Art News

The Kids Are (Kind of) All Right: Denver's Gen X Has Seen Changes

Prato in her senior picture, fall 1984.
Prato in her senior picture, fall 1984. Liz Prato
Author Liz Prato grew up in Denver in the 1970s and ’80s. She rode Mr. Twister at the old Elitch’s and remembers the log ride-proximate gum tree. She took orders for burgers from the red phones at Round the Corner and worked at clothing stores Ups and Downs at Cinderella City and Stage (the younger sister of Fashion Bar) on the 16th Street Mall. She hung out at Tamarac Square, remembers eating at proto-food hall the Yum Yum Tree and the White Spot on Broadway, and biking to parks around her family home near Hampden and Monaco.

That puts Prato right smack at the beginning of Generation X, a group of kids born between 1965 and 1980 growing up in an America that was changing — some might say falling apart — around them. It was a generation characterized by cynicism and apathy, as well as sarcasm and a world-weariness it hadn’t yet earned but inherently understood.
The kids of Generation X are, of course, no longer kids. They’re now at least 42 years old, perhaps as old as 57, and while some in that generation are ensconced in positions of control, it’s largely still the Baby Boomers running everything, notoriously resistant to turning over the keys. And Prato's new collection of essays, Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning, is written from that perspective. The book debuted on  June 14, and Prato will join local author Wendy J. Fox in a discussion at the Tattered Cover Colfax on June 24.

Prato and her husband moved from Colorado to Portland, Oregon, in 1996, in part because “Denver at that point was just suburban sprawl and big-box stores, and whatever neighborhoods there had been with any kind of character or sense of community had largely disappeared,” Prato recalls. “Now I think it’s come back around and has created some of that again.”

Prato came back to Denver for an author event at BookBar in 2019; it was the first time she’d been on the Tennyson corridor since the start of its revitalization/gentrification. She was promoting her award-nominated 2019 collection Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i, which was named a Top Summer Read by the New York Times.

The idea for Kids in America comes from two things, says Prato: her obsession with all things Gen X, and an article from 1990 called “The Gilligan Syndrome,” about how the youth of the day were refusing to grow up. Prato had just graduated from college in 1989 and was trying to find work and direction during a recession. The idea of her generation “just being different” enthralled her. From there, she read Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which first popularized the Gen X label.

click to enlarge Denver-born author Liz Prato. - MICHAEL KEEFE
Denver-born author Liz Prato.
Michael Keefe
In time, she started writing essays about what it meant to be a part of Generation X, interviewing those with whom she grew up, collecting their stories and being reminded of her own. It took until 2018 to realize that it could stand as a collection. “I remember having this sense that, 'Oh, shit, I'd better hurry and write this, otherwise it won’t be relevant anymore,'” says Prato. “So I was finishing the book right around the same time that the media was beginning to talk again about Gen X. We were suddenly relevant in a way that we never really had been our entire lives.”

Prato covers both the personal and the historical. Her own brother’s slow demise and early death from depression and alcoholism. Date rape and sexually predatory high school teachers. One friend losing loved ones — and almost being on the flight herself — when Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Another friend whose brother — who may have been neurodivergent before the term was even coined — became a skinhead, shot a police officer and then killed himself with that officer’s own gun. It's a story from the late ’90s that anyone living in Denver at the time will remember, despite the names being changed for the sake of privacy.

Not all of the memories are inherently negative, but many of them are touchstones of a culture that Generation X lived, all without fully recognizing the impact of the pop-culture-saturated era. There were the lessons learned, from Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I. and reverse-mortgage loans to Beverly Hills 90210 and the nuclear-disaster TV miniseries The Day After, which stands out for Generation X the way the Kennedy assassination does for Boomers.

It’s no wonder Gen X was cynical: As Prato points out, even the entertainment suggested that “any mistake could lead to total annihilation. We lived every day with that knowledge. As kids.”

She argues that the nuclear threat not only explains the cynicism of Generation X, it also explains its inherent nostalgia, as contradictory as that sounds. “All generations become nostalgic for their innocence,” Prato says. “But so much of our childhood was branded, for really the first time. Think of how much the nostalgia we have is for Fisher-Price toys or Discmans. We were coming of age during the rise of MTV, when even musicians were brands. We’d never seen anything like that before. I think that implanted in our consciousness in a very different way than just, like, hanging out at the soda shop.”

It would do a disservice to Kids in America to call it just a Denver Gen X memoir; the idea of a “reckoning” is right there in the title. “A lot of it has to do with the way we come to terms with the things that back then we didn’t recognize were going on,” Prato says, listing racism, sexual assault and rape culture, mental illness, homophobia, even terrorism as examples.

“We turned a blind eye to all of it,” she adds, “and those things sometimes had tragic consequences. So we have to reckon with ourselves, and we have to reckon with what society did to us, which was kind of throw us out to the wolves.”

Prato in 1986, getting ready for a night out at Thirsty's. - LIZ PRATO
Prato in 1986, getting ready for a night out at Thirsty's.
Liz Prato
She notes that the reckoning is ongoing. “The world always has something surprising in store for us,” she says, laughing, but quickly points out that such issues are being recognized by younger generations. “They’re doing so much cool stuff in terms of these issues: racial equality, gender expression, sexuality. They’re pushing all that, and not taking any shit about it. They’re like, ‘Do this or we’re out of here, and we’re going to publish an op-ed about it.'”

Admittedly, Prato continues, the pushing can be “super frickin’ annoying for the people in charge, who are older and just wanting to be treated with more respect or whatever” (which is perhaps the most Gen X thing she said in this interview). But in her view, younger generations are at least “agitating for something really important. That’s us [Generation X] rubbing against the younger generations."

While Prato says that American culture should be giving Generation X more credit for what’s going right in today’s world, she insists that Baby Boomers be given some credit as well: “I’m really not into this idea where there’s this generational divide, with X against Boomers or Millennials, because we all experienced really scary stuff in the course of growing up, and we were all raised with a certain set of expectations for who and what we’d be, and then we were spit out into a world that didn’t support those expectations.”

For example, Prato says, she’s able to be a feminist because “the Boomers were able to make huge strides” in that area, among many others.

“Because Generation X was smaller and we took our time at things,” she says, “we haven’t been recognized as much for the trails we blazed.

“Every generation — hopefully — is setting an example as to what you can do and how to do it. And then someone younger than us and stronger than us and with more energy than us picks it up,” Prato concludes. “It’s a long battle for us to become better at being human.”

Liz Prato will read from Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning at 6 p.m. June 24 at the Tattered Cover Colfax. The event is free and open to the public.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen