I’m writing earlier than usual this week, trying to get work off my plate before taking myself on a solo road trip to Alabama for my 40th high school reunion.

Forty. It’s hard to wrap my head around that number. Seems like only yesterday the idea of being 40 years old was unimaginable. To teenage me, 40 was utter decrepitude.

In fact, I vividly remember lying on my family’s backyard trampoline one night in the early 80s, with a few of my high school pals, gazing at the stars and imagining what we might all be doing on New Year’s Eve of 1999.

(Remember our cultural obsession with the impending turn of the century? It started early in my crowd.)

Somebody piped up and said, “We probably won’t be doing ANYTHING. We’ll be in our mid-30s by then.” We all groaned.

Well, now we’re all in our late 50s, and we’re absolutely planning to throw down this weekend! Funny how perspectives change over the years.

One of my old besties is on the reunion planning committee – she lives in our hometown, so the “honors” fell to her – and she recently posted all our senior portraits from the 1983 yearbook on our class Facebook page.

My heart squeezes as I scroll through them.

We look like children. Round, smiling faces, aglow with optimism. Our whole lives ahead of us . . . not to mention prom night.

Some of us – like me – are wearing way too much makeup. Some of us – again, raising my hand – are very unfortunately dressed. Some of us – and there’s no way to put this gently – are now dead. That includes our class president, a lovely guy who presided over our 30th reunion, just a decade ago, with boundless energy and vigor.

Again, perspectives change.

My friends and I came of age in the late 70s/early 80s, along with Disco. John Lennon was killed our sophomore year, MTV launched the following summer, and Pacman came into its heyday. Ronald Reagan was elected president, shoulder pads made a comeback, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ thrilled us, and hair was big.

But we were southern, and maybe a little behind the times. Madonna had yet to entice us away from our preppie wardrobes, “alternative music” was still on the distant horizon – along with cynicism – and we did not yet have college professors urging us to interrogate our Christian-Capitalist identity. (For you younger readers, that’s what we used to do in college before racial, sexual, and gender identity became the rage.)

Indeed, it was the age of innocence.

We had no cell phones, but somehow we managed to communicate. We had no social media. We had social lives, instead.

We went to Friday night football games. Hung out at McDonald’s afterwards. Threw clandestine parties in various parking lots and semi-sanctioned ones in our parents’ basements. We made out with boys under the baseball bleachers, drove up and down 6th Avenue (our “Main Street”) looking for something to do… and each other. We went tubing on the Tennessee River, “laid out” in the sun for hours at the neighborhood pool (without sunscreen!), attended Homecoming dances, sorority formals, and church youth retreats.

We were good kids living in simpler times. Maybe even better times.

I’m pretty sure everybody feels that way about their youth – that “the times” were simpler and better – and I know all manner of political pundits and cultural critics who love nothing better than disabusing people of that notion. But that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Despite the garishness and outright tackiness of 80s pop culture, there was a palpable sense of optimism in our country back then. And I’m not just saying that because I was young and spritely. Even Gen Z – my daughter’s generation – is nostalgic for the 80s, or what they imagine that decade was like. Their obsession with the Netflix hit series Stranger Things is but one example of their infatuation with all things 80s.

Writing for admindagency.com, Rafat Sowinski muses on that infatuation:

“The question of the origins of the contemporary popularity of the ’80s can provoke different answers. Some would see it as ’80s nostalgia for a time of Western economic prosperity when it seemed that history was coming to an end and democracy and capitalism would fulfil all their promises. (Suffice it to say that soon after, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history.’ How wrong he was!) Others would point out that the 1980s was actually the era of the birth of pop culture as we know it today. It was, after all, the era of cinematic adventure blockbusters, the new explosion of science fiction (although Star Wars or Alien are franchises that date back to the 1970s), the crystallization and creative development of significant musical genres (metal, hip hop, electronic music in the broadest sense) or, finally, the popularization of video games. The 1980s saw the creation of MTV, the World Wide Web and CDs. The technology, business and creators of the ’80s revolutionized popular culture – which is perhaps why it is so keen to draw on the legacy of this era, where the possibilities seemed limitless.”

I don’t know. I think my own nostalgia for the 80s has less to do with all the world-changing technology born in that era, and more to do with the fact that said technology was still so young. It was not yet dominating our lives. Not yet tearing us apart.

In its infancy, in fact, 80s technology seemed to be bringing us together.  MTV was something we all watched, a conversation starter! Blockbuster films were a collective cultural experience,  before streaming offered so many choices – and such ease – that nobody was watching the same movies anymore, or gathering under one roof to watch them. The internet wouldn’t be publicly available until the early 90s, but even then, it would unite us before it divided us. As for CDs  – they made music sound better, but in the 80s, we were all still listening to the same handful of artists.

I recently asked my daughter, “Who are all the kids listening to these days?” and she couldn’t give me an answer. Apparently, they’re all listening to different music. Because they can.

I’m not sure how a generation defines itself – especially in hindsight – when it has so many cultural references… but so few in common.

When my daughter’s 40th high school reunion rolls around, I can’t imagine how the DJ will know what “oldies” to play at the party.

On the bright side, chances are nobody will be wearing legwarmers.