I was reading a collection of Dave Barry essays earlier today: Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster). Dave rarely says anything I find inherently surprising, but he says what he says far better and amusingly than I ever could. On this occasion, however, he truly caught me off guard. A fellow Boomer, he comments that our parents – those hardworking Greatest Generation folks – were happier and more fun-loving than we are. He was prompted to say this by an episode of Mad Men (Season 1 takes place in 1960 during our mutual childhood) in which the characters, for all their carousing, don’t seem to have fun: “Unlike the Mad Men characters, the grown-ups back then had fun. A lot of fun.”
I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but he is right. The kid’s perspective with which I’m still inclined to think of my parents had blinded me to it, but he is very right. True, they didn’t have the blow-out wild teens and 20s that Boomers had as (mostly) singles in the prosperous freewheeling era that the Greatest Generation had created. They didn’t have the time, money, or opportunity for that. (I’m generalizing, of course, but for the bulk of the generation the generalization is accurate.) They were too occupied by the Depression, World War 2, career-building, and early marriage with kids. They were nose-to-the-grindstone during working hours, yet they still managed to play hard as adults on top of all that. Nor did they scale back in their 30s and 40s as Boomers did. I recall an endless parade of babysitters as a young kid because every weekend one of my parents’ friends (and they had many) was throwing a house party. They dressed up for them, too, in sports jackets and cocktail dresses. Of course, the party-giving cycled around to our house every so often, and I tried to spy surreptitiously when I could. People chain-smoked, loudly cracked off-color jokes, and drank astonishing amounts of alcohol while playing records, dancing, and playing actual games such as charades. I remember limbo parties in the early ‘60s. When there wasn’t a party to attend it was probably because we were off camping or at the beach or some such place.
I’m nowhere near as ambitious with my playtime any more than with my worktime. I do host some houseparties, but never more than a half dozen per year (usually fewer) of any size including summer BBQs, while I attend perhaps one or two by other people. They are far tamer than those of my parents, and a clean shirt counts as “dressed up.” (I do see friends more often than that, but two or three people do not constitute a party; I go out to random clubs and concerts more often than did my parents, but if you count social organization get-togethers such as the Rotary, they went out more.) I don’t think we’ve ever played charades at any of my parties and it’s been five years since anyone danced at one – and that involved a video game. I’m also much less quick to just hop in the car for a vacation trip than were my parents even though I’m single with no kids, so the logistics are far simpler. Nearly all my friends are the same way: not hermits but decades past being party animals. Millennials are actually more restrained in their behavior than Boomers (or Xers) were at their age; we’ll have to wait and see whether they make up for it later in life or if they still prove to be even lamer than we are.
Our parents knew what the Big Stuff was and why it mattered. They spent their lives facing it. So, they didn’t sweat the Small Stuff, which included such trifles as second hand smoke and seat belts. They knew life is hard, but they had fun while they could without letting that fun interfere with the Big Stuff. They were a flawed generation, as every generation is in its own way. Social attitudes were commonplace then that are cringeworthy today. Yet, there were many many ways in which they simply did it better, and now that I think about it they played better too. It’s probably too late to try to emulate them in that way, but maybe I should break out the limbo pole for the next party. Or maybe not. If I go under it I might never unbend again.
Party scene from The Apartment (1960)