My parents were very young when I was born. Most of their friends didn’t have children yet, and I was a portable kid who could amuse myself under the table if lugged to a dinner party. I liked to listen, and I learned how to camouflage myself as an uninterested innocent so that I wouldn’t get sent to bed when the gossip started. I didn’t know many other kids, and those I did know seemed dull compared to the grownups whose world I preferred.
I still mostly seek out people my own age or older. Many of my friends ten, twenty, or thirty years older than me, but few are in their teens or early twenties. I read Graham Greene, not Banana Yashimoto. I have the musical taste of a middle-aged man: Elvis Costello, The Kinks, Fats Domino, Emmylou Harris.
There is nothing better or worse about preferring the company of those either younger or older. It just depends on what draws you more: stories or potential. The 20-year-old backpackers I met on the road didn’t interest me. They seemed unformed, interchangeable, and oddly conservative, huddling in groups and following predictable paths. The 30 year olds were braver, and had stories. The 40 year olds had more stories. The 70 year olds told the best tales of all.
When I talk to younger people, I want to give them maps and shortcuts.
Warn them: ’29 is weird for women. You might go a bit nuts.’
And: ‘Find out what certainties you stand on. What would you do if they collapsed?’
And: ‘Don’t worry. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.’
And: ‘Keep doing things you think you can’t do.’
And: ‘Try to be a little kinder.’
What I don’t do well is listen. I don’t listen the way my older friends listened to me when I was eighteen, kindly, attentively, as if I were another interesting human being, not just some dumb kid. As if they might learn something by listening to an eighteen-year-old.
I know people who do it by instinct. They blend without prejudice. They are excited by potential, not accomplishments. They see flexibility where I see ignorance. They are ambassadors from the future, who come back to tell the rest of us crumblies what’s really new long after we’ve convinced ourselves that buying car commercial music is okay. That Moby is hip.
At Vindigo I had a beloved co-worker who was just four years younger than me, but who slipped smoothly in with ‘the kids’. ‘I’m from The Future,’ he used to joke, but it was true. I interrogated him on the language, the stars, the clothes, but I could never pass, nor did I want to. I studied the gadgets and trends he adopted to figure out coming attractions. Sometimes he was really wrong: the Modo. Sometimes he was right: online personals became hip. Well, sort of. He works at MTV now, another lab rat gig.
People who shape the world are those who have a little power and experience, and who use it to work with kids. Never trust anyone over thirty, the hippies used to say, but most of their leaders were that ancient. John Zerzan, a guru behind the Seattle WTO protests, is 57. The Beats were a generation older than the generation they inspired; so was Timothy Leary. John Hughes was well past sixteen when he defined for a generation what it meant to be sixteen. And Avril Lavigne’s songs are not written by a teenage girl.