revealing where they were when JFK died. "I can still remember, like it was only yesterday," they love to say. Yeah, well, so can Caroline. Again and again, Baby Boomers trot out the same waterlogged mythology, using tragedies that occurred when they were young as a smoke screen for their crassness in middle age. "After Bobby Kennedy died, I felt that the American Dream had died with him," they tell you. "That's why I got into derivatives."
Few things are more unnerving than the Boomer habit of annexing another person's suffering and then adorning it with some ludicrous personal iconography. For example, patronizing restaurants with names like Paris Commune, perhaps hoping that the valor of seventeen thousand Frenchmen massacred in 1871 will rub off on them as they scarf down the andouilletes with lobster, leeks and white truffle oil. This is why no Boomer concert is complete without a song about Victor Jara or the massacre in Tiananmen Square or las abuelitas (the little grandmothers) who gather in the central plaza of Buenos Aires every Sunday to protest the murder of their grandchildren. Attention, shoppers: David Crosby and Richard Shindell songs are not going to bring back the desaparecidos. And singing about heroes is not heroic.
Sometimes it gets more personal. A friend once wrote me a letter anguishing over his wife's reluctant decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. For years and years afterward, my friend said, he continued to be haunted by the memory.
"My wife's abortion was my Vietnam," he wrote, the outline of his tears still visible on the stationery.
"Your wife's abortion was your wife's abortion," I wrote back. "Leave Vietnam out of it."
Rock criticism. Before Baby Boomers came along, the New York Times never published sentences like this: "That devilish side that leads him [Sting] to play with his musical sources and not just absorb them and to write from the perspective of a man who might be as corrupt as he is enlightened is the source of Sting's integrity." It is impossibleto see how prose like this improves the human condition.
The concept of selective virtue. In olden days, if you were going to walk around like you were better than everybody else, you actually had to be better than everyone else. And you had to be better than everyone else all the time. Virtue was not some kind of part-time job you could punch out of at the end of the afternoon. If you were going to be a saint or a holy man or an alms giver or a Little Sister of the Poor, you couldn't practice sexual abstinence and bathe lepers and succor the lame and honor the Lord thy God half the time and spend the rest of the time sleeping with the farm animals. Virtue was an all-or-nothing proposition; either you were on the bus or you were off.
Boomers demolished this system by introducing such weird moral hybrids as vegetarians who smoke, pacifists who sell drugs and Buddhists who can get you in on that e-tailing IPO at 71/2. These people have adopted the attitude not so much that half a loaf is better than none, but that half a loaf is better than you. This is definitely not what Saint Francis had in mind.
Hypocrisy as a manageable lifestyle. Boomer culture derives from a pathological need to have everything and its exact opposite. I want to dress like I'm poor but actually be rich. I want to dodge the draft but also vote for John McCain. I want to make movies that ridicule people who are lame, tired, out of date and hapless, but still get tobe Danny Aykroyd. I want to spend the whole of my youth reading books deploring the moral bankruptcy of my parents' generation, then, when I am in a position to inherit their life's savings, ostentatiously cover the coffee table with stacks of kiss-ass My Pop the War Herotype memoirs praising their extraordinary valor.
Consider the behavior of several Boomer prototypes. Bill Clinton wants to be the moral leader of the Free World. But he also wants to get a little trim on the side. Bill Clinton wants to help the poor. But he also wants to eliminate welfare. Bill Clinton strongly supports public education. But he also wants to send his daughter to private school. He fits neatly into the grand tradition of the Great American Phony.
Other Boomers follow the same game plan. Madonna hawks her line of Catholic showgirl's iconographic accessories in her churlishly sacrilegious videos, then names her child Lourdes and wonders if the pope might baptize her. Ben & Jerry make a fortune thumbing their nose at "evil" giant corporations and then sell their countercultural ice cream company to an "evil" giant corporation. Dennis Miller, the very definition of the maverick shill, poses as the outsider who rants against straight, uptight, Republican America and then signs on as an announcer on Monday Night Football. Geraldo Rivera writes a sordid autobiography entitled Exposing Myself, then wants to replace Tom Brokaw as one of the "wise men" who sit in judgment in NBC's inner sanctum. The entire generation has driven itself insane by failing to realize that if you want your cake, you simply must stop eating it.
Self-reinvention ad nauseam. Self-reinvention, which derives from the Christian notion that any penitent sinner is capable of achieving redemption, means that all people are capable of repackaging themselves. But the Good Book only intended for people to reinvent themselves once per lifetime, not twenty-five. Cher has been reinventing herself since she was eighteen. Bob Dylan has been doing it since he was twenty-five. Sting reinvents himself every fourth album track. Madonna reinvents herself as a singer every time the public de-invents her as an actress. The driving force behind self-reinvention is the unflagging belief that nothing one does ever goes on one's permanent record. Baby Boomers learned from Jerry Rubin and Jerry Brown and Jerry Springer that the secret to success is to simply keep the target moving. And moving. And moving.
The incessant invocation of sixties mythology. Let's get one thing clear about the sixties: It was not a simpler, more innocent time. It was a nightmare. Everyone hated one another. Everyone was shooting at one another. Civil war was in the air. The food was abysmal. There were race riots in almost every major city. Drugs ravaged the underclass. People got lynched. The only good things about the sixties were the music and the fact that it wasn't the seventies. But even rock 'n' roll was problematic, since people were always getting stuck with worthless tickets because Jim had been arrested for whipping out his cock or Janis had overdosed or Jimi had gagged on his own vomit. I wouldn't live through the sixties again if you paid me. Which is pretty amazing, because Baby Boomers will do just about anything if you pay them.
Premature nostalgia. Baby Boomers were the first generation to become nostalgic for the past before the past had officially arrived. Think of it: classic rock, Beatlemania, CBS golden oldies, all of which are seventies concoctions, fast on the heels of ... the seventies. All of which are now fixtures in this era of permanent nostalgia. Previous generations had hearkened back to earlier times, but they at least allowed a decent interval to pass before initiating the hearkening. By contrast, twenty-three-year-old Baby Boomers started pining for the good old days when they were only twenty-one. Most of them stopped buying new records during their senior year of college. Don't believe me? Talk to anyone who's ever tried selling them a record. Other than Graceland.
Refusal to leave the stage they weren't even on in the first place. Ordinary Baby Boomers love to form old-fogey weekend-warrior bands so they can butcher songs by AC/DC and Aerosmith, and re-butcher songs by Foghat and Deep Purple. Often they bring their kids. No matter how toxic Dorian and Madison are, they probably don't deserve this. And then there are the Celebrity Old Fart Bands like John McEnroe's various groups and Stephen King's Rock Bottom Remainders. It's bad enough that these guys can't take a hint. But then they have to go out and invent new hints not to take.
Self-congratulatory obviousness. Almost without exception, Baby Boomers read the same books, eat the same food, raise the same kids and have the same values as their peers, but insist that they have developed their own intensely personal navel-gazing style. Every Baby Boomer acts like hewas the first person to think up some incredible banality (white kids love hip-hop, the French are rude, Republicans seem to be very interested in the bond market), even though they all get their opinions from the same magazines and Web sites. (The habit of introducing these banalities into a conversation in an imperious, semi-oracular fashion is sometimes referred to as "delivering the Full Quindlen.") Just once it would be nice to meet a Baby Boomer who doesn't fall hook, line and sinker for the Legion of Just-Add-Water pundits (Anthony Lewis, Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers). Just once it would be nice to meet a Baby Boomer who actually dislikes the work of Stephen Hawking, Merchant Ivory, Harry Connick, Jr., Maya Angelou. It would be like meeting a Scotsman who announces, "This round's on me."
Preemptive destruction of the future. Though this is the last major accusation I will level at my generation, it is by no means the least serious. Basically, Baby Boomers sabotaged the future by making it a place filled with garbage excavated from the past. If something in the past is unquestionably stupid or unnecessary, you can bet that Baby Boomers will revive it in some jejune, post-ironic way, because Baby Boomers are never really comfortable with anything until it has been dead, buried, exhumed and repackaged. Baby Boomers rarely trust their first impression of things; they usually wait until their eighth impression before finally making up their minds.
VH-1's wildly successful Behind the Music is a sterling example of this phenomenon. I will be the first to admit that I enjoy watching a weekly show where I find out thatthe guys from bands like Whitesnake or Kiss or Grand Funk Railroad wasted all their money on limos or women or drugs or all of the above and are now pasting up billboards or doing time or dead. But I hate it when they announce that they're going back into the studio, that they're planning a limited tour, that they're coming back. To me, the whole appeal of the show is to be reminded how terrific the present is precisely because none of these people are in it. Often I think of how great this society would be if all of the truly horrible people went away and stayed away instead of constantly climbing out of the grave. Think of it. No Geraldo. No Mike Milken. No Sylvester Stallone. Conceivably, no Kathie Lee.
This is one thing you really have to give Cat Stevens credit for. Once he went away, he stayed away. He left his career behind. True, he did poke his head out of the foxhole recently, but basically the rest of us haven't heard a peep out of him for twenty years. Twenty years isn't a lifetime, but I'll take it. If only every other Baby Boomer would follow Cat's inspiring example, this place would be Paradise.
BALSAMIC DREAMS. Copyright © 2001 by Joe Queenan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >