I used to think I was learning something when I found out how old a person is, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong end of the timeline.
Someone’s current age will reveal something about their health or whether they'll respond to a text with "LOL" or an emoji, but the real insight comes from considering the world of their births.
When Abraham Lincoln was born, Thomas Jefferson was president and Kentucky was the nation’s frontier. When Ronald Reagan was born, marijuana was legal under federal law, but banned in California, and the first radio station was nine years from launch. When Oprah Winfrey was born, she was legally prohibited from attending school with whites in her home state. These and other situations provided the backdrop for what they would read, whom they would meet, how they would perceive their communities and how they would live as adults.
In a way, we have several birth years, each related to a particular type of maturity. What year was it when we first became aware of world events? What was happening in the economy when we started to earn a living, or save for retirement? What were the parenting trends when we had children, or when our parents had us? The stories of our lives are written against a backdrop of social, political, and economic events that etch their own imprint into our worldviews.
I was born five weeks before Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and 11 months before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy opened his infamous hearings into Communists in our government. We held air raid drills at school, standing in front of our lockers to shield ourselves from the nuclear bombs the Soviets might drop on us. I am, in many ways, a product of the Cold War, and I have no doubt that my parents’ approach to childrearing reflected their own experiences with the Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.
I joined the workforce in the 1970s, when inflation was high, stock prices were low, and oil prices were skyrocketing. Those patterns have influenced my approach to our finances for more than 40 years. If I had begun working five years earlier, or five years later, my perceptions and discipline would be much different today.
Usually, we discuss age groups in wide swaths, like 18-34 or 40-65, but this generic approach hides a ton of detail that would help us understand each other better. Even our preoccupation with “generations” (Boomer, X, Y, Millennial, Zombie, Codger) mixes too many variables when it comes to understanding any specific person.
Clearly, we don’t learn much when we ask someone how old they are now. The more relevant question is, “How old were you when….?”
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I know a number of people who never want to be early for anything, and they drive me crazy. (Okay, it’s more a putt than a drive, but it pushes my buttons either way.)
The people I am talking about—and they know who they are—seem to view punctuality as a power struggle. They believe the person who arrives first has the most free time and, therefore, is least important. The person who is last to arrive finds everyone else waiting for him, which means HE is the most important. Everyone else has lost status while he was texting in the driveway.
This is actually a cultural protocol in some nations, especially in business meetings, so I see the point about status, but I’m happy to give the power to whomever needs it most. If someone feels special because I am waiting for them, that’s my no-cost gift to their egos. If they get off on the idea that I’m anxiously longing for their arrival, I’m happy to bring joy to their (terribly insecure) lives.
My own view of time is not quite so hierarchical, and I find it very helpful to arrive early.
When I get somewhere ahead of schedule, I can stop in at the men’s room to see if I’m having a bad hair day or if I’m suffering from booger droop. I can check my notes to remind myself why I am here, or I can find out whether Beyonce liked my like on Insta. If it’s a social event, I get to spend more time with friends, shoveling, um, wisdom on them from the moment the bar opens until they’re stacking the chairs.
Mostly, I like being early because it lets me finish early, which I think of as highly efficient and productive. If we can start 15 minutes ahead of schedule, we can finish early, as well, and I can free up more time to watch Jeopardy!. (I feel so much smarter now that James is gone.)
Yes, there are those unfortunate days when I arrive a half hour early and my interlocutor is 20 minutes late and I run out of posts to like or BREAKING NEWS!!! from CNN. By the time the meeting begins, I’m feeling like a real putz for cooling my heels for almost an hour, and I have no doubt that the person I am meeting feels the same way about me.
Of course, if I was really worried about other people’s disapproval, I’d never venture out of the apartment and I’d hide in the closet when the Grub Hub guy shows up with my donuts. But I am braver than that, ready to put myself out there and risk being thought of as less important than the alpha in the room.
If I’m ever an hour early, though, I think I’ll just spend some time loitering in the men’s room. As regular readers know, that’s always a source of mirth.
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Ransoming our privacy, big words, and the illusion of knowledge, among other deep thoughts for this week…
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.