America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).
They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.
By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.
If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.
Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.
For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!
TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.
TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.
Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.
But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.
But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.
So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.
Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.
There was a time when my days become longer and quieter and lonelier and much, much less enjoyable. The scary thing was: I hadn’t even realized that it’d happened, until long after it did. I’m not the kind of person that falls into the traditional definition of depression, but that doesn’t mean I’m impervious to disappointment, confusion, and apathy either. For me, I think I’m just not built for depression. I’ve never been fatalistic, and I don’t blame other people for my problems either (unless I’m driving behind a slow driver; that person in front of me can go to Hell by referral of me, yes). Beyond genetics of course, I think disposition and personality determine your likelihood of falling into that great void. So maybe I wasn’t officially depressed, but I certainly was undergoing whatever my equivalent of it was.
I was in my early thirties, and hitting my first truly earned plateau of—I don’t want to say “disappointment”, but it wasn’t exactly jubilation at my life’s successes either. I had realized that I’d logged everyday of my life for the past few years, trying to build and work towards something ostensibly—but that all I’d done was lay one brick on top of the other until I’d built a wall against my true self. I’d lost track of who I was, for the base need of surviving and keeping up in the world. Somewhere in that process, I’d lost something—a vitality, a spark, me.
All of a sudden, I found that I gained a bittersweet empathy towards all the angry, troubled and occasionally depressed folks I’d encountered in my past. And believe me: L.A. is full of these types. Suddenly, with alarming clarity, I saw the world through their eyes—cloudy, desperate, and spiteful. This was an insight I’d rather not gain.
Five years prior, a mutual friend named Craig absconded from my social circle on his own accord. I wasn’t surprised. Prior to that, he was prone to sporadic outbursts of accusatory quips and tactless diatribes against people with no ill intent toward him, including me. It didn’t seem likely that he could keep that up much longer without repercussions. The only people, perhaps, who can get away with that kind of behavior—are funny or well-loved people, and Craig was neither—although he didn’t realize that initially. That was one of his many problems.
One night, during a group outing to see Alice in Wonderland—that unremarkable remake by Tim Burton, Craig showed up with his trademark antsy demeanor—all nerves and disaffection. He wound up sitting next to me, and we politely broached each other for updates on what we’d been up to. Craig—again, with his other trademark bluntness, blabbed that he was going through some logistical issue at work involving some man who was basically stalking or harassing him.
I stoically expressed my sympathy. I don’t recall if I substantially pressed for more details, but I do recall that Craig proceeded to dispel any further discussion because, in his words:
“You haven’t been through something truly bad before. You won’t be able to relate.”
By this point, this kind of admonition from Craig was commonplace. I, being rather passive and genial, did the equivalent of turning the other cheek—although slapping a certain person’s cheek would probably be more effective at this point.
More about Craig: he was eight years older than me, worked at a rather banal job at the main gas and electric company in the city, and as I alluded to: only mildly liked by our shared circle—though that was quickly dissolving, for reasons I’m sure you can guess by now. Craig had disclosed briefly before in the past, that he had depression issues. I never gleaned what was the impetus for his condition, presuming it wasn’t my business.
That night at the movie theater though, was one of the last straws for me. Even I knew that what Craig had said to me was completely out of bounds—whether it was true or not. There’s no excuse to be that crass and derogatory toward someone who did not attack you or elicit such a response.
As you can guess, our exchange that night hung awkwardly between us like flatulence—only, it continued to linger as we all went out for dinner afterwards too.
While we all waited for our table that night in the lobby, Craig continued to subject me to his drab, dismal mood. This is when I made an egregious error—my revelation of ignorance on the issue of his depression. In a misguided attempt to cheer Craig up, or simply steer the tone to lighter ground, I chirped:
“Hey, well I have some good news! I’m going to Paris, France with my friend Jeremy next month!”
Now, you take a guy who’s down on his luck, prone to smugness about his seemingly inconsolable needs and issues, and justifying his own actions at the expense of others—and you give him the news of unabashed good fortune that’s just been bestowed on someone else, and what do you think you get?
I should’ve known better. It was like slapping him in the face.
Craig recoiled—as if he just smelled something utterly foul. His reaction was immediate:
“Why don’t you just DATE Jeremy?!?” he hissed. Which was a futile concept by the way, since me and Jeremy had as much sexual chemistry as a duck and a tortoise. It was beside the point. Craig’s quip was all he could muster to express his disdain that someone else dare be blessed with good fate.
With this one-two punch from Craig that night, I learned my lesson on unhappy people. The rest of the night, I pointedly avoided him. I guess to corroborate my own innocence, I’ll point out that Craig ostensibly realized the error of his ways and tried to retract his behavior, later that night. He put on a genial face and made a concerted effort to say to me:
“Hey, we should hang out again soon, okay…?”
I didn’t respond. I had gained that much forbearance by that point. A small part of me was glad for his effort, but I knew he was a lost cause with me. His initial tirade that night stung, mostly because it was so uncalled for. I knew we weren’t capable of sustaining a normal friendship.
Two months later, Craig simply vanished from the social group—never turning up for events again. Like I said, I wasn’t surprised. He alienated everyone, including those who only meant well for him. I’m not blaming Craig, but to use the exchange between the two of us that night as a microcosm: no one on either side was capable of fixing the other.
Cut to five years later, there I was stuck in my own malaise. Although nothing horrifically bad had happened to me (if you don’t count constant social rejection, loneliness, professional disappointment, and disillusionment!)—nothing remotely good had occurred either. That’s what got me. I felt as though if I’d walked through a trap door that linked then to now, the transition would be seamless: no significant gain had transpired in all that time. I hadn’t moved notably forward, in any field in life. I never took Craig’s words from all those years ago to heart because they were never worthy, but I was aware of the irony: now, his crass words were usurped by my own personal adversity.
If his misfortune was the equivalent of a full-on assault, mine was a slow, insidious disease. Both were potentially lethal in their own ways, regardless of the difference in conditions.
I was facing such prolonged uncertainty on the social front for the first time in adulthood, that I’d begun to understand certain people I knew who just didn’t give a fig about making friends anymore—who veritably gave up on it. I used to scoff internally that someone could be so resigned to a life of solitude and disuse. But after seemingly endless rejection, I got it: making friends truly was just luck, and luck by definition is rare and unlikely. Why set yourself up for constant turmoil and insult, by trying to charm people who are immune to your virtues? I’ve literally seen even the most popular and likable people I know go through this. Trust me, no one is impervious.
I saw how years of idleness and stagnation can deteriorate a person’s will and spirit. It was finally happening to me. I thought I was indefatigable, and in some ways I was—I held up for a long time, if I say so myself. But this monument to faith and persistence was crumbling, like a fallen idol. As mentioned, I could understand the other side now: the cynics. The hardened, broken souls who believed that that those who did believe, were simply suckers—innocents and fools, on their way to certain doom for their faith. Was I ready to convert?
I’d always prided myself on being adventurous up until that point—I was the guy that loved trying out that random dive bar, or getting onstage to sing karaoke, or… meeting new people. But now that I’d gotten older and weathered more experiences with varying degrees of success, I could see why people were the way they were. The prominent lack of adventurousness in others that once baffled me and provoked my covert pity was starting to make sense. Maybe they were onto something. They already knew how disappointing life was; they just beat me to the punch line. Rebuking anything new was really just a form of self-preservation. If you know you’re gonna hate the new thing, or more importantly: the new thing is gonna hate you, why put yourself out there? You might come off as a party pooper, but at least you’re not one foot deeper in your own hole of issues, defeat, and humiliation. Yep, being boring was starting to look more and more appealing to me… (shudder).
One night, I caught a PBS travel show about Paris, France, and I realized how far I’d strayed from that young adult who got to go to such a glamorous destination a few years prior. What was supposed to be a herald of more fine things to come in my life, was actually a first and last hurrah—a peak: because nothing else had or would equal it since.
My view of life’s great pleasures such as traveling to foreign locales, was starting to fade. Would I ever attain them, as I so rightfully presumed I would in my youth? Was it all over? Had my chance passed? Where do I draw the line between making concessions now, and persisting?
One morning I woke up—and I wasn’t even particularly sad or upset. But I felt it: I felt hopeless. And furthermore: I felt how hopelessness could swallow a person up, rendering them immobile. Again, nothing specifically awful elicited this response that morning, but that’s it: I don’t think emotions are necessary to facilitate hopelessness. Because it’s the absence of any conviction, that is the true portent of hopelessness. I also just felt for the first time in my life that I wasn’t sure where I was going anymore. That morning I thought:
Now I get the (possibility) of (depression). It’s a sense of powerlessness. When you consistently do all that you can to move forward to achieve your dreams and goals—and still nothing happens?
That’s a huge fucking blow.
You start to think you have absolutely no power over your own life and your own fate. There are few realizations more demoralizing and crushing than that, in this mortal world. If you can’t even control what happens to you, what the hell is going to happen to you? What are you going to do?
I didn’t want to talk about this with anyone in my immediate life, for fear of alarming them, naturally. I tried sharing this new revelation with an exclusively online friend that I had, who was around my age. I couched it as tactfully as I could into one of our email exchanges.
He didn’t get it. He offhandedly remarked that he never felt that way before, basically. Lucky guy, but it didn’t help me.
I even shared it with another online friend who was fifty years old mind you, and even he expressed the same dissidence. He was fifty, and never felt hopeless before? Geez! What was his secret?
With a present that was no longer appealing nor pleasurable, the past naturally started to attain renewed zeal to me. Anything that reminded me of my early to mid-twenties never failed to produce an allergic response in my psyche: a weepy spasm of wistfulness for better days that seemed implausibly blessed, considering how incapable I was of attaining anything remotely similar anymore, in almost the same conditions! How the hell did I go kayaking with friends two miles down the road from my apartment? How the hell did I go out four times a week, with people I truly liked at that? How the hell did I fit in so effortlessly? Seriously.
This is a whole subcategory that could warrant its own chapter: the past. At its best, our past is hauntingly beautiful: a testament to our best selves—our highest hopes and ideals. We were so young and beautiful and full of life then, yes. Those memories should be treasured, and they are irrefutably and rightfully you. At worse, the past is a ghost that haunts us. It’s a poltergeist that lurks in the darkest corners of our minds, lunging forward when you are at your most vulnerable, bullying you to indulge it with your precious (and limited) time on Earth. It’s a succubus that doesn’t want you to divert your attention to what’s more important now: the present. In my weakest moments, my lower self wanted to dive back into my past, like it was a pristine pool of clear blue water on a warm summer day.
I could see in retrospect, how other people in my life had preceded me in this awareness. My best friend Danny, who moved back home to Palm Springs a few years previously, was likely a prisoner to his own past—which manifested itself in his arrested development. Now that he was no longer living off his parents’ dime as I always suspected in Long Beach, he was just… living off his parents’ dime in their home, in Palm Springs. I didn’t resent him for it. It was his life, and what he chose to do with it was his business. But after five-plus years of hearing Danny’s lack of initiative in any field in his life, not to mention him turning forty at that: my view of him began to change. With my new revelations, I could see how someone like Danny was simply afraid of growing up. It is a terrible sight to behold: the carefree days of just living day to day are terrifically alluring in comparison to forfeiting it for a paycheck, a mortgage, a family, or simple responsibility and solvency for the rest of your life. It isn’t exactly a choice as much as a necessity, for most of us. That’s sobering, and some of us lack the fortitude to resist turning tail and fleeing at first sight.
Toward the waning (but ongoing) course of this downward spiral, I found myself walking through an apartment building on a late spring day. As I walked down the hallway, I heard a baby cry inconsolably behind a closed door. I surprised myself by my own response: I instinctively pondered at the gift that was bestowed upon this new person—the most valuable and covetous of all: Life. A new life, undeterred and boundless. A chance to manifest a destiny anew. I quietly marveled at the beauty of this potential, and all its unfound glory. It wasn’t simple envy; it was recognizing a truth outside of myself.
I couldn’t help thinking afterwards: would Craig have thought the opposite, or anything at all?