WALLACE BAINE: Ready or not, ‘We’re the Elders Now’ brings a sense of inevitable reality
The new song from Watsonville’s Michael Gaither, perfect for that autumnal post-Thanksgiving vibe, faces head-on that bewildering moment when you realize that you’re part of the supposedly wise-old-owl generation that you’ve been taught to respect if not revere all your life.
In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of controversy (mostly phony) surrounding the nomenclature of the holiday season. But whatever we name it, the last five weeks of the calendar year are, in effect, the family season. And your feelings about the holidays — guilt sweetened by joy, devotion spiked with resentment — probably map pretty closely with your feelings about your family, for better or worse.
Our experience with family gives us lots of things, but central among them is our place in the flow of the grand narrative of time, as we gradually but inexorably morph from one role to the next, from daughter to mother, from dad to grandpa. It’s called “getting old,” and it’s part of the bittersweet brew we’re compelled to drink during the holidays.
Which is why my friend Michael Gaither’s new song is perfect for that autumnal post-Thanksgiving vibe, when wistfulness seems as natural as pumpkin pie, eggnog and old Nat King Cole records. “We’re the Elders Now” faces head-on that bewildering moment when you realize that you’re now part of the supposedly wise-old-owl generation that you’ve been taught to respect if not revere all your life.
Or, put it a bit more existentially, it’s about the sobering notion that, on that great conveyor belt of life and death, your generation is next in line to the end.
These thoughts often hit people when their last remaining parent dies, and that was exactly the case for Michael. If you don’t know Michael Gaither, you probably don’t listen to KPIG radio much. Michael is not only a big presence as a programmer at The Pig, he’s an accomplished singer-songwriter performing regularly around the county, and one of the sweetest people you’re ever likely to know.
Michael is Santa Cruz County rootstock, Watsonville born and raised. He lost his mother a couple of decades ago, and then his dad just a couple of years ago. At 58, particularly as an only child, he now feels a distinct kind of cosmic solitude. “Orphan’s not the right word,” he told me. “I had my parents for a long time. I don’t feel like an orphan.” But he’s having to grapple with the fact that, at least in his family line, he’s the next to approach the waterfall.
He was relating this experience with his cousin Doug, who had also recently lost his last surviving parent. Doug’s response was, “Well, that makes us the elders now.”
That’s how song titles are born.
As its title suggests, the song became a kind of expression of wonder that you can graduate into the older and wiser demographic without feeling especially old or wise — or, as the song’s lyric puts it, “I still feel like a kid every day.” And to the degree that a culture looks to its elders for moral authority, “we” are those figures now. Interject your favorite “Oh my God, we’re in trouble now” expression here.
To assemble the accompanying video, Michael reached out to his friends and fans online, particularly those who have found themselves in the same position, the suddenly parentless (Michael likes the word “untethered”). He asked for one old-timey family photograph and another of more recent vintage, and he created a photo montage that gallops through the years and captures the poignance of the passing of time. In essence, the video is a parade of ghosts, families and relationships once intact that have been lost to the ages. It evokes a kind of mourning that is particularly resonant in this specific time in history.
“Whatever the hell 2020 was,” says Michael, “there was a lot of loss last year, too. There was more than a few people who had a parent who passed away in the hospital and they couldn’t be with them, and that was a big part of 2020.”
Michael and I are part of the same generation, and though I still have one surviving parent, I certainly feel the steamroller of time rolling over on top of my younger self and leaving behind this old guy I see in the mirror. If the mood of “We’re the Elders Now” is bittersweet, then, yes, there is a sweet part to it as well.
In recent years, I’ve become more and more comfortable in graveyards and cemeteries, a curious paradox of growing older and, inescapably, of getting ever closer to my own Inevitable Appointment. It’s in these memorialized spaces of the dead that I feel most keenly the broad continuum of life and my own tiny part in it. What was, in my youth, morose and depressing is now weirdly exhilarating. Any reminder that death is coming also means it’s not here yet.
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That realization and the spirit of “We’re the Elders Now” is particularly relevant right now. For so many of us in the contemporary world, December is a time of madness when we’re compelled to grapple with gifts and travel and decorating and cooking and logistics and the demands of work. The to-do list becomes especially tyrannical at this time of year, and yet this is supposed to be the moment we step off the hamster wheel and meditate on our blessings.
There’s really only one thing on your cosmic to-do list this month: get perspective. Love and laugh long and hard, face loss so you might appreciate what you haven’t lost yet. Remember this is family season. Embrace your ever-evolving role and find comfort in it. Joy is in making peace with time.
Take it from us elders.