Saturday, February 6, 2010

There Is No Difference

It feels critical to me to lay it out there right from the start; I'm a forty-something. Born at the end of the hippy, free-love zeitgeist of the 1960s and just before the crash and burn, it's-all-about-me-and-my-needs 1970s. Scrunched in there with no real generational loyalty. Technically not a boomer. Definitely not a hippy or a swinger and too old for the Gen X scene of the late 80s. And while I've felt comfortable and familiar with older people; the people who were adults when I was a child, the people formulating the new dimension that America would take on during that important post-Vietnam era, I've never really understood younger people. I don't "get" people who were born in the late 1970s and 80s and I am completely befuddled by those born in the 1990s. I mean I was having my OWN children in the late 1990s. I can imagine totally not getting them as young adults.
This feeling of, "?what?" every time I interact with someone significantly younger than me; someone born of the grunge, nurtured and characterized by MTV and reality shows is disturbing, disorienting even. It always feels like I have entered another dimension where people speak in movie clips, sound bites, song lyrics and where, "did you see that ad...?" is a perfectly valid conversation starter. I think that's primarily where the discomfort begins; when one person assumes that media saturation is a given during interactions. There was a time when the house I lived in did not contain the following items: VCR, DVD, answering machine, dishwasher, computer, CD player, iPod, digital tuner thingie, fax, printer, and gosh, at one point my mother even took out the dryer and we lived without a television for awhile. I have these things now and I understand their usefulness and validity in day-to-day living. But they don't run my life; nor are they the center of my entertainment. Beating my husband at Scrabble is way more fun than watching So You Think You Can Dance? It happens way less often too. Anyway, that's the primary difference between me and them, right? Technology. It has reshaped the way we interact, behave and think. Has it also changed the fundamental human experience? Created a whole new set of problems and concerns for us to deal with? I was beginning to think so.
The older I get and the more I feel this complete disconnect with the emerging culture, the more disturbed I feel. I had been attributing it all to the seemingly vast scope of time between 1960something and 1990something and had basically decided that it was a bridge that couldn't be spanned. I was out of touch and misunderstood by anyone under 35 (or is it 40?). So, it was with great surprise and almost relief that I read and loved an autonovelography by Dave Eggers called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It is apparent that Eggers is much younger than I; coming of age in the 90s. How do I know this? Well, Google, of course, but also because in his book he discusses the death of the "father" of grunge (although some of us elders argue that it's really Neil Young) Kurt Cobain. He frames Cobain's suicide in an ironic and sarcastic obituary with a surprise ending - Haha! We're actually regretting the demise of...Richard Millhouse Nixon! This kind of jesting with words and parodying your sentiments and expectations is hardly new to literature; Shakespeare was a master but it seems to have taken on a new and urgent existence with Egger's generation of writers and artists. David Foster Wallace (RIP) created the modern masterpiece Infinite Jest based on just this literary technique and, before he killed himself, was considered one of the greatest modern writers and beloved and then mourned by jillions of his young students. Likewise, Cobain's suicide was a cataclysm amongst those-who-came-after-me. For a time, every twenty-year old acted as if he were more than the drug-addled, angry, nominally talented street urchin that he was. As if he were, say, John Lennon or something.
Anyway. Eggers book is about death. Decay. Mortality. The End. But it is also about life and what it means to take it on full steam without really having the time to think about it. Without the option of saying, "no thanks, I'd rather not." Having both of his parents inconveniently die within months of each other he becomes the guardian of his eight year old brother; the sole protectorate. His older siblings are marginally involved in their lives and it is clear from the start that Dave will be the main parental unit. The book covers an unclear amount of time but it seems to be several years. Eggers wrote this book as if he wished to create a new genre; neo-Joycean or Burroughs, perhaps. Like James Joyce and William S. Burroughs he is erudite and intelligent, wry and sardonic, witty and crazed and does the stream of consciousness trick as if he had studied at their feet. Ulysses on crack. Naked Lunch Takes Care of The Beav. Like Burroughs he takes vulgarity to its extremes using profanity in place of punctuation, inserting the mother-load of swearwords where and whenever. But there are moments of pure beauty and a bare, stripped to the bone prose that echoes and honors the raw emotional content that he is attempting to contend with. There is something ageless in his approach to what is really a Dickensian situation. I mean, how very 19th century of his parents to both die suddenly, leaving a newly minted adult in charge. As a 24 year old, 20th century American he has hardly been raised to expect that he will need to be this responsible. On the contrary his pre-adult expectations were probably filled with college, sex, drinking, girls and loud music, the current rites of passage in our culture. And yet, he takes on the challenge in spite of the fact that, on paper, his sister was to be the guardian of the youngest child. But, you know, she's in law school and so busy and all... Eggers is the man. He decides that a complete change of scenery is in order and moves from Chicago to northern California, with Toph The Younger. This move turns out to be great and terrible. Eggers starts his magazine Might while living there which enjoys a short-lived but fairly intense period of success and sets Dave on his writerly path. But the experience of living with a much younger person, a child for whom he is completely responsible turns out to be a major challenge and their time in Northern California contains painful moments of surrealism. Any time Eggers leaves the apartment he worries and frets like a victim of PTSD; has Toph been abducted? Has he been killed by a crazed neighbor with ropes and a chainsaw? Will Dave make it home in time to save him from the neighborhood pedophile? Just like any parent Dave enjoys a fairly constant stream of fear and worry about the welfare of his brother. He doubts and second-guesses his every move. He obsesses about what Toph wears. Whether he's clean. Whether the kids at school are mean to him. Everything. But the point is, he carries on. He "brothers" his younger sibling well; he hides his angst, encourages and supports and ultimately gets Toph to adolescence without more tragedy befalling either of them. By chronicling the process for us he allows us to look in and ponder what we might have done under these same circumstances. What would we have done? It boggles the mind.
Reading this book made me understand that, really? We all have the same issues. The same fundamental and profound journey. We are all groping our way down the road, trying to understand our place here; what it means and why. Age, technology, television shows and popular music have nothing to do with it. Suddenly I'm feeling sappy and full of gratitude to Mr. Eggers for putting everything down on paper for us to read. For me, the realization at the end was even more important than the details of the story. Hopefully I'll remember that the next time someone approaches me and says, "did you see that show where...?"

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