The Lost Generation

We love to put labels on things. Normal. Crazy. Right. Patriotic. You will get assigned many labels throughout your life, and none of them really have any bearing on your existence. But we adhere to them more than we ought to. One such label is one that gets assigned to a whole group depending on when we were born. If you were born between 1945 and 1964 you are a “Baby Boomer” because of the unprecedented birthrate in the US following World War II. People who grew up in America during WWI were often called the “Lost Generation” as the 1920’s were their coming-of-age decade. The “Boomers” started having kids in the late ’60s and through the 1970’s. Those children grew up with the moniker “X” emblazoned on our collective identity. We are a generation that lost our place in history. Nothing seems to define us – but we have our moments.

Occasionally you will find someone who was born in 1969 who you know is one of you. You can see it in their eyes. We might have some gray hair. We walk with imperceptible purpose. We have an inferiority complex because our parents owned the world and held onto it tenaciously. They had their heroes and defining moments, their Bob Dylans and Mick Jaggers. We had Beck and David Spade.

“They” labelled us “Generation X”. What’s that supposed to mean? X marks the spot. Out, damned spot! People who have no middle name sometimes get an “X”. It’s a place holder, a mark instead of a signature. It doesn’t say anything about our contributions or our place in the history of this place. The “Millennials” already have a name. The “Greatest Generation” have quite a haughty label; even the people who didn’t achieve greatness got to bear the honor. Fine.

Generation X seems to have been shuffled into the middle of the deck with nothing to distinguish us. Beck notwithstanding, we don’t have a lot that sets us apart. Sure, our generation witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War and Apartheid. But the work that brought about those changes was begun by our parents and grandparents, not by any of us. Naturally, we will not see the changes we hoped to create, not for a while. So it remains to be seen what accomplishments our generation has made.

I wonder who will be the first Gen. X US president. Will anyone in my generation bother to run? We might be inclined to ask, “what’s in it for me?” President Kennedy asked his generation and the “Boomers” to “ask not what your country can do for you…

We’ll probably never see anything like the time of our birth. 1968 was an incredibly tumultuous year. So was 2017. So, also, was 2018. So far in 2019 things are looking a little scary, especially for US government employees. But generations before us had trouble. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. Their generation saw so much change in the world I’m sure it was frightening to them. Their defining moments were the greatest economic crisis this country has ever known, followed by a war so catastrophic they didn’t know what to call until they had labelled the “Great War”, the one that was supposed to end all future wars. The term “World War” was not known before that generation.

Future generations will probably give us a pat on the back (condescending bastards!) and golf-clap our one achievement, once we have published the paper proving its existence.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg can afford to buy a label for his generation.

Sigh.

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Just, Whatever

It’s been dark a lot lately. This was to be expected because the earth’s axis of rotation is tilted (23.5 deg.) so that the northern hemisphere is receiving less direct sunlight during these months we call winter. The farther north you go, the lower the sun will appear in the sky, until you reach the Arctic Circle, where it gets dark around 2 in the afternoon. Tromsø in Norway is one of the most northern cities in the world at 69.7 degrees North latitude, far north of the Arctic Circle. In the video you can see how the “day” begins around 10 am, but it’s dark again very soon. This was taken on the 21st of December 2017, the winter solstice last year.

As much as I would like to complain about things here in Texas, it can certainly be a lot worse. On the other hand, during summer, Tromsø may not see darkness at all; instead it will be dusk or dawn all night. It would drive me nuts. I’m accustomed to sleeping in relative darkness. I don’t know how anyone could sleep when the sun never really sets.

My particular conundrum is that I am a night-owl. I tend to stay up late at night, and I’m not expected in at work earlier than 9 am. No one on my team, including our boss, is what you’d call a “morning person”. This suits me nicely, except that I don’t see much daylight except for the drive into work, at least right now. In November most of us in the US set our clocks back an hour to end Daylight Saving Time. I am not a big fan of this practice – suddenly gaining or losing an hour – it messes with my internal clock, if that’s a thing. In any case, I’m annoyed every time I am forced to change all the clocks. My phone and computers automatically do this for me. Still, it’s a pain.

As a result, I spend very little time in direct sunlight for a few months. This is definitely having some effect on me, and yet there is nothing to stop me from getting out in the afternoon and taking a walk. Usually the work can wait for 20 or 30 minutes. And our winter weather here is mild, sometimes strangely pleasant. Short sleeves are commonplace through December. I had to wear a light jacket today. But tomorrow is going to be 17ºC and sunny. No excuse. To my poor cousins in New England, and my friends in Norway, all I can say is: we will be praying for snow in August.

I considered buying one of those light therapy devices. But I think my stubbornness interferes with my judgment, and I convince myself I don’t need this because, after all, I live in Texas, and we have like 232 sunny days every year. If I spent most of my time outside that would make sense. However I can usually be found sitting in a cube in an office with fluorescent lights. The answer, I suppose, is to get outside more often. It’s kind of sad that I have to actually mention this. We spend so much of our time indoors, maybe we’ve forgotten. As a result, people with Season Affective Disorder can have symptoms of depression, gain weight, and feel fatigued. Since hibernation isn’t an option, I have to look elsewhere. I think getting some sun for about 1/2 hour will do me some good. I should be thankful that I live in a place where I can almost count on sun.

Hopefully in a short time I won’t feel so apathetic and melancholy. I think the video of the shortest day ever cannot possibly make me feel any better. It sucks to be up north, though, guys. You should feel kind of bummed about that. I would probably hate myself and everyone else if I lived in, I don’t know, Detroit or Buffalo. I know people who used to live up there, and now they live in Texas. So, yeah. Winter is a bitch, and I don’t even live in a place that gets snow, not that you can count on, anyway. Tomorrow, the 18th of December, it’s going to be sunny and nice. And Christmas day will probably be the same. It’s going to be okay, I suppose, even if the weather gets a little shitty from time to time. I can always come in here and write about something else.

A Little Help From My Friends

Along the trail of debris that constitutes one’s life, all our experiences, we’ll come across decisions we’ve made, good and bad, and the resulting pain to accompany the lapses in judgement. Standing out in the debris field are those nagging memories, the I-told-you-so’s when friends, masquerading as sage mentors, offered their unsolicited advice. We never appreciate wisdom when it’s offered. I know. I have given advice to people, sometimes in an earnest effort to ease any suffering, believing I possess some knowledge earned through rites of passage and the Royal College of Hard Truths. People who have reached my age often deem ourselves to be imbued with this knowledge, or at least we feel we are entitled to telling younger people how wrong they are, and that we are confident we know better.

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“Sergeant Pepper’s” photo session, 1967

The truth is many people, no matter their age, are no better at giving advice than anyone else. I cannot confidently offer lessons on life, mainly because even though I have made colossal mistakes, I can’t be sure I have truly learned from them. And I can’t be sure that my closest friends’ advice has always been the best. On occasion I have received helpful teachings, lessons in life that made a huge difference, fortunate that I accepted. Naturally, I missed some points, and continued to make errors until I figured things out on my own. This was a stupendous waste of time, as you might deduce. If I had listened to advice and really lived by such wisdom, I might be better off, not that I suffer now. But I wonder if I’ve missed out. What if there’s some guidance I’ve been denied just because I wasn’t there to receive it?

I suppose this is another aspect of the human condition we must accept as the cost of doing business. Of course, just because no one ever cautioned me on the dangers of hitchhiking doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a bad idea. (It should be noted that at one time this wasn’t considered dangerous). Also, growing up in the 20th century, I was surrounded by smokers. But I don’t smoke, not because of the prevailing wisdom at the time, but because I never saw the appeal. I think by the 1970s it was kind of obvious that it was unhealthy. No one ever said, “don’t smoke, kid,” but they didn’t have to, despite Joe Camel looking so damned cool.

I’m a bit of a contradiction. Later this month, my wife and I will celebrate our 27th anniversary. But I have been a supporter of arranged marriages. I have my reasons. But that practice flies in the face of the whirlwind we experienced falling in love and deciding to get married. The thing is, however, a marriage isn’t about the couple. It involves a large number of people, not the least of whom are the parents. Nearly 30 years later, the main source of conflict is our families. Therefore I never give advice on marriage. It worked for us. That’s all I know.

I sometimes wish I could be source of wisdom, but there’s a down side to that. People would keep coming to me for advice on everything, from whom to marry to what career to follow. I’m no expert, and few of us are. Even the most successful people in their fields know that their successes are unique and might not be the same for everyone. Just because something worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for the next person. I think what we ought to do is look within ourselves for wisdom. If we have doubts, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with not being 100 percent sure about a decision. But do ask for help if you need it. Otherwise, I believe most of us are capable of making our minds up for ourselves. Sometimes we might be okay even going against advice. That’s the beauty of experience: it’s your life, and you can live it the way you want, even with the inevitable consequences, whatever those may be.

The Truth

I will probably never need to know how to escape a sinking helicopter like Destin Sandlin from Smarter Everyday. But at the end of this video he draws an analogy from a keen observation.

The marines in the video are training for something that might happen in their military careers, how not to panic and escape from a sinking, inverted crashed helicopter. For most of us, the first thing we do in an emergency situation is to be a little freaked out. It happens to the best of us. I experienced this the night my wife was bleeding internally and none of the ER staff knew what was happening for 9 hours. Suddenly I was confronted with hospital personnel who were shoving papers in front of me, telling me where to sign to authorize them to perform exploratory surgery. Fuck!

Panic is a natural phenomenon. It happens when we are faced with an overwhelming scenario, too much input for us to process quickly. It seems counterintuitive that we should have this as a reaction because it is a lousy defense mechanism. The proverbial deer in headlights scenario comes to mind. We just don’t know what to do next, so we freeze. Some people, instead of doing nothing (which can be fatal) will do something, but not thinking, and that is equally dangerous, because panicky people are unpredictable. You cannot anticipate what’s going to happen, and people can get hurt. Fortunately for me I was being guided in that ER by competent people – well, competent when they realized what was happening – and they saw the look of bewilderment and terror in my eyes at the prospect that my wife was very likely going to die in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything, save sticking a needle in my arm for a transfusion.

Destin says something very reassuring toward the end of the video. He mentions that in the midst of being turned upside-down and having your nasal cavity filled with water, the worst thing you can do is panic, because you already have things working against you, things like being underwater, being inverted and not having your bearings, and other lives in the balance. Panic is not your friend, and you need something to anchor yourself to the truth. Stay in your seat until you get the breathing apparatus and take a couple of breaths. “Stay anchored to the truth.” The truth for those upended marines was that the seat and the exits were still in the same orientation. Nothing in that relationship changed, and you could count on it. Being inverted, if you stay in your seat – even though the water’s surface is under your feet, and bubbles are going down from your breathing apparatus – you know where you are in relation to the exits if you’re still sitting.

The truth I had to anchor myself to was the realization that only the doctors and nurses could help my wife. Eventually, a specialist had to be brought in. The truth was she was in good hands. That was a very hard thing to do, letting go of any illusion that I had control over the situation. I barely had control of my bladder. But the surgeon was able to stop the bleeding, with the help of an enormous blood clot – and repair the rupture. A week in the hospital and several units of blood later, and we were home again. Nothing can prepare you for such an emergency. But it quickly becomes apparent what is most important in the moment. I am fortunate that my anchor held fast. It’s sometimes not possible to know that the truth you’re anchored to is the right one, especially when someone’s life is at stake. The young marines in the video knew that in that situation where up was down and right was left, they could count on knowing how to get out as long as they didn’t panic.

I’ve seen people freak out in the past, sometimes in situations that most people could handle with little effort. Our experiences reshape us over time, and the longer you live the more likely you are to grow from these trials. Some people do not. From my perspective, similar to how we can’t feel the disorientation by watching the video, I can’t really know what people are going through without being there. We might be able to say, “don’t panic”, but until we are sitting in the helicopter as it’s plunging in the water and turning over, we will never really understand how hard it really is not to freak out and save our own butts.

Thakfrikortoria, and Other Things I Thought I Heard

People speak, and I can’t for the life of me understand a word they’re saying. Let me rephrase that. I can’t understand every word they’re saying. It happened today, and I’m pretty sure I insulted the poor woman on the other end of the phone call. After the fourth or fifth time I asked her to repeat herself – I now distinctly remember that I asked her to speak more slowly – she could be heard making quite an effort to be understood, to accommodate me. On one hand, I feel like maybe I should have apologized for being a jackass. On the other hand, I am a customer, and businesses used to be in the habit of pleasing the customer. Be that as it may, this wasn’t the first time.

I’ve had a sort of problem for many years. I hear people say words that they’re not saying. It’s not quite a hallucination; that would be alarming. I just hear weird things coming out of peoples’ mouths. Yes, I did have my hearing checked numerous times, and deafness does occur in my family, and I have a persistent ringing in my ears on a constant basis. Aside from that, I have pretty good hearing for my age. (I’ll get to that on another post, or maybe I won’t.) This all started when I was a kid, like really young, maybe 10. Someone said something like, “where did you get your shoes?” I heard, “everyone bets you’ll lose.” Quite a different thing. It’s not always something that turns the sentiment negative. Sometimes the phrases are just nonsensical. Most often the situation is that I misunderstand a single word, and I can just almost piece together the meaning of the sentence from the context, especially if I’m paying attention, like who is talking and what the situation is.

Today, on the phone, it was exceedingly difficult, and exasperating to both people on the call. I would like her to understand that I wasn’t being deliberately troublesome. Some of her words simply did not make sense to me. Her accent was not immediately detectable. I have been working with people from all over the world, from India and Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Brazil, China, and pretty much everywhere you could imagine. I make every effort to be understood, and every once in a while I fail in that simple deed. It happens to all of us. Most of the time, however, I am able to understand what someone is telling me.

Perhaps I have some kind of defect. Defect. It’s such a loaded word. You hear it as part of an insanity defense, “mental disease or defect”. Okay, that’s not me. But I wonder how if I can ever get past this I might feel better. I might stop insulting people. I’ll save time by not asking people to repeat themselves. And I won’t look foolish for saying, “did you say, ‘hoop reel tackle cucumber’?”

I am Scrooge (or at Least I Want to Be)

If you are familiar with the short novel by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, you know of the book’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is, at first appearance, a surly, disagreeable, decrepit miser. We can all concur, based on Dickens’ depiction of the old curmudgeon; he hates Christmas; he hates people. He is full of self-loathing, and we soon discover what likely led to his complete misery as he is visited by various spirits through the night before Christmas.

Illustration by John Leech

That’s at least what we think we know, based on all the movies we’ve seen over the decades. Or perhaps you did read the original, like I did years ago. I read it again recently, recalling some of the forgotten passages, or maybe I never really read it before. For instance, I didn’t remember all the details about Jacob Marley’s ghost, how Dickens described every detail, the long iron chains he dragged behind him (all his sins, I suppose), or the way he kept his jaw shut with a tied handkerchief (if you were born in the 21st century, ask your parents or grandparents about handkerchiefs).

Marley’s ghost, who was really one among hundreds or thousands roaming the streets on Christmas eve, tormented in death by their inability to do anything to help the poor and suffering, having squandered their opportunity to do so in life. Dickens delivers his message a little heavy handed, per his style to put a bright spotlight on things we would rather not see or visit. There was a great divide between rich and poor in his time, and we might very well see it again in our lifetimes. Who will be the 21st century’s Charles Dickens?

As I’ve mentioned before, movies don’t come close to telling the stories of the works that inspired them. I’ve seen many depictions of this classic, and none of them mention the Ghost of Christmas Past being dispatched by Scrooge himself, after he had had enough. That first ghost reminded him of such loss that Scrooge was almost immediately repentant and reformed during that initial visit. But it wasn’t complete. The 2nd visit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, took Scrooge on a journey across space and time, visiting not only Bob Cratchit’s meager celebration of goose and boiled potatoes, to a humble gathering of miners, a few huddled lighthouse operators, and some shipmates being tossed on the sea, all managing to celebrate Christmas in their little way. They visited other countries, too, and eventually saw children during their 12th Night celebration (on 5 January, according to the English tradition). It seems this “night” lasted nearly 2 weeks when you do the math. The Ghost of Christmas Present was a giant figure, and first appeared to Scrooge reclining on a sort of couch made of piles of meats and fruits, all piled up, along with a huge fire in the fireplace, vats of wine, greenery, and just an absurd abundance. It made my mouth water reading about it. The Ghost’s companions, two sickly and pale youths representing Ignorance and Want, really stood in alarming, unpleasant contrast to his bombastic jubilant appearance. What a complicated and elaborate scene!

Finally, Scrooge was confronted with his own mortality, and Dickens really pours on the righteous indignation of grifters and con artists here. We overhear conversations between people who profit from Scrooge’s death, which we see clearly, but he is unaware. Eventually, Scrooge learns that he is the unloved, a life uncelebrated. Thieves take the clothes off his dead body, believing his shirt has more value than his life had ever amounted to. Pitiful. No film ever depicted this. Dickens loved to bring us into these dark places, where spirits are haunted by the deeds they missed and the situations where they have no power to affect. Needless to say, his proselytizing seemed to work. Scrooge sees the light, and is reformed. Some people are skeptical that someone could make such a dramatic transformation overnight. But they aren’t aware that his journey took some time, at least from his point of view. When Scrooge finds himself back in his own bed, he is surprised to find it is Christmas Day. He even remarks to himself that the Spirits were able to do things with time that he couldn’t explain. He reconciles with his nephew, sends Cratchit a humongous turkey, gives him a raise, and ends up turning his own life around completely. He becomes a champion of Christmas, quite a turn-around from the Scrooge we first met.

As Dickens points out, anyone of us is capable of going from one end of the spectrum to the other, as did Scrooge. Being a Scrooge is not quite the insult we might have associated to his name, because when it came down to it, he made up for all the years he scorned everyone, even his own family. I should be so gracious. I’ve steered clear of some of my family, mainly because they always want to bring up politics when we’re together, and they assume I’m of like mind. So I just avoid them. Humbug! But I could make things better. I could bring people joy, like Scrooge did in the end. I could just show up and tell stupid jokes and sing songs and play games with everyone. Maybe I can just bring a little cheer into their lives. I wonder if they’d let me. Scrooge’s nephew and niece were glad to see him, in spite of the scorn he heaped upon them over the years. Maybe I could be like Scrooge.

I want to be Scrooge. He turned out okay, better than Marley. Marley would be pleased if he would just stop rattling those chains for a minute so he could hear what ever happened to his old friend. Well, peace be with us, the living. And Merry Christmas!

Feeling Small, or not Feeling, or Feeling Insignificant – What I’m Trying to Say…

Have you ever heard someone talk about how insignificant they feel looking up at the multitude of stars in the night sky? Living close to a major metropolis – comparatively speaking – I don’t see many stars when I look up in my backyard. I have to travel for hours to find someplace bereft of light pollution. West Texas is a popular place for star gazing, and therein lies the irony; you won’t find a dark site if too many people know about it. A couple weeks ago I went camping with some friends near Possum Kingdom Lake, 167 km west of Fort Worth. The sky was clear, and the temperature was around -4 C, but we were excited to be able to see the Orion Nebula through a telescope. Looking up, it took a minute for us to get our bearings because even though the familiar stars were clearly visible, so too were the myriad of unfamiliar celestial bodies now in our view.

If there is anything that makes me feel like I am insignificant it would be the realization that many, many people came before me, and I am the culmination of generations of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types, the tireless builders of our republic. I am a direct descendant of someone who fought in two important battles during the American Revolutionary War. He not only survived the battles, but he would later resettle in Texas and lived to be over 100 years old! Meanwhile, here I am, wondering about what it all means.

Another thing that makes me feel less important in the grand scheme of things is that I am not really contributing to society in a measurable way. Yes, I work and pay taxes. I vote. I think many of the forgotten people in history were like me, and that’s pretty depressing. When I think about all the millions of people who are no more than faces in old photographs, I cannot help but feel like there is something I need to be doing with my life. The same could be said for my generation. We don’t have an Andy Warhol or a Brian May. My generation produced Adam Sandler and David Spade. Actually, I shouldn’t complain, but I can and I will. The thing is, I loved Tommy Boy and Happy Gilmore. Anyway, I live in this age where all the information the world has ever produced and retained, and it is essentially available at all hours, instantly on my desktop and my mobile device; all the information, fact and opinion, and lunacy.

Human beings have existed for a comparatively minuscule portion of earth’s timeline. But in the relatively brief time we have been here we have made important advances. We have redirected rivers, connected all points on earth, and reached beyond our solar system. We might eventually make contact with other civilizations, but the vast distances between stars and planets makes it unlikely any one person could ever live long enough to travel to another habitable world. I personally don’t believe we are alone in the universe, but a civilization can be born, thrive, and vanish before anything may be heard from them. What if that should happen to us? What of Euripides, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart? The works of Hokusai, gone. Puccini, wiped from existence.

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When I get to work Monday I’ll have to put my own feelings of insignificance aside so I can be productive. It’s my small part as a cog in the awesome mechanism of our information age. Many others like me work to keep the lights on and keep this country moving. Maybe we won’t be remembered in the grand scheme of things, much less in the enormity of our lasting yet temporary civilization, but here I write, while others paint. Still others make music and write plays. Skyscrapers and monuments are constructed to inspire us and remind us of the achievements of our predecessors. These things are here today for us to see and hear and experience now. The most influential and significant remnants of our existence will be our artistic endeavors. The great Pyramid of Giza is the only remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But no one knows the names of the builders. Who am I? I haven’t put my hands on a single thing that will last for thousands of years beyond my lifetime. What can I do that would make me feel significant?

Indeed, what will remain of humanity when the pyramids are dust?