Dear Future Self,
I’m writing to you from the end of 2009. For Christmas this year, someone gave you Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. I haven’t finished reading it, yet, but let me say this up front: I love it. I have a feeling it’s something I’ll come back to time and again. But, last night, reading a couple of essays about childhood here in the 21st century (a.k.a, The Future), I detected the familiar stench of the bitter old man, just beneath the surface.
You may remember the bitter old man. Many years ago now I wrote about him when he popped up in an article on Wired.com. Those there dark days, to be sure. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I saw bitter old man’s snarky female cousin in an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich (more on that later). So perhaps I’m just overly sensitive. To be sure, whereas Mr. Chabon (rightfully) laments the loss of what he dubs the wilderness of childhood and the move from sterile, minimalist Lego blocs to recreations of George Lucas’ memory, there are real gems in here, too. There is the acknowledgement that not all hope is lost, that children, as they always have, will find new avenues of creativity and imagination; they will transcend the crap of mainstream media.
But I’m not letting him off the hook that easily, Future Self. It seems to me that he, like a lot of adults, falls victim to the problem of nostalgia. If you forget everything else as you get older, remember this: nostalgia is the most imperfect form of memory. Nostalgia necessarily wears rose-colored glasses or perhaps bifocals with half being rose-colored and the other half being tinged with that sense of melancholy and loss that always accompanies age and regret. But I’m pushing my metaphor well past the breaking point here. You get what I’m trying to say that at times this sense that things were better when I was your age tends to get in the way of seeing not only how things actually were when I was your age but also how we are always inextricably bound up in the larger flow of history. Whereas those who favor free range children (and I hope, Future Self, that you are one of them) will decry the loss of the wilderness of childhood, let’s be clear about one thing: people have always felt that the world was better back in the day, that their generation was the greatest generation, that kids these days don’t know how easy they’ve got it, and we are about three bad collective decisions away from the end of civilization as we know it. The fact of the matter is that the fear of the end of civilization as we know it is as old as civilization itself. Remember that the story of Noah’s Arc and the flood was almost certainly influenced by pre-existing Sumerian and Babylonian myths (and the Middle East certainly wasn’t alone in its fear of Water World). People were convinced that Beethoven was going to ruin young girls’ purity long before Elvis was shaking his hips on national television.
When the end of our current civilization does arrive, as it inevitably will, I doubt that it will be because soccer moms over-scheduled their children’s days or because children’s imaginations have been co-opted by Disney. At least, not directly.
The bitter old man routine is predicated on the notion that when you were young, things were awesome, and now that you’re old, things are about to collapse and no one seems to give a damn. So I’m writing this, Future Self, to remind you that, yes, in some ways, here in your past, things are awesome. But obviously not everything is, and more importantly, things are probably pretty awesome where you are, especially for your kids though in ways you can’t even imagine. (Or, more precisely, in ways that I can’t imagine.) And let’s be clear about one thing: the bitter old man routine doesn’t really help. He’s a joke. And no one takes him seriously.
While I was reading Ms. Ehrenreich’s piece on the health care debate, women’s health issues and, more broadly, feminism in the 21st century, I found myself agreeing with about 90% of what she was saying. That other 10%, however, was infected by how she was saying it. Her dismissive comment about the “pink-ribbon breast cancer cult cult” co-opting women’s issues and young women being little more than tools of corporate interests, even if it’s true, is just that dismissive. It’s downright insulting. Her assessment of women today, as compared to the feminists of her day (i.e., when I was your age) seems to suggest that “real” feminists have all burned their bras and wear sensible shoes. Is she actually suggesting that any woman (or man for that matter) who sticks a pink ribbon on her hand bag and wears a pair of high heals to the premiÃ¨re of Sex in the City 2 cannot simultaneously be a feminist? I know Ms. Ehrenreich is a smart woman. How has she missed the last twenty years of third-wave feminist theory?
You see, this is the problem with the bitter old man routine. He deals in absolutes. Things were good then. They’re bad now. The world is divided into absolutes of good guys and bad guys, the right way to be a child, a man, a woman, a whatever and the wrong way. The bitter old man can’t see the subtle nuances and complexities in the world and by decrying, belittling, and dismissing those who run against this set of absolutes, it’s incredibly hard to take his position seriously or to even want to deal with him. And when we’re talking about a set of issues or concerns or policy agendas that we have a shared stake in, that we’re on the same side of free range children and universal health care included that’s a damn shame. It’s a damn shame because I want to work with these people; but they’re so depressing.
While we’re on the subject of subtle nuances and complexities, let me tell you another story. Richard Blum, investment banker and husband of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Ca., has donated a considerable sum of money to a number of causes including the preservation of Tibetan culture and, more recently, the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. College kids these days, unlike when I was their age, are self-involved narcissists, members of the iGeneration who care more about posting pictures of themselves to their Facebooks and their YouTubes than they do about creating a more just and sustainable world for their yet-to-be-born children. Right? And politicians and investment bankers? They’re a bunch of crooks. Right? Well, no, at least not entirely, and not in this case. The subtle nuances and complexities here suggest that investment bankers and iGeneration slackers both not only care about the world but are willing to do something about it. And they may fail. They may not do a damn thing to end global poverty; the fight against corruption and rising sea levels may be all for naught. Or we may disagree with how they’re directing this urge to do good; shouldn’t they be doing something else, we’ll complain. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that I cannot, in clear conscience, label every investment banker “bad” and every kid born after 1990 a “narcissist.”
You see, Future Self, once you take off those rose-colored bifocal nostalgia glasses, you’ll see that when you were my age, the past was both pretty freakin’ cool and had its fair share of problems, too. That’s the constant in history, really, that at any age there are ups and downs. Occasionally, really really big and devastating things happen the fall of Rome, the disappearance of the Mayan civilization and they happen fast. Those stories make for good, cautionary tales (and even better CGI-enhanced feature films); but they’re a little like shark attacks anomalies, the exceptions that prove the rule, the things that, statistically, won’t actually happen to most of us. Millions of people go in the ocean every day; only a handful of people will be attacked by sharks. Billions of people lived under Roman rule for hundreds of years; only a handful really felt the effects of the end of their civilization. The rest of world went about its business because the only thing that changed, really, was their citizenship status, so they went on farming or working or playing and worrying, no doubt, about how kids today don’t know how easy they have it. After all, when I was your age…
Five, ten, maybe twenty years from now, there will come a day when your kid does something that strikes you as preposterous, something that terrifies you because you don’t understand it. But, Future Self, do yourself the favor of not giving into that fear of the unknown by relying on the bitter old man routine. Instead, know that change is inevitable; resist the urge to judge or condemn your children’s future reality based solely on your past experience. It may very well be that your past experience cannot explain their present reality. And that’s okay. That, in and of itself, is not a sure sign of the apocalypse. It just means that you’re getting old. It happens to the best of us.
I am as sure of that as I am sure of the following: we’re all in this together, and there’s no way that we’re getting out if we give in to the bitter old man routine. Since we’re all in this together, we’ve gotta find a way to live with each other, to respect and love one another. Somewhere out there, right in the middle of the terrifying changes and complexities of life, despite or even because of the over-scheduled children and their 5,000-piece Lego model of the Millennium Falcon, and the never-ending intergenerational conflicts, somewhere in all of that is great joy. Find it.