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On Talking to People Over Thirty

Cabbages and Kings

By Jim Frosch

WE MIGHT AS WELL admit it, and risk the inevitable and gleeful Newsweek article that usually makes us think ten times before saying anything. It is impossible to talk to anyone over thirty. Think of the last few times you tried. Think of the time you tried to tell your parents why you were unhappy and why Harvard made you uptight, and that maybe it wasn't just adolescent growing pains or if it was they were a lot profounder than anybody imagined.

Think of the benignly perplexed look in your father's tired, nine-to-five eyes when you told him over half-finished coffee and stale cigarettes that you couldn't become a doctor until you changed the world so that it was worthwhile to keep people alive.

And then there was one of those god-awful family get-togethers--was it what's her face's wedding or cousin George's funeral (he was twenty-nine and died of fright)? Anyway, after fifteen minutes of kisses on the cheek and handshakes with good-natured (oh yes) ribbing about long hair and campus activism you realized the only way to survive was to get hopelessly drunk. And so, mellow and impish, you explained to your maiden aunt that it would be great to do away with marriage because it would end all discusson about pre-marital sex, and that it would be even greater to do away with the family because that would end occasional family get-togethers.

Wherepon one of the many (how many?) beloved uncles sauntered over and wanted to know why you young people were soft and told you how when he was a kid nobody had time to get depressed because they were too busy figuring out where the next meal was coming from.

You were relieved to get back to school where at least some of the people over thirty weren't really over thirty (it's only incidentally related to age) and most of the others were far too occupied writing treatises on the differences between Ramist and Aristotelian logic to bait you. Except, of course, for an occasional mini-confrontation with an interested, bespeckled administrator who wanted to know why you had to paint that fence and why you thought your boredom was more profound than that of an eight-year-old who got tired of the same old toys (you never said it was, but you were close enough to eight to remember vaguely that eight-year-old Weltschmerz was a lot profounder than the man talking to you).

But beneath the mutual sneering across the generational gap, which is all part of the fun, is there anything more to the petulant plaint of the younger generation? Why is it so difficult to open up and trust somebody "over thirty"? What happens to people when they get to be thirty, anyway?

Well, crudely put, when people get to be thirty they sell out. Selling out means losing flexibility, committing yourself to immediate rather than transcendent goals. It's almost impossible to avoid selling out--so many things force the small time visionary into the prescribed mold. The mold slowly begins to harden and it gets more and more difficult for molded people to relate to the free flowing and unpredictable upstarts.

Losing flexibility doesn't mean immediately jumping from HR-SDS to Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith--it is much more subtle than that. A pliant flexibility is what enables the young spirit to view the world in a critical and hopeful way--he projects his flexibility onto the world. Nothing is sacred, everything can be changed. That's why the younger generation continually talks in the revolutionary idiom--qualitative change is as unlikely as the apocalypse only for those over thirty. There just isn't any reason why things are the way they are. Of course when you get married and have children (this is the most maturing experience of all) and then start talking to people over thirty you begin to see that there are very good reasons why things are the way they are.

People under thirty define the way things are in terms of the universe, those over thirty, in terms of their family and personal aspirations. Quite simply, when you get to be thirty your perception of the world begins to reflect your mold.

But the poor sell-outs don't cherish growing up absurd. In fact they're quite defensive about it, so much so that they cannot allow themselves to see alternatives other than the one they have taken. How else can they justify themselves--after all the social conscience doesn't pack up her bags in a huff and leave. Like God of Christian fable she waits and knocks insistently, perhaps pathetically, at the door after she's been thrown out.

And so the sad, guilt-ridden thirty-year-olds can't understand the utter elasticity of the youthful perception. A man who spends his life working for change through teaching or preaching or doctoring can't be blamed for resenting the arrogant put-down of his life's effort.

But things are flexible (you've probably guessed that I have ten years to go). It is only men that are brittle, only men stand between reality and the reification of the childlike utopias of the mind. About the only hope left, it seems, is the Pied Piper.

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