Songs for the Struggling Artist


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 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.

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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.

 

 

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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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Generation X Part 2 – We Belong

Generation X has tended to resist being labeled and we also tend to resent being identified with a group. We like to think ourselves as individuals. I have a Gen X friend who finds the concept of a “hive mind” deeply troubling. It strikes him as dangerous conformity to ask the hive mind what it thinks.

I get it. I identify as a non-conformist, too. But I also grew up listening to a lot of Steve Martin records. And from an early age, I understood the irony of identifying as a non-conformist along with a group through this part of his routine:

STEVE MARTIN: And now let’s repeat the non-conformist oath! I promise to be different!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be different!
STEVE MARTIN: I promise to be unique!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be unique!
STEVEN MARTIN: I promise not to repeat things other people say!
AUDIENCE: (laughter)

Generation X has tended to view itself as an outsider. And our numbers do nothing to disabuse us of this. We were once outsiders as an aesthetic. (see also: The Outsiders, Bender and Allison in The Breakfast Club, Ducky in Pretty in Pink, Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, and Fat Albert. Grunge and Hip-hop were outsider genres when they began.) But now, due to our numbers, we may be perpetual outsiders simply because we are always in the generational minority. It’s a good thing we have practice at outsider status!

But as much as I dig the individualist spirit of Gen X, I also see the value in thinking collectively. I think it’s amazing the way the average of people’s guesses on the number of jellybeans in a jar comes closer in accuracy than any one person’s guess. I understand the way that every audience, despite being made up of individuals, has a different quality. If you’re a performer, you’ve likely experienced how differently audiences can react to the exact same show. As groups we have personalities, a sort of dominant theme, an average of all the different flavors of jellybeans.

One of the things I admire about the generations surrounding ours is that they seem much better at gathering together than we ever were. Boomers have “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love another right now.” Millennials have “We are young. So we’ll set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun.” And y’all get together now, and you smile on your brothers, and set the world on fire. While Gen X is like, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” and if we have to, we will “Fight for Our Right to Party” But “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and also “Everyone’s a Fucking Napoleon.”

I dig the exuberance, the positivity and optimism of the Millennials and the revolutionary spirit of our Boomer mothers and fathers. (Or big brothers and sisters, depending.) But getting together is not something I’ve ever seen Gen X be particularly good at. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there were no Gen X-ers to be found at that Saturday night in the small town, maybe we just don’t do well in crowds.

Or maybe we just don’t have the numbers. Gen X is the smallest generation, numbers-wise. In fact, after I posted Part One of this Generational Exploration Piece, several of my Gen X friends told me how outnumbered they are in their workplaces. One of them called Gen X an endangered species.

I mean, we can get our endangered selves together at the Love Shack but the car to take us there only sits about 20, even if it is a big as a whale. And maybe twenty is the most Gen X-ers we can mange to find in any given place. Certainly in that small town I visited, if I’d have gone to the Love Shack with all the other Gen X-ers in town, I’d have been headed to the Love Shack alone.

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This was Part 2 of a multi-part series. To read Part 1, click here and to read Part 3, click here.


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Generation X: Stuck in the Middle With You

While visiting a small town, I found myself at a local restaurant, where a band was playing their Saturday night gig. The band’s leader sang about being a kid in 1992 which helped me place him as a member of the Millennial generation. The audience was mostly represented by the Baby Boomer Generation, with a handful of the band’s Millennial friends in the mix. When the band played a cover of a hit song from the Baby Boomer’s youth, they filled the room with exuberant dance. And the Millennial men in the audience turned red from containing their laughter.

There was an atmosphere of these two generations trying to communicate with one another and find some kind of balance between them. There were pleading songs of a young man to an older one. A white haired man came up onstage while the band played to adjust their levels. These two generations were simultaneously at odds and in cahoots. And, as far as I know, I was the lone representative of my generation, Generation X. In fact, I realized then that I had spent my entire week in this small town as the lone Gen X representative. Where was the rest of Gen X in this town? Were they all home with their kids or had the town been vacated by Gen X years ago? If this party was for Boomers and Millennials, where was the Gen X party? And nationwide, maybe even worldwide, where IS the Gen X party? Where is Gen X hanging out? And why wasn’t I invited?

Until this moment in the restaurant/bar, I had not given my generation much thought. In fact, like 59% of Gen X, I didn’t really identify with the category at the time. But that has changed in recent years, ever since I started to read articles like “Why Generation X Are Just the Coolest“, “Generation X: America’s Neglected Middle Child”and excerpts of a book called X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking and I found myself suddenly feeling an incredible kinship with my Generation. I’d read these things and think, “Yeah! I AM like that! Yes we WILL save the world! Why DO people underestimate us?!”

Like the atmosphere in the small town bar, the big generational stories in the press tend to be about the more populous generations – the Boomers and the Millennials. The thrust of the Gen X narrative boils down to “What about us?” The underlying soundtrack to every Gen X article is the Simple Minds’ song from The Breakfast Club soundtrack “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Simultaneously, the comments on all of these stories tended to boil down to decrying making generational distinctions as bullshit. Gen X-ers would appear to call bullshit the most. But Gen X calling bullshit may be the epitome of Gen X-ness. (Contradiction? Yes. But wrestling with contradictions is apparently also a Gen X trait.) Generations (generally) are probably bullshit. But they are somehow meaningful bullshit.

When we were kids, magazines used to write about us too. We were pretty fascinating when we were the subjects of teen movies and post college romances. The older generations worried about us and the lyrics of our music. (What was this new rap music all about? You call it hip hop? What is this stuff? Grunge? What is wrong with these kids today?) We were worried over, got called slackers and malcontents. Time magazine’s cover story in 1990 wondered if we were “Laid back, Late Blooming or Just Lost?”

But decades later, as a generation, the press don’t much talk about us anymore. We have to talk about ourselves.  And while we may not have embraced the label of Gen X at the time (it was 1991 before we had a label, coined by a guy who was born in ’61 and therefore not even Gen X by most measurements) but in this moment it is a convenience. Would we be more recognized if some of our other names had stuck? What if we were still called The Baby Busters? Or The Latchkey Generation? Or the Video Generation? Gen X is pretty neutral as nicknames go and accepting our Gen X identity seems to make us our more visible.

But we are technically middle aged now. Perhaps middle-aged people are always invisible? Maybe the Silent Generation turned forty and thought, “Hey what about us?”

The other sticky bit is that “middle-aged” is generally used as a pejorative. Say “middle-aged” and I picture a paunchy guy in clashing plaids sitting on a couch. It strikes me that maybe we don’t really know what 40 and 50 looks like. I saw a comment about the amazing Michaela Watkins (Gen X) in Casual. The comment said something like, “This character is turning 40? She looks like she’s 60!” And I realized how few 40 year old women this person has probably seen. The commenter had no sense of what 40 might look like, or, for that matter, what 60 might look like. Some Gen X-ers look like the generation behind us and some look like the generation ahead. I was recently mistaken for a college student. At the gig that kicked off this whole Gen X exploration, I got carded. A couple of years ago, I was asked for my hall pass at a high school. Meanwhile, Michaela Watkins who is 2 years older than me somehow looks like she’s twenty years older? We stand in this very odd middle space.

I now feel about Gen X the way David Rackoff discusses being Canadian in that This American Life story – you know the one – where whenever someone mentions a famous Canadian, a Canadian feels compelled to chime in to say, “You know they’re Canadian.” I feel like I do that for Gen X now. Tina Fey? She’s Gen X. Amy Poehler? Gen X. Ava Duvernay? Gen X. Tupac Shakur? Gen X. Melissa McCarthy? Gen X. Samantha Bee? Gen X. Jennifer Lopez? Gen X. Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace and the Brat Pack are maybe more closely identified with Gen X but Gen X is everywhere. Ever since I started researching Gen X, I have found myself compulsively looking up people’s birthdays to check their Gen X status.

I may have resisted the blanket identification before but as I watch my generation ignored, treated like the “middle child” and generally dismissed – I feel a responsibility, particularly as a woman (at an age when women start to become invisible) to be vocal and highly visible and to be unapologetically Gen X.

End of Part 1
Coming in future installments: Gen X lenses on sexism, technology, conformity, group-think, music and more.

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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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