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Coming of Age

I walk in a skin like a secret handshake, and I’ve got breeding like a skeleton key.

Seriously, I’m a white male, college-educated, polite and articulate. Plus, I’m straight and from a more-or-less solidly middle-class upbringing. I grew up among the confident, precocious and athletic sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, architects and upper-level state bureaucrats. We took electives like economics and psychology in preparation for our liberal-arts educations in private colleges, and traveled weekends to visit elder siblings or former teammates drunkenly Spring-Flinging on quads up and down the East Coast. We scoffed mildly at—or ignored altogether—the kids who were consigned to more practical coursework: small engines, business math and the like. The kids in whom the faculty were desperately trying to cram basic skills before they entered the job market straight out of high school, or sooner.

I don’t know where we thought we were destined. I don’t ever remember it being mentioned to me or discussed specifically. But, then, we didn’t have to be that directed, that focused. We didn’t have to tailor our efforts to one goal. We knew the passwords and the high signs, and doors could not be closed against us.

It wasn’t optimism; it was assumption.

There were some minor adjustments, quirks of temperament and character: A lawyer’s son would become an architect, or a doctor’s son a lawyer, for example. And there were tragedies of Updikean flavor among the older crowd—infidelities, divorces and remarriages—and tragedies with Moodyish sting among the younger set—drug problems, suicides and fatal traffic accidents. But, throughout, there was an equilibrium preserved, or thought for some time to abide.

We were still white and straight and middle-class and traditionally well educated. We were young and mobile and vivacious and funny. We had charm. We could quip and converse and socialize, and we immediately recognized and appreciated all the references on The Simpsons—the writers of which, after all, had Flinged their Springs on the very same circuit as we. But then, somehow, the tide turned, something gave way.

We were ridiculed in the press—Generation X, the slacker generation. We joined in the criticism, irony shielding us sufficiently to skewer our peers, our fellows, ourselves. From literary brat-packers Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz to Douglas Coupland to the beloved Simpsons, we all took our shots and took our licks, sometimes simultaneously. (A Simpsons episode set at a Lollapolooza concert showed a slacker in the audience mocking a performer: “Oh, he’s cool,” the kid drawls. “Dude, are you being serious or ironic?” a companion asks. His face contorted in a paroxysm of anguish and identity slip, the kid says, “I don’t even know anymore.”) And those of us who decried this process, this odd scapegoating of a coddled and harmlessly smug generation being criticized for its wry disengagement, its irony, its precocity—the very products of our indulgent, suburban upbringings—were pilloried. Pity poor Jonathan Franzen, who was pissing people off long before he took on Oprah. Years before The Corrections dust-up, in his essay “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen related his frustration at being a white, male, middle-class, over-educated Writer of Novels With Really Big Ideas in a time when there was a marked preference for novels of a more personal, intimate scale and a more feminine and marginalized voice—and, he made clear, of lesser literary value. He was pelted with rocks and garbage. (I’m being wry here.)

And, honestly, the guy probably deserved it. What could be more ridiculous than a white guy making a living writing in America complaining about discrimination (even of a passive, no-one-understands-me sort)? He knew the handshake and had the key—and they were being held against him. He responded to the perceived injustice, as I would have, as many of my generation and general socioeconomic background would have: with a whole lot of (in his case, public) navel-gazing, a liberal dose of high-falutin’ academic rationalization, a bit of displacement, some whining and a whole lot of overthinking. It’s what we do. Give us a break.

See, the thing is we were raised with a notion of just how privileged we are: That we were good and smart and talented and deserving and that, if the world was an oyster, it’d be ours—but also with the incontrovertible knowledge that it ain’t, it ain’t all raw bar and pearls. We were raised on both The Love Boat and those damn heartbreaking Sally Struthers-in-the-Third-World appeals. Irony is both a natural by-product and an indispensable tool when faced with tension like that.

And, as it happened, we were a warless generation, with energy to spare to introspect endlessly—or to argue the literary merits of Toni Morrison as compared to Mark Leyner or Richard Powers, or of the superiority of this or that Pavement album to this or that Sneaker Pimps album. And the shallowness of our fascinations was amply camouflaged by facile wit, and our recognition that in trivial times, trivial preoccupations were no offense.

But now, irony seems wan and merely habitual, the times no longer trivial.

In his latest book, Franzen’s gone so far as to rewrite the essay.

We’re learning. We’re collectively pulling our heads out of our asses.

Sadly, at the executive level, it appears that the slacker ethos of egocentric preoccupation and the expectations of privilege persists as a virtual droit du seigneur.

Sadly, it appears we are being upper-managed nationally by some arcane network of secret handshakes and skeleton keys, while kids who should probably still be tinkering over much smaller engines are steering mechanized infantry through a distant desert.

—John Rodat


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