Monday, March 28, 2011

Generation X, by Douglas Coupland

I'm not sure I like how much this book spoke to me. It was published 20 years ago to all sorts of "voice of a generation" type accolades. Twenty years ago, the characters were in their late 20s -- which is to say, if they were real, they'd be 15-20 years older than I am. But their lives looked just like those of everyone I knew a few years ago, when I was in my late 20s. They way they lived, their jobs, their instantly close friendships, the way they *talked.* My god, as you can see below, they talked exactly like the people I knew. Maybe it means there is something to the seemingly random business of where generation lines are drawn. Xers were born up through 1980, which means that I'm one and so are all my friends I wrote about in the last two posts. All in all, I rate this book the thinking woman's Reality Bites. Gold star.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Everything is better this way

New theory: all conversations are better when written in the style of the famous author and friends quoted below.

"So then Tara was like, Remember that guy Tom? And it didn't ring a bell and she was like, you know, blonde, tall, military guy, made that creepy comment about the skirt you said looked okay?
"And I was like oh, Parakeet Tom! And she pratically fell off her bar stool laughing, all 'parakeets! How could I forget about the parakeets! hee hee hee *wheeze*'
"Tara, I said, how could I remember anything else about this guy but that he came to that happy hour you won at OPM Lounge when it first opened and it was double weird because the place was new so there was no one in there and also law school just started so you invited a bunch of people you didn't really know to your thing and this *dude* came and hung out and talked to us about his parakeets and how he would breed them and like put a little cover over their cage ... augh oh god ew.
"and at that point of course Tara, in true Tara fashion, is like clutching herself laughing, wiping tears, unable to move or speak. Everything she cracks up about becomes twice as funny due to this sort of behavior. It's like, don't even bring up Teddy Ruxpin or nothing will be said for half an hour probably."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Let's play a game

Which of these passages were written by an author hailed as the voice of his generation, and which are just stuff my friends wrote on the Internet?

A.) Him: he's so...he's so manly. Like, throwing his Dickies messenger bag in the back of his truck and starting up the truck with a cig hanging from his mouth, and then idling while saying good bye, his leg tucked into the door frame, with his 1940's matinee idol socks and, for lack of a better word, saddle shoes, his foot held just so- a kind of sprung nonchalance.


B.) "Anyhow, this rich broad, this real Sylvia type" (Elvissa calls rich women with good haircuts and good clothes Sylvias) "comes out from the spa building going mince mince mince with her little shoey-wooeys and her Lagerfeld dress, right up to this guy in front of me. She purrrrs something I miss and then puts a little gold bracelet around this guy's wrist which he offers up to her (body language) with about as much enthusiasm as though he were waiting for her to vaccinate it. She gives the hand a kiss, says 'Be ready for nine o'clock' and then toddles off."


A.) I will attempt to do justice to this photo: taken in 1983, when Tomtom was about 2 or so, it's him, his dad and a huge white rabbit on a deck or table of somekind- Tommie is propped up on his forearms and hands kissing the bunny, his AWESOME 1980's "racing" parka falling over half his face, but the other half that we can see is 100 percent focused on kissing that bunny! His father, puffy late 1970's do, slight mustache and all is holding the bunny still. It's typical upstate NY Easter weather, which means it's about 12 degrees out and overcast, and the muted, yellow-orange palette of photos from the era warm the scene up. Something about Tommy's innocent, pudgy face kills me. I can see his character- giving, open, loving, and yet forceful and a bit eager, all in this photo. His father's face-- at first I thought he was concentrating on Tommy with the same amount of concentration Tommy was giving the bun, but then I saw it: he's just focused on holding the bunny still. He left Tommy and his mother shortly after that.


B.) "One night Mom came out onto the patio in a pink sundress and carrying a glass pitcher of lemonade. Dad swept her into his arms and they danced to the samba music with Mom still holding the pitcher. She was squealing but loving it. I think she was enjoying that little bit of danger the threat of broken glass added to the dancing. And there were crickets cricking and the transformer humming on the power lines behind the garages, and I had my suddenly young parents all to myself — them and this faint music that sounded like heaven — faraway, clear, and impossible to contact — coming from this faceless place where it was always summer and where beautiful people were always dancing and where it was impossible to call by telephone, even if you wanted to."


A.) "I mean, it's just so DIRE! It all sounds so damn serious in print. Men never do that shit. I mean, nothing, nothing induces more stomach- churning dread than the sight of an email with the headline "please read" from your soon -to- be- ex in your inbox. The Declaration of Independance? Thomas Jefferson's wife wrote that shit, you know it! Breaking up with the King of England...a man would never do that by letter! You just know she wrote that for him...'George, we have to talk'. I mean, that's a break up letter if I ever saw one."


B.) "Suddenly I was into this tres deeply. Well, if I'm going to quit anyway, might as well get a thing or two off my chest.
" 'I beg your pardon,' says Martin, the wind taken out of his sails.
" 'Or for that matter, do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we're pushing thirty? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born at the right time in history? You'd last about ten minutes if you were my age these days, Martin. And I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wire fence around the rest. You really make me sick."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Part two

So what does my re-dedication to loyalty, duty, hard work and being a square have to do with The Wire, aka the greatest television show ever made? To me, The Wire, especially its second and fifth seasons, is a 60-hour eulogy for communities and ways of life that are dying all around us.

The second season focuses on Baltimore's struggling shipping industry and dockworkers union. It's about what it means to come from the Rust Belt. Sons can't make a living in the industry that their fathers and grandfathers did. The next generation has to either leave home, or stay at great economic sacrifice. Nick Sobotka, a young dockworker, is a central character of the second season. Over its course, he loses so much in terms of his family, his livelihood and the future he thought he would have. The life of an honest day's work paying enough to own a home, family close by in the neighborhood, camaraderie in the union hall, drinks after work with your best friends -- it's all been lost to smuggling and fancy condos, big paydays for a handful of people and nothing for everyone else. The second season closes with a montage of all of those changes. When I watched it, I noticed one thing was missing: someone like me packing up the u-haul and hugging friends and family goodbye.

In addition to the small-town America I grew up in and the no-nonsense values of the Rust Belt city that became my adopted home, the life that I knew as a young adult is disappearing too. I applied to journalism school at 16 and showed up at the student paper at 17, earnest, idealistic, and full of ideas for opinion columns I wanted to write. Dedication was the number-one quality for succeeding at The Bona Venture and when I demonstrated it, they put me on staff right away. Journalism was my life until I was almost 24, when I pitched it and went to law school. My reasons for doing so were not well-formed but it turned out to be a good decision. After I left, my old colleagues, incredibly bright and incisive people and good writers too, started getting laid off in droves. Newsrooms shrunk, contracted again, and shrunk some more. In my kitchen cupboard here in Brooklyn I have a mug that says "Circ's up!" -- the whole staff got them when the circulation of our small-city daily newspaper rose. It looks like a rotary phone or an eight-track tape, just eight years later. Newspaper circulation rising and profits going up, when did that happen?

The small-town main street where my dad had a sporting goods store when I was young now looks battered and broken, infinitely more commerce taking place at the Wal-Mart outside of town.
The factories where generations of Buffalonians made their livings are shuttered and the old neighborhoods are largely abandoned too, filled with boarded houses, weedy vacant lots, drug dealing and sad corner stores with almost nothing for sale.
The newsrooms where I began my career, learned who I was and what mattered to me and formed lifelong friendships are now ghosts of their former selves, scores of literate and smart people left adrift in a world that doesn't always value those qualities.

In The Wire's fifth season, we see seasoned veterans taking buyouts as the staff of the Baltimore Sun contracts, the paper loses institutional memory, and its quality declines. David Simon, who created The Wire, was one of those veterans who took a buyout. It's no wonder journalists and former journalists love The Wire so much; Simon sees the world through our eyes. We see sweeping narratives everywhere, in the lives of everyday people. It's all part of the larger story. The final episode of The Wire is called simply -30-, which is the way reporters once signaled the end of an article. It's the end of a brilliant piece of work that chronicled the end of so many other things. Just -30-. It's over, done and gone.

On life, and also The Wire: A two-part series

I am not a religious woman.

One of my grandfathers died last month. When my uncle Andy and aunt Priscilla flew in from Taiwan for what they hoped was a chance to say their final goodbyes but turned out to be for the funeral, they came into my grandma's living room bleary eyed, having spent 24 hours traveling. It was about 7 a.m. their time. My mom was running through who was doing what during the funeral -- "And Andy, I have you down for the eulogy!" "What the ... eulogy?" he said, sounding annoyed but more likely just exhausted. My uncle is a preacher and theologian; who else to give a eulogy. At the funeral home, I saw him scratching notes, trying to keep his eyes open.

The funeral, held in a Catholic church, had little to do with my grandfather or his life. To someone with no religious background, it was a series of rituals, songs and Bible readings that may as well have been chosen at random, with a casket sitting at the front of the room. Towards the end, my uncle approached the podium. In his eulogy, he never strayed from simple truths. In doing so, he not only imparted great meaning on what was in many ways an unremarkable middle-class life; he also gave me a whole new sense of clarity about my values and how I got this way.

My grandparents met in high school (where they were first and second in their graduating class), became a couple in college and married in 1950, when then were 23 years old. By 1960, they had six kids. My grandfather took the bus from their suburban neighborhood to the city every day. He earned a good living but they never had more than one car -- it must have seemed wasteful to them. Imagine that. He's working hard, he's earning all the money, but he's the one getting on the bus. The bus was fine for him -- more important to chip away at the mortgage and save to put six kids through school. He never thought he needed a sports car, or fancy electronics, or a membership at an expensive golf club, but he bought jewelry for my grandma and made sure my mom and her brothers and sisters had everything they needed. When I was young -- I had forgotten about this -- he visited his mother every Saturday and took care of all of her finances. He never complained about here I am doing everything for mom and what's my sister contributing and blah blah blah. He never complained at all, that I can remember. Life was good to him, but that didn't give him a sense of entitlement. He used the opportunities he had to go out and do the right thing, and do what needed to be done, every single day.

On its face, my life bears no resemblance to that of my grandparents. They had the house in the suburbs, wife at home (for 15 years anyway), dad goes to work in the city, church, carpools, first communions, family dog, red meat for dinner every night, station wagon in the driveway. I share a rented condo in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood. I'm single and childless at 31, have a lot of unconventional friends, a law degree, enough spare time to read and write. I eat tofu and date musicians and wear black and campaign for lefty causes and candidates and hang out in cool bars.

But sitting in that horrible suburban church listening to my uncle, I realized that I'm just like them, and my parents, and my dad's parents too. My peers don't understand why I've never been to Europe, why places like the Lower West Side of Buffalo and Bushwick and Bed Stuy mean so much to me, why I insisted on living in a barely furnished studio apartment with no TV and no car when I was in law school, why I keep the credit card debt in check and hang onto my savings and have never had my nails done or owned a remote control. They make fun, and they try to convince me to loosen up a little, but who do they turn to when they need someone to move their car, water their plants, feed their cat, do their taxes, give them legal advice ...

At times I get tired of being the boring, responsible one but when I need something, I get it and then some. When my grandfather died, I was in Buffalo visiting friends. The wake and funeral were in Pittsburgh two days later. I had no way to get there, nothing to wear, no idea what to do. My friends, and my sister, came through with everything -- rides to the store, use of their computers, a black dress, even a car to borrow to drive to Pittsburgh and back. Their generosity, and my uncle's words, convinced me that I'm not a loser for going to work when I don't want to and showing up to things when I don't feel like it, just because I said I would. In a world of selfishness and broken plans and competitive consumption and so much crap that nobody needs, I stand for the possibility that old-fashioned values still matter. It is my hope to work towards shedding the conformity and rigid gender roles of my middle-class suburban roots while hanging onto everything that is admirable about that legacy, and to build a life that matters.

I haven't gotten to The Wire yet. But I will.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


If you're feeling a little depressed, or experiencing negative emotions of any kind, or even are in a state where you could end up feeling that way if given just a little push in the wrong direction, do not read anything by Wally Lamb. A few chapters of I Know This Much Is True and some rich asshole tying his dog out in the rain was all it took for me to go from good day to near meltdown. What is wrong with people.