Thursday, February 25, 2016

Generalization gap

According to the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the monkey. It happens to be my year, as well as my mother’s, and my mother will tell you if you ask that a monkey is the best thing to be. Of course, if you tell her you’re something else—horse or dragon or some sort of cloven-hooved animal—she’ll tell you that’s a great thing to be, too. Since she doesn’t really believe any of the zodiacal hokum—the idea that everyone born within a certain period of time shares certain conveniently vague characteristics and there are 12-year cycles for these characteristics—the whole thing pretty much comes down to “it’s all good.”

I myself don’t believe in the horoscopes, neither Eastern nor Western versions, though like a lot of people I find them mildly amusing to read. Let’s face it, it’s human nature to seek simple definitions for ourselves and others. So much of life is out of our control, and what we understand seems so piddling compared to what we don’t, it’s hugely enticing to think that figuring out who we are and how we are distinct from others is as simple as the month or year of our birth—or as quick as taking a Buzzfeed quiz. (My favorites are the aggressively positive ones that tell you your greatest weakness is that you’re too generous and your worst quality is you work too hard. OMG, that’s totally me!) But I’m even skeptical of less dubious forms of definition, ones that are supposedly based on solid research yet still find it necessary to create some cute and catchy name for each cohort. Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials—oh how we love generational generalizations.

I read an article the other day written by a college professor talking about the way the so-called Millennials are being characterized as entitled brats who want everything handed to them. This particular professor defended the Millennials against these charges, though he didn’t go so far as to say that the depiction was inaccurate—and he certainly didn’t suggest that any such gross generalization can’t help but be inaccurate. I commented that the article was interesting but the behaviors the professor described didn’t seem any different from any other group of college students of any era. I technically fall under the “Generation X” banner, and it seems to me back when I was of college age my peers and I were depicted as unmotivated slackers. (The novel that gave us our name is about three people in their 20s who sit around telling stories in between working at unambitious jobs. Funny thing, it probably describes my life now a lot better than it did when I was their age.)

Interestingly, the friend who had posted this article responded to my comment by pointing out that while this certainly might be true of my generation, her generation—the Boomers—still believed in the value of hard work. I picture her smiling as she wrote this; it made me smile too, though not for the same reasons. It likely pleased her to think of her “generation” this way, and yet I could easily have pointed out that my father’s generation—they who were born in the Great Depression and lived through World War II—would have seen hers as, well, entitled brats who wanted everything handed to them. What did they ever have to suffer? The Cold War? Bah! Cold wars are nothing compared to hot ones, where people are actively dying every day—yet dying for an important, significant, meaningful cause. But listen: people of my grandparents’ era, the few still around, would almost certainly scoff at my father. You were a baby in the Great Depression, they’d have reminded him, and too young to fight in the War. What do you know of hard work?

And on and on.

I’m not suggesting that people around same age have nothing in common so as to be statistically insignificant. It always tickles me when I’m talking to someone close to my age and one of us makes a certain pop cultural reference that everyone else is too old or (more likely these days) too young to understand and we both grin, even though that person and I probably have almost nothing else in common. The fiancé grew up in the greater St. Louis area and I grew up in Hawaii but we both remember the words to the “George of the Jungle” theme song. On the other hand, the fiancé never watched Sesame Street when he was a kid even though he was the right age to have done so. When you live in a family of twelve kids, all but two of them older than you, you watch what the big kids watch, and it’s almost certainly not going to involve learning the alphabet with Big Bird and Grover. There are clearly aspects of his upbringing, and of mine, that define us in wholly unique ways, and I tend to believe that these aspects often override any sort of “generational” ones. To be more precise, I think any given person likely has more in common with their parents than with any random person their own age. It’s dismaying for me to admit this, but I have to admit it, given that I find myself these days taking on more and more of my parents’ traits (and, of course, those specific traits that so aggravate me about them).

I’m not dismissing the idea of generational similarities. I didn’t grow up texting—hell, I didn’t grow up with computers—and it’s impossible to dismiss the effect social media must be having on kids now. And yet, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, a quarter of all households in this country don’t have Internet access. Not everyone is online. I know people older than I am who spend a lot more time on social media than I do, and a surprising number of people younger than I am who spend almost no time on it at all. Yes, this is hardly solid empirical evidence, but I’d also suggest that those “generational” definitions are suspect for similar reasons in that they only describe a certain segment of any given age group—namely, the mainstream, relatively affluent and educated portion. So college students these days strive to get “A” grades without having to work for them. What about the 60% of college-age people who aren’t in college? Maybe instead of characterizing a generation, we’re really just characterizing a class system.

“Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.” Did you recognize that line and laugh? The fiancé probably would—and, interestingly, his kids probably would too. The last time we all got together the five of us spent a good 20 minutes quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and screaming with laughter. Our ages span over three decades, but some things—like men banging coconuts together and hiding in giant wooden rabbits—bridge any perceived gap. It’s OK if you didn’t recognize the line, though—it’s even OK if you rolled your eyes at it. As my mother the monkey might suggest, it’s all good.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Irresistable force meets misanthropic object

The recent discovery about gravitational waves has been all over my news feed lately, and while I’ve enjoyed following it because it’s relatively neutral compared to so many other hot topics (which means it won’t make me grind my teeth until I get a migraine), I have to admit I don’t really understand it. I’ve read several dumbed-down descriptions of the discovery that were well written and suitable for the layperson, but I’m still not clear on how this astounding phenomenon known as gravitational waves is related to the fact that when I’m running trails and I trip on a rock, I fall down. What do gravitational waves (which seem to operate with massive objects) have to do with plain old gravity as I (not truly a massive object despite how much chips and salsa I ate yesterday) know it?

I guess all of it falls under the dumbed-down-to-the-nth-degree idea that things are drawn to other things because of energy. Yeah, there’s more to it. There’s, like, Einstein. But the only way I can “get” Einstein is to purchase bagels from the bagel shop that carries his name, and frankly, they’re not much more than slightly chewy hamburger buns with a hole in the middle and fucked-up flavors. (Yes, I’m one of those cranky old curmudgeons who believes bagels should not be chocolate, coffee should not come with whipped cream, and pizza should have nothing stuffed in its crust, no, not even hot dogs.) 

The metaphoric qualities of gravity and its derivations tend to be serious. A situation has gravity if it’s significant and has impact. A person has gravitas if they are dignified and solemn. And then there’s grave, which is so serious as to be downright depressing. But there’s also gravitate, somewhat more positive in its usage. When we say someone gravitates toward something or someone else, we simply describe attraction—an attraction, it would seem, sanctioned by the universe itself.

In everyday life it’s easy to see this kind of metaphoric gravitation in action. The fiancé and I went to the movies Friday to see the latest Star Wars flick, and I can tell you that not only does gravitation affect galaxies far, far away, it affects movie theaters in rural Illinois. I had grossly overestimated how early we needed to get to the theater, figuring that there might be some early Valentine’s Day date nights happening, but I forgot this movie has been out so long that most people who aren’t me have already seen it multiple times (or else emphatically and insistently refuse to see it—OK, I get it, you don’t like scifi/fantasy; I’m sure there’s some people being voted off an island somewhere you can watch). As a result, we were the first to be seated, the first to be stuck watching commercials for 20 minutes (for this I put on nice clothes and brushed my hair? I could get that at home on the sofa in sweatpants). Eventually a dozen more people showed up—and all of them, all of them, sat directly in front, in back, or next to us. The theater was a small one so it’s not like you’d need binoculars to see the screen if you sat in the last row. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and yet for some reason everyone clustered around us like moons around a cranky old curmudgeon of a planet.

Misanthrope that I tend to be at times, I was mildly irked. Luckily no one talked during the movie, no one took a phone call, and there were no tubercular-sounding coughs, but still, I wondered why this had to happen. Nothing drives me crazier than going to a nearly-empty restaurant and being seated directly next to the only other patrons. I know they do this to make things easier for the wait staff so they don’t have to go scrambling all over the room, but damnit I want some semblance of privacy when I eat, even when I eat in public, as paradoxical as that sounds. I don’t think I’m the only one. What do we look for when we get on a bus? A seat alone. What do we think of the person who sits next to us on the bus instead of in that perfectly good seat in the next row? Fuckin’ weirdo.

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad or wrong to feel this way. Hell is quite frequently other people, and it’s natural to feel particularly suspicious of strangers’ potential to drag us down to the fiery depths. I enjoy the luxury of being lost in my own thoughts from time to time, or to speak my mind frankly about things I only want the fiancé to hear, and all that tends to be confounded by this perplexing gravitational pull people have to each other. And yet of course the gravitation of humans is as crucial to us as the gravitation of the universe is to pretty much everything. We move toward each other. Sometimes the results are hellish; they become items in a newsfeed that make us cringe, shake our heads or our fists, sometimes make us want to give up on humanity altogether. But then sometimes you get dinner and a movie. Yeah, I know that’s absurdly insignificant compared to the whole business of black holes merging, but it’s still one more instance of this particular force of attraction. The force, truly, is with us.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy an eggplant

I read an article a while back that suggested a person will be happier if they seek experiences, like traveling, rather than objects, like cars and electronics. I had to laugh; this struck me as “first world solutions” in its assertion that the secret to a good life lies in allocating your disposable income in one way and not another. That said, this easily could have been the kind of article I nodded to like a bobblehead doll and then posted on facebook feeling all pleased and smug because other people are doing it wrong but not me. After all, I love to travel, and I don’t like buying stuff; shopping is painful and boring to me, and the first thing I tend to think after I’ve made a purchase is Good; now I don’t have to do that again for a while. This attitude is not a tribute to my unworldly, Zen nature but simply the way I assess the worthiness of any given endeavor. After all, I’ll go run circles in the woods for hours because that work seems worth the reward. Buying new doohickeys, on the other hand, is just tiresome toil.

I started thinking about all this because I had to replace my old car this weekend, a car I had for 15 years. My car did not have a name, nor did I attribute any personality to it, so I can’t say I was necessarily all that sentimental about letting it go. But fifteen years is a substantial amount of time in a person’s life, so it was impossible to avoid thinking about my connection to this particular doohickey over the years—and why it is that even knowing that experiences beat objects, objects still have a certain inescapable hold on our lives.

The first car I ever owned, I did give a name, Harrison, even though it was a Honda and not a Ford. I just liked the name, plus it was my first car, and that seemed to demand personification. Four years after I bought Harrison I sold him and moved to New York City because, personified or not, a car is a huge liability in Manhattan, and Harrison would’ve served as little more than a very expensive closet. I went carless, and as I settled into my city life, it began to look as though literally nothing would ever replace Harrison. I did not have a car; I had experiences, lots of ‘em. Those seven years changed me a great deal, and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that most of what I was doing was still just another form of buying things. In New York you go to restaurants to eat other people’s food, you go to concerts and plays to hear other people make music and see other people act, you go to book readings to meet authors who write books you know you could have written (and written far better) but didn’t. You’re a passive consumer, and even if the restaurants boast Michelin stars, you’re there because you paid money to be there.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. This is how capitalism works—and wins. Yeah, that material object you just bought was constructed for planned obsolescence and will need to be replaced almost before you’ve gotten it out of the box. Yeah, a gadget cannot hold you or comfort you or keep you from being lonely. But then most people can’t or won’t do that either, not the way you probably need them to, not all the time, and at least the gadget does what it’s supposed to do—and if it doesn’t, well, it’s easily replaced. So it goes even if experiences are substituted for objects. And yet at some point I started to wonder about living a life in which all I am is all I buy. I am not a great cook, but isn’t there something to be said for enjoying a mediocre meal you cook for yourself over a brilliant meal you just about have to take out a loan for at Le Bernardin or Per Se? I realize that anybody can cook a mediocre meal, whereas there’s only one Ripert, one Keller, but the thing is, lots of people, if they have the money, can enjoy the restaurant meal. The experience I have cooking for myself is unique.

The upshot was after seven years I wanted a new experience, though I wasn’t entirely sure what. So I did what you do in this situation if you’re bookish and writerly: went back to school. This unfortunately required the purchase of a car, as the school was 180 miles upstate. I did my research—a lot harder to do back then, as there was no, because there was not much of—and made my purchase. 

That was August 2001. Three weeks later, everything changed.

Oddly enough it was the buildings that shocked me more than anything else. We are reminded of life’s fragility nearly every day, when we look at the news and hear about who died. We know life ends. We know people leave us. It is horrifying when someone leaves us unexpectedly, violently, but if we know a little bit about our world we admit that this is happening all the time. But a building? How was that possible? How could two buildings be there and then not there all within a couple of hours? How could they and everything and everyone in them now be dust and ash?

To this day I still can’t fathom it.

We can say over and over and over again that money can’t buy happiness, that material objects are flimsy and inconsequential compared to what really matters. We can believe all we want that the mind can move mountains and the heart doesn’t lie, but the truth is we simply cannot ignore the physical world and our corporeal existence within it.

I shouldn’t mind so much when something I own breaks down, because that’s what things do, but as I said, I am not so calmly Zen that I don’t throw a tantrum when my computer freezes, my car overheats, and the zipper on everything I own that zips goes off its rails like a crazy train. When I realized it was time to replace the car—because it was, in fact, overheating, and moving sluggishly, and a host of other behaviors that suggested it had been on a 15-year-ultramarathon that was coming to an end—I was more annoyed about the disruption to my life than sad about the impending loss. This time, though, there was much less hassle; it was easy for me to research an affordable vehicle in my area, and I brought the fiancé with me just in case the car guys wanted to pull their “hey, little lady” attitudes on me and mansplain why I should pay full price.

The sales guy at the Nissan dealership where I hoped to buy a good used trade-in was understandably astonished when I told him I’d had one car (a Nissan, in fact) for the last decade and a half. “Wow!” he beamed. “That’s fantastic! You are like the face of Nissan!”

I suppose he meant this as a good thing. If they were going to pay me a lot of money to be the equivalent of that awful Toyota Jan, I suppose I wouldn’t object too forcefully, but I was definitely the wrong person to be praised for customer loyalty. “I’m the face of me,” I said quietly. “I stuck with one car all this time because I hate buying new stuff.” He laughed. I wasn’t kidding, but I let it go. At least he wasn’t little-ladying me.

I test-drove the car, gave it a general look-over, and conferred with the fiancé. There didn’t seem much else to do to help me make my decision, as most of the work had already been done before we’d even gotten there in making sure the car hadn’t been in any accidents or its owner missed any key maintenance requirements. I didn’t even look under the hood, to tell you the truth. Beyond observing that it isn’t powered by squirrels or held together with popsicle sticks and duct tape, there isn’t much more I could’ve done but say, “Yep, that’s an engine all right!” Everything checked out. After a small amount of haggling (just enough to make both sides of the haggle feel like they’d scored a small victory), the car was mine. Good; with any luck, I won’t have to do that again for a while.

As we signed the paperwork, my old car sat just outside within our view. It did not look forlorn to me. It looked like an old car. That said, it was a car that had taken me from the end of my Manhattan girl-about-town days to rural Illinois. When I bought that car I wasn’t a runner, hadn’t written any books, and was moving away from a serious relationship that had disappointed me for not being what I needed it to be. All that’s different now, and while the car had really nothing to do with those changes, it’s still a marker of sorts, something tangible to remind me where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

I have given my new car a name, The Eggplant, not out of sentimentality but because, well, you’ve just got to see it. While we’re at it, we can see what the next 15 years bring for it and for me.