March 20, 2016

Sunday Diversions: March, Part Two

The train ride into the city passes quickly, these days. I am perhaps used to its cadence, to the routine of the commute. There are moments when I tell myself that I could do this, I think, every day—then I remind myself that though I could, I wouldn’t want to.

Here are some of the pieces that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past two weeks:

There was a time when it was rare to hear the word awesome” used in everyday conversation; now, even I use it at least once a day. How did awesome” become so awesome?

The word awesome’ is of course the contemporary antonym of sucks’. Some take this to be a condemnation of both terms, on the grounds that their usage is so broad that they’re nearly empty, meaning little more than good’ or bad’. As one journalist recently noted: The real problem with suck” is that it has become the antonym of awesome”, which has similarly replaced all adjectives of approval.’ And a cursory look at how these terms are used seems to confirm the point. Just consider the range of things that can be awesome’ or sucky’: a game, a social media app, a friend’s behaviour, the restaurant down the street, the concert last night, you. Everything is awesome, as we know from a recent Lego movie. And apparently nearly anything can suck, including, by Carlin’s lights, the whole of US society and culture.

But reflecting on our use of these terms also suggests that they capture something special. The threat of being a sucky person seems distinctive, and the promise of being awesome seems to resonate, at least with the US (and apparently Finnish) imagination, in a way that goodness, virtue, politeness, dutifulness and other traditional forms of moral excellence do not. It’s not that we want to be immoral, unprincipled or vicious — quite the opposite: we want to love our neighbour; we are generally proud of whatever virtue we possess. The problem is that the thought of being virtuous or dutiful out of a love of virtue or duty doesn’t readily stoke the 21st-century ethical imagination. But the thought of being awesome out of a love of awesomeness does. At the end of the day, what we want is to not suck. More than that: we want to be awesome.

As we get closer and closer to a reality of a Trump nomination, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about why Donald Trump is so resonant in today’s American culture. My prevailing thought is his ability to galvanize the disenfranchised; while most of the pundits keep talking about racism and bigotry, maybe the real reason people love Trump is because of his thoughts on international trade:

People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future” and that there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another.”

Tom Lewandowski, the president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council in Fort Wayne, puts it even more bluntly when I asked him about working-class Trump fans. These people aren’t racist, not any more than anybody else is,” he says of Trump supporters he knows. When Trump talks about trade, we think about the Clinton administration, first with Nafta and then with [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] China, and here in Northeast Indiana, we hemorrhaged jobs.”

The idea of using other people of color as model minorities” in order to prop up anti-Blackness hasn’t been something I’ve thought about until recently, and I’m finding it increasingly troublesome. I definitely need to read more about it and educate myself:

Over the years I have been conditioned — particularly by my adoptive upbringing, I suppose — to be patient with and also crave the approval of white people. I’ve accepted that deprogramming myself will probably require a lifetime’s worth of work. And yes, sometimes I’ll bite my tongue. Sometimes I’ll educate.” These are just some of the things I have to do in order to keep my friends and do my job and function in society. But I’ve been over this idea of good intentions” and their supposed weight and importance for a long, long time now.

I should note that the bigotry I’ve faced, over the years, has been relatively minor — name-calling, slurs, stereotyping, fetishism. I’ve been overlooked, underestimated, erased. I’ve been the token friends and family can point to while denying their prejudices; I’ve been used as a model minority” to prop up anti-Blackness. Still, no matter how large or small the offenses, I don’t always have the mental, emotional, or spiritual fortitude to unquestioningly trust in the purity of some stranger’s intentions. I don’t have the capacity to believe I’ll never be hurt by a white person again. And I cannot bring unfailing faith and trust and sweetness and light to every single interaction I have with white people. That should not be asked of me, or anyone.

One of the hardest lessons I learned as an adult was to be okay with ending all the conditional friendships I had, and just focusing on the true, unconditional relationships in my life:

Unconditional relationships are the only real relationships. They cannot be shaken by the ups and downs of life. They are not altered by superficial benefits and failures. If you and I have an unconditional friendship, it doesn’t matter if I lose my job and move to another country, or you get a sex change and start playing the banjo; you and I will continue to respect and support each other. The relationship is not subjected to the coolness economy where I drop you the second you start hurting my chances to impress others. And I definitely don’t get butthurt if you choose to do something with your life that I wouldn’t choose.

People with conditional relationships never learned to see the people around them in terms of anything other than the benefits they provide. That’s because they likely grew up in an environment where they were only appreciated for the benefits they provided.

The pantheon of best television shows I’ve ever watched is a small list, but it definitely includes The Americans. I’m so glad to have it back:

From The Twilight Zone to The Sopranos and beyond, some of the greatest television shows have found ways to lift basic human predicaments out of their familiar contexts and deposit them in alien scenarios, so that we see their essence etched in sharp relief against a background of contrivance. The Americans does this as well as any show in TV history, and with more modesty than many of its predecessors. It has a knack for creating metaphorically or symbolically rich situations that never strut about announcing themselves as such. It’s all there if you care to delve into it, but it’s never in the foreground and affixed with a tag; often you catch it hiding behind, or within, the characterizations and plot twists, as spies hide in plain sight.

There are a few of us who were born on the cusp between Generation X and the Millennial Generation, and we find common characteristics and social norms with both while being alienated by both generations as well. Why is our generation so hard to define?

We’re an enigma, those of us born at the tail end of the 70s and the start of the 80s. Some of the generational” experts lazily glob us on to Generation X, and others just shove us over to the Millennials they love to hate — no one really gets us or knows where we belong.

We’ve been called Generation Catalano, Xennials, and The Lucky Ones, but no name has really stuck for this strange micro-generation that has both a healthy portion of Gen X grunge cynicism, and a dash of the unbridled optimism of Millennials.

A big part of what makes us the square peg in the round hole of named generations is our strange relationship with technology and the Internet. We came of age just as the very essence of communication was experiencing a seismic shift, and it’s given us a unique perspective that’s half analog old school and half digital new school.