quick! name the best years of your life!

I didn’t know the official name was the “reminiscence bump.”  But I did know that psychologists had found that when people reflected on their lives from the vantage point of middle age, the things they remembered most vividly seemed to be the things that happened in their twenties.   I even wrote about the phenomenon (without that evocative term) in an article for The New York Times Magazine about this period of life, a period  some psychologists call “emerging adulthood.”

The 20s are like the stem cell of human development, the pluripotent moment when any of several outcomes is possible. Decisions and actions during this time have lasting ramifications. The 20s are when most people accumulate almost all of their formal education; when most people meet their future spouses and the friends they will keep; when most people start on the careers that they will stay with for many years. This is when adventures, experiments, travels, relationships are embarked on with an abandon that probably will not happen again.

(I actually thought, when I went back to my article to capture that quote, that I would find reference to the actual studies that backed up my statements.  I know I had it in there in an earlier draft.  Alas, like so much of the original 10 or 15 drafts of that article, this little factoid never made it into the published version.  Oh, the trials and tribulations of the freelance writer.)

When psychologists theorize about the reminiscence bump, they explain it partly by suggesting that young adulthood — about ages 15 to 30 — is the period of life when the brain encodes and maintains long-term memories most efficiently.  That’s why they’re called up most often when you’re asked to tell the story of your life; the memories are right there, easily retrieved.

But maybe it’s not about memory at all.  Maybe there’s something about being in your twenties that strikes people, young and old alike, as somehow seminal to the person you are, or were, or will become.

That’s the suggestion of a study by two Danish researchers to be published soon in the journal Psychological Science.  Annette Bohn and Dorthe Berntsen reached this conclusion by studying people for whom the twenties were not a memory, but a projection. They asked adolescents, aged 10 to 14, to tell the future story of their lives.  And, much like their elders, these kids had the most to say about their young adulthoods — the young adulthoods they hadn’t yet experienced.

Memory scientists know that events that occur at times of heightened emotion are the ones you remember best, and young adulthood is nothing if not a time of heightened emotion.  Remember?  So maybe it’s not a “reminiscence bump” at all; maybe it’s something closer to a “salience bump.”  Which gives even more significance to the twenties, a decade that you’re thinking about as you approach it, and reflecting on for the rest of your life.

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tiny furniture, adult-sized problems

Last week Sam and I went on a mother-daughter excursion to see a film about a mother and her daughter.  The IFC Film Center was sold out, even though it was a rainy Tuesday evening, but we seemed to be the only mother-daughter pair in the audience.  Maybe the subject matter would have cut too close to the bone for some.

We wanted to see the movie, “Tiny Furniture” by the filmmaker Lena Dunham, because it’s mostly about what it’s like to be twenty-something; we figured it would be great fodder for our book.  But while the movie was amusing and cleverly done, it seemed so specific to that particular twenty-something that we weren’t quite sure what we could make of it.  We thought that, if nothing else, we might want to interview Lena and her mother, Laurie Simmons, who played the role of the Lena character’s mother in the movie.  For my part, I’m curious to hear from the mother what it was like to work with her daughter, to take directions from her, to bare her soul (the character, Aura, finds her mother’s diary from when she was young and reads portions of it aloud — and it turns out that the diary is Laurie Simmons’s actual diary).  I wanted to hear how it felt to have her daughter treat her, every now and then, quite snarkily and dismissively.  What a good sport Laurie Simmons seems, even when her on-screen daughter is screaming at her and accusing her unfairly of being harsh and demanding.  I suspect that Laurie and Lena occasionally have pretty much the same scenes in real life.

We had a lovely evening, my daughter and I, first sitting through the film together and then having a really nice dinner at the Cornelia Street Cafe, around the corner from the theatre. It was an interesting movie, and it gave us some stuff to talk about — mostly, it seemed, me asking Sam if she remembers feeling the way the main character did when she first graduated from college.  To me, Sam was always so sure of where she was headed, so directed, the opposite of the aimless Aura who returns from college to move back home with her mother and sister.  But Sam says there was one thing she used to do when she was 22 or 23 that was a sign of her aimlessness and confusion, no matter how straightforward her day-to-day life seemed to be.  She would, she told me, often “get drunk on purpose.”  I guess I’m glad I didn’t know about that at the time.  Her comment was enough to make me wonder whether every young person, even the ones who seem the most pulled-together (like me, nearly forty years ago, married and in graduate school and then gainfully employed without skipping a beat between the last day of college and the first day of the rest of my life), are occasionally doing a little inner quivering, uncertain about how the next decades are going to play out.

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tomorrow is another day

OK, so the vote didn’t rock.  A smaller proportion of young people voted in the dismal midterm election yesterday than voted in the euphorious election of 2008.  Doesn’t 2008 seem SO long ago?

Here’s one bit of data, from the Rock the Vote web site —

The shortfall in young voter turnout from 23.5% in 2006 to 20.4% in 2010, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement’s (CIRCLE) analysis of exit poll data, is a result of what happens when candidates and campaigns fail to reach and engage young people and ask them for their votes.

There can be no doubt the enthusiasm young people showed in 2006 and 2008 provided a foundation on which to increase turnout compared to the last midterm election. The playbook was written — register young voters, engage them in meaningful dialogue on the issues that affect them – and they will vote.  Ignore them and they will not.  This election proved that it takes more than President Obama, whose name wasn’t even on the ballot, to turn these young Americans out.

I do take some solace, though, in at least one factoid to emerge from all the hand-wringing about our apathetic youth.  Those young people who did turn out to vote were significantly more left-leaning than their elders.  The only age cohort that voted mostly Democratic were people under 30 (56% Dems versus 40% GOP), and the younger you were, the more likely you were to vote Democrat; for voters under 24, Democrats outranked Republicans by 19%.   I’ve decided to look at this as the half-full glass of today’s day-after-elections, which is otherwise a gloomy Wednesday indeed.

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hovering confessions

Yesterday’s “Lives” column in The New York Times Magazine was probably meant to be humorous, and it was, sort of.  But did the author realize how much she was revealing about herself in these stories about her adventures in “helicopter parenting”?  There was an undercurrent of a bizarre kind of bragging in her piece — I’m an over-involved mother, I know I am, but it’s only because I love my daughter SO MUCH — which makes me think that maybe she really didn’t know that she should have been ashamed, not proud, of the way she was carrying on when her daughter went away to college.

There is one line in Renee Bacher’s piece that does suggest some self-awareness:  “as with all Helicopter Parenting, this was about me.”  So maybe some of what she writes is exaggerated for the sake of a good punchline.  But even if Bacher was stretching the truth a little in her essay, I think we can be pretty sure that she didn’t behave well as her daughter Hannah got ready to go away to college.  Poor Hannah, forced to deal with her mother’s anxiety and fear of abandonment, when what she should have been dealing with were just her own apprehensions about freshman year.

I suspect it’s no coincidence that Hannah chose a school that is 1,000 miles from home.

It’s really not OK for Bacher to grill Hannah’s friends to find out which boy she likes, or whether she’s been studying enough.  How could she not know that?  But if she did know that, how could she admit to such shenanigans in a national magazine, even under cover of humor?

I’m not sure why this piece bothered me so much; I guess because of the unstated self-congratulatory tone it was taking, the inherent message that a helicopter parent is actually a better parent than someone who does everything she can to steel herself against the impulse to rescue her children, hold them close, shield them forever from pain.

Or maybe it’s because of the epiphany at the end.  “My child has been raised,” Bacher concludes, “and my work is done.”  That’s not right, either.  And that’s what parenting grown-ups is really all about, trying to find the delicate balance between the constant hovering of helicoptering, and the damaging swoop of relinquishment.  Surely there’s a way to stay connected — because, as my 86-year-old mother keeps telling me, a parent’s work is never done — without always getting in the way.

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