Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Until Next Episode

In order to start this post, you have to picture me in a restaurant. I’ve just gotten off work early at 6:15 PM from a job that I don’t particularly enjoy very much, but which I happen to find myself good at. The mild air of the day has begun to turn and the frigid breeze of the night has left my face red as I step into the tight, gold warmth of the Little Italy restaurant. I unfurl the worn purple, grey and brown scarf that I wear, which was inherited from a grandfather I never met. As I look up, I see my mother and my sister sitting upstairs at a table with my aunt, my uncle, and their three children: boy, boy, girl – none older than eleven. Neil Young is ringing in my ears as I sit down and I feel especially strong, ragged and young, but also vulnerable, because I have to pretend that I’m not invincible to this people, because I’m actually not – I just feel that way when I’m hungry and remember that I’m young in a world full of strangers and tall buildings.

So, I sit down. Hugs and kisses are exchanged. The kids are cute, funny and well behaved as always. I eat bread with sundries tomatoes and oil. I ask my sister if she liked “500 Days of Summer.” I ask my one little cousin what book he’s reading. I ask my other little cousin why he doesn’t like samurai. Then, because the adults at the table have seen me grow from book to book and from not liking certain action figures, and because they love me, they ask me questions.

“When are you leaving the job, Matt?”

“At the end of the month.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m not really sure. I think it will work out.

“What do you like?”

“I like to write”

“But what do you like?”

“I like basketball and music.”

“Well there you go.”

“I like writing about my generation. What they are doing. The choices they make and don’t make.”

“That’s what’s interesting about your generation. There isn’t any kind of defining voice.”

That last line is what my uncle said to me. It wasn’t a revelation to me, but it articulated, very simply some of the ideas that have been swirling around in my head recently as I have begun to think of these end of the decade sentiments, columns and lists that are being distributed and waxed upon. Now it is very true that all generations don’t have a defining voice or a theme to bind them together. It is very true that the idea of a “generational voice” or a “united generation” is just an object that is produced and presented to us as a commodity to help understand time better. All of this may be true, but that doesn’t stop us from asking, “Yeah, but what about me? What about my generation?”

I am not going to try to sum up this generation, nor am I going to try to sum up this decade, I am simply going to write about what I have seen and how it appears to me. What I have seen of late, is the summation of this past decade as one of superficiality: the Paris Hilton decade, The American Idol decade, the Kardashian Decade. However, for as many people as I have seen welcome high-paying jobs, platinum jeans, revolving door cell phones, I have seen just as many people reject the same allures. And why is that superficiality wrong? What is wrong with accepting objects in order to make you happy? What is wrong with being able to buy things for people in your life to make them happy? This comment is not meant to be facetious. This life and this world are made up of objects. The image of an investment banker is the same object as the image of an artist – both can be crated and bartered like anything else.

To harp on a subject of great interest to me, Mad Men has certainly given us insight into this trait I am talking about. In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper shacks up with his artsy mistress who is living in Greenwich Village. Draper smokes weed with his mistress and her bohemian friends who scoff at him because of his slick and polished appearance. At the end of the episode, when the bohemians are nervous about approaching cops outside of the apartment building, it is a stoned Don Draper who is able to walk out to continue on his life with a simple, “You can’t go out there.” What does this mean? This means identity. Both the artist identity and the ad man identity are one in the same – they are both goods, disguises we put on. Draper is constantly battling what disguise he is going to wear and which one works for him. His office identity is the one that fits him best, as he says to Peggy in season three:

“There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves... is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that's very valuable.”

Is this quote not essentially true for this generation, this decade? “Something terrible” always happens to us in varying degrees and we can’t see ourselves. That the something terrible can be as disparate as anything in this world, but it is usually tied to time. So we try disguises, we try objects to try to find that thing that is real to us, that thing that we can take with us.

The novel Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill covered the same issues. The narrator of the novel has a successful finance job and his wife is a high-powered attorney. His wife becomes extremely affected by the 9/11 attacks and can’t feel safe living in New York, while the narrator, always feeling distant from his actual life (much like a Nick Caraway), doesn’t completely understand her distress. It takes their separation and his subsequent friendship with a Trinidadian gambler to understand that he has always been looking for something real that is his. From his fragmented childhood on, he has only been left of vague images and memories of who he is and where he came from. The narrator begins to understand that this is something that is wife values and that it is actually something that he values as well. His wife is concerned with what is hers, which is their child and living in an “unsafe” city. Once the narrator begins to understand how to connect to his own life, he can begin to understand what belongs to him and what he can take with him.

Even little Wall-E, as he rolled along the brown debris on the earth and found the inherent joy in the smallest objects, couldn’t take it with him. Just like all the humans who left the garbage couldn’t take that with them. It is through objects that we may gain access to “the incorruptible eon of the gods,” but that isn’t where that realm lays - that soundless, floating, reach of space of the soul.

Perhaps this struggle has caused such great music to be created in this past decade. There have been phenomenal new albums that have come out in the last ten years; some of my all-time favorite artists have come of age since 2000 and some of my all-time favorite albums have been released in the same space. Maybe it is the inevitability and the immediacy of communication and information. Maybe it is the fact that we can Google the answer to any question, even the questions that the great art spent answering, like “what is love?” We can now Google, “clinically, when am I supposed to fall in love?” We can even Google ourselves and people we don’t even know.

Now, I know I’m supposed to be funny – and I AM. And believe me, I love every second of my computer and the abilities I have to Google “when do I fall in love?” “How fat should I be if I am 5’10?” or “Animal Collective new album leak MPP blog .rar.” However, we have been shown this new decade of “superficiality.” We have been shown jobs in finance, accounting, but have been left wanting more. The past ten years have offered a fluid glimpse into the lives of the privileged, of what money offers. However, in the end, with the economy already failed, we have been given an even greater look at the invincibility of the American Dream. Perhaps that term is even too narrow. What we are truly talking about is “promise.” This decade as it comes to its close, to a book-ended and encapsulated commodity to be sold like the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s leaves us on the precipice looking at the promise of the next decade to come. It leaves us as someone who was once very dear to me said, “with infinite potential.” It leaves us with the ability to overtake the old institutions and I’d like to think that this has come and has been earned without the incessant marketing of our President as a good and the term change as a vegetable. I’d like to think the palpable opportunity of the next decade, and the indecision and searching of all the peers I look to, is because of the fact that institutions won’t satisfy us and will not dictate us. We will elect our presidents, we will respect and appreciate them, but they will not dictate our creativity or ambition – that is and should be left to us alone.

In the end, though, it’s back to the basketball, the music, and the beer. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I work hard at and am damn good at a job I don’t care about. That I love my family. That this world is strange and changeful and that I am going to have to fail in order to ever find something worth searching for, worth making real. That nothing feels like its mine and every evening I am left standing on the doorstep, hungry, invincible and with the wind whipping on my face. And maybe I’m not like a dog, maybe I’m just young and unappreciative, and maybe that’s all that it ever is. However, I’ve heard the chimes at midnight, just like the rest of you.

I’ll see you in 2010.

Editor's note: Ten Things I Hate About You really should have been number 9 on the Top 20 Movies to Watch on TV. It really is one of the top movies to watch on TV. The girl from Alex Mack plays the hot girl. A career defining performance by the late Heath Ledger. The only movie with both Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in it - arguably two of the best young actors of the past decade- plus the one friend looks like my buddy Jeff (except my man Jeff is skinnier). You would watch this on TV. Come on.

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