Skip to main content

Diana Nyad shows baby boomers so 'not over'

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1037 GMT (1837 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Generation X soon to join baby boomers in grousing about getting older
  • He says Diana Nyad's feat proves baby boomers have second wind
  • He says each generation has late-in-life exemplars, such as Elmore Leonard
  • Seymour: Nyad likely not done amazing us; coming generations should follow her example

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Lately I've been hearing wailing sounds in the distance from members of what's been dubbed Generation X over the prospect of beginning their collective sixth decade in two years.

Their keening blends with that of their immediate predecessors, the baby boomers, who have for almost 20 years been grousing about their passage through and beyond their 50s. That's long enough to regret not only "being over," but to regard even the notion of being over as being over.

But what exactly is "over" when you're past 50? Unless you're, like, you know, dead.

Blame it on the veneration of youth that media and marketers have been feeding us from the time boomers began their fearsome march across this blue planet after World War II. To be young was to be exalted, embraced, catered to and, to bemused elders, feared. Once you were past 50, you were no longer as important as you once were to people selling beer, fast food and clothing, which implied you were no longer as important to the culture, with relatively little to contribute or to inspire in others.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

But what's this? America's front pages now proclaim a 64-year-old woman as their newest hero? And she did what? Really?

Yes, really. After four previous attempts, all curtailed by some combination of bad weather, hostile seas and sea life, Diana Nyad finally completed a record-setting, 100-plus-mile, nonstop swim from Cuba to Florida. She was the first swimmer to make such an epochal trip without the aid of a shark cage, reaching the shores of Key West roughly 53 hours after leaving Marina Hemingway off the coast of Havana.

Two days and change seem like the proverbial drop in the ocean when compared with the 35 years, almost half her life, spent pursuing this grail. She had other things taking up her time: writing books, training athletes and breaking long-distance records. But the Cuba-to-Florida feat took its not-so-sweet time coming to pass. Even so, she didn't let age or time daunt or disqualify her. This was one bona fide baby boomer who was going to insist to all the subsequent generations that she, at least, wasn't over and done.

As galvanic as Nyad's triumph has been to the world at large, even those who don't care a whit about athletic pursuits, it's been especially gratifying to those of us who belong to the baby boom generation and believe that we still have worthwhile, even astonishing things to contribute to the global imagination. (And in case there's any doubt about her boomer creds, Nyad sharpened her focus during her arduous journey by keeping the music of her generation front and center in her head -- mostly Beatles songs and, if I've heard radio reports correctly, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from the 1960s TV sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies.")

After Cuba-Florida feat, Nyad to swim 48 hours in New York

Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage, reaching a Key West beach on Monday, September 2, nearly 53 hours after jumping into the ocean in Havana for her fifth try in 35 years. The 64-year-old endurance swimmer had a 35-person team to help clear her path of jellyfish and watch for sharks. Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage, reaching a Key West beach on Monday, September 2, nearly 53 hours after jumping into the ocean in Havana for her fifth try in 35 years. The 64-year-old endurance swimmer had a 35-person team to help clear her path of jellyfish and watch for sharks.
Diana Nyad's record-setting swim
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Photo: Diana Nyad\'s record setting swim Photo: Diana Nyad's record setting swim
Diana Nyad: 'Chase your dreams'

But Nyad is only confirming what those reaching middle age with more left to give have long been discovering. In fact, the past few weeks have brought comparably striking (though somber) reminders of how one's relevance can continue to ever more glowing terms past one's 20s and 40s.

Between August 18 and 20, we lost three notable artists, Albert Murray, Elmore Leonard and Marian McPartland. Murray and McPartland, both of whom were vitally connected with jazz music and education, were in their 90s, while Leonard, who was writing best-selling, critically acclaimed crime fiction as recently as a year ago, was 89.

As with Nyad, all three worked hard and made reputations for themselves up till their 40s and then outdid those accomplishments in the second stretch of their lives. The British-born McPartland first achieved cult status as a Manhattan nightclub pianist throughout the 1950s and 1960s, while Leonard spent most of those same decades writing Western novels and stories, some of which were made into Hollywood movies, including 1957's "The Tall T" and "3:10 to Yuma."

Murray spent much of his 19-year Air Force career studying literature and writing fiction. He didn't start writing full time until he retired in 1962 at age 46 and in 1970 published his first book of essays, "The Omni-Americans," when he was 54. For the next 30 years, Murray became one of the most influential of African-American novelists and men of letters, using an elegiac imagination, informed passion for jazz music and broad knowledge of 20th-century literature.

Leonard's reputation likewise grew during the 1970s as a crime writer blessed with mordant wit and a keen ear for American speech at all social levels. But it wasn't until 1985 that he, at 60, became a semi-regular fixture on the best-seller lists with the publication of "Glitz." He would continue to amaze readers as diverse as Stephen King and Saul Bellow. In his 80s, Leonard achieved even greater renown working on the FX TV series "Justified," based on his novels about a laconic, sure-shot U.S. marshal named Raylan Givens.

Diana Nyad's jellyfish-proof face mask

McPartland's reputation in the jazz world may have been firmly established by the time her weekly "Piano Jazz" interview series premiered on NPR in June 1978 when she was 60. But it was through the show's years -- through 2011, when she finally stepped down as the host -- that McPartland revealed herself as an illuminating, charming and incisive guide through the mysteries of improvisation and seemed to grow artistically from her weekly encounters with musicians ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan to Cecil Taylor and Steely Dan.

So though one suspects Nyad's far from through in amazing the onlookers, add her to these recently departed as stirring exemplars of the second or even third wind. She's setting the pace for one generation -- and two years from now, the next generation of fiftysomethings should have sufficient reason to charge its own batteries for whatever wave comes by -- and wherever it takes them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT