Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thumb Generation

Year’s end, city in borderline chaos due to a blizzard and profoundly awful Sanitation Department response, resolutions, regrets … all the same old stuff. There’s only one thing that has really grated on me the past few days. Monday was a full-on snow shoveling day. Two-foot base of snow, at a minimum with drifts of three to four feet. A huge shoveling job, the most snow I’ve ever shoveled. Streets blocked and drifted over, home and car owners struggling to dig out, four-wheel drive vehicles spinning out in snow drifts …

And among all this, that Monday night, someone took the time to build a snow pyramid in one of the recently-vacated parking spaces along the side of the house. A crude pyramid, sloppy, nothing special, but someone took the time, probably an hour or so, to sit there and scoop up loose snow sitting around them and fashion a pyramid. Factoring in time to tweet pictures of the work of art in progress to followers, of course.

You’re thinking a bored kid? This had to have happened after 11:00 at night, as that was the last time I went out to do a spot check on whether or not plows had come through and walled over some of my work. (Plows didn’t come through here until Tuesday night, and did a lousy job, to boot.)

I know it was twentysomethings, not drunk, just giddy with excitement over the snow. How am I certain? I’m not, but from what I’d seen of the neighborhood during the course of this massive storm, the only people out “gallivanting” and “having fun” have been twentysomething apartment dwellers with no responsibilities, acting like they were Snow White in an animated movie with no queen witch and handsome princes all around. This commercial imparts the vibe perfectly, and these people feel like space aliens to me, or maybe gingerbread people? (Confession: I want to drill holes in the skulls of this couple … is the movie Hostel based on a true story … can I be one of those guys who pays $25,000 to go to the Czech Republic, don a surgical mask/smock/rubber gloves and get medieval on these two with Black & Decker power tools?)

On one hand, I don’t mind people like this. They literally have no responsibilities save for paying rent and feeding themselves. No kids, probably no pets, no vehicles, no property. In theory, I’m in the same boat, but as noted about my situation, I help my aged landlord (and myself) by keeping her property in order. I understand that feeling of freedom. Mixed with a snowstorm? Get out of here! Time to make snow angels! Piss your name in the snow! Frolic! The world is ours tonight!

On the other, these pricks just wasted a parking space in a situation where parking is dangerously sparse and confrontation-inducing. Someone’s going to have to either drive over their wondrous art work (and hope they don’t get stranded on the mound underneath their parked car) or just wait until it melts … when they could have spent five seconds blasting through the snow-plow wall and parking snugly in a relatively open space.

It got me thinking about the mild disconnect I tend to feel with twentysomethings and teenagers these days. Nothing like in the 90s, filled with dingus kids pretending they were ghetto gangstas or saddled with a navel-gazing sort of self loathing and parental distrust, that crappy sense of depression and antagonism kids in the 90s had threaded into their generational DNA. In theory, I see progress in kids in the last decade. That’s just the thing. I now include people through much of their 20s in the delineation of “kids.” They seem like kids to me. They act like kids. They do childlike things constantly. They appear to have the emotional development of kids.

And I relate most of it to thumbs. Not thumb sucking, although that would be an apt analogy. This is the thumb generation: people who over-use their thumbs, whether it’s spending hours upon hours wasting time on asinine video games, or being overly obsessed with cellphones and other hand-held devices for the sole reason of texting, to the extent of dozens or hundreds of messages sent in one day.

I wouldn’t mind if the texts were brilliant one-liners and bon mots. But it’s an endless stream of disjointed bullshit, the only message of which is, “I need your attention now, for no other reason than I’m deeply insecure.” And it’s not a personal insecurity … it’s a sort of culturally-bred insecurity, that sense of generational inclusiveness, that’s at the heart of this. Don’t be the last kid on your block to send over 100 texts in a day!

I can even handle that concept – empty people drawing too much attention to themselves have always over-populated the world. But to have this concept of handheld devices serving as modern necessity lorded over me as progress of any sort … no. And I am a tech-friendly person, who is growing less tech-friendly with each passing year, the slow realization that tech-friendly means spending $100/month on a device, and thousands more a year on devices and gadgets, and a way of life that represents only minor cosmetic progress in our society. It represents the ability of tech companies like Apple to foist a huge ruse on the world and make a fortune off it, which I respect, but this is not moving forward. If anything, if you’re paying attention, it’s a strange sort of devolution, at least in terms of real communication between people. A world in which people who position themselves as more advanced than previous generations spend all their time sending nonsensical messages to each other that are closer to cavemen hieroglyphics than higher written communication of any sort.

I’ve gotten into the topic of video games before, a practice I consider relatively harmless, and probably healthy in reasonable doses. Most kids don’t seem geared towards that “reasonable dose” mentality. Addiction is more accurate, hours every day, online, fighting fantastical battles with friends and enemies online, glued to the screen, thumbs constantly in motion. Again, even with the concept of addiction, and kids, I can roll with this. We all get hung up on silly shit at that point in our lives.

But I can’t roll with 30-year-olds in the same teenage mode, and you better look around, because they’re out there. My parents’ generation had fought a world war by the time they hit 30. This generation has fought dozens of wars, battling Nazis, space aliens, Vikings, urban street trash, kung fu masters, monsters, wizards, dragons … all in the safety of their heads and bedrooms, bag of cheese curls at the ready, a can of Four Loko on the nightstand if they’re living dangerously. These guys … they can kill you with their thumbs, man. They can shoot you in the head at 300 yards while running with a sawed off shotgun as you weave around the edge of an industrial park in a dune buggy. They’re that good, man!

Mom was worried about the draft coming back with all the trouble in the Middle East, not quite realizing I and my older brothers are probably too old to be drafted and are “retirement age” in armed forces parlance. But when she kept mentioning this on the tail end of Bush’s presidency, all I could envision was a bunch of draftee soldiers in a desert, hands in front of their stomachs, flicking their thumbs madly and mumbling, “Dude, why don’t you go down like you do on the Playstation!”

I don’t want to knock these kids too much. I know if I was a kid now, I would be indulging, too. But hopefully not to the extent of being one of these hollow-eyed beings thumbing it 3-4 hours a night after school. Video games and arcades were around when I was a kid – I indulged mildly, to say the least, mostly because the amount of money you spend on these sort of endeavors becomes more tangible when you’re pumping quarters into a machine in the mall arcade. My general feeling after about 15 minutes in any arcade was abject boredom after feeling childish for pumping quarters into a silly game. Shit, I can trace that feeling back to playing Pong in 70s arcades while pinball machines rang all around me.

But again, where does being a kid end, and being an adult begin? That line just continues to blur more and more into this area between, say, 25 and 35. I would say that since the Boomers came along in the 60s, each generation has prided itself on its sense of self absorption. You can still see that now with aged rock stars and actors who just can’t let go of the only ways of life they know, as stars and cultural forces, even though nearly all of them haven’t been for decades. There’s a refusal to let go and assume that quieter, less obvious role of older people who simply watch over younger people and guide them. The concept now is to compete with them in every possible way, to never acknowledge that they can be equal or better in any sense. I’m all for people feeling relevant at every point in their lives, but there still seems to be a real need for Boomers to remind everyone just how great their generation has been ... and still is.

Thus, you get kids who on one hand recognize this vanity in previous generations, yet can’t overcome that innate self absorption that they were imbued with from day one. They’ll reject a lot of things about their parents, but never that sense of being special little kings and queens to whom everyone must acquiesce. It’s a strange mix of self loathing and narcissism. Troubled people. When you’re around someone incessantly thumbing a device in public, just can’t stop, never looking up, do you get the vibe that person is happy? Is the person smiling? Nodding quietly to himself? Relaxed?

That hasn’t been my experience. I’m sitting or standing next to someone who can’t sit still, is constantly squirming, scratching at their arms and faces as if they have eczema, leg twitching uncontrollably, seemingly unable to stop and absorb anything outside of themselves, perhaps resistant to do so, knowing that to do so would be to acknowledge that people outside their chosen circles of influence exist, and exist just fine without them.

I first got inkling of that vibe around 2000, when iPods really caught on, and people got in the habit of wearing them everywhere. To this day, I can easily spot anyone listening to an iPod in public just by how they move, even if I can’t see the wires. I can tell by their shadows approaching behind me on a sunny day. Their sense of spatial relations is so skewed that they approach and move with little regard to people around them. They don’t bump other people – they rarely do. But they pass so embarrassingly close, in a quiet way that’s understood in urban parlance as wrongly invading another person’s space, that I can sense they don’t realize how off their instincts are. It’s wrong to compare them to blind or deaf people, who instinctively sense other people around them and react accordingly. Someone walking with an iPod going full blast just seems willfully ignorant of anyone or anything around him. Everything exists as a backdrop to their internal soundtrack. In a sense, everything around them, including you, is not real.

But that sense of willful isolation now seems downright quaint and worldly as compared to people who just can’t stop thumbing their devices. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like reality. Christ, I sound like a hippie tripping on acid saying something like that. But think about it, device obsession, simply stated, is avoidance of direct reality. These people are choosing to focus on this floating reality of meaningless one-line messages to disembodied beings they find more pressing and important than the immediate reality around them. It’s like an addiction to ghosts, or DJs of some sort, calling out in the night, playing your favorite song, which always has “you” in the title, and is all about you.

One thing I’ve grasped as time has gone on is that a key difference between child and adulthood is the ability to not just genuinely care about other people, but simply to recognize their existence, whether you like them or not. When you’re a kid, you don’t do that as much (even though you think you do). So much of being young in our culture is geared towards worshipping that stage of life, to encourage people at that age to gaze at themselves in the mirror, to firmly believe this is as good as it gets, and all eyes are on you. Have a talk with any famous actress in her 40s, and she’ll talk your ear off about this reality, and what happens when the world starts deciding you’re no longer that archetype of physical beauty we must all longingly gaze upon.

Somehow that fleeting hubris has become entangled with gadgets. In the 70s, younger people were referred to as the “Me Generation” … but compared to now? Still, it’s wise to recognize these threads of self absorption have been running through every generation since the 60s, and maybe this gadget obsessions is just another physical manifestation of that warped personal fascination. I don’t really believe that. I believe what’s going on now is a bit worse, that people are being culturally trained to devolve how they interact and communicate. But if you want to be optimistic, you can look back over the past four decades and recognize, all of us who have come along since, we’ve all been a little too far into ourselves for comfort.

In 1977, Jackson Browne put out a great song (and album) called “Running on Empty,” in which he fretted that he, at the age of 29, was spiritually void, and the only thing that kept him going was the ability to live the life of a traveling musician who could constantly move and avoid the realization that he was empty inside. Little did he know at the time that the simple ability to recognize that sort of emptiness inside himself and question it was a sure sign that he wasn't empty, that he felt troubled over his vanity and pride, and wanted to somehow do something about it.

I thought Jackson Browne was a bit of a pussy at the time. But I can look back now and realize that guy, in his 20s, was laying out hard truths and questions that most of us wouldn’t get anywhere near until our 30s and 40s. He somehow knew how to get these concepts across, the same way people like Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Dylan did long before most people sensed the same questions in their lives.

I don’t know what qualifies as “Running on Empty” these days. Running on empty seems to be some kind of goal now, a spiritual void that’s become preferable to sensing meaning and purpose in yourself and the people around you. Fill yourself up with emptiness so you can no longer discern what true emptiness is. Avoid passion, avoid contact, avoid interaction, unless it’s purely on your terms and preferably at a distance, bounced off a satellite and sent to someone you might only see once or twice a year, or people you see all the time, but communicate very little to because you’re all too busy taking calls and thumbing your devices in each other’s presence.

I don’t think I’d ever ask that people abandon their devices. Hell, I spend way too much time fucking around on the internet myself, even without Twitter or Facebook or an iPhone. I guess I’m just looking for a little context in our lives, places for everything, without these things overwhelming everything else in our lives. I sense an emptiness in myself when I spend too much time on the internet and can only imagine how much larger that feeling must be for someone who spends hours every day addicted to this shit. When I die, I’m not going to look back and think I should have spent more time at work, fucking around on the internet, or sending people text messages. I’ll want to know how much I’ve lived in that immeasurable way of understanding the people and places around me. Don’t we all?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Christmas Pasts

An odd thing about kids is how they can achieve far more than they’re capable of, but only when there is some dubious reward. I’m thinking in particular of my brothers and I a few weeks before Christmas. Pick any Christmas between, say, 1971 and 1978. In our early stages, we believed in Santa. We visited him at the mall routinely, excitedly read off our laundry list of toys we wanted. We’d see him at the firehouse, too, which had Christmas parties for all the kids in town. We believed in Santa Claus … but we knew the closet in our Dad’s room.

The closet in our Dad’s room was where our parents stored the presents they were buying us in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We’d see them coming home from shopping trips after work, vainly trying to hide the names on the bags: Boscovs, Sears, Listening Booth. Up to Dad’s room they’d go. Close the door. Shuffling sounds. Door creaks. God damn, they’re putting our shit in the closet for safe keeping.

Even earlier than that, we could rationalize that Santa would break into our house and leave everything in Dad’s closet because he’d be too busy to come down our chimney on Christmas Eve night. But after awhile, no, we knew Santa Claus existed in theory, and accepted this, knowing all the goodies were sitting in that closet.

But it wasn’t enough to let them sit there for weeks leading up to Christmas. We needed visual evidence that our shit was there. We had to see it, take the stuff out of the shopping bags, hold the boxes, and know we were getting that stuff.

This is where the diabolical brilliance of children comes into play. My brothers were handy with tools, in this case, the properly sized screw driver. That closet door was locked. Granted, an older, feeble lock that probably could have been picked if we were so inclined. But, like seasoned bank thieves, my brothers thought it made more sense to simply remove that ancient lock apparatus that was screwed to the wooden closet door.

Not as easy as you’d think. The key was to not chip any of the yellow paint – the screws were painted over, so we’d have to get an old cloth, not too thick, and wrap it around the screwdriver. And there were at least two screws and accompanying gaskets that we’d have to assiduously remove from the casing holding the lock, pry it from the wall without chipping any paint on the wood door, then reassemble it all afterwards … like marines re-assembling their rifles blind-folded.

That was the first part of the mission. The second was to take a mental picture of the closet layout. If our parents were smarter, they would have stacked a ton of shit – old board games, winter coats, shoe racks –against the inside of the door, made note of the order it was stacked and wrote it down. So that when they went in again, they could check if these items had been moved, as they would have if we’d swung the door open and they all came crashing down on us.

We were that meticulous, sometimes even writing down the order of the bags stacked in the closet, but usually just taking that mental snapshot of what was there so that when my parents went in again, they wouldn’t recognize that we had been in there on our recon mission. I’m surprised we didn’t wear gloves to hide our finger prints.

And previewing the booty was incredible. I remember that feeling. Such a rush of excitement to realize what we had asked for, we would be getting. I recall this feeling with records, and two in particular: Queen’s News of the World and ELO’s Out of the Blue. Christmas 1977. I loved those albums like you wouldn’t believe, floored by both, the last really good album by both bands. I could imagine my Dad buying these albums at Listening Booth, thinking, what in the hell is this kid listening to, but it got a lot worse than that! Both albums inspire those teenage memories of rushing upstairs, slapping on the Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, cracking open the cellophane, getting that new album smell, opening up the gatefold cover, dropping the needle on the vinyl, and getting lost in the music for a good few hours. Just sitting there on the bed, facing the stereo, with headphones on, reading the lyrics and liner notes. How many hours did I spend in that pose for the next few years as I absorbed the bedrock sounds of my musical education.

So, right about now in 1977, my brothers and I would be in that closet, looking at stuff like this, never taking more than five or 10 minutes. We’d also be wary of any sounds – a car approaching, a door slamming, footsteps on the street outside, as presumably our parents could come home any minute and catch us up there. Putting everything back was a painstaking process. Again, meticulous order had to be observed for replacing the bags exactly where they were, and then rescrewing the lock to the wooden door. It wasn’t easy! And the odd part was, we’d do it routinely, a few times every Christmas season, to see if anything new had been added to the collection in the ensuing weeks.

When I think about Christmas, I don’t think about love, or baby Jesus, or even the presents themselves. I think about activities like those noted above that are indelibly stamped on my mind as “1970s Christmas in rural Pennsylvania.” Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is one of those things, and one of the few uncomplicated memories I have of my childhood Catholicism. In short, it was a beauty. A candlelight mass around midnight, with full choir, and the congregation bearing candles, all other lights dimmed or off, the priest swinging his can of burning incense. Just a magical mass that was always SRO. We'd get a free box of chocolates on the way out. And it didn’t end there. The capper would be coming home to find all our presents laid out (our parents would bag this mass for that reason), tearing them open, and having a blast.

Why we didn’t do that every year, I don’t know, as it was a perfect formula. When we didn’t go to that midnight mass, the same thing inevitably happened: us waking up at two or three on Christmas morning and busting downstairs to open the presents that our parents had laid out an hour or two earlier. We never could make it to a typical Christmas morning to rip open the presents. Christmas Day itself was always anti-climactic.

In our teen years, I can also distinctly recall bagging the early Christmas Eve mass, which was nowhere near as magical as the midnight one. Pretty much a typical mass around four or so, I guess we were given the choice of going then or Christmas morning … at a time in our lives when our grandmother had had a debilitating stroke, could no longer attend mass, and we liberated ourselves from the responsibility of church-going. In general, I really disliked church – still do. It bored me, felt much more like dull punishment than a spiritual calling, and always felt more appearance-based than soul satisfying. You want to believe in God, you surely don’t need a church to do it. Nothing against churches – I can clearly see their purposes in any given community – but it just wasn’t for me.

The one year that sticks in my mind was all of us going to Long John Silver’s and having a fish dinner, a bunch of teenagers, in our Sunday finest. It just felt too weird. And I didn’t like Long John Silver’s to begin with. I could sense the guilt floating around the table at that meal, that maybe we should have bit the bullet and gone to church. It’s one of those gloomy parking lot memories of my teen years, waiting in a parking lot of a mall for the driver (usually Mom) to show up – it just felt like such a depressing few minutes. For some reason, every time I hear the song “I Never Cry” by Alice Cooper, I can remember waiting for Mom one Christmas season in the parking lot, on a dark snowy night while that song played on the radio. Bagging church at any time felt like that: watching and waiting. Waiting for the bells to ring, or the driver to show up, setting us free to go, back to our normal lives, where we didn’t have to indulge in these charades.

Right now, I’m watching a VH-1 special on Fleetwood Mac … Tusk. Yet another great Christmas album from that time period! I guess Christmas will always be indelibly tied into music with me, as it meant getting 3-4 usually very good albums. Starting in October of any given year, I’d have my musical radar up for potential Christmas albums, and bands would often release good albums in the fall, and “Best Of” albums meant for huge Christmas sales. I can’t remember who got Elton John’s Greatest Hits for Christmas the year it came out, probably Brother M, but that had to be the biggest album of the early 1970s. That thing was worn out by February, and I was the one who went on to be the huge Elton John fan, buying all his albums as they came out and back-tracking his earlier ones. (As I may have noted earlier, the first album I ever bought was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, with snow-shoveling money. And I can just about pinpoint it to January or February of 1975 as buying it directly proceeded flipping out over the greatest hits album.)

Even without Dad passing on over the holidays a few years ago, Christmas just aint what it was for me. I think you need kids for this, and even then, you’ll be observing their excitement rather than experiencing it directly. It’s all about the food for me now, hanging out and relaxing with a few days off from work. Not this milestone of happiness that sprung up annually, the kind of thing that haunts you in a way as time goes on. I don’t recall being a particularly happy or sad kid, remember bursts of both with a lot of down time in between the highs and lows, but childhood Christmas is one of those memories that always seems like nothing but good. I have my doubts about adults who don’t sense that bridge between childhood ecstasy and adult pragmatism when it comes to Christmas. But I can’t blame them for trying.