I did it this morning. I threw away the “Smith Family Reunion: We’ve Come This Far by Faith” T-shirt, which I wore for years despite not being a Smith and not having any faith. Into the bathroom garbage also went an “I’m Cuckoo For Cocoa Puffs” T-shirt, which I wore as some kind of ironic comment on corporate marketing to toddlers. Old, holey, too-small, rock T-shirts of concerts I never attended—gone. Even my beloved baseball cap that read “Gooseberry Pie” found its way into the pile of discarded floss.
I took this pail of aging cynicism, dumped it into a Glad kitchen garbage bag with OdorShield and Febreze Freshness, tossed in a copy of Infinite Jest, drew the ForceFlex red drawstring, and said good-bye to irony forever.
My friends, it’s over. When you can walk into Target and purchase a T-shirt with the Jolly Green Giant on it, you’ve been mainstreamed.
It’s not easy for me, this change. It’s hard to tear the skin off the brooding kid in the back row of the classroom and be someone else. It’s hard to dress yourself in a light blue button-down shirt instead of those safe ironic tees—you feel far too cheery; far too exposed. But there are these lyrics I keep hearing in the back of my head: Fight Test off The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots album:
I thought I was smart
I thought I was right
I thought it better not to fight
I thought there was a virtue in always being cool
So when it came time to fight I thought I’ll just step aside
And that the time would prove you wrong
And that you would be the fool
I can’t ignore them any longer.
Recently, I posted a question on my Facebook page, “What is the central narrative of the 2010s?” What surprised me was that people’s answers haven’t changed much from the 90s. My generation has been smothered by angst and powerlessness for over twenty years. We’ve watched our government and corporations trample one sacred American notion after another.
In the 90s, the American work ethic was stolen from us, as we saw money thrown by the billions at loud-mouthed visionaries without a profit model, while the slow-to-be-convinced middle class lost their entire savings when they invested in bogus companies right before the dot-com crash.
In the 00s, we lost the cornerstone of American democracy—the right to a fair trial; the one thing we could hang our moral hats on—ripped out from under us by a government that manufactured fear out of a disaster that should have taught us an entirely different lesson.
Finally, in the 10s, we’re losing hope itself: our homes are worthless; our government in gridlock; we fight wars and can’t even remember why we’re fighting them.
And what are the greatest minds of my generation doing in response—those of us clear-sighted enough to see? We’re titillating ourselves with ironic articles from The Onion.
I often find myself frustrated by my peers in Generation X. We sit over microbrews and complain, for hours on end, about how bad things have gotten here in America: how dumb the politics; how decrepit the culture—and yet when some idea is posited, someone’s wild scheme, some unlikely way to change the narrative of inevitable apocalypse, a haze seems to take over our expressions, and the conversation dies on the vine. I haven’t fully determined what the haze means yet—for years, I thought it was me, that people simply thought my wild propositions nuts—but lately I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t me at all, that the fear of engaging in a vision of change is generationally universal.
It’s so hard-coded we don’t even see it. We’re a generation that was taught in our adolescence to be cool at all costs, that to engage in any sort of seriousness of purpose was to be ridiculed. We were brought up on Animal House, where low-brow comedy, sloth, and cheap sex were the highest of achievements; and poets, intellectuals, and do-gooders the butt of all jokes. We had no idea—and still have no idea—how programmed we’ve been to be the cowards we are.
And still this teaching goes on: perpetrated by us now on our own children. Ha! The world is ending, but SpongeBob SquarePants is a riot.
It costs one a great deal in our generation to try to be sincere. You lose relevance: a writer can get a great deal more attention for writing about Ashley Judd’s puffiness. It’s also self-destructive: we’re a generation of hyenas, salivating over the chance to pounce on something to label preachy or self-righteous.
But once you’ve torn the veil off, it becomes difficult to ignore. Once you’re aware that everything you once thought counter-cultural has become mainstream, that most of us are simply cogs in the apathy machine, that the only way to truly be countercultural in today’s society is to be an Atticus Finch, a serious man with a singularity of purpose, it’s hard to go on in the same way.
So I do things. They’re not much. They’re little baby steps. I think of it as irony therapy. I joined the school board of my daughter’s alternative school. I volunteer for a literary organization full of seventy-year-old ex-radicals. It’s difficult for me to sit through these meetings—two hours worth of Bike Routes to School; the dedication of a Poetry Pole—and not think or say something sarcastic, not try to sully the conversation by noting the surety of its uselessness. But I bite my lip as best I can.
The novel that I’ve just published speaks to this. It ends with a single image: a grainy photocopy of a milk crate—the modern version of a soap box. To me, that image asks this central question to my generational peers:
Will we continue to surrender in order to maintain our cool? Or will we stand up, fight, and make fools of ourselves?
For the next generation’s sake, I hope it’s the latter.