The world needs my generation’s tender toughness

I don’t want to see America on the side of a milk carton. I don’t know what will save us, but I’m looking to the kids of the ’80s and ’90s to lead the way.

BRATTLEBORO — I was born in 1979 and therefore consider myself a Double Stuf Oreo of generational influences. I have the unique perspective of having all of my formative years wedged between banana clips and Nirvana.

If my inner child took visible shape, she'd be smoking a clove cigarette while watching Punky Brewster - the show about a single, white man in his 50s who somehow manages to adopt a runaway child after hiding her in his apartment for several days.

Children of my particular era have a very unique sense of dread that informs their humor. My children don't think most of my jokes are funny, but I remind them that they can pour milk into their cereal without staring at the poster of a missing child.

And that when they turn on Netflix, they do not hear a man with an ominous voice that stretches out of the television like an entire package of Big League Chew saying, “It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

* * *

There's no way to properly explain the dichotomy of the terrors of our microgeneration's upbringing with the genuine disinterest most adults had in explaining any of it to you.

Most of the time, you were actually at home, your fingers cramped from a day of hard work, urgently hovering over Play and Record trying to miss the radio DJs voice but not the first few bars of Richard Marx's “Right Here Waiting.”

Your parents didn't always know when you walked through the door, and they probably didn't care all that much. I wonder if that ritualistic, ominous reminder coming from the television was their cue to throw a bag of pretzels at your door. (“Dinner!”)

We lived through the Reagan war on drugs, divorce rates on steroids, the AIDS epidemic, and Unsolved Mysteries. Billy Joel just decided to stop writing a very lengthy song about the tragedies of human existence when he got to our generation because he literally said, “I can't take it anymore.”

We broke Billy Joel.

But instead of being broken ourselves, we developed this kind of tender toughness. We were independent, smart, and imaginative, but we also avoided hard emotions like a game of sixth-grade dodgeball.

* * *

And that's why this week, the truly horrific videos of the riots and insurrection at the Capitol have left me stone-faced, but also silently crying as a narrator reads the list of side effects during a Humira commercial. It's complicated.

But nothing, not Punky nor parental neglect nor Billy Joel's broken spirit, have prepared me to navigate … this. (Picture me looking around and wildly pointing everywhere.)

We can't even agree on facts. Truth is irrelevant, and Billy Joel hasn't picked up his pen to amend the song title from “We Didn't Start the Fire” to “Yep, This Place is Still a Dumpster Fire” with a million more verses of just him crying in time with a brash piano solo.

I have never been more ashamed or embarrassed, and I'm the kid who had to wear shoes from Payless.

* * *

I don't know what will save us, but I'm looking to the kids of the '80s and '90s to lead the way. We can come together.

We've done it before. Our moms made us knock on one another's front doors when we hurt someone's feelings. We had to apologize to each other face to face until approximately 1997, and we can do it again.

We had better start doing it again. I don't want to see America on the side of a milk carton.

There is a level of accountability that must now inform our citizenship. Acknowledgment is the first step. There is no moving on to a better world without accountability. There can be no justice or reform that occurs without first stepping into the uncomfortable reality of your participation in the things you despise most. We all participate.

There can be no healing if we don't turn to one another, embrace the shame of terrible misjudgment, and do everything we can to peacefully burn the bridges of tyranny.

It requires you.

It requires me.

It requires … Nirvana.

“And I'm not sad. And just maybe I'm to blame for all I've heard.” (“Lithium,” July 1992.)

* * *

It's 10 p.m., and I know exactly where my children are. They are upstairs, 10 months into a global pandemic, having just watched the foundation of our nation come perilously close to ruin.

Maybe my jokes aren't funny because there's little to laugh about right now, or just maybe this resilience of character they are forming will fuel the next generation to pick up the hard work of ours.

What can we do to make sure this never happens again?

So, I'll start.

I'm sorry. I've made some terrible misjudgments. I hope you'll forgive me.

By the power of Grayskull. Amen.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates