At a YMCA pool, a young man, broad-shouldered and easy on the eyes, seems engrossed in conversation with a woman in her early seventies, her hair gray-blond and frizzy, her figure matronly. As I slip into the water, I hear them talking with mutual sympathy about lousy jobs, laughing, trading stories. Then she begins to tell him about taking care of someone she loves. Focused on my lunges, I hear only snatches about “his awful diabetes” and assume “he” is her husband. But when she reaches the part about the shot to put him to sleep before the end, I stop mid-lunge to eavesdrop. Either she is casual about murder, or—yes. I breathe again. “He” was her beloved dog. “It seemed redundant,” she says of the shot, “but it was better that way, because when his heart stopped, it wouldn’t cause him to panic.”
To which the young man says, “Speaking of panic, you ever heard Panic! At the Disco?”
Props to her: She does not bat an eye at his graceless lack of segue. Obviously clueless about the band, she says, “You seem too young to know about disco.”
“I’m twenty-three,” he replies, owning the world. “I don’t think about time.” This opens a new discussion about age, experience, and mindset, and it is delightful to see how much they are both enjoying the conversation.
It worries me that the Golden Rule is passé, that now we have the Platinum Rule, and we are to treat others the way they want to be treated. This sounds noble, but it also suggests that we have given up all hope of common ground. Is it no longer possible that we all want the same sort of respect and kindness, and we will welcome anything said or done in that spirit?
“I’m still listening,” the young man assures his new friend as he reaches for more water weights. They keep the conversation going as they exercise, comparing notes on audiobooks, television, mysteries, the frugal joys of using the library. Across the span of half a century, different genders, and different educational backgrounds, these two are finding plenty of common ground. This reassures me, because my Twitter feed told me that Elizabeth Warren won the last debate. The talking heads on PBS said Bernie Sanders won the debate. And the residents at my mother-in-law’s assisted living residence said Michael Bloomberg won the debate. They all watched the same debate, and they all read about it and talked about it afterward—to each other.
The silos, bubbles, divides—whatever metaphor you choose—extend well beyond politics. I was so happy when I noticed that the generation gap had vanished, and kids were borrowing their parents’ playlists and eager to hear their grandparents’ stories. Then came a surge of hostility toward entitled Millennials, followed by a surge of bitterness toward the Boomers, who may be the last generation ever to be okay. We are not fussing over sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll anymore; the divide is deeper and far more corrosive.
It felt so good to see women finally coming into positions of power, old gender rules relaxing, young fathers diapering. Then #MeToo pulled back the coverups, and now we are tense with suspicion and resentment, obligatory excesses of caution, unfair accusations and unjust evasions.
Anti-Semitism should be gone by now—good God, what more would it take?—and as for racism, what does it even mean, when we are nearly all a hodgepodge of ancestries, and race is merely a construct anyway, and a little more or less melanin at the surface? Yet these hatreds are more vicious than ever.
I thought low unemployment would mean we could all relax a little more about money, and the middle-class would grow strong again; instead, we continue to pull apart. Friends with money will say, either bemused or scoffing, “When does that happen?” about experiences my friends without money endure regularly.
I even thought that as we showed less interest in dogma and more interest in spirituality, we would all become more interested in each other’s faith backgrounds, more appreciative of the best in each. Instead, religions seem more dogmatic than ever, as they fight to hang onto their flocks, and the faithful feel more embattled and isolated from mainstream culture.
When the older woman says goodbye, the two agree that it would be great to talk again next week. Then the young man hoists himself out of the shallow end with one hand, pads over to the other side of the pool, and jumps in feet first, making an exuberant splash, the way kids do. He does ten laps of the butterfly stroke, churning the placid aqua into white froth. Barely out of breath, he turns to the man in the next lane and asks, “You wanna race?” The man says no and swims away. Catching me watching, the young guy calls across four lanes: “Hi, ma’am!”
A wee bit manic, perhaps? I hesitate. Then I grin and wave back.
It takes a little extra energy to cross today’s chasms.