Monday, April 15, 2024

Going Extinct: Jack Really is Dead

People tend to think that the worst thing about getting older is that one tends to lose one's understanding of the world. But what about when it goes opposite: when the world no longer understands them?

It is true that, often, older people don't (or can't) change with "the times" and they wind up disoriented or "out of touch." (Think: old Congressman asking Mark Zuckerberg ridiculous questions about the Internet.) 

I remember, for instance, my Grandmom, who would come over to stay with us on weekends and, when she wanted to watch "her show" (General Hospital) she'd call me to put it on because she didn't understand the remote control. 

I'd say, "Grandmom, just push this red button to turn on the TV and then hit the number '6' for channel six."

"That stuff confuses me, Chrissy. You just do it for me, ok?" 

The only thing is, this was a grandmother who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. The confusing influx of new technology [remote controls; cable TV; personal computers...] that threw her into total confusion is what my generation grew up with -- grew up alongside. I would argue that we (Gen X) saw more change in the world than any generation, in terms of not only technology but of culture. 

In short, we "get" the brave new world we live in, even if we don't much like it. We understand it just fine and I understand it just fine. (In fact, when it comes to tech, I find I understand it better than many young people.) 

What I am starting to believe -- not without some sadness -- is that the world may have stopped understanding me

In the 1920s or 1950s, or, in my days of youth, the 1980s, everyone got my "type." The dreamer. The creative person who wanted to drink deeply of life; to live for more than a paycheck and TV time at night for decades on end. The kind of person who wanted words and music to be his life. When people saw me, a jean-jacketed, bushy-black-curly-haired twenty-something on the train heading into Rutgers with his nose in a volume of Wordsworth's collected poems, they recognized: "One of those guys. A scholar." Then, they'd probably smile condescendingly to themselves at how I'd grow up, realize there was "no money in it" and move on. (Fooled them on that one.) I mean, there is no money in it, but...

Now? English departments are all but shutting down or they are merging with the other academically terminal patient: philosophy. Or they are seeking relevance by glomming onto "communications."

My students? I still love them and always will, but, over the decades, I have seen a change. It used to be they would get misty-eyed (at least most of them) when I did my best Dead Poets Society schtick about the sublime in the Romantic ideal or when I'd do the old "living/being truly alive" bit. (A "bit" by the way that I still embrace with complete sincerity.) I often go home exhausted not because of eight hours on my feet, but because of the emotional drain of hurling metaphoric balls that just are not being caught -- or, rather, that no one is even raising a glove for. 

Don't worry. I'm not going to give up until retirement day, I promise you that. But...

A few decades ago, there was a framework of relatability, at the very least. The kids knew about, say, a character like Jack from Titanic, who lived to embrace adventure and feeling. Therefore, they "got" Wordsworth (as a type of person, anyway). And, they "got" me, too, if in less dramatic and less handsome form than Leonardo DiCaprio. They understood people driven to feel and see the world. People driven to really be alive before they die. 

What happened? I don't know. Years of reality TV vs. fiction? Years of pushing STEM and ignoring the humanities? Years of vapid online entertainment -- malnutrition from chewing gum for the brain? A decline in reading?

I'm not sure. But it sure is disheartening when you tell your students, to illustrate the Romantic connection with Nature, that you spent eight days in the Grand Canyon, camping and rafting, and the only burning question in their eyes seems to be: "Why?"

When I was their age, I would see an adventurer, a poet, musician or an artist and think: I want to be like that guy. I'm trying hard not to sound like a complaining old man -- I actually enjoy social media and the wonders of modern technology, especially when it comes to making music. But you can't tell me that replacing the role models I had with "influencers" hasn't doused the passion for living in our young people. And when you can see the Taj Mahal with the click of a mouse, why make the trip?

So I guess there is still wisdom to thinking it is better to have loved and to die in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic than to have carefully managed one's finances, worked in a cubicle to a ripe old retirment age and live till 100, polishing one's golf cart. 

But to not be understood? It's jarring, that's for sure. My students don't see me anymore as "one of those guys" because those guys have gone the way of the stegosaurus. 

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