Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Families V--More on the Boomers

I can hear the indignation of all the Boomers sizzling in the air. "We were not spoiled. I don’t know what planet YOU grew up on, but MY parents didn’t bend over backwards to give ME everything!" Oh, no?

I’m writing from the point of view of someone who was anything BUT rich. Remember, there were five of us kids, and we were a one-income family, until my parents had been married almost twenty years. We wore hand-me-downs (remember that series of portraits I mentioned? Over a span of years, the same dress appears on Donna, and then on Chris, and the next year on Lauren!) When we absolutely had to have new, it was "Topp’s" or "Community Discount"—the sixties Chicagoland equivalents of Wal-mart…in fact, not even quite up to Wal-mart quality. K-Mart was a big step up for us, when it became ubiquitous in the late sixties.

My parents were experts at shopping the sales. They would sit down with the weekly ads, and plan their routes through three different grocery stores as if they were strategizing for D-day. One year, Dad acquired a monstrous second-hand chest freezer from the hospital—the size you could easily freeze a half-dozen corpses in (a scary thought, considering where it came from…). From that day forward, if there was a really great sale on, say, chickens or frozen peas, Dad could, and would, sock away enough of these commodities to last through to the next century. Millions of advertising dollars were wasted on us…brand-name foods never made it through the front door. Those two or three extra pennies the companies tacked on to the price of their goods to pay for that advertising, put them as far out of our reach as if they were caviar or champagne.

Those same advertising dollars were pissed away by the toy companies. Just about every toy we owned was a cheap Hong Kong knock-off of the American brand name stuff. We had 12-inch fashion dolls, but they weren’t necessarily "Barbie." If it talked, walked, or ran on batteries, it didn't appear under our Christmas tree. We learned to ride on old, beat-up, rusty second-hand bicycles with fat tires, coaster brakes, and "touring" handlebars (the like of which I would give my right arm to own today!) Do you remember paper dolls? (We used to call them "cut-outs…") And coloring books? We had these in abundance…because they were CHEAP. But they were also FUN. We spent hours keeping ourselves amused with what amounted to scraps of paper and our imaginations.

Were we rich? Not by any means…not in the financial sense, anyway. Were we over-indulged? I don’t think so…the folks couldn’t afford it. But we were indulged. We took for granted things that our parents never could… Things as basic as the home we lived in, and the Catholic school education that my dad scraped to make ends meet in order to pay for. No, we didn’t wear designer duds or take trips to Paris (or even Disneyland) in the summer, and we didn’t have the keys to a brand new Chevy presented to us on our sixteenth birthday. BUT, we didn’t have to quit school at twelve and go to work to KEEP that roof over our heads. We didn’t have to walk down to the corner butcher shop and beg for a bone for the dog, and then take that bone home and throw it in a pot for supper. We didn’t have to watch our schoolmates die of polio, influenza, scarlet fever, and a host of other childhood scourges. Our parents, and American society at large, made damn sure that we didn’t have to worry about those things.

We were freed from the burden of having to sweat about our basic sustenance. Those things were provided for us. When we began to come of age, and it was time for us to grow up and away from our parents, what could we set our sights on achieving that they hadn’t? They had assured that we were healthier, better-housed, better-fed, and better-educated than they had been. We were able to stand up and look around at our society, because we weren’t bent over the grindstone. We looked around, and we didn’t like what we saw. In fact, due to the miracle of television, the images appeared right in our living rooms…

We saw prejudice and race hatred. Poverty and inner-city decay. A war halfway across the world that decimated the ranks of our siblings for a hazy political cause. "Good Ole Boy" politics that disenfranchised millions of citizens of every color. Brown air and black water. The specter of a mushroom cloud rising over a ruined world. The "Greatest Generation" had done their best to prepare us for anything the world could throw at us. They had given us the tools to be comfortable in the world they knew. Which was not the same one that stared us in the face as we peered over the bent backs of our parents.

So, there we were. Young and strong and angry. Educated, but not wise. Too young, really, to throw ourselves headlong into the world we were presented with, and be an effective force for change. But we did it anyway. The fact that there were so many of us acted as both a catalyst and a battering ram. Part of our motivation was to distinguish ourselves from the herd. Individuality became almost a religion. We were determined not to let our parents’ society do its "cookie cutter" work on us.

The shear bulk of our ranks busted the seams of our parents’ social traditions. We heaved aside segregation, social class structure, ethnic insularity, economic divisions, gender bias…that was GOOD. But we also chucked marriage, sexual morality, basic etiquette, respect for our elders, self-control…that was NOT so good. I remember it as a time when anyone over thirty was the enemy; that attitude saturated every aspect of life. Even so, we did accomplish some great things. We manned the important political movements of our time: Civil Rights, World Peace, Equal Rights, Ecology. We used our great weight to push through a lot of positive social change. The world couldn’t help but take notice when the awesome numbers of us lined up behind any cause we chose. There were just so many of us, we overwhelmed the establishment.

The negative side of the coin was, we abolished our parents’ social niceties, and didn’t erect anything to take their place. As young people will do, we chafed against the rules our parents lived by, and we decided they didn’t apply to us. I have no clue where we got the idea that we could all just live together, play nicely and get along, without rules. I suppose we hadn’t lived long enough to experience or understand the selfish, contentious, sometimes brutal instincts of human beings. The primitive instincts that societal rules and traditions were meant to keep in check. We overran and became "The Establishment", at a time when we were too young and callow to really understand what we were doing—setting up the future social structure of our nation. When we Boomers, many of whom are grandparents now, step back and ask, "How did our society get SO screwed up?" we can’t absolve ourselves of a large portion of the blame.

I’ll wrap this thing up tomorrow, I hope…  


  1. This is a great piece of writing Lisa.

  2. We decided we didn't have to play nice in the sandbox. Instead of everyone rising to the top, the good stuff, we've been catering to the lowest common denominator rather than the highest.

  3. Lisa, this is a fabulous series. You never cease to amaze me.

  4. Wow!  Or rather, Oh Wow.

  5. I am enroll in a Human Ecology class starting next Friday; it is my upper level out of major requirement.  Moreover, we could live without rules if everyone was trusted with self-regulation, however, as long as there is entitlement or a feeling of entitlement that will never materialize.

    Excellent writing!

  6. Well written... you are filling in the blanks for my question of how we went from Mayberry to Married....with Children.   This is really good stuff.  Kristi

  7. You should try to get this published in a magazine or something. Your observations are excellent and very well written. :-) ---Robbie