Songs for the Struggling Artist


Generation X Part 7 – Born at the Right Time

This brings me to this supposed rivalry I’ve been reading about around the web. According to the AV Club, Gen X and Millennials are in a battle. There are articles like What Are Millennials Killing Today? and Why Gen X is So Pissed at Millennials. This “blood feud” seems unlikely to me. I recognize that there’s a lot of anti-millennial talk out there and maybe Gen X is to blame. If so – on behalf of Gen X, I would like to apologize to you, Millennials. That’s shitty behavior and we will try to do better in the future. But…I think it’s kind of hard to be in a rivalry with a group of people when you are outnumbered by them so dramatically. I suspect it’s hard to be in a rivalry if the other side doesn’t even know who you are. A Gen X friend of mine recently described having to explain what Gen X was after being mistaken for a Baby Boomer by a young bartender. The bartender didn’t even know Gen X existed.

I have seen some resentments bubble up, of course. Gen X is outnumbered and that’s never an easy position to be in. It’s like, a few locusts are cool, they make cool sounds and they have cool legs but when there are more of them, they can be a little overwhelming, especially if they get into your trees. So sometimes it’s just a numbers game, a situation of feeling alone in a room, like no one understands where you’re coming from. And sometimes it’s a sense of having waited years for your work to pay off to be promoted or signed or published or produced or whatever and then while you were waiting patiently in line, someone came up with an app that eliminated the line completely and they leaped into rewards that you’d been waiting for for decades. Articles about Gen X at work point to a kind of skipping over us that seems to happen to a lot of Gen X-ers. So if some Gen X-ers resent you, Millennials, it’s not personal – it’s just a bit like watching one’s parents change all the rules for your younger siblings and also not giving you the present they promised you.

And my fellow Gen X-ers, it’d probably be best if you toned the resentment of Millennials down, otherwise we all end up like the Grumpy Old Man from the SNL sketch of the 90s.

“In my day, we didn’t have smart phones, no, we had dumb ones, ones you had to dial with your finger in a little plastic or metal prison that you raked across the surface below the razor sharp end point over and over again until your fingers bled. And when you finally finished dialing the number, if they happened to be on the phone with someone else when you dialed, you’d have to hang up and go through the whole process again until you got your bloody-fingered call through. And we liked it! We loved it! We were bloody-fingered, exhausted, desperate dumb phone callers without a hope in the world of reaching anyone and we liked it. We loved it!” (*Not an actual Grumpy Old Man sketch)

Also, it wouldn’t do to get our future overlords angry. (JK, Millennials, we know it’s actually the robots and sentient smartphones who will be our overlords.)

Maybe we should all just pile on to Generation Z, who are growing up with Smartphones and are clearly the worse the wear for it. By the way, while growing up with Smartphones is a legitimate concern, one of the things that Sherry Turkle has often pointed out in her work is that it is often not the child’s use of the Smartphone that is the problem, it is the parents’ use of the Smartphone (and tablet and so on.) That is, the thing we blame younger generations for may in fact be our problem. We’re the ones who can’t put our phones down and talk to each other. We’re the one who get anxious, living in a constantly plugged in world and we project that onto kids. Or in the words of an often mocked Gen X ad, “I learned it from you, Dad. I learned it from watching you!” So I don’t think piling onto Gen Z is the answer.

We need to find ways to work together. Generationally, Millennials and Boomers are better at coming together within their own generations than Gen X. That’s something for Gen X to explore doing more of. Simultaneously, what we all need to look at is including a diversity of age and generations in our structures. If you’re not Gen X, you might not notice when Gen X is missing but it’s worth paying attention to, I think, because we do have quite a lot to contribute. If nothing else, we can provide missing Gen X. If ping pong games at the office are always Millennial vs Baby Boomer, you’re missing someone. It could be Gen X or it could be Generation Jones AKA OG-Xers AKA Shadow Boomers AKA The Following Edge – or as I like to call them, the heroic generation. Because damn, Gen Jones! You got Barack Obama, Rebecca Solnit, Sally Yates, Jaron Lanier, Billy Bragg, Angela Merkel and so on. I mean – Gen Jones is badass and even less often discussed than Gen X. Probably because they didn’t get a trendy nickname at an opportune time. I think Gen Jones is so cool, you guys.

Which makes me think about generations a bit like a family. See, I tend to idolize Gen Jones, like a really cool big sister or brother and I see Millennials and Z as spunky younger siblings. And Gen X starts to get resentful when our younger siblings start to behave as if they are Only Children – when all we ever wanted was for our little sisters to know how cool we are and we were. If there is a rivalry (again, I’m not sure there is) this is what it’s about.

This familial feeling is a huge aspect of the “rivalry” conversation and age-ism is another. Often, the generational shots fired are age-ism in disguise. Ageism is usually thought of as an issue of the old but it goes both ways – ageism can impact all ages. Our culture fetishizes the young and dismisses the old, particularly old women. This TEDtalk by Ashton Applewhite makes a great case for why ageism is everyone’s issue. I imagine we can all do a better job of listening to and learning from each other.

I heard some Millennials on the younger side of the Millennial spectrum chatting in a coffee shop recently. They were sure that they’d have their lives completely figured out by the time they were 30 – that they’d stop caring what anyone thought by then. This made me laugh. Because the gift of not giving a fuck anymore is probably much further away than that, if my generation’s experience is anything to go by. Most of us just entered this stage in the last few years and we’re long past thirty.

See, this is why it’s worth it to talk to each other about this sort of stuff – to know how other generations made it through the same things that are coming down the pike for you. To find inspiration and courage from the heroes ahead of us and the heroes behind us and the ones we’re standing right next to. The more we talk to each other, get to know each other, have some of those valuable conversations Sherry Turkle talks about in her newest book – the better off we’ll all be.

In diving deep into my generation with this series, I’ve not only learned a ton about my cohort but also about the rest of you. It helps to get together. It helps to learn about ourselves and it helps to learn about each other. Even things as seemingly small as what songs meant something to you in your youth or what TV shows shaped your world can help us understand one another. A generation is a way of understanding waves of experience, of understanding the formative landscape for each group of people. I want to read your generational analysis, too. I want to know what it was like to grow up Millennial, to know what it was like to grow up Xennial (yep – that’s a thing) or to grow up Generation Jones or Baby Boomer. Generational Thinking may be bullshit. It may be a marketing ploy. But it is still meaningful bullshit.

I think I was born at the right time. I belong here in Generation X. But I also think you were born at the right time. We were all born at the right time to teach each other what we missed or what we still need to learn.

This is Part 7 of a 7 part series.

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part 5 here

Part 6 here

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A Remedy for What’s-the-Point-itis

Because one of my beloved collaborators loves the work of Monica Bill Barnes, I sought out a performance. As soon as I saw Happy Hour, I, too, was in artistic love. I laughed and cried. I laugh-cried and cry-laughed. It was one of those shows that made me feel as if there might be a reason to go on. I’ve seen it multiple times.

I’m not going to lie; there are some days in this artist’s life in which I get a bad case of What’s-the-Point-itis. When the labor and heartbreak of making theatre just doesn’t seem equal to the reward. For me, seeing Monica Bill Barnes and Company perform is a great cure for that feeling of wondering what the point is. Good art is the point.

Monica Bill Barnes’ latest show (One Night Only) was no exception in this way – but it also brought to the surface a new “-itis” that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with at first. I learned in this show that Monica Bill Barnes and I are the same age. I learned that we share a lifelong commitment to our respective art forms. And in learning about the cost of that commitment to the dancers during the show, I learned about the cost of my own.

This may be a spoiler (DANCE SPOILER ALERT – skip ahead if you’re going to this show and would prefer not to know what’s going to happen -) but towards the end of the show, the two dancers listen to a list of injuries they have sustained over their lifetimes in dance, as we watch them continue to dance. There is a concrete cost to dedicating your life to dance and as I listened to it, I cried my face off.

Partly I cried out of admiration for the performer/creators who are facing the accumulation of that cost (for my benefit as an audience member) and for whom there is a finite amount of time to continue to dance the way they want. But I think I also cried for all the things my own dedication to my art has cost me. I can’t list them for you, not by year or by category – but watching this show made it very clear to me that all these years of dedication to art have taken a toll. Is the toll physical? Maybe not directly – but as everything that happens to us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, happens through the body, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. There is a cost to this kind of dedication. I knew there would be costs and I made my choice to pay that cost willingly a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have scars.

Watching an artist (who is my peer in age and commitment) honor the injuries, the pain and the cost along the way helps me honor my own. Seeing the sacrifices of a life dedicated to art laid bare, I can see my own dedication, my own sacrifices and how hard the road has been but also why it was worth it.

Seeing the cost, I also understand the point. The point is that we keep dancing, we keep writing, we keep creating, we keep producing, we keep performing, we keep making things because art is important to our humanity and each encounter with it, whether in the audience or on the stage, has the opportunity to teach us something about ourselves.

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One Night Only is still running for another couple of weeks, click here for info. And Happy Hour comes back soon, too, I think.

photo of Happy Hour by Grant Halverson (I lifted it from MBB&Co’s Website.)

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. If you liked the blog and want to support it but aren’t quite ready for patronage on Patreon, You can tip me a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Age is a Feature Not a Bug
September 21, 2017, 10:19 pm
Filed under: age, music | Tags: , , , , , ,

She told me her voice wasn’t what it once was. She’d taken time off from singing to raise her kids and was now coming back to it – distressed that she was not as perfect as she once was. There was a sense that her lived-in life had diminished her instrument.

I, too, had left aside my singing for a bit. Not entirely, of course, but aside from the occasional song for a friend, I hadn’t really kept at the technical practice of vocal performance. But ever since the election, I have leaned back into music and find myself singing again – because it is the only thing that makes me feel better. Raising my voice in song is how I express my fury, my fear, my determination to fight for the things I believe in. And I’ve been around the block a few times so my voice is not as technically proficient as it was, once upon a time. And I find that I really don’t care. I don’t care if I don’t hit a note with the exact tone I was imagining. I don’t care if a sound comes out strangled that I meant to sound clear. When I listen back to moments like that, I find that I like that catch in my voice. It is what I feel now. That catch is a feature not a bug. My age is a feature, not a bug.

A lived-in voice is a feature, not a bug. It’s funny to use a tech metaphor for something as organic as a voice but it leaped to mind when talking with that mother coming out of retirement. Her years of experience, of life, are a gift, not a problem.

I started going to voice lessons as a child and continued into college. My first year without regular vocal training was the year I spent abroad, in Italy. I did no vocal exercises, made no attempt to expand my range. I just sang and spent my year leaning into a new culture. When I came back to college, after I sang – one of my teachers said to me, “That was some year you had.” I didn’t know what she meant right away but something about it eventually helped me understand that she could hear the year in my voice. My year of learning a new language, growing bolder and opening up to new experience was all there in my voice. I don’t want to say she could hear the hills of Tuscany in what I sang but that’s how I imagined it.

Of course there are technical ways we can explore and expand our voices. Of course vocal training and coaching are incredibly useful and valuable. But our voices are more than simple instruments. We respond to the lives of the people who sing to us and to be able to hear the years in a song is to hear the agonies and the ecstasies, the thrills and the tedium, the passion and the despair. That is a great gift.

I want to hear the voices of mothers, of fathers, of grandmothers and grandfathers and all the adventurers among them. Your life, your years are a feature – not a bug. Give us your voices. Raise them in joy, in fury, in protest or in peace. Even if it catches, even if it cracks, even if you don’t like the sound – we need to hear you now.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here. And I usually sing at the end, if you want to hear that.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. If you liked the blog and want to support it but aren’t quite ready for patronage on Patreon, You can tip me a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Generation X Part 6 – Selling the Drama

We are the few, the proud, the brave members of Gen X who continue to make our way through the world while many of our peers have given up.

Do you remember, before we were Generation X, when we were the Pepsi Generation? Right about that time that Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire? We were told that Pepsi was the choice of a new generation and there were videos and apparently our generation bought into it hardcore. We were also Peppers. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too? But that Pepsi Generation technique was actually a marketing campaign for Baby Boomers first and it worked so well for Pepsi when Baby Boomers were kids that they thought they’d try it out on us, too. And all the generations after. How you like Pepsi, Generation Next? Feel like joining the conversation since you “are the movement, this generation“? A lot of the conversation about generations is actually driven by advertising.

I read an article about an ad campaign for Lululemon wherein they’re targeting “the Yoga generation.” And which generation is that? As far as I can tell, every generation is doing yoga. My grandmother was doing yoga in the 70s and she was the Silent Generation. So that’s dumb. But…that’s what I mean, they’re trying to put you in a generational category so they can sell you stuff. I say you, not me, because advertisers are apparently not targeting Gen X-ers, because there are so few of us.

And here I think we have the heart of why Gen X tends to resist being labeled. We somehow have always known that once a marketer could label us, they were getting ready to sell us shit. But what’s hilarious is that marketers worked this out about us anyway – so they got sneakier with us when they still cared about us. I once bought a record almost entirely because of it’s ironic cover.

What’s ironic is now that Gen X is older, some members of Gen X have more money to spend but advertising has (mostly) stopped trying to reach us. Which probably explains why there’s been a recent bubbling up of Gen X articles. Marketers are perhaps getting interested in us again. For good and ill, I imagine. Just google anything to do with advertising and Gen X and you will see such an extraordinary trove of weird articles about how to advertise to us. Actually, search how to market to any generation and you’ll see some eye opening stuff about what’s going on behind that advertising curtain and where you might be vulnerable.

So Millennials and Gen Z, just in case you’re still here…I think it might be useful to recognize that when you see articles and listicles and so on and so on that reference your generation, you are probably being marketed to. The condescending pieces about you that make you mad may be designed to encourage you to spend your money on something or just click on something to get an ad near your eyeballs. The imaginary rivalries between Gen X and Millennials, or between Millennials and Boomers, are essentially clickbait for the people trying to sell you stuff.

As we now carry devices that have the capacity to market to us everywhere we go, we all need to become savvier about our vulnerabilities to advertising. As marketing becomes more personal and more direct, it will become harder and harder to remember our humanity. It might be helpful for all generations to take on some of our good ole Gen X skepticism.

We seem to now live in a world of relentless marketing. And it’s not just businesses who are marketing at us. The new norm seems to be a kind of marketing of self. People have become brands instead of individuals.

Most of Gen X has a gut response to this trend and it is a strong-armed revulsion. To us, this branding of people carries all the horrors of the origin of the word – the branding of cattle with a hot iron. For most of Gen X, this branding of the soul is relentlessly uncool. We liked our icons reclusive, uninterested in self promotion, and intensely private. Prince once gave an interview to the BBC wherein he neither spoke nor showed his face. Both Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace were incredibly uncomfortable with their own popularity.Can you imagine a Cobain clothing line? A David Foster Wallace cologne? For us, as soon as a band became popular, it ceased to be cool.

But we live in a gig economy now and if we want to survive, we must do as the digital natives do and put out all of our goods for clicks and likes. We cannot be the reclusive geniuses we want to be because the world doesn’t work that way anymore – And maybe it never did.

Every Gen X-er I know is deeply uncomfortable with self promotion. We recognize that we need to sell our book or our record or our blog or our podcast or our show or our theatre company or our business or whatever it is but it is highly problematic for us.

If we do it, we tend to see it as a necessary evil. I’ve taken multiple marketing classes and despite having a lot of knowledge and skill at my disposal, I have generally yielded next to no results. While attempting to sell my show in the highly crowded market of the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered that the only real marketing skill I had – that is, the only thing that would reliably bring people to the theatre – was making friends. Like, actual friends. This is the only successful marketing I have ever done. I made some friends who showed up for me because that’s what friends do for each other.

I have had a podcast for over a year and I am so bad at self promotion that most of my best friends don’t even know about it.

And maybe it is just me. Maybe I’m the only one (see part 4) that is unwilling to trade my authenticity for more likes or hits or shares. Maybe I’m the only one that closely guards my best work until I’m ready to share it. Maybe I’m the only one that would rather share my truth than a promotional photo. I don’t think I’m the only one though.

Gen X tends to see the world that has emerged behind us as a life-sized version of that SNL sketch “You Can Do Anything!” We see that kind of self-promotional vibe as not only terminally uncool but completely at odds with authenticity, which is one of our core values.

I really do admire the hutzpah of Lena Dunham in having her character announce at the beginning of her show that she is the voice of her generation (or “a voice of a generation.”) This is something that no Gen X-er would ever do, even if she wanted to. Even as a joke. And Dunham was definitely joking. I dig the gutsy self-aggrandizement of it and I dig that it made her extremely popular.

Most of Gen X would rather be authentic than popular. We would rather be true to ourselves than just about anything else. I wonder if, in addition to the small numbers of us, our general lack of interest in self-promotion is a factor in our invisibility. In a world where everyone seems to be shouting about how great they are, Gen X is sitting in the corner, making something totally cool that few people will ever see.

I wonder if this is part of why there have been so many think-pieces about how Gen X is going to save the world, how Gen X is our last hope, etc. I think this is how we like to be seen – as the quiet secret heroes – chronically underestimated but swooping in at the last minute to save (and astonish) a grateful world. This image appeals to us. But frankly, even after reading dozens of these articles, I have yet to be convinced that somehow Generation X has the secret world-saving serum. I’m pretty sure we’re going to all have to get together to get that done. Generation X would like to do it alone but this is a job that’s going to need all generations on deck.

This is Part 6 of a multi-part series. and

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part 5 here

Help a Gen X-er with this self-promotion thing

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



Generation X – Part 5 It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

On the Stuff You Should Know podcast about Baby Boomers, the hosts (both Gen X-ers) pointed out that generations are often characterized by events that shake their collective innocence (e.g. 9-11, JFK, Challenger) They then suggested generations might as well be characterized by the technology that unites them. Boomers were the first generation to grow up with TV. Gen X was the first generation to grow up with video and videogames. Computers, too. And Millennials grew up with more ubiquitous computers and the spread of the internet. Generation Z is growing up with smartphones. So…we somehow define our humanity by the technology at hand. Probably cavemen were like, “Yeah, our young ones are the Fire Generation. They’ll never what it was like for us before we got that life changing Fire stuff.” Probably the Fire Generation and the House Building Generation got together and sang songs at each other right over the head of the lone representative of the farming generation, who declared that all this generational thinking is bullshit.

Time magazine called us the Video Generation in our youth. Which is a little bit comical now that there’s something called YouTube (invented by Gen X-ers.) Given the amount of video in our lives now, it is hard to imagine that people were once worried about us watching a couple tapes on VCRS or music on MTV or hanging around in arcades playing Ms. Pacman. It seems quaint now.

Were we the computer generation? While I did learn to program a little triangular turtle in grade school, the only computers I ever touched until college were the ones at school. I went to college with a typewriter and left with a Mac Classic II. I understood that computers were powerful and a little bit scary. The bad boys with keyboards could both start a nuclear war AND prevent one. And neither computers or videogames were really for girls.

There was an interesting anxiety in the air as we watched the Computer Age roll in. Before we all had our own, computers were sort of magical and mysterious, dangerous and exciting. In a movie a lot of us saw, two nerds created a fantasy woman in real life by programming their computers. What would have once been a magic spell was now Weird Science. The nerds of Real Genius used their good computer skills to save the world from evil weapons computer stuff. It was good versus evil but with computers.

I re-listened to Kate Bush’s 1989 song “Deeper Understanding” which was about computers and found myself astonished at how directly it relates to all of us now. In an interview about this song, Kate Bush said she was surprised by how many people assumed she was into computers because she wrote a song about someone into computers. But this is the funny thing about that: at the time, we used to think about computers like this. Computers were an interest, like parasailing. Some people were into them, most people weren’t.

But those that were into computers were busy imagining a wide open world. I didn’t know it at the time (because I was one of those who weren’t that into computers) but Gen X computer kids were full of possibility. They imagined a world in which we could talk to anyone anywhere in the world, in which anyone with the skill could build anything. Gen X kids who were into computers were talking to each other on their computers long before the rest of us. They made virtual spaces made out of their imagination that were endlessly flexible and modifiable. For Gen X computer kids (and some OGx-ers like Jaron Lanier) the way we use our technology now is anathema to what they intended.

While those of us who weren’t into computers were fine to have our options streamlined, to have our websites more user-friendly, to not have to learn the skills to make our own, those who did have the skills were horrified as they watched the wide open world of tech be reduced to a “click yes or no” world. They aimed at freedom and we got convenience and those of us who “weren’t into computers” don’t even know what was sacrificed for that ease.

An iPhone will only let you put apps on it that are Apple approved. And many of the websites that are changing the world aren’t customizable at all. They create paths for us to walk down in which we can only make one choice at a time. For example, Facebook makes most decisions for its users. It gives you only six options for your feelings when it would be just as easy to have you create your own reaction emoticons. Its algorithm chooses which posts you see when Facebook could easily make it possible for you to design your own. But it doesn’t. Its algorithms remain a closely guarded secret and it controls which of your friends you see and which you don’t.

As the years have gone by, we have been trained not to wonder about what it is behind the technological certain. We trade our privacy for connection and ease. We leave the decision making to big corporations or big data.

The promise of a wide-open world where anyone with know-how can do anything has become a world full of walled gardens. From meadows and mountains and plains and oceans, our technology became a series of small plots of land, gardened by a chosen few, on the estates of big corporations. And while the gardens inside have clear paths to walk down and very specialized flowers and hey, all our friends are here! – the walls don’t seem to help keep out the jerks. Now instead of wide open space where we might run into a jerk sometime, we are locked up in the garden of Twitter, for example, with torrents of jerks. As one Gen X-er who has always been into computers said, “The people who weren’t into computers won.”

That is, while we now all have tiny super computers that fit into our pockets, the computers in our pockets are often structured to limit our choices instead of expanding them.

We all have computers but we don’t know (or care) how they work or which corporation has access to our data. The Gen X-ers into computers are understandably a little upset about this and it would appear that Gen X-ers are at the forefront of helping us figure out how to integrate technology into our lives responsibly, wisely and consciously. Gen X-er Manoush Zomorodi hosts a podcast that leans into these issues with a characteristic Gen X questioning of accepted norms. Gen X takes nothing for granted. We know that infinite possibilities include some possibilities that are a real bummer.

Gen X programmers built new virtual spaces – things like Friendster, Google, MySpace and Twitter. This may not have been what they imagined back when they first got into computers but they have changed the world. I think we need Gen X technologists more than ever to help us return to the idealism of the Open Source dreams, even as we adapt to the inventions Gen X let loose on the world. Gen X may have been seen as nihilistic and cynical but that is partly just the shadow side of the deep vein of idealism that runs through most of us. If we’re cynical, it’s because we think people can and should do better.

While most generational discussions I’ve seen point to the Challenger explosion as the most influential historical event in Gen X’s youth, I have yet to meet anyone for whom that event loomed particularly large. We remember it, sure – but it doesn’t seem all that formative. What I do think may have been formative was the constant very palpable threat of nuclear war. I was reminded of how real this was for me after I watched the episode of The Americans, in which the family watches the TV movie, The Day After. I don’t remember the movie itself but I do remember the feeling I had that I would not be safe anywhere. I could not be safe under my desk or in my bed. I remember hiding under my covers for some time, knowing it would never be enough – that if someone pushed a button (and it seemed very possible that someone would), none of us would be safe.

The events of the movie Wargames felt like a very real possibility to me and I think most of Gen X had to adapt to a world that might explode at any minute. We had to acknowledge that it might be the end of the world as we knew it and we had to find a way to feel fine. Recent political events have brought this feeling back to the surface and Gen X finds itself once again in a world where some guy pushing a button could end it all for all of us.

When I started watching The Americans, it was an exercise in nostalgia for my childhood. (They used that “Nobody bothers me” ad! We sang that all the time in the 80s in Virginia!) Now watching a show about Russian spies undercover as Americans in the Cold War feels like current events.

I understand the impulse to categorize a generation by its technology or its unique historical events but I suspect that what binds a generation together more is the atmosphere that pervades – it is a collection not just of the music we hear, the movies and TV we watch, but also the politics and the objects that surround us.

Generation X was surrounded by some meaningful bullshit and we thought the world was probably ending but we felt fine. In a world of infinite possibilities, there was a small chance we might get out of our youth alive. And if you’re Gen X and you’re reading this – Congratulations! We did it! We already lived much longer than we ever imagined.

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This is Part 5 of a multi-part series. and

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

and Part 4 here.

Help a Gen X-er keep inventing

Become my patron on Patreon.

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Generation X Part 4 – I’m the Only One

If you haven’t seen it, Reality Bites was a film about a bunch of twenty-somethings trying to figure out what to do with themselves after college. (A subject that would never play with contemporary twenty-somethings – oh, wait! That’s the exact premise of Girls!) Singles was also in this genre. So was Kicking and Screaming. And also Last Days of Disco. And St Elmo’s Fire.

The funny thing about thinking about the movies of my youth is realizing the sorts of men that the culture wanted me to find attractive. Watching clips of The Breakfast Club anew helped me understand a lot about why I was attracted to jerks in my youth. (Oh, Bender! You’re just misunderstood!) Reality Bites taught me that it was better to be with a cool asshole than a nice square. Lindy West’s article “I Re-watched Reality Bites and It’s Basically a Manual for Shitheads” sums up the issues of that film quite hilariously and succinctly. Heathers features a sexy sociopath that you’re supposed to find attractive and then realize that he’s an actual murderer and that’s not really so cool, you know? In music, boys were “Nasty” and “Wild” and “Bad.” In Singles, the bar for men was so low that all the Bridget Fonda character wanted was a man who’d say “bless you” when she sneezed. The ideal Gen X man was a scruffy tortured cynic who told it like it was.

And, pretty much, this cut across genre. David Foster Wallace is the literary Gen X man. Kurt Cobain is the music version. It’s a sort of hyper-masculinity, a hyper-cool. And it was clearly toxic. Almost every icon who embodied it eventually killed himself. (Keep it together, Ethan Hawke! We’re rooting for you! Eddie Vedder – do you need anything? Any kind of support group we can send you to?) The quintessence of Gen X-ness was a sort of aggrieved masculinity. While Winona Ryder may have been a Gen X icon, she was always in a relationship with this type of cool dude.

There was never a real Gen X feminist movement. We were told our mother’s had taken care of that for us. And surely our mothers hoped they had. Some of our mothers (and fathers! There were some feminist fathers then, too!) bought us Free to Be You and Me and from that we learned that mommies were people and daddies were people and William had a doll and that it was alright for all of us to cry. Lego was for all of us and girls were told we could be anything we wanted.

But it wasn’t that easy. I’ll leave it to a male Gen X writer to speak to how boys took on these messages but I can say that there weren’t that many models for girlhood back then. The percentage of girls in film and TV has gone up in the last decade or so, due to Geena Davis’ remarkable Institute for Gender in Media but when I was a child, there was pretty much just Josie and the Pussycats for me. (And watching clips of that now, I’m a little disturbed by how much those costumes look like kitty versions of the Playboy Bunnies.) On the Smurfs, being a girl was the girl character’s only trait. While the entire village was full of male Smurfs with one defining characteristic (Brainy, Jokey, Painter, etc) the one girl was just Smurfette – the girl one. The Muppets main characters were mostly male where once again the only major female character was defined by her femaleness – and her species. And while Miss Piggy has a distinctive personality – other animals have names that define them more than their species. What if Fozzie the Bear had been Mr. Bear? Or Rolf the Dog had been Mr. Doggie? Or Kermit was Mr. Froggy?

At home we learned we could do anything but at school, and in pop culture, it became clear that mostly we were supposed to be cute, pretty and/or sexy. We were supposed to get ourselves boyfriends this way. Cool boyfriends who’d (maybe) say ‘bless you’ when we sneezed but who’d admire us and tell us we were pretty. Oh and maybe also we could go to college and learn things and maybe have a little career while we were doing that. Nothing too demanding, you understand. We weren’t gonna be challenging anyone for their jobs – don’t worry, we just want to have a little something to make us interesting enough to marry.

I was a pretty feminist kid – and I hung out with feminists. But I also wanted a boyfriend. And I felt that I’d have to sell out a little of the sisterhood, a little of my feminist sensibility to enjoy the affections of dudes. This same impulse made its way into my career. My dream was to perform in the theatre. But I clocked pretty quickly that the professional theatre was not a feminist friendly place. In one of my first acting jobs, I was berated by a costume designer because I did not own a push-up bra. “You want to be an actress? And you don’t have a push-up bra?” he said, horrified, before fitting me for the costume with the plunging neckline. I wanted to work, so I kept my feminist feelings to myself. I bought a push-up bra. I auditioned for floozies and girlfriends and vamps and worked in companies where men always outnumbered women, sometimes three to one. I knew the deck was stacked before I started but my belief in myself was so powerful, I thought it would overcome anything. Even a sexist theatrical landscape. I believed I could transform the world around me. Newsflash. I didn’t quite.

And this is a mistake that every generation seems to make. We think that by raising our girls to believe that they can do anything, that they will. But if we don’t make inroads into changing the systemic sexism, we continue to perpetuate the same patterns. Belief is a wonderful thing but without systemic changes, the same old shit gets reinforced.

The thing is, I expect older generations to be sexist and I expected my generation to be sexist. (I saw what they were seeing. I heard their jokes. I got into those arguments about boys just being better than girls.) What troubles me are the sexists that are younger than me. Because I had some idea that the generations behind me were so much more open, so much more diverse. That’s what the media tells me. Millennials have a reputation for being well ahead on cultural open-ness. And a lot of them are. But some didn’t get that memo. According to this article, the KKK was about to go out of business but are back in play due to the revitalization in the young. A third of Millennials who voted, voted for Lil’ Donnie T. This doesn’t fit into the story of who Millennials are in the common imagination. Avocado toast and Nazis wouldn’t seem to be compatible. (Also if avocado toast is a Millennial invention, I applaud you because it is awesome.)

Millennial feminists are rockin’ it so hard. I love the exuberance and the vitality of their fight. They started a dye-your-underarm-hair trend. I love that. But I watch Millennial men enjoy the same sense of entitlement that my male peers did and that the generation before them did and I can see from this angle how patriarchy gets handed down from one entitled fella to another, like property.

In my local coffeeshops, I see 22 year old men already in the seats of power while the 22 year old women chat about their internships at a magazine. I see young women defer while young men take. And it is so much worse to watch a young man do this than an old. I see young women baffled by a system that they thought was fair when they were getting good grades in school but that doesn’t seem to want them when they graduate. The system banks on young women not noticing the hurdles to their goals until they’re older and the system doesn’t value them anymore. It banks on young women being so busy trying to shape their bodies to an ideal to please some imaginary man that they won’t have time to change the world.

Gen X just got wise to this. We crossed over into the middle space and lightbulbs have started to flash. No one’s coming to fix this for us. Percentage wise, American Gen X–ers vote more than any other generation. We are politically engaged. We are calling misogyny. We are calling bullshit. But we don’t have the numbers. We’re the smallest generation.

So Millennial women, I’m especially talking to you and to you, Generation Z and whatever we’re calling the generation after you. You probably stopped reading this a long while ago, (if you’re reading at all) but if you’re still here, thank you. And I’m just going to tell you what I wish someone had told me earlier: You may think, from where you’re standing, that you will be the woman to beat the odds, that sexism won’t have its way with you. But even if you do beat the odds – one way or another, sooner or later, sexism will become apparent, if it’s not obvious already. You can be the valedictorian of your class, marry an attractive man, try and shape your appearance to please the masses, do all the work, win a bunch of battles, be fierce and capable and prepared and you’ll still be beaten by a man with none of your accomplishments or skill. You think it won’t happen to you – that you are the exception. And I hope you will be the exception. But I have yet to see a woman make it through a few decades without some patriarchal bruises, even if she doesn’t recognize them as such. If you start fighting it now, Millennials and Gen Z and beyond, maybe you won’t have to watch the generations that follow you go through the same frustrating cycle.

This makes me think of Good Girls Revolt, the TV series. (The book is fantastic, too.) Good Girls Revolt tells the story of the young women working at Newsweek in the 1960s. In the TV series, there is a character who doesn’t join the lawsuit filed by most of the female employees at first because she’s doing well. She gets opportunities other women aren’t given. She feels exceptional, because she’s the one beating the odds. She rises in the ranks. Then, in her position as the token woman, she runs face first into some high level sexism. The show perfectly illustrates why the exceptionalism we can fall victim to can be so damaging to our progress as a whole. Our power is in collectivity.

Each generation seems to look at the ones before it, blaming them for their troubles, while meanwhile, in our own midst, the same trouble is brewing. While I was busy worrying about the Baby Boomer Patriarchs and OG-xers in charge, many of the men in my generation were busy learning how to take their places. I missed it because I was too busy working on my exceptionalism. Now as I watch it grow up behind me, I see how it happened. We hope each generation will be better than the last and in some ways they are. But the patriarchy is still in the water.

I know some amazing Millennials of all genders but watching entitled white male Millennials embrace their power gives me the shivers – because the world has a slot for them that they have only to step into to fill. This happened in my generation too – but I missed it because I was too busy looking at the sexism ahead to worry about the sexism next to me. And there was plenty.

When I started my theatre company in 2001, there were dozens of others doing the same. But as I went on, the men’s companies received recognition while the women’s companies floundered. The companies started by men were reviewed and funded and mentored and fostered and encouraged, while the women worked on in obscurity until most of their companies finally folded. While it was happening, I thought it was just me, that somehow my work just wasn’t as good as all those guys getting reviews. It was exceptionalism again but the shadow side of exceptionalism. And in my generation, pointing this sort of thing out wasn’t cool. (And as we learned from our films and music, cool was the best thing to be) so I went along, hoping to swing from the shadow exceptionalism to the one in the light. I think a lot of us did this. Maybe every generation falls victim to exceptionalism. Each generation thinks it will be the one to beat the odds. Each generation blames the other generations for the problems in our own.

Perhaps nothing makes us more American than this attachment to exceptionalism. Even if we don’t necessarily believe in American Exceptionalism, (if we don’t think we are an exceptional nation, for example) we might still find ourselves believing we are exceptional individuals. I suspect that this impulse to believe we will be the exception is how we end up with such abysmal safety nets, such terrible health care and so on. We always think we will be the ones to rise above, that we won’t get sick, that we alone will beat the odds. It is the dark shadow of American optimism. Maybe Generation X is the dark shadow of the optimism of the generations that surround us.

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This is Part 4 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

And to continue: Part 5 is here and here is Part 6.

 

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Generation X Part 3 – Islands in the Stream

When magazines used to write about Generation X, they were pretty darn concerned about how much time we spent on our own, unsupervised. The Latch Key Generation may not have really stuck to us as a name (I imagine this was partly because, what’s a LATCH key? When does anyone use the word “LATCH KEY”? It’s clearly an old fashioned word. It’s a key, guys.) but, yes, a lot of Gen X kids went home from school by ourselves because our parents were at work.

You could see this as a problem. (Oh, those poor lonely unsupervised children!) Or, you could see it as a gift. (What independence! What self-reliance!) Leave us alone for long enough, we tend to solve our problems on our own.

The kids in The Breakfast Club start their day in detention as adversaries and by the end of it, they’ve come together to challenge the authoritarianism of their school. The movie opens with a voiceover.

“Dear Mr. Vernon:
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

By the end of the film, they are the Breakfast Club and recognize that despite their very disparate identities, they are each a bit like the others.

I wonder if Gen X is in a little bit of a life-long Breakfast Club experience. We start off thinking we couldn’t possibly be like our peers. The guy with the Mohawk couldn’t possibly have anything in common with the guy in the tie who wants to be a lawyer. Hardcore and Hip Hop, Grunge and folk punk are not even the same generation, man. But then the guy in the Mohawk becomes a lawyer. And the guy in the tie discovers his inner punk and their kids now go to the same school. And we’re all writing letters to the administration, telling them we think they’re crazy.

Gen X has never been one culture and we have always been highly aware of our plurality. We are ever Freaks and Geeks. But every generation is full of this variability.

Generation painting is always a broad brush. Once you start looking at the details, it all falls apart. Broad brush generation thinking only lets us see a single stroke of color. Boomers are like this. Millennials are like that. And most people stopped worrying about Gen X in the 90s. But like an audience of people watching a show, there isn’t any real uniformity. I told a millennial man a statistic I’d read that suggested that Baby Boomers were leading the Resistance – that they were protesting in significantly larger numbers than the rest of us. The millennial was shocked because he’d just read an article about how Baby Boomers created the mess we’re in, particularly environmentally. He couldn’t reconcile the two ideas. But both things can be true. We may think of the Baby Boomers as protesting the Vietnam War but not all of them were into that. Some stayed inside. Some fought in the war. Some went to work for their family business. Some became evangelicals. Some became Presidents. We are none of us ever only one thing.

As much as I wish it were not so, Paul Ryan is Generation X. I have to allow that some Gen X-ers were not characterized by non-conformity and individuality, or at least not in the ways that we think of it. I doubt Paul Ryan was wearing black in high school or rocking out to Tupac or Nirvana. Frankly, I wish he’d read more David Foster Wallace and less Ayn Rand. But there’s not much to be done about that now. Every Generation has its villains and its heroes. If Gen X has to claim Paul Ryan, then Millennials have to claim Milo Yiannopoulos and Boomers have to claim Lil’ Donnie T. The bozos in culture are multi-generational. And so is the resistance.

We are not the same. But we’re not that different either. A generation is a culture. There are things we share and things that vary. And the overlaps can be interesting.

I read an article about Gen X from the BBC and it referenced major touchstones in British Gen X culture that defined the generation but they were things that never made it across the ocean to American Gen X. We share some culture, we share some touchstones, but we don’t share them all. But despite the major differences in our cultural tipping points, I recognized the British Gen X as the Gen X I know. I don’t know what Gen X was like worldwide or if I’d recognize Bolivian Gen X with the ease that I recognize the British Gen X but I am very curious about that. I lived in Italy in peak Gen X years and in retrospect, I see Gen X echoes in my Italian peers. I met an Italian the same age as me recently and I see the Gen X in him.

But what IS that Gen X thing I think I see? Is it our sense of humor? A spirit of heightened realism? There are things in the stereotype of Gen X that I actually like. I like the pragmatic realist, the skeptic, the cool, the anti-authoritarianism. But am I self-selecting the traits that I like and calling bullshit on the ones I don’t?

Gen X questions everything. Did we get called slackers simply because there was a popular movie called Slackers? Do we have a cynical rep because Reality Bites was a popular movie made about us? It’s all culture. It may all be bullshit. But it’s somehow meaningful bullshit.

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This is Part 3 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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