Since late January, my first stop in the Sunday New York Times has been Michael Winerip's GenerationB column in the Styles Section. In a mere eight months, Mike, an old colleague from the paper, has become the Boomer Boswell.
With his signature graceful style, empathy, and eye for vivid detail, he's told us stories about blended families, graying surfers, sex toys, surviving Madoff, caring for aging parents, and on-line dating that bring those Yankelovich stats we so love to throbbing life. Last week's installment of the not-so-young but still restless was about a 58-year-old student loan company executive who went from $225,000 a year to what is beginning to look like everlasting unemployment. He lives alone in an inexpensive suburban apartment, Mike wrote, and "goes for the $2.99 breakfast special at a nearby diner every morning, just to get out and be around people." Mike obviously hit a nerve. He got hundreds of e-mails on that one, some of which will doubtlessly be future columns.
"I have to admit that my first reaction to this assignment was negative," said Mike when I called him off the beach the other day on his Cape Cod vacation. "I thought it would be a series of stereotypes about those entitled, self-absorbed boomers.
"And I didn't think there was really a generation out there with similar values, just people who would change as they grew older."
But with a Boomer's conditioned optimism, Mike took it as a challenge and found that he was right and he was wrong. There was a common sense of entitlement - no American generation had grown up with such privilege and prospects - but no common political, religious, social, sexual response to that entitlement. All things were possible. The revolutions - which had been started by pre-Boomers - were now the Boomers to keep going.
And as Mike dug into the breezy myths - the Boomers were unstable, just look at the divorce rate, while that Greatest Generation stayed married - he came to understand that Boomers just weren't about to settle for the discontent they'd grown up with in their parents' marriages.
Most of Mike's columns are deeply reported - as one would expect from one of the Times' treasures, a Pulitzer Prize winner who can also write acclaimed children's novels (Google him yourself, this is my blog). But the ones that touch me most are about the lower-middle-class kid from Quincy, Mass. who went to Harvard, missed serving in Vietnam or getting muddy at Woodstock, but like our President, inhaled. Mike has four kids whose alcohol consumption bothers him, much less any pot smoking.
"I know it seems hypocritical but you do change as you get older," he said. "I'm also less sure I can change the world, and I no longer feel the need to be consistent with what I was."
A couple of months ago, Mike, a jogger and biker, found out he had a blockage in an artery. The brush with mortality rocked him. He's 57, about the age when his father suffered his first heart attack. He died after the third, at 65. Mike got a stent, one of the techno advances not available in Dad's day. Would modern medicine outweigh heredity? Now there's a Boomer question.
Soon after the stent was implanted, Mike went swimming in the ocean lifeguarded by Ben and Sam, two of his sons. I loved Mike's image of his college-age boys flanking him shoulders to shoulders as he breasted the waves. Leave it to the Boomer Boswell to find a heart-warming spin on the Sandwich Generation.