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March 18, 2020


Dear Beth,
I'm a millennial (on the young side, 26, living in the US) who has sporadically read your posts after being pointed here by Teju Cole some time ago. I'm very interested to read your thoughts on this generational gap, and I've been seeing it play out in somewhat opposite ways as well. I've been maintaining moderate social distance for several weeks and have been staying fully at home since last week; many of my friends who are my age are doing the same. I do have a few, though, who seem to think that my partner and I are being a little extreme in not wanting to spend time with them, go over to visit, etc. We have been pushing them hard to think about the impact their choices are having on those around them.

I'm also seeing the other side of the coin, though, with my partner's parents, who are Boomers (62 and 82, one diabetic). We are pretty worried about them in general if they were to get sick, and especially concerned that they don't seem to be taking social distancing and isolation precautions seriously at all. It took significant convincing to prevent them from coming to visit last weekend, and they have been doing things that seem very reckless to me like going to the gym, going shopping for discretionary items, and going out with friends. Yesterday there was a post on the New Yorker's website by Michael Schulman called Convincing Boomer Parents to Take the Coronavirus Seriously, in which he explores some of the historical events you mention (the Cold War, Vietnam, etc.) and draws the opposite conclusion: that (some) people who lived through that period are now desensitized to threats that don't feel immediately tangible. His post resonated with my experience with my in-laws.

I do think that your point about those who have chosen to live some kind of an alternative lifestyle that aligns more with our values may be one dividing line in reactions to the pandemic - within my own social and familial circle my parents, neighbors, and friends who have tended toward social justice and environmental activism and community-centered living are much more engaged in protecting one another's health. Meanwhile, those more like my in-laws, who have lived a very normative suburban, corporate-career (perhaps individualistic?) life are just not seeming that concerned. I think my own experience of growing up during escalating climate crisis, war, and dramatic income inequality has made me aware of my own responsibility to others, both in my immediate community and more broadly, and that influences the way that I think about politics and about the social and economic choices I make in my own life.

Wishing you and other readers well.

I worry. Times are hard, so hard it seems, they preclude even a smidgeon of humour. I'm particularly concerned that the corona (An utterly delightful natural phenomenon) will now - for ever and a day - wear the crown of obloquy. What we are suffering from is the Trumpian Plague. I urge everyone to re-examine their inventiveness and originality. Spread a little light.

Kia Ora Beth...I had my 17 year old son drive me to the store yesterday here in New Zealand. Things are still moving here though the borders are now closed. We both got a shock at the scene. A Thursday morning and the place was packed. Canned goods, pasta, rice, and other non-perishables gone off the shelves. We got what we could and left. Last night he came and talked to his mom and I about it. It had made him uneasy and anxious. He felt he was witnessing the coming of something way beyond his own experience. He was worried about me getting it. The boomer. It was a bright moment in darkening days. Kia Kaha e hoa.

Melanie, thank you so much for your long, thoughtful reply to this post, and I'm sorry it's taken me this long to respond. The point you make about differences in life choices affecting one's response to this crisis seem right on to me, and accord with what I've witnessed in people I know. I'm not sure I agree with Schulman because, as you point out, the Boomer generation includes both those people who were sensitized by those traumatic events and lived their lives as empathetic activists, and those who turned away and became self-centered and individualistic. This spring I attended a reunion at Dartmouth College of people from my husband's class who had been SDS members and worked actively as students against the Vietnam War, some even doing jail time after a building takeover. Almost everyone in the room had devoted a big part of their life to activism, gone into careers that helped others or a particular other cause, documented social change through the arts or writing. A lot of them were still living alternative lifestyles.

Wishing you well too, and I hope we'll hear from you again.

Robb, I know things have changed there even in the few days since you wrote this. I'm sorry for the anxiety this causes the young, and glad your son loves you and cares about you. It's going to be a decisive and formative experience in the lives of many young people.

Thank you, Beth, for the inclusion in that fine meditation on age and the getting of wisdom. It was so good to talk the other day - a real gathering of the pioneers! Let's do it again very soon.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.