The generation that lived by the mantra of “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘N Roll”—the true beginning of multi-tasking—that invented free love, that dared to go braless, that benefited from the dawn of oral contraception, that saw the placid music of the fifties transformed into a forty-five year love affair with the electric guitar, that demonstrated in the streets to protest a mindless war in Southeast Asia, that fought against the status quo and that saw everything from the growth of the Civil Rights Movement to the assassination of icon leaders, and that came of age at 30, only to be tossed out of jobs and careers in their mid-fifties by the Great Recession of 2009, are now beginning to regroup and fight back. The anthems of “Freedom” improvised and sung by Ritchie Havens and the “Star Spangled Banner” played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969 are as alive today as they were then. The generation that ended the World War II generation’s dominance and values, that changed the world by embracing the “experience” of life is about to pick itself up off the canvas and do it all over again. Counting the members of the Woodstock Generation out because time has passed them by is to overlook the creative forces and inventive attitudes that made them unique.
The stories are just emerging as this generation begins to morph from what they became after drinking the establishment’s Kool-Aid to who they really are. From time-to-time, we will endeavor to chronicle some of the inspirational stories that represent both the past and the future. Where possible, we will let the Baby Boomers tell their stories themselves.
Our inaugural story is about a man who paid his dues and one day was stripped of his dreams by a world that changed. Here is Steven Jay Griffel’s story in his own words:
A Paean to Persistence
A New York City boy, that’s me. Born and raised in the noisy streets of the Bronx, where the schools were crowded, stickball was played in the gutters, and a young fellow could sit for hours in the public library, reading and dreaming of being a writer.
At a local college I met a beautiful, blue-eyed Queens girl. We were both eighteen. We thought we might do a children’s book together: I would write the story and she would do the illustrations. Five years later we married, and five years after that we became parents.
It was a good life: fresh winds in our sails, calm seas, very few storms. And the years passed. . . .
At fifty-six I was a Publishing Exec, a husband, and father of two. I had good health, family and friends, and a couple bucks in the bank.
And then—WHAM!—I was cut down in my prime, victimized by a plunging economy and fast-rising technologies that rendered me suddenly superfluous.
At fiftysomething, I was yesterday’s news.
I hadn’t seen it coming. I went to work one morning as a VP and came home that afternoon jobless, without any title at all, except Dad.
What to do what to what to do?
I wasn’t worried. I had what they call skill sets: a lifetime of writing, editing, and management experience (not to mention brains, charm, and vestigial good looks).
But I soon discovered that the publishing business had passed me by.
While I’d been playing a lead role in my company’s top-down management, changes had been taking place below in the grass roots and in the streets: mostly young people standing atop barricades, shouting “The Digital Revolution is here!” It was true, and it brought a riot of change that swept me up and left me stranded like a piece of beached flotsam.
Steven Jay Griffel
I was outmoded. Forgotten.
What to do what to what to do?
I had a wife, a mortgage, and two daughters still living at home. And bills that kept rushing in like tidal waters.
I sat down with my wife and shared most of what I was thinking and feeling. (She had reinvented herself several years earlier, giving up her profitless freelancer’s life to become a bra designer in the city. We knew all about occasional belt-tightening and concessions.) Immediately, she took charge with pad and pen in hand, ready to begin an itemization of all our credits and debits, organizing them from macro to micro, letting nothing slip through, not even our modest expenditures on Starbucks, shoe shines, and postage stamps.
On balance: We could survive—though just barely—for one year. Mercifully, my company had provided me with a Tin Parachute (not Gold, not even Silver, but it deployed, saving us from a fatal crash). Still, if I didn’t find a job within one year we would bleed a slow financial death. If we were hit with an unavoidable, large expense we would hemorrhage cash. Goodbye savings. Goodbye retirement.
What to do what to what to do?
Sink or swim, as my father used to say.
I chose to swim. But it was an exhausting, upstream crawl. The river was crowded with thousands of other unemployed, gray-haired fish, and plenty of young ones too, all struggling to survive.
Day after day I toiled—working to find work, reporting to no boss but my own conscience, which drove me to work harder and harder.
But it wasn’t working. No one offered me a job.
I revamped my resume. Made it spiffier. I deleted all the positions I held before 1986 and the dates of my university degrees. I didn’t want anyone to know how old I was: fifty-six. Not so old, but these were tough times, a soft market: thousands of people applying for the same jobs I was. And most of them were younger and would come cheaper. Why hire the older guy who might retire in a few years? Why hire someone who wasn’t so super-tech savvy? Why hire someone who wanted more money? Why indeed. . . .
I had never imagined myself out of step, dislocated, professionally homeless. But there I was, applying for jobs whose requirements were beyond my understanding: knowledge of cyber media platforms; expertise with software that sounded like the latest in space rocketry. I was in a glass booth and life was whizzing past me.
For about fifteen minutes I considered going back to school to learn the latest computer wizardry. But I was frightened and tired.
Still, failure was not an option. My wife would not let me fail. I did not want to fail. But I no longer knew how to succeed.
To survive I had to be distinctive. I knew that much. And to be distinctive I had to be myself.
And so I went back to the source, to my earliest dreams and hopes—and decided to be a full-time novelist. What the hell. If not now, when?
The transition from publishing exec to novelist wasn’t easy. Writing a novel is not like shaping and executing a pub plan. Whatever a novelist’s modus operandi, it doesn’t usually include creating profit and loss projections, prototypes, budgets . . .
But it wasn’t until I rolled up my sleeves and began to write that I discovered what truly distinguishes the publishing exec from the novelist: time and isolation. Writers face long stretches of uninterrupted time. In their world, time isn’t accounted for in neat, sixty-minute blocks. There is no nine o’clock meeting, eleven o’clock conference call, or report due by noon. There is the blank page, and the sense of a long road with no certain end in sight.
There is also the issue of isolation. I was almost always alone when I wrote. Wife and daughters would be at school or work and I’d have the apartment to myself. But alone would soon become lonely—and I can stand loneliness for only so long before I succumb to the siren calls of email, Facebook, phones, television . . . enticing distractions, like pretty Dutch whores beckoning from their red-lighted stoops and windowsills.
I learned to set myself a daily goal—not a hard and fast one, like a word count or time quota—but something aesthetically finite, like the completion of a scene or chapter. In this way I settled into my novelist routine: I wrote in the mornings and evenings and in between, whenever the spirit moved me. I wrote with the languid grace and wisdom that comes with the middle years. I wrote with the fierce passion and hot anger that comes with feeling betrayed.
Steven and Barbara Griffel - 1975
I wrote as honestly as I could bear it.
With my wife’s support and blessing I took my best shot. I let it rip. Come hell or high water, I tried to tell my stories with a shoot-from-the-hip bravado. Why hold back? No place to go but up. But there was a difference in my frame of mind as compared when I wrote earlier in my life. Instead of having the security of an exec’s salary and benefits—I had the full weight of a whole year’s expectation hanging over my head. And this deadline, though not immediately pressing, suggested heavy consequences that made me desperate. I had one year. I had to write a novel and get it published within twelve months. If not, it was back to the salt mines for me—back to the corporate publishing world, where the work was back-breaking and brain-numbing. For even in a comfortable, quasi-academic setting there is a sense of the same old-same old that can drive a person batty. I didn’t want to go back there. I might have to—even if I got my book published—but I didn’t want to. I wanted to be a writer, full-time and forever more.
As I got close to finishing my book I began to think what I might do to get it published. I wanted to think outside the box because my experiences inside the box had always left me clawing at the smooth sides of walls that offered no foot-holds, no way to climb up. I knew I would be insane to repeat the patterns of my past failures. I prayed for a powerful and wise advocate—someone who believed in my novel and who would help to publish it.
And then one bright and fateful day, while perusing Craigslist New York for publishing job opportunities, I came across a solicitation for new fiction manuscripts from an oddly named company: Stay Thirsty Media. As requested, I submitted my resume and the first chapter of my novel. Shortly thereafter I received an email from the company’s publisher, who requested me to submit my complete novel. A good sign, my spirits lifted! I immediately composed an email and attached my complete novel. As I hit Send I prayed: “Please, God, publish my novel and let it be successful and don’t make me go back work with media platforms and XML and HTML and all those other things.”
A few days later I received an e-mail from the publisher. He wanted to speak with me.
I was thrilled! Nowhere in the email did it say: “We are sorry,” “We regret,” “Unfortunately . . .”
The following day we spoke. The publisher’s tone was warm and friendly. He told me that the beginning of my novel was brilliant, just brilliant, but—. With that one word my heart sank like a dropped stone, for I knew I had been rejected, again. I did not clearly hear anything else he said. Yadda yadda yadda, my brain had stopped working the moment my heart had been crushed.
Forty Years Later
by Steven Jay Griffel
The publisher finished speaking and it was time for us both to make graceful exits. I thanked him for his time and was just about to disconnect when some desperate, back-to-the-wall spirit welled up inside me and I found myself pitching: “I wrote another novel, the year before, perhaps . . .”
An hour later I emailed him my novel Forty Years Later.
Days later, just as before, I received another brief e-mail from the publisher in which he said he wanted to speak with me.
Another brush-off, I thought. I couldn’t face another close-but-no-cigar rejection. It was just too depressing. And so I wrote back that I’d happily call him to discuss this second novel—only, would he mind giving me a heads-up so I could manage my expectations.
His next email came quickly. “I loved it,” he wrote. He said some other things, but I didn’t pay much attention. All I saw was “I loved it.”
I told my wife, she kissed me, and we danced.
I share some flaws with the main character of my novel Forty Years Later. We are both capable of keeping regrets alive by continually picking at their scabs. The lesson we have both learned is worth sharing, especially with those our own age, all the tens of millions of Baby Boomers:
Stop picking at your regrets. Either let the scab alone so it can heal, or rip it off and deal with the pain with every ounce of courage and wisdom you have gained over the years.