Adam Gurri and I were chatting over a recent post of his, and I found myself saying things that sounded like something an adult might say. Open in my tabs were the complete works of Tool, a Dead Milkmen song, and one from the very arcane My Dad Is Dead. Until very recently, in my mind’s eye, I was still wearing Ocean Pacific short pants and my Vans skateboarding shoes, riding the boardwalk down by one of the white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, banging on the door of a cop’s car to see if he’d harass us (those were the days), then taking off down the culvert with my friends.
This same ideology I took to college in Chicago, where it is very cold, and I learned to be very disappointed, riding the Green Line through the Cabrini Green development, thanking God for my luck in not being born there, cursing with the same mind my luck that I was only lower-middle class and not destined for the Gold Coast. Fortunately, records were being churned out at an incredible pace, reinforcing these childish notions. Tons of records. Great records. One lashes out in futility against downtown Chicago, and one is rewarded with another great Pale Saints record.
You’ll notice in the comments section a note by Virginia Postrel that this has been done before, citing 1936. Adam Gurri will reflexively cite the Gutenberg Press, and so forth. I imagine there was a similar crisis when someone invented a faster way to bake a cuneiform text. The children have children and are forced to think about childhood. The trick, of course, is to avoid repristination, that is, creating for someone else a present that is the hoped-for past. Auto-recursion, you see, will trap your children, and they will lash out in futility against the cold downtown in disappointment until they learn to lash out against you.
The occasion for this meandering post is an offhand remark made by the admirable Spivonomist about our shared worldview. He coined a lovely phrase, in application also to me, “sarcasm across the chasm.” See, in my mind’s eye, though I have been a professional for twenty years now, I have only just recently dressed myself in grown-up clothing, putting off my Vans and putting on brown or black oxfords, as the case requires, learning to listen a tad more while speaking a lot less. I said “learning.” The enraged futility can only produce so many endorphins, and I no longer associate them with happiness, just a feigned world-weariness. It’s not even real. Banging on the cop’s car door wasn’t anything in the way of genuine indignation: the records told me to do that.
Like the HAL-9000, I can tell you exactly when I became self-aware, almost to the day: it was summertime, 1986; I was 13 years old. Madonna was on the radio, and I eschewed her music (but not her body) for an obscure, angry, little frontman from Athens, GA, the great Michael Stipe of R.E.M., well before he started trying to write lyrics to be understood or even deciphered by the public. My sister took the cassette tape out and put Rainbow Brite in, and I struck her, and therein realized the freedom afforded by anger.
Alas, the wheels will grind anger out, slowly and finely, to make a flour for a delicious cosmic cake. Many who have stooped to drink from the sweet Pierian do not have the time or the money to drink deeply “enough,” whatever enough may be, considering the impossibility of being an expert at anything these days. Narrow expertises can be mastered in short order, through much tribulation, but are quickly discovered as insufficient for a career. That’s where crass politics steps in, the jostling of shoulders for a place at the trough to change the world forever, and occasionally talent prevails (does it? Everything tastes like ash nowadays), but more likely failure and disappointment will rule, and another great record will reward.
Wisdom fits in here, somewhere, not the “good judgment” wisdom, but the “I’ve suffered through this once or twice before” wisdom, the one that begins to tolerate imperfection and recalcitrance. I’ve heard that there is a wisdom that learns to distinguish between those who are imperfect and the imperfection they foist on us, in order to be able to fully love an imperfect person, but I’m nowhere near achieving that kind of zen.
YouTube has made it easier to revisit my childhood, even so far as to re-watch the television commercials which delayed the gratification of Saturday morning cartoons. Nevertheless, there remains a measure of nostalgia, and I like it. Endorphins do, indeed, flow, but they now create a lens for observation of things I might have been through a few times, at once making my sarcasm more delightful and also less-used. The wistfulness of nostalgia is gone for me, and I’m glad of it. Now nostalgia buffers that enraged futility which is so much a driver of idealism and ideology into something more useful. In my circles we say, “approaching an anxious world with a non-anxious presence,” as impossible an ideal as any, but far more self-aware of its limitations than anything that seeks to actively affect the world.
When I riffle through my record collection, I am more inclined to turn each one over individually, looking over it, and I can feel myself yield up a kind-of smile, recalling the context of acquiring that particular record, whom I was dating, the measure of fear I had toward the world–more inclined to do that than to listen to the music lest I discover that it is not as great as I believed it to be.
Happily putting on oxfords for the young people: this is the reward in being ground out slowly and finely. It goes on even after abject failure, poor lass.