Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Little Encouragement for Baby Boomers (& Happy New Year!)

The term aging Baby Boomers makes my teeth hurt, and I saw it more than once in the popular press in 2008. I suspect it’s an insidious plot by Gen X and Y to define their predecessors as “past their prime and fading into history.” Something they cooked up in journalism school. Last year, just before graduation.

Aging Baby Boomers. I hate that. And I respectfully submit that the very best days of our generation are still in front of us.

Maybe not physically.

OK. Definitely not physically.

But in terms of getting things done, making a contribution, and changing things for the better. The very best days are still in front of us—and it’s essential to our mental health to keep that idea front and center.

It reminds me of a visit my family made a few years ago to the beautiful Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The visit came not only during Rembrandt’s 400th birthday celebration, but during a renovation of the museum, so that the staff had assembled some of the very best of the collection in a very small area (and closed off the rest of the museum). This was music to the ears of touring parents who would try to get their children through about a dozen museums in ten days.

As we went through the guided tour I kept hearing about the Golden Age. The Golden Age this. The Golden Age that. It was then that I came to realize that the Netherlands—historic, lovely, democratic, energetic--thought of its best days as four hundred years ago, during the seventeenth century.

All I could think, in my ugly-American mindset, was how difficult it must be to live in a place where the belief is universally held that the golden age is not now, not tomorrow or next year or even a century from now, but 400 hundred years ago.

Don’t you lose a step, a bit of energy, maybe some of your edge if you are always and ever on the downslope? Doesn’t it make the rocking chair look just a shade more inviting, to think the best is behind you?

With that in mind, and as you—my fellow Baby Boomers, reaching ages 49 to 66 in 2009 (if you accept Strauss and Howe’s 1943-1960 definition)--make your New Year’s Resolutions for 2009, think about some of the past contributions and milestones of folks "our age." If nothing else, it'll encourage you not to skimp when you make up your list.

These examples are all taken from Eric Hanson’s fun new book called A Book of Ages.

Here we go. Pay attention.

At age 49, Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and George Eliot wrote her masterpiece, Middlemarch. At 49, Abe Lincoln spoke out against slavery and lost his first debate to Stephen A. Douglas. Davy Crockett died at the Almao after running out of bullets.

Have courage, roll with defeat, but don’t run out of bullets.

At age 50, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Henry Ford began manufacturing the Model T, FDR offered the nation “a New Deal,” Irving Berlin wrote Good Bless America, Eugene O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Julia Child premiered The French Chef, and Igor Sikorsky (after 30 years of trial) flew his first helicopter. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia introduced a line of neckties. Painter Chuck Close became paralyzed from the neck down but learned a new way to hold his paint brush and would continue painting three enormous canvases a year from his wheelchair.

Oh, and Charles Darwin, at age 50, published The Origin of Species.

Keep tinkering. Keep changing. Keep thinking outside the species. Never give up.

At age 51, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Some time later, and not to be outdone, 51-year-old Dr. Suess was given a list of 225 words to use in his new book. Two of the words were cat and hat.

At age 52, milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc learned that a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald was making forty milkshakes at a time. Kroc investigated.

At age 53, Walt Disney opened a theme park in California. Samuel F.B. Morse strung some wires between Washington and Baltimore. Charles Dickens was in a train returning from France that plunged off a bridge, killing ten. Dickens’ car was left hanging from the trestle. After he escorted a lady friend off the train, he went back on the teetering car to save a manuscript he has been writing.

Kind of puts into perspective the last time you lost your cool trying to recover that unsaved Word document, no?

At age 54, Oliver Cromwell became lord protector of England, Frederick Douglass was allowed to vote for the first time, and Robert E. Lee declined the invitation of Abraham Lincoln to lead Union forces. Alfred Nobel read his premature obituary in a French newspaper, found himself described as a “merchant of death,” and dedicated most of his enormous wealth to promoting peace.

Hanson’s book is a great read. A little bit male. A little bit artsy. Too much of a couple of folks in particular. But lots of fun to read. Buy it. There’s lots more that I’ve left out.

At age 55, Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring, creating the modern environmental movement. Of less import but greater initial acclaim, Wilt Chamberlain published his memoirs, claiming 1.2 partners per day (20,000 in all) since he was 15.

At age 56, Henry Luce launched Sports Illustrated. George Frideric Handel premiered The Messiah.

Decades later we’re still singing, and still waiting for the bathing suit issue.

At age 57, Anais Nin admitted to two husbands, one a New York banker and the other a forest ranger in California. She compared her life to a trapeze. James Joyce shared copies of Finnegans Wake with his friends. George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, saying he felt “like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”

It turned out pretty well, at least for Joyce and Washington.

At age 58, Miguel de Cervantes published part one of Don Quixote, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Caruso, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky finished The Brothers Karamozov. Langston Hughes, who had written 26 books in 34 years, started writing from midnight to six or seven in the morning because people kept stopping by during the day and interrupting him.

Good energy and focus, eh?

At age 59, Elizabeth Taylor married for the eighth time. There’s lots more good 59-year-old accomplishments, but I’ll stop there. It seems like enough said.

At age 60, the prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca. Jack LaLanne swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Handcuffed. Towing a half-ton boat. Ditto the above—I’ll stop there.

At age 61, on a plane heading for Washington to be interviewed for a seat on the Supreme Court, Harry Blackmun did “what he has always done when faced with a decision:” he wrote a list of pros and cons. The pros won. Blackmun will have a decisive influence on Roe v. Wade.

At age 62, Ed Sullivan uttered five words: Ladies and gentlemen: the Beatles.

At age 63, Lena Horne opened a one-woman show at New York’s Nederlander Theater that would run for 333 performances—the longest running solo show in Broadway history.

At age 64, Harry Truman was so far behind in the polls that pollsters just stopped asking. Truman embarked on a whistle-stop tour of hundreds of cities, went to bed election night thinking he had lost, and woke up elected. Isaac Newton was knighted, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, and Henry Ford produced his 15 millionth Model T.

At age 65, Winston Churchill—arguably the greatest man of the 20th century—was elected prime minister of England for the first time. He told the country he had nothing to give but toil, blood, tears and sweat. Also at age 65, Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2M to the city of New York to build libraries, the start of some 2,800 libraries built nationwide from Carnegie funds.

At age 66, the oldest our Baby Boomers will be in 2009, Paul Revere built the first mill in the U.S. for rolling copper, eventually trademarked as Revereware.

Lest you think you can rest at 66, Baby Boomers, there’s more, but I’ll leave you with only a hint: At age 90, Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design an opera house, two museums and a post office. More spectacularly, 90-year-old Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

Happy New Year, Baby Boomers! May our Golden Age be always in the future.

And remember: Don't run out of bullets.