gall and gumption

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Not Sure I Was Ever That Young

I remember the days when the high point of my daily Internet reading was reading Heather Havrilesky's contributions to, with artwork by Terry Colon. In those days I wasn't much aware of politics on the net: Joe Conason at Salon was about it, I think. I was looking for writing, and Havrilesky was one of my favorites, to be read wherever I could find her work.

So you know, it sort of pains me to have to say that this Salon piece is just awful, awful. So why am I bringing it to your attention, you may well ask? Mostly because of the peculiar way in which it is bad.

It opens like this:

Dear boomers: We're sorry for rolling our eyes at you all these years. We apologize for scoffing at your earnestness, your lack of self-deprecation, your tendency to take yourselves a little too seriously. We can go ahead and admit now that we grew tired of hearing about the '60s and the peace movement, as if you had to live through those times to understand anything at all. It's true, we didn't completely partake of your idealism and your notions about community. Frankly, it looked gray and saggy in your hands, these many decades later. Chanting "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" at that rally against the Iraq war made us feel self-conscious in spite of ourselves. We felt like clich├ęs. We wondered why someone couldn't come up with a newer, catchier, pro-peace slogan over the course of 40 years of protests. We knew we shouldn't care that some of you were wearing socks with sandals and smelled like you'd been on the bus with Wavy Gravy for the last three decades, but we cared anyway. We couldn't help it. It's just who we are.

And look, we really did stand for something, underneath all the eye-rolling. We're feminists, we care about the environment, we want to improve race relations, we volunteer. We're just low-key about it.

I don't know which generation I belong to, for a start. I don't know which generation anybody I know belongs to, but in my case when everybody was supposed to be having these character-forming experiences (character being formed by the outward manifestation of one's pop-culture tastes) I was living in another country where none of this applied. So was most of the world, by the way.

Nevertheless, when American pop culture took on a much more emotionally significant role in my life, when I entered my teens and started having a social life and yearning for, if not actually managing to have, a boyfriend, the music was pop culture that Havrilesky doesn't mention at all in her piece, but which was terribly important to one significant segment of American population: soul music.

When soul music began to be explicitly about race relations, the songs were about, among other things, the cheapness of Black life: about how, civil rights victories notwithstanding, Black lives were not valued and Black men, especially, were dying under circumstances that few people felt terribly concerned to clear up.

I remember being on my first visit to California at age 11, and being driven to San Francisco by my Aunt Fay and hearing on the radio that George Jackson had just been killed at San Quentin. There we were, approaching the footing of the Bay Bridge, and just across the Bay, that very day, George Jackson had been gunned down. He was one of the ones that people did know about, but lots of Black men were dying and being incarcerated in such ambiguous circumstances, the underlying assumption being that their lives weren't worth much and it didn't matter. The value of Black men's lives had to be asserted, and young Black men had to be reminded to believe in their own worth in the face of a society that by and large did not believe in it.

That was the theme of, for instance, Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City" or Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead." Soul music referred not only to these tragedies but to the need for Black people to set a value on their own lives, like in Earth Wind, & Fire's "Shining Star." There was so much of this stuff, right up almost to the 1980s. One of the last really great ones coming out of this period was Al Jarreau's "Could You Believe in a Dream?" which takes up the old gospel tropes, so well-worn and well-loved and makes them sing one more time.

There are people who have been waiting, quietly and stubbornly, carrying something forward that they didn't start: the day after the election I stopped in a friend's office, and of course I was overflowing with the good news. We talked about how we had passed the night before, the waiting. She said that when the election was called, she wept a little for her mother, who my friend had looked after for years and years and years, and who had died at 91 years old this spring. "And then I gave my thanks to the Lord," she said. My friend is probably close to 70, which means that for no small part of her life, she lived in a segregated USA. The thread that she has held goes back a lot further than Ronald Reagan. It goes back further than she can see, and it has been carried longer, quietly, through danger and tragedy.

That's low key.

But how could we have known? We were raised under Ronald Reagan, smiling emptily under a shellacked cap of shiny brown hair like a demon clown, warning us (With a knowing nod! With a wink!) about those evil Russians stockpiling nuclear arms thousands of miles away. We were raised by "The Love Boat" and "Eight Is Enough" and "Charlie's Angels," a steady flow of saccharine tales with clunky morals. There were smiling families, hugging and learning important lessons on every channel, while at home, our parents threw dishes at each other's heads. We went to church and learned about God's divine plan every Sunday, but all it took was one Dr. Seuss cartoon about an entire world that existed on a speck of dust, and our belief in God was deconstructed in an instant. Our childhoods were one long existential crisis. We ate Happy Meals while watching the space shuttle blow into tiny bits.

What is this but a confession of having seen no further into the world than the view of her parents and the television set?

You did your best. But we rose out of that murky soup of love and confusion, of stated beliefs without the actions to back them up, and we grew cynical. We doubted even the most heartfelt, genuine statements. We didn't want to be blind to our own faults, like you were, so we paraded our faults around, exalted in our shortcomings. The worst thing, to us, was to not see ourselves clearly. The worst thing was to not be in on the joke.

So we cast a jaded eye on ourselves and each other. We drank too much and listened to obscure indie rock bands. We dressed badly and communicated in four-letter words and read books like "Infinite Jest" and "The Corrections," modern-day versions of your precious J.D. Salinger in which everyone is a fake and the high capitalist world is bought and sold and even the purest form of art is a commodity, not to be taken seriously. No one can be trusted, nothing is pure -- these are the truths we held to be self-evident.

Was there nothing else to read?

Early in my life after moving to the States, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to believe that I would become myself by becoming just like everybody else. Not because I was so much smarter, but because I couldn't afford the stuff. It would have required, in 1977-1978 or so, that I own a stereo, a car, several pairs of Dolphin shorts, the right backpack, the right runnning shoes, the right jeans, the right sort of jacket (quilted pastel-colored ski jackets god help us) and various other accessories. It would have required that I keep up with music that was mostly foreign to me -- I had no chance of ever becoming a Deadhead, I didn't care for most disco, and somehow I had lost my capacity to identify completely with anyone pop culture phenomenon. I was a foreigner and I couldn't claim to have anything culturally or generationally with people who had grown up in American high schools and listened to rock music. My little exposure to it had not been enough to sink in. And if it doesn't sink in then it probably won't sink in at all. For a while years ago I dated a Deadhead (don't ask, OK? Just don't even.) He tried to get me to go with him to a Who concert but I politely refused. OK maybe not that politely. Offended at my refusal, he suggested that maybe I refused because I was too old. "I was too old for that shit when I was 19," I told him. Which is the truth.

So if I had anything that endured out of the sixties and the seventies, it was the politics, not the style. The style was just a garnish. Which appears to be the complete opposite of Havrilesky's experience.

All these pop-culture artifacts that Havrilesky described were around me, but they didn't define me, even though for a while I very much wanted them to. I was really caught up in another effort. What I remember of that period is enormous difficulty and challenge in understanding most of what was going on around me and, for that matter, within me. I had breakthroughs from time to time, quite striking ones, but mostly I was lost, and that's the important, real part of my experience. When I began to sort of find my feet and get a sense of who I was and what I was meant to do with myself, I did not see stylish acquisition as a priority in (as my mother calls it) working out my salvation.

Which is all to say, the sea of pop-culture dreck that Havrilesky characterizes as experience, and the cliches by which she characterizes the "boomers" were not an important part of my experience, and I am quite sure that to the very slight degree they were anybody's experience, each person experienced all this stuff in a different way. They might have used the artifacts of pop style to present themselves in the world, but that alone is not the story of anyone's experience. All the interesting stuff about living is not about style. And it's not on the TV.

Style is what Havrilesky is talking about here, and she's not really addressing any recognizable human being; she's creating a "character" out of her inferences about Boomer Taste and Boomer Style, sort of modernizing The Fonz.

I am tempted to think the only person in the room who believes that it's all about style is Havrilesky herself, and that her response to what she perceived as the awkward "uncool" style of her boomer elders was -- more and (as she imagined at the time, and this is what people always imagine) better style. I'm not sure that this can be blamed on Ronald Reagan, as appalling as he was. In fact it's weird, isn't it, that when she looks for the cause of this failure to recognize content, she makes an appeal to more content-free experience, to Reagan's influence on style, and to the influence of the TV.

Well, now the TV has shown her something different to believe in at long last. I doubt that the Obama administration will improve the quality of TV even in the long run. So perhaps she should still consider turning the damn thing off once in a while.

Update: Had to make some cuts in this. It was just too long.


At 8:16 PM, Anonymous phil said...

How bracing to read this sustained piece all the way to the bravura finish. O, my, you do teach a fine class.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

It wasn't too long for some of us.


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