Thursday, September 29, 2005

America Coming of Age


Julia Alvarez is a writer and, seeing things through a writer’s eyes, she “struggles with what my writing has to offer in a world where terrors are now color-coded, where the dust from our tumbled-down towers is still floating in the air, where most recently a hurricane has created our very own refugee situation.”

Alvarez is not alone. It’s become annoyingly and depressingly mainstream to suggest that everything is somehow attached to or flavored by 9/11, from CEO mega-thefts to politics losing all relevant meaning to writers blocked, or if not blocked then fearful of “what they have to offer.”

I hear echoes in all this from fifty years back, a reverberation of that lost generation with whom I shared the decades, who claimed nothing was worth the doing because we were all doomed to nuclear holocaust. A percentage of those wanderers actually succeeded in writing themselves off to communal life, marijuana, mysticism and the poetry of Allen Ginsburg.

The rest actually got on with living their lives as laborers, teachers, small businessmen, lawyers and politicians. With the exception of the last two categories, they made America a more fair and prosperous country. We made progress as a nation and we fell back, we surged and we stumbled.

For the most part, the past fifty years have been stunning in the achievements of mankind, Americans leading the progress. Those years also brought us two major wars, the demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy, the assassination of one president and the resignation under threat of impeachment of another. Elvis and Microsoft, Anwar Sadat and cell-phones, AIDS and the mapping of the genetic code all happened either partially or entirely under the cloud of nuclear annihilation.

This echo doesn’t faze me any more than the original fear, it’s merely the Doppler-effect of another siren passing in the night. I didn’t think we were doomed in my youth and, if we were, what was the point of worrying about it to the detriment of worthwhile work? My friends weren’t unsettled either, at least not to the degree of staring pointlessly into a middle distance, fingering a guitar. We raised families, buried friends, loved our pets, paid most of our bills and lived lives not at all unlike our parents before us, who refused to be derailed by financial collapse and world war in their own personally formative decades.

I think there’s a national need to kick ourselves in our own ass and stop being greedy with success and wealth, security and isolation. There are debts to be paid for our cushy lives, bought (or at least rented) at the expense of our less fortunate. Every generation has to deal with its own coming of age and this is just another. But it's another unlike the last. Certainly unlike the next as well, but still . . . merely another.

So Julia Alvarez carries with her “A picture in my head of what can happen that won’t go away” and it seems that she shares that with a growing number of Americans. I'm sorry it won't go away for her. Perhaps the fatal mistake was ever letting it form there in the first place, like carrying the Challenger tragedy around too long in constant rerun.

Because ‘what can happen’ paralyzes the life that is happening. Sydney J. Harris, a much loved and long gone syndicated columnist said, “Most people are mirrors, reflecting the moods and emotions of the times; few are windows, bringing light to bear on the dark corners where troubles fester. The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”

And you don’t do that by living under clouds, be they nuclear or terrorist.