Monday, September 3, 2012

100 Books #83 - Jeff Gordinier's X SAVES THE WORLD

My best friend from college and I were just across the Hudson River from Saugerties, NY the weekend of Woodstock '94, snarling and sneering the whole time at what we'd been very, very sure was going to be a mountain of suck, the Baby Boomer Generation having yet another stab at putting us in our place. We passed around a cartoon that his co-worker had drawn of what Woodstock '94 should really be like: mohawked punk stick figures stomping hippies into the ground, black helicopters spraying machine gun fire, a mushroom cloud detonating on the horizon. It gave us even greater satisfaction than the news that came over local and national media as that foolish weekend wore on that it was exactly the giant corporate suckfest we'd figured it would be, that we were right.

The first third or so of Jeff Gorinier's book is a lot like that, a litany of memories and realities that fueled a bitterness that I had kind of forgotten I'd had.* And for that reason I almost put it aside, despite the recommendations of someone for whom I have more respect than just about anyone on the internet, the blogger who tweets as TamaranOrBust, who has quite an inspiring and interesting post on this topic (actually a series of posts, but the one I link to here is possibly her finest).

Man, am I glad I stuck with this book, though. For the rest of it is an eye-opening, bumptious, raucous, giddy celebration of what we have done while being ignored and what we might still have in us to do. I poured a glass of wine, cranked up a '90s alternative music "station" on Slacker Radio, and smiled my way through the rest of it.

I've been hearing bits here and there of late about how it's time my generation (born in 1970, I'm an Xer by pretty much every measure anyone has suggested) came out of hiding and started taking another stab at keeping what we care about alive in this world: authentic culture, new and old; the right to live a life on the margins without giving up having a say in matters (the analogy of hypermodern chess comes to mind); the right not to be Boomers or Millennials eagerly participating uncritically in a hive mind serving interests that really aren't our own.

But rather than a call to arms or a lecture about the need to start new causes or take on the Boomers who, let's face it, aren't ever going to let go of their economic and cultural dominance while they're on this side of the dirt (but are perfectly willing to finish throwing our parents, the Silents, under the bus, and have found in Paul Ryan the perfect GenX patsy cheerleader to help them do it), Gordinier is more interested in pointing out to us that what we're already doing is (cough) changing the world, by saving the best bits of everything that has come before it it, one hyperfocused hobbyist at a time (like, say, that wonderful soul who put all of that Byzantine Secular Classical Music on YouTube -- to say nothing of those wonderful souls who invented YouTube!), and continually innovating ways to keep bouncing forward all that good stuff AND making new stuff of our own.

And yes, part of what made reading this book such a pleasure for me was the way it forced me to look at how I'm conducting myself through my early 40s, especially as an artist, and to realize that what I'm doing really does matter, even if mass culture doesn't understand or respect it. You guys do. And that's plenty! Which is how this sonnet, describing a rare chance meeting with a fellow beneficiary of my idyllic footnote below, came about.

Really, all I can think of right now, sipping wine and bouncing around my room to Nirvana and Soundgarden, is in The Two Towers (film or book, it doesn't matter, but the moment in the film is nicely done) when Gandalf talks about how the Ents are about to wake up and realize they are strong.

Might just be that we need to pay a little more attention to what our peers are doing and tune out the screech of the Boomillenials a bit more. I've gotten really, really good at the latter, but I could do so much better with the former.

*I had an idyllic, out-of-sync childhood in rural Wyoming, the land the Boomers kind of forgot. That's not to say there weren't any of that age group, far from it, but in a place that takes pride in slogans like "come to Wyoming and turn your clock back 30 years" even the 30-somethings of my childhood were pretty much just Silent Generation types with less grey hair and fewer wrinkles. Us kids had it really, really good in Saratoga, WY in the 1970s, beneficiaries of a sort of Silent Generation conspiracy to filter out most of the crap of the larger world and bring us the good stuff. The Utah Symphony played concerts in our crappy school gymnasium. An amazing old-timey historical tent show called Chatauqua came through every summer. The Texas Opera company staged full on performances in that same crappy gym where the Utah Symphony played and where from time to time mid-level touring ballet companies performed, too. I had an almost-complete collection of Horizon magazines at my disposal. We had a river to splash around in, bike trails to get us anywhere but keep us (mostly) out of car traffic, and a series of truly extraordinary schoolteachers who taught us how to make stone-age hunting tools and build snow caves along with our three Rs. So I was ill-prepared for the real world of the East Coast, where the hostility of Boomers was waiting to dump bucket after bucket of freezing, stinging salt water over my head before I'd even gotten my bearings. I endured it for almost a decade before deciding I'd had enough and moved back to Wyoming, where I was welcomed back with open arms. I tried to give a new generation the kind of advantages I'd enjoyed in my same hometown, but I didn't have enough co-conspirators to achieve the critical mass to pull it off. Ah, me. But now, here I still am, and now there is the internet. Sing praise, Gaudeamus.


  1. Thanks vm for the nice comment Kate. This is a great post. I had a very similar background, with Silent Gen parents and friends whose core achievement in life involved Boomer avoidance, creating a world that still evolved, but negotiated around 1968, tiptoed behind the scenes on a completely separate track. That track has **never** been discussed as the foundation of Gen X's experience. The other foundation of course is Gen Xers' who grew up with Boomer parents, and were really messed up by that (divorced parents etc.).

    But I have to say that our lives as alternate histories if Boomers had not existed were pretty damned good (listening to Glenn Miller as though he was still in style) until Boomers discovered (mainly in professional arenas) that we existed *at all* (what's THIS? some enclave we have not stamped out!!) came crashing in and carpet bombed the 'by invitation only' party our parents set up.

    Ryan and Rubio. OK, whatever one thinks of their politics, I understand them. First, I get that painful nostalgia, that attempt to get back to that 50s and redraw the portrait in post-millennial terms. On a deep level, it is so desperately sad, because the naked reality is that we live in post-Boomer wreckage and no amount of retro living will bring that pre-Boomer picture back. Follow it relentlessly, and America will turn into one big Shirley Jackson story.

    And I find that fact very painful, because Ryan and Rubio are doing something very typical of Xers. They are trying to preserve some element of the past that the Boomers rejected.

    Ryan hints that beyond that he does get it b/c he listens to grunge. To me, that implies that he is saying in a subtextual way, 'look, I have not choice - to get anywhere, I have to play the Boomer game.' That too, is a familiar Gen X refrain. You see the contrast everywhere. Example: Hollywood actors - Leo DiCaprio who effortlessly hopped on the Boomer bus, vs. Ethan Hawke who just can't sell out and play the game even when he tries. But here is the thing about that. We need both the DiCaprios and the Hawkes. We need the DiCaprios to play the game in a way that Boomers and Millennials can actually witness and understand that we are a known quantity. We need the Hawkes to play the game but keep alive that alternate history, saving a different way of engaging with capitalism, but still retaining an individual, independent and non-corporate voice.

    Rubio. I feel that he is a great quotation of a quotation of a quotation. He is like a meta-Boy Wonder version of Orson Welles playing fictional media giant Kane, playing real media giant Hearst. He's going for Jack Black in King Kong. I don't know if he will back off from shooting the ape in the end. Both of Ryan and Rubio are interesting because they are like Daniel Hannan in the UK - forced to survive and be listened to on Boomer terms, and ironically dismissed by their peers because of that. Hannan is a better example, b/c he was shunted off to the wilderness of the EU parliament, where he made speech after speech for ten years to an empty room and made Youtube vids no one watched. In other words, too talkative, thinking too much - sent off to a corner where he could 'do no damage.' Wrote a column in the Telegraph and even there was demoted - shortly before his Youtube vid went viral and millions saw it. He reached more via Youtube than he could have via conventional British parliamentary system where he would have been a little MP. He shows how working within the system can suddenly dovetail with the new Internet - with explosive results.

    Thank you for your reflections in this post, so thought-provoking and reminds that we are not alone. I hope you don't mind if the comments I made here become focus of a new post.

    1. Honestly, I was really impressed with Rubio, and thought of him as one to watch for the future. Thank goodness we don't have a body like the EU Parliament to shunt him off into; he may well be spared Hannan's experience. But Ryan? Ryan is not nostalgic for the 50s; he is subscribing to a religious right fantasy of a world that never was and never could be without turning the U.S. into a certain Margaret Atwood novel. He frightens me way beyond any generational issues; I mentioned him here only because if they succeed in dismantling Medicare, my parents and all their peers are screwed -- and a lot of them have been duped into believing it's a good thing!

      As for the alternate realities -- great way of describing it! -- I'm afraid that, while providing a truly wonderful way to grow up that left us pretty well-adjusted, secure, well-educated and sure of ourselves, still did not prepare us at all for the real world in which Boomers were teaming up to take over in the 90s. I grew up respecting, if not revering, my elders, and suddenly the elders with whom I was working on the East Coast couldn't stab me in the back fast enough or often enough. It was several years before I really realized what was going on. At the time, I just thought people really still hated nerds!

    2. Hey Kate, I'm late coming to this reply - hope you see it. On Ryan, I completely understand what you are saying and agree. I live in Canada, where socialized health care is a blessing, and I support it. Without agreeing with the populist right in the US on this issue (they use a very simplified argument about the nation going bankrupt), I know at least partly why Ryan says what he does. I started doing research on projected Boomer health care costs over the next 30 years. They will amount to more than their pension costs, primarily because of their social behaviour. They have the highest rate of increase in STDs than any other demographic. They have special health care needs because of years of drug abuse. They have exploding numbers of Hep C infection, which has led, oddly enough, to their run on liver transplants - each one costs the system astronomical amounts of money. I will send you the research I dug up on this. The problem with Boomers is that they use universalized social welfare language that anyone with a social conscience could not fail to accept. *However* Boomers often do not even perceive, or fail to acknowledge if they do see, that the universal benefits they seek always are set up to apply exclusively to them.
      So it will be with this universal health care. The only reason they are seeking public health care right now is because they are getting older and they want Gen X and Gen Y to foot their bills, NOT because universal health care is a true universal public good. The irony is that many Boomers truly believe the universalist rhetoric and outcomes, and are narcissistically blind to the exclusive outcome of the programs they espouse. I have no doubt that when the time came, say around 2020, they would gut the health care and pension systems themselves, and deny Gen X and Gen Y benefits. Do not doubt their ability to do this, as they remain a formidable voting bloc and conscious of their voting power and of their need to self-preserve above all. If you want to understand the real outcomes of their policies - even Boomers' most honourable policies - look at the real outcomes, not at the rhetoric. I think that Ryan is trying to speak to those real outcomes. The problem is that doing so makes him look like a regressive, anti-healthcare monster.

  2. Wow, what a great post. The way you described Ryan as "the perfect Gen-X patsy" is pretty much spot on.

    I'll be honest, that man scares the crap out of me. I don't understand this fictional world these people live in/want to live in, and I'm afraid of it coming to be.


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