Saturday, December 30, 2017

23--On The Borderline

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like had you been born in a different year?

I did not choose to be born in 1962, obviously. Despite popular new age thinking, nobody can actually "choose" their birth date any more than they can "choose" their parents. That is just more wishful thinking for people who have trouble with the idea of randomness. However, I often think that had I chosen the year of my birth, it would have been 1951. In choosing this year, I imagine certain charms about being raised in the 50's, well, as long as you were not a person of color, or gay, or a woman, or poor. But I could be mistaken, for I was not there. I just like how it seems that people conducted themselves with more decorum back then, at least in public if not in private. I suspect it would have been a good childhood at the least.

But childhood is not the primary reason I would choose to be born in 1951. I think that, throughout history, childhood has been a mixed bag of love and shit, regardless of the greater culture. The main draw would have been becoming a teenager in the mid to late 60's, arguably the most important time of cultural change in the last century. Imagine it: growing up during the emergence of rock and roll and the gradual shift from repression to expression. I think about being 16 years old and being shaped and shaken by songs from the likes of The Beatles, The Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, The 5th Dimension, The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees, and more. I knew songs from these artists during my time, but I was just a child then and they meant little to me other than being catchy and melodic (imagine ever taking catchy and melodic for granted--how I long for it in today's music!). But were I a teen when these songs were released, they would have shaped my development as a young adult in a way that diverged from what I had known.

The new expression of youth in the late 60's
In my alternative life I imagine leaving my parents' home and moving to New York or San Francisco in 1968 and emerging myself in the counterculture as a way to form my own identity apart from how I had been conditioned. I realize that even the counterculture was, or would shortly become, its own culture, but at the time it was a radical throw-off of traditional views, gender roles, and perspectives. It would only become a culture itself once it was discovered that money could be made from it, as the case was with the commercialization of Janis Joplin, with the record company pushing her to be a fashion icon and the voice of the hippies (this ultimately killed her far more than her drug use). In this timeline, I would have been able to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War, since they drew draft lotteries only on men born between 1944 and 1950. While the show China Beach has its charms, it does not make me nostalgic for that particular experience that I did not have.

Had all this happened, I would have eventually, say around 1972, begun to live my young adulthood in the singer-songwriter heaven that was the early 1970's (they say the 60's ended with the Manson killings in '69--party over!). Carole King, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Janis Ian, Dan Fogelberg, Neil Diamond, and more. And I would have hit my adulthood stride just as disco took over the late 70's--what a time that must have been! In reality, I was in my late teens back then, and though I was indeed a huge disco music fan, I was too young to get into anything other than the young adult disco in San Diego (Stratus was its name!). At least it had a lighted floor like the one in Saturday Night Fever, but I am sure it lacked the cocaine-fueled creative and sexual vibe of adult clubs in New York. Believe it or not, I did once get into Studio 54 before it stopped being a dance club in the mid-late 80's. I was visiting New York during a break from college. I remember standing in line and miraculously getting in, but beyond that my memory is vague. I just remember feeling that I had arrived, when in fact all I had really done was arrive.

I often wonder what my parents must have thought of the 60's and the 70's. Mom was born in '22 and Dad in '28, so their formative years occured during the late 30's and early 40's. What a shock the late 60's must have been to them! Or maybe not, now that I think about it. For most of the country it was actually "business as usual", with the hippie culture being isolated to small groups of youth in San Francisco. The counterculture was fringe enough that most folks just mildly adjusted their hairstyles and clothing, not their behavior, to keep up with the changing norms. But still, think of it! The fashion, the music, the sexual norms were quite different from what was happening in the 40's--I regret that I never asked them about this while they were alive. At the least it must have been awkward, at the most a relief.

What I find interesting about the time my parents came of age is that there did not seem to be a separate "youth culture" during those years. All the pictures from the 30's and 40's show young people dressing much like adults did at the time, or at least "adults in training". It seemed as though it was the opposite of today, where adults attempt to look like young people--back then everyone appeared to be anxious to grow up!

Teens in the 1940's
I found out that the word "teenager" was not even invented until 1941--it came to be as a result of the outlawing of child labor. Suddenly young people had a time when they could just be young before worrying about going to work and a new developmental category was created! But even still the new teenagers had not yet created a unique culture--they were mostly practicing to be grownup, albeit with a bit less sophistication and sex appeal.

That changed in the 60's, primarily due to involvement in music and politics--suddenly young folks had a voice that differentiated them from adults, and they developed a look that went along with that difference. Perhaps that is why it was business as usual for most adults--they were not part of the revolution. And as a child, neither was I.

Had I been born in 1951, well then it would have been a different story altogether. Even if I had been missed the draft, I would not have been out of hot water completely, as I would have most probably succumbed to the next deathtrap: AIDS. I surely would have enjoyed the sexual freedom and exploration of the late 70's and the hedonism and ecstasy of the disco age as an adult, but like many who were in their late 20's and early 30's during that time, I would have had a hard time avoiding the virus that affected so many who were part of that lifestyle. 

I was in my early 20's at the time, which probably is the reason I am still alive today--I was too young to have been exposed due to excessive sexual activity. By the time I had opportunities to have sex the rumors of "gay cancer" were already spreading, so I abstained completely from sex for a couple of years. I remember being terrified--this was a period when nobody knew how it was spread. By 1985 nobody (except the government) could deny that there was something seriously scary going on. AIDS cut the 80's in half the way that disco cut the 70's in half, though with far less celbration, obviously. At the time it felt like my adulthood was paused before it even got started.

Want to hear somthing controversial? Sometimes, when I am wistful, I imagine giving up my life in exchange for the "full experience" of the late 70's. But these are just the musings of someone who was not there, and someone who did not get sick, and someone who did not know many people who did get sick and die. There can be a sort of romanticism in nostalgia for what never was, and we are allowed to go wherever we want to go in our minds, but in the light of day I am grateful to have sidestepped that particular timetable, because at the very least I made it to the age of 23.

A pic from the weekend we met in 2015

I met K when he was 23, and I was 53. Through ups and downs, we have known each other for over two years now and have been officially dating for just over a year as of this writing. I did not want to date a man more than half my age, for a million reasons. But the one reason that applies to this essay is the cultural reason--too much happened in the 30 years between us--it can be quite difficult to share perspectives from one time to another.

As an example, K's 23rd year was nothing like mine. He was working toward an actual career, having already received a master's degree. He had been in one major relationship with another older man, but that did not end well. His sexual experience was fair, but limited, although he had already explored some "outer limits" of his sexuality. In contrast, in my 23rd year I was hoping to be a professional dancer, but I was working various shitty service jobs to pay the bills. It was 1985, a great year for music but a horrible one for sex, since AIDS was now a full blown nightmare in the gay world. Up until then I had a number of lovers and sexual experiences, starting from the age of 16. There is no way my "23" could be the same as K's. They were 30 years apart. But perhaps some bridges could be built.

Music can create such a bridge. In 1985, the year I turned 23, my favorite artist (along with nearly everybody else's) was Madonna. My favorite song of hers at that time was "Borderline" from her debut album. Though it was first released to the world in 1983, it was not until June of  '84 that the song showed up as a radio single. It was a smash, charting 30 weeks on the Billboard charts, and was so enduring that it actually delayed the release of her already finished second album (Like A Virgin). The song's massive success was greatly aided by the accompanying music video, which was directed by Mary Lambert, and shot in Los Angeles in early 1984. That video actually changed my life, as it was my first narrative visual exposure of Madonna, and it perfectly presented her as a fashion and lifestyle icon. It was set in the street and showed the multiracial scene she surrounded herself with, and her confidence and style was fully formed in a way that we all would strive to emulate. I had never seen anything like it before.

Besides being unnaturally photogenic, Madonna's video presence spoke to a part of me that was oddly familiar with the unfamiliar--do you know what I mean? Have you ever seen or heard something that is unknown, but feels known? Not as in a past life sort of thing, but as in "this has always been within me" sort of thing. "Borderline" awakened me, so to speak, both activating and displaying the attitude that I would adopt to get me through the second half of the 80's. The video showed me that, despite death (or perhaps because of it), life was all around the fringes of the street, and it's main fuel--love--would not be reduced or diminished. It showed me that I could be aggressive toward my fears; that I could chance taking huge bites out of life as long as I looked great while doing it. Fashion was the armor and style was the weapon against everything that scared us back then. It may sound silly, but most of us were quite literally grasping for something to hold us above water. Madonna's music and image gave us something to be excited about, and her brazen hipness prepared me for the upcoming years--years that would become even worse before they become better. We all were, without a doubt, on the borderline of something.

I watch the video today and I swear it does not look dated--she was that good (and Mary Lambert's directing instincts were spot on). Unlike many other artists of the time, Madonna didn't just wear the look, she was the look. I have tried to convey the importance of this song and video to K some 30-plus years after its moment, and I could tell that his listening was, well, more polite than convinced. They say that if you have not lived an specific experience, that you can grasp it intellectually, but not experiencially. I suppose that I wanted him to share my experience of the song, but that could never happen. The time of my experience of it has long passed, but remains fresh in my memory. I wonder if I would react to the song the same way were it released today? I do think it is a well written song, but I am too attached to it to truly be objective.

Weeks later, K came to me and told me that he finally "got" why I loved it so much. He had listened to it enough that he got pulled into his own experience of the song, 33 years after the world first heard it. A bridge had been built.

Me in the mid-80's with "Randy". Check out the 'stache!
In the British science fiction series "Black Mirror", there is an episode in Season 3 called "San Junipero". (K actually shared this episode with me, and I am very glad he did because it generated a lot of thought.) I will not spoil it for you if you have not seen it, but the basic story is set in a a fictional 1987, where two elderly and ill women are able to meet and virtually "be young again" via advanced technology. The show, beyond being well written and acted, reminds me of why I have nostalgia for the 80's. If you were young in the 80's, you cannot pretend that you are still young anymore. The women in the episode are artificially inserted back into their youth, it is the only way they can act on what they are thinking. But that technology is fictional--this could not really happen. For me, I cannot revisit the way I looked and acted in the 80's, at least not without looking like a grand fool. I cannot act as though nothing has changed. Everything has changed. It was a period that does not translate into older age, therefore it is a period that will forever be trapped by within its own timeline. Perhaps that is why Madonna ditched the hair rags and rubber bracelets only two years into her career--she knew it would not last and wanted to move on ahead of the others.

K is 26 as of this writing. He is still fully in the midst of his youth. The experience of a 55 year-old with a 26 year-old is far different than the experience of a 26 year-old with a 55 year-old. At times I would try to explain to him that he could not know what it was like to be my age--that it was more than what his fantasies told him, that it also involves some aches and sagging muscles and lost erections on occasion. Not very sexy at all, perhaps. He gets me to rally around his youthful interests once in a while--I had a blast at a Kesha concert that I never would have attended on my own. But what finally worked in getting him to understand who I am now was helping him to understand who I was. This is why it was so important for him to "get" the significance of the "Borderline" song. That song tells him more about my experience in the 80's than any verbal discussion. How does it do this? It conveys the mood of the time. It is experiential. He was able to feel the time, as much as he possibly could without having lived through it.

Love can be a tricky thing. Being in love, a phrase I am not fond of, is usually about who we want the other to be. Loving someone, as I like to think, is about who the other is now, who they used to be, and who we help them to become in the future. Much more interesting to me! Meeting me when I was 53, over halfway through my life, meant that K had a lot more understanding of me to do than I had to of him. It must be difficult to join someone after they had already lived most of their life. But by exploring who I was in my 20's in the 80's, he has been able to catch up a bit. Thanks, Madonna.

I cannot ever be 23 again. That time is permanently a part of my past--it is a part of many peoples' past, and it is lovely to think about on hot summer nights. During these moments, the melancholy sadness of spent youth is replaced by the golden warmth of memory. And memory can be a wonderful filter to look through. I can walk across the bridge made of shared musical experience to join closer with my young boyfriend--not to join him in youth, but in a mid-ground where we both feel ageless for a bit, at least until we cross back over the borderline.