He died on a beautiful Saturday morning in August. He’d say it was good golfing weather. The cancer started in his lungs, and quickly moved its way through his body. After giving his family a chance to say goodbye one last time, he went off into the Great Whatever. We spent the weekend packing up the house; sifting through memories, throwing out old junk, swapping stories and trying not to be too sad. He was in his 80’s, and I think he would have considered himself lucky to be around that long. He’s at peace now. There won’t be a funeral—he wasn’t religious—but they will be throwing a party to celebrate the life of my father’s father.
To him, The Good Life was a round of golf or a hunting trip—the rest was just waiting. In an increasingly synthetic world, it is refreshing to think of how much joy he got out of the outdoors. Through him and my father, I learned to find beauty in nature; even on a cold October morning, I could sit in the grass or in a camouflaged boat and wait for the sun to rise. I still take walks through the woods and am reminded of hunting in northern Minnesota. I can still smell the fire burning in the cabin’s fireplace mingling with cigar smoke and whatever was cooking, and I can still hear the sounds of laughter, cards shuffling, dirty jokes, and poker chips clanking after a long day of walking and waiting. These remain some of the fondest memories of my childhood.
A lot of moments and memories go with him, but the good ones will live on through the magic of storytelling. There’s the one about the time he dressed up as Santa for the younger grandkids at a family gathering. His air travel woes as a traveling salesman in the 60s and 70s, like the one where they had to foam the runway because the plane’s wheels didn’t work. Stories of living in St Paul, of raising seven kids, of golf games and duck hunting and trips to the lake. He’s gone, but people live on forever in memories and stories. All we can do is keep telling his stories.
It’s easy to focus on the bad things—the cancer, the last few days, the grief—but I choose to remember it differently. I’ll remember seeing him with a huge smile and has dark-tinted glasses, shaking my hand and saying “Tommy, how are ya?” I’ll remember being a boy with a BB gun, walking to our hunting destination, scared as hell of the dark or a noise in the woods or the cold, and grabbing onto his leg for dear life.
Sometimes, all you need is a reassuring pat on the head to feel like everything is alright. That was a long time ago, but I haven’t forgotten that simple lesson.
Rest in Peace, Grandpa.
[I read this and decided that I wanted to figure out what being young means]
To be young is to mess up. A lot. It’s an unavoidable part of your existence, and it only gets more pronounced as you grow older. If you’re smart, you’ll learn things from the failed relationships, the hangovers, the unemployment, the debt, and the confusion. You’ll learn about yourself, the way you react to change, and you’ll learn to pick yourself up off of the ground, dust yourself off, and jump out towards new opportunities and new mistakes. You’ll never be perfect, but you will be better.
To be young is to feel unmoored. You’re on your own, floating in your twenties, hunting for a purpose or a mate or a job. You will feel alone. There’s no guidebook on how to get through it. If you can’t throw an anchor down, at least tether yourself to other boats. Find communities of supportive people that make you want to be better. Stick with your friends; they will help you weather the storm (spoiler alert: they feel the same way you do). You’re without a schedule for the first time in your life. Appreciate it, and use the time to figure out who you want to be in 2 days, in 2 months, and in 2 years. Start doing things that get you closer to being the person you want to be.
To be young is to regret. You’ll wish you had taken the other fork in the road, or handled a situation differently, or said something instead of staying silent. Regret is going to be part of your life. Take a deep breath and realize that there’s only one direction from here, and it ain’t backwards. Learn something from your regrets and move on.
To be young is to be selfish, and unkind, and just plain mean to each other sometimes. We’re hard-wired to compete and to survive. That brings out the animal in us, and we’ll lash out at others as a defense mechanism. We’ll all say things we wish we hadn’t, and then we’ll have to apologize and hope that we haven’t caused irreparable damage to a relationship, be it personal or professional or both. You have to learn to let the tiger out of the cage only at the right time.
To be young is to take everything and nothing for granted. It’s easy to move through life quickly, to never stop to smell the roses or appreciate a sunset from a cabin up north. It’s easy to push off a phone call with your parents, or a chance to catch up with an old friend over a beer, because we think there’s time for that later. We’re young, and we have all the time in the world. But growing up these days we are out on our own for the first time, often without a fulfilling job, mounds of debt, and no safety net or schedule to save us. We learn to appreciate happy hour 2-for-1s our group of friends that much more because of it.
To be young is to do stupid things. How many of us have stayed up too late watching Netflix because you just need to know what happens on the next episode of Breaking Bad? How many of us go out drinking or to bar trivia or to a comedy club on a Monday or Thursday, even though work tomorrow is going to suck because of it? How many of us have spent too much money on shit you don’t need, at a bar or at Target or online? I’m guilty of all of that, and I assume you are too. Your twenties are good for that kind of stupid, forgiving exploration. Once you anchor yourself down with a wife or a mortgage or a few youngsters, everything is less forgiving. Use this time wisely, for it is a gift that dwindles away as you become less young.
To be young is to endure confusion, pleasure, invulnerability, vulnerability, fear, excitement, love, and regret all together. It’s feeling wise but knowing you are dumb, feeling old but knowing you’re young, and feeling like a failure yet learning to win. It’s a moving contradiction and a truth we all subconsciously know: “We are scared and tired and often bored, but we’ll get through it, and you can’t wait to see what we can do.”
To be young is wonderful and awful at the same time. Enjoy it while you can.
I was in Jackson, Mississippi over the weekend for work. I went to a crawdad boil with friends of a friend. After a few beers and a few hours of laughing with these people I’ve never met before, I had a thought:
There is so much fun to be had in odd places with new people. We forget that. We go through our lives doing the same thing, seeing the same people, and going to the same bars even though there’s so much out there. So, so much.
You’re never too old or young to take giant leaps of faith, but your twenties are designed for it. We graduated college, and may have jobs or leases or significant others, but that’s it. Many of us are unmoored, untethered to a particular place or person or position. That drifting feeling is obviously a little disorienting and can be confusing, but it’s a positive thing too. It’s a chance for a course correction. It’s time to explore. We’re lucky because we have all this time in the great divide between who we are and who we will be. There is no better age to try new things, to travel, to screw up, to change and move and run from routine. It’s a gamble worth taking.
Complacency is simple. “Just happy enough” is a plague-ridden safety blanket we cling to for fear of something worse. We need to keep jumping at new experiences and putting ourselves out there to fail because that enemy known as “routine” is always nipping at our heels. Routine is the voice in the back of your head saying “you might fail” and “but you don’t have any idea what will happen next.” It’s telling you that “it’s gonna be awkward” and “it’ll never work out.”
You’ll feel lost sometimes. You’ll feel alone and disoriented and maybe a little afraid. That’s OK. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. There’s an intriguing weirdness about this country we live in and the people that exist in these new places. There’s a lot to learn from these people, and we could all benefit from seeing a little bit of that Weird America firsthand. It’s good to feel out of place, out of your element, without a safety net. That’s how you grow.
New is your ally. Different is your partner-in-crime. Strange is your bedfellow. We need to start telling ourselves to fail. To be unsure. To put yourself out there. Feel fear. Get dirty. Fuck up. Change gears. Move forward.
Maybe all it takes is a Mississippi Crawdad Boil with two strangers you’ll probably never see again to jolt you awake. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a life-altering moment waiting to happen. You never know until you give it a shot.
“I’m pretty sure you’re two different people,” said a friend and coworker as I stared inside a glass of whiskey at a downtown bar. She was referring to the person I was at work and who I am on the weekends. One is an overworked, professional, dedicated employee who goes to bed by 10, exercises, and eats well. The other comes out on Fridays and Saturdays and still thinks he’s more or less in college. It’s not exactly a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’m not sure which one is supposed to be the monster.
That distance between professional and personal lives never truly goes away, but I don’t think it’s ever larger than when you’re a twenty-something in a hard-partying college town with a lot of disposable income, very little stability and an allergic reaction to boredom. We’re bored and unmoored.
I’m quick to melodramatically tell everyone what a wreck my personal life is and like to make jokes about how many shambles my life is in, but I’m pretty sure that’s a common feeling for those in my demographic. You’re confused. You feel a bit lost at sea without an anchor. You don’t know how you’re expected to act. The fragments of who you were keep bubbling up to the surface, and the person you’re supposed to become hasn’t arrived yet. We’re all just passing time until the train gets to the station. There isn’t really anything else to do, so we go out to bars, order one too many, and traipse around the city like kids in an ever-expanding, endless candy store. We make friends through drinking games, random hookups and laughter. We are young and wild and that is, to an extent, how we like it.
I think the confusion comes from the idea that I want both poles at the same time. I want the unexpected confusion and randomness of the night, but some nights I just want to watch a shitty movie on Netflix with a girlfriend. I want to be unaccountable and free, but also reliable, loyal and professional. I want the shirt-and-tie nine-to-five, but also the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Those two sides fight each other for my attention.
I keep looking forward and trying to figure out what I am actually supposed to be doing. I keep thinking that I should be acting my age, whatever that means. The more and more I think about it, I am acting exactly how I should be. I think the expectation is that as a twenty-something college graduate, my particular brand of dualism isn’t out of the ordinary. It’s expected, and it’s reflected and reinforced by the pop culture we breathe in. Look at the group on How I Met Your Mother; the characters are successful, professional, productive members of society but they also spend their free time at the bar looking for beer, bedmates and laughter.
Eventually, we’ll meet an anchor that makes the boredom go away, and we’ll be content just sitting around. We’ll be happy doing couple-y things, and “adult” things, and we’ll give less and less time to the other side. Eventually, the distance between your own personal Yin and Yang is almost undetectable. We’ll find a balance. It just might take a while, so we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re waiting.
I turned 24 on Sunday.
A 24th birthday is a seemingly insignificant blip. It’s a milestone not worth remembering, another random point in my individual timeline. The pivot-point birthdays, the ones that open up new possibilities and endless opportunity just by proxy of my age (16, 18, 21) are behind me.
But, given that it’s a nice time to stop and reflect on the past 8,760 days, here are a few things I’ve learned on this crazy adventure we call life:
You’re never as old as you feel and you’ll never be this young again.
You will miss an endless amount of opportunities. You will always feel like you missed some turning point in your life, and you will always be haunted by the road not taken, the girl you never talked to, the job you never accepted. You will feel regret. The more time you spend going down that imaginary road, the more time you’re wasting. Spend your time focusing on the opportunities you caught and what you’re doing with them. This is your life. Right now. It’s all you have, so you might as well enjoy it. There are very few pains worth holding onto, and regret isn’t one of them.
Own your vices, but get rid of your demons: Everyone needs something to hold onto. Some people (like me) find solace in pop culture, some (also like me) find it in food and drink, some find it in religion. We all have vices; some are good, some are evil, some are both, some are neither. The moment you let any of these things take over your life, you might need to reconsider your connection to them. Very few people are strong enough to do this on their own.
There’s a healthy balance between outside influence and intuition. A lot of people will feel like giving you advice (I’m doing it right now, and I’ve done it before), and you will be tempted to listen. They will say that they know what’s best for you, and they have more experience than you, and that they’re right. They will poke and prod and nudge you in directions you don’t want to go. These people will try to drown out the little voice in your head, the one that tells you yes or no or stop or go. Don’t let anyone muffle your inner voice.
You will feel awkward sometimes. Remnants of that insecure teenage version of you will stick around and taunt you. That’s normal. Everyone goes through the same basic experiences you do: the thrill of a first kiss, the heartbreak of a first love lost, the explosion of hormones, the general gawkiness. The best you can hope for is that you take the good things about your early years (the hope, the excitement, the child-like wonder, the openness to connection) with you and leave most of the other junk behind.
You will never be perfect at anything, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
It is never okay to stop learning. School’s over, and you’ll probably never go back. It’s up to you to read books, to devour culture, to jump into new situations head-first. Hopefully you’ll learn from your successes and your failures. Hopefully you’ll learn from others. The only thing you can do is try to learn how to be a better person.
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear. Meeting friends and potential love interests only gets harder, more forced, and more awkward as time goes on. You’ll like people you work with, and maybe you’ll like your neighbors, and maybe you’ll like your girlfriend’s friends, but you’ll never have an experience like high school or college again. Those friends will understand you better than most people, but they’ll be taken by new cities and new people and some of them will fade away. Try to maintain your connections; it’s pretty easy these days. You don’t have a lot of excuses to let those connections die out.
There are a lot of shiny things in this world. There are distractions everywhere. The hardest thing in this world of so much noise, so much bullshit, and so many different things warring for your attention is to find something real to concentrate on. Try to devote your time to whatever makes you nuts with passion, whatever burn inside you, the things you feel with every piece of your being. Nobody else can tell you what those are. Figure out how to enjoy silence and things that happen in nature.
Here’s to another 24 years.
[Art courtesy of Lauren Krukowski. Click the pic for more]
If there’s one thing you should remember about heading to a college bar after you’re a graduate, it’s this: you never come out of it thinking that it was a great idea. This was especially true of O’Grady’s, a bar notorious for its dark interior and its strong drinks. O’Grady’s gave out Dum-Dum suckers to help quell the sting of rail vodka. As far as student bars go, it was a pretty great place to acquire a blackout. Somewhere in the swirl of the night, we expected to find solace.
On any given weekend night, I could spot 6 or 7 coworkers at the bar; O’Grady’s is never the kind of place you want your colleagues to see you, but there we all were, hoping the other wouldn’t remember an awkward encounter the next morning.
The bar was near and it didn’t have a line (a rarity after midnight), so we went in. O’Grady’s was full of a student populace we were no longer a part of: underagers, drunken slobs, stressed-out overachievers and proud Greeks. The bartenders, trained to be flirty for tips, tried their very best to keep the booze flowing and the conversations light. I looked around and saw a few guys whispering sweet lines into the ears of strangers, girls twirling and dancing to the music, wallflowers eyeing up people they would muster up the courage to talk to, and groups of friends sitting around the tables telling inside jokes. A normal night.
Nostalgia hits you in weird places when you’re at an old haunt: the bartender’s smile, that dartboard you lost game after game at, the conversations you had with strangers. Ghosts come in all shapes and sizes, rushing by in waves of hazy memories and forgotten conversations. We’ve seen too many familiar faces fade away into adulthood, off in some bigger city chasing larger dreams. Those of us who stayed still float around the city, searching for specters of the olden days, haunted by the people and places of our past.
It was after about one-and-a-half whiskey sodas that things started to get hazy. It was time to move on.
Whiskey has a way of making you stronger and weaker at the same time. This is never more apparent than when you’re having a one on one conversation with a pretty girl at a dark bar. During the good times, whiskey raises you up, pats you on the back for your accomplishments, and whispers in your ear that there’s nobody better or smarter or funnier or more attractive than you. Nobody is more capable than a man with a whiskey buzz.
During the bad times, whiskey kicks you down, laughs at you, and dares you to swim deeper and deeper into it until you get to the bottom. Whiskey makes you overthink. It makes you regret. It makes your failures float to the top of your consciousness, your anger surface.
Whiskey will inevitably make you say a lot of things. It may get her to smile. You’ll almost always make her laugh, either with you or at you. Whiskey will make you brave enough to share secrets with her, and if you’re lucky maybe she’ll tell you some of her own. You may think you’re having a profound moment, a pivot point in your life; you may see visions of the near future, her hand in yours and a smile on your face. But then you’ll leave. She’ll go one way, you’ll go another. The whiskey will turn back into a mean friend, the one that tells you it can’t believe you’re going home alone again, the one that can’t believe you actually thought you had a chance with her.
But then whiskey tucks you in and swiftly lulls you to sleep. The next morning, whiskey might kick your ass, but whiskey is never boring. At least you and it had a few adventures together, right?
Six Things To Remember About the Morning After
- It’s going to hurt. It’s like a college diploma does something to your brain and body to make the hangover stronger.
- I have yet to encounter a hangover that couldn’t be slayed or subdued by brunch
- If you don’t get a bloody mary or two, it is not brunch. It’s just breakfast.
- After brunch, you will lay down on your couch, snuggled into a warm blanket and completely into whatever crappy movie happens to be on TV. You will believe that you’ve earned this moment.
- Something electric happens at about 8pm on a Saturday night, no matter how difficult the day felt or how attractive your toilet looked. You will want to go back out and do it all over again
- Going to brunch twice in one weekend is not a crime
[more NaNoWriMo short fiction]
The winter fills the world with a cold monochrome landscape, dead trees and a frozen ground. The vibrant greens and blues of summer are replaced by the differing shades of grey. The emotions are rawer, the lows a bit lower. I think it’s the never-breaking monotony of the day during the winter that makes me feel this way; when I leave for work it’s dark, and when I leave again to go home it’s already dark. My friends are less apt to do anything; human hibernation is prevalent in the winter, and things like DVR and Netflix only make it more appealing.
But the good parts of winter are out there, buried in the dark, deep in the snow. The early season snowfalls, which for a while are beautiful, are like watching a scene out of a movie where the sensitive-yet-snarky protagonist walks down a neon-lit street where the snow is only slightly less fluffy than the hat of the girl holding onto his arm. Snow feels comfortable and calm before it feels cold and constricting.
Before the Holidays are over, everyone is happier, more cheerful, more open to connection. Snow and Christmastime are things that turn everyone back into a kid, if only for a while. Christmastime is something that must be experienced in the Midwest, or in New York, or anywhere with a measurable amount of snow and a cold bite in the air.
It was one of those snowy December nights I was oddly fond of, when it wasn’t blisteringly cold out and when the bitter winds didn’t blow, but when the big snowflakes were falling hard.
It was well past closing time, so we couldn’t stay in the bar. She lived close. She fed me a line about how I could sleep on her couch, but she was getting up early in the morning so I might as well just head home. I gave her a hug and started walking down the street. And another night alone, I thought. I was ready to spend the walk home analyzing the night, figuring out where I went wrong, and deciding if I actually really had a chance with her. I get lost in my mind sometimes, and a cold snowy night coupled with a few adult beverages always gets the introspection going.
A few seconds later, she yelled my name, and I turned around. I don’t remember what she said, but I’ll always remember that moment. There she was, out in the middle of the street, with heavy snow all around us and neon lights cutting through the dark night, waving goodbye. Maybe it was the whiskey, or maybe it was just the night playing tricks on me, but it felt like that moment lasted for ten minutes. It was like something out of a painting or a movie. It was beautiful.
And so I walked home with a glimmer of hope in my head, the kind of hope that grows in your brain with every conversation you have with Her, the kind that keeps you interested. The kind of hope that makes you think winter isn’t so bad.
The one thing you learn growing up in areas with cold, cold winters is that it will end. It may be months of frigid temperatures and moods, but it leaves, it’s replaced with the brighter days and your mood will thaw with the warmer temperatures
[November is National Novel Writing Month, and while I'm way too busy at work to actually devote much time to writing, I'm trying to give tiny stories a shot]
I’m a rare case; at the early age of 22 I was diagnosed with a hard-to-cure syndrome known as “a real job.” Others like me have the same symptoms: constant fatigue, irritability, disposable income, shrinking social life, and general maladjustment. We’re hopeful that they’ll find a cure in our lifetime, but none of us are holding our breath. Like everyone else, we spend our weeks waiting for Friday to come.
Luckily for us, we found medicine called Happy Hour. Happy Hour was a placebo that tricked us into thinking we were still in college. Over a few drinks, we could tell jokes about the rest of our coworkers and vent about all of the assholes and idiots we dealt with day to day. We did this without looking around at the rest of the patrons, because none of them looked all that happy anymore. We avoided the glum faces as much as we could and kept moving forward. Friday was only a few days away.
It was 4:59 on the first Friday of fall. The next 60 seconds went by at a snail’s pace, but once it hit 5:00 I remembered that I had about another hour of work to do. That’s alright, I told myself; the time between now and the night always drags by, and I might as well get something done. So I worked for another hour, hit the road and the liquor store and was home by 7:00. I was exhausted, but I still felt allergic to my couch. I had a whiskey soda, took a shower, and had another drink. I was revived and revved up, ready for another night.
My phone buzzed and I pulled it out to see what it wanted. “What are you doing tonight?”
A text from her was always welcome. She was a pretty girl, one that always had to deal with her looks overshadowing the rest of who she was. Girls like her always have an underlying sadness, as if they know they’ll be expected to play the role of the pretty, oblivious girl forever. She liked when people treated her a little differently. Before the party, I asked her and some other friends over to pregame.
Pregaming is the sacred art of imbibing with your friends before heading out into the night. It’s something we forgot to forget from college, a relic of a bygone era. It is a way to spend time with people you really like, not just the people you spent time with because they recognize you from school or work. It is an armor you put on before heading out to the dark bars or crowded parties. Smiles are brighter, laughs are louder, lives less inhibited. In the wintertime, it has the extra benefit of making everything warmer.
So we had a few drinks, turned the music up, and reveled in the crisp autumn night. Fall is the secret hero of the seasons here. Summer gets a lot of adoration in Madison; the Terrace is in full swing, the Farmers’ Market is vibrant and swarming with young families, and the city is oscillating between the sweltering summer heat of the day and the cool Midwestern breeze of the night. It is an excellent place to spend your lazy summers, watching the days float on like the sailboats over Lake Mendota’s waves.
But autumn is when the city reboots. The students reenter the city, the freshmen so eager and excited to start a new chapter of their lives, the seniors feeling the anxiety of their future saturating the air. In autumn the Badgers get back on the field, and the library is again filled with students pretending to get work done but really just casing the place for future bedmates. In autumn, the blood rushes back to the heart of the city and the world begins again.
After the third round of beer, gin or whiskey-whatevers and the second game of “ride the bus” we were ready to head out. The party wasn’t very far away; only a few blocks separated us from what was a comfortable get-together and what would be a wild mix of people I wish I never met, people I was avoiding, and a few people I genuinely liked. I paid the host and we received a red solo cup so we could have a few stale beers from the keg. Those cups were more artifacts from college we wanted so desperately to outgrow. We found an open spot in the corner of a room, and had our friends come to us.
As far as parties go, it was an uneventful, run-of-the-mill hour. We talked about how our jobs were slowly killing us, made fun of the host’s shitty idea of good music, and shared a few stories. We told jokes about the people at the party we didn’t like, relived a few of the glory days in college, and went about our night without looking back. There was nothing special about the party, but all of it hasn’t grown old yet.
The cup over the tap meant it was time to leave the party in search of somewhere a little darker and a lot more anonymous. There’s nothing worse than a dry party full of people you don’t want to know, so we flocked to the streets once more in search of a better buzz and a few more laughs.
My dad was a PC before being a PC meant being John Hodgman. I’ve worked on a Windows-based computer since I was playing Commander Keen as a three year old. We never had a Macintosh, but I do remember using iMacs in 4th and 5th grade. Even to a PC, losing the co-founder of Apple is a pretty big moment.
Yesterday, my generation’s visionary died, and we’re a little broken up about it. You can see it in the flurry of sincere tweets, obituaries, and blog posts from a normally-disaffected generation. He was our John Lennon, a dreamer who seemed to believe in himself and his own ideas on a supernatural level. I saw more than one tweet fly by into the ether last night about how losing Steve Jobs is my generation’s version of losing Walt Disney, someone else whose ideas were so brilliant and so new. People are actually laying flowers for Steve Jobs, a former executive at Apple stores he helped create. That is absolutely unheard of in an era whe
re our nation’s youth are protesting in front of Wall Street, an era where we distrust anyone wearing a suit and cast shame on executives across the country.
Steve Jobs showed us why we should Think Different. He hired the brightest people and expected them to make the best products. He pushed his employees to the edge because on the edge, legends are born. He proved to us that breaking the rules isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do. We learned from Steve that if you’re good enough, you make your own rules. Through his work, he taught us that simplicity in design trumps complexity every time. His products showed us that ease of use is a beautiful thing.
Steve Jobs taught us that sometimes, things break, and the world will crush you. He also taught us that there’s freedom in losing everything. After being fired from Apple in the 80’s, he could have sat on his couch, wallowing around with a bag of cheetos and daytime TV like the rest of us. He started Pixar instead. He taught a generation of underpaid, underemployed, and overworked people that life is too short to work in a job you don’t like. We learned from Steve that settling for a life we don’t want is far worse than feeling lost for a little while, and we each take that lesson with us well into our twenties.
The fact that the majority of my generation probably heard about his death via one of his products says more about the impact of Steve Jobs than words ever can. But Steve Jobs means more to us than the phones in our pockets, laptops in our backpacks and music in our ears. He showed us what we could be if we were brave enough and heard our inner voice in a clear and resonating tone. He was a genius, someone who changed the world, and he will always be an inspiration to each and every one of us.
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.
I didn’t take 9/11 very seriously when it happened (I wrote about comedy’s place in tragedy last year). I was 13, and I lived in a suburb in Minnesota. The day was filled with jokes about planes aiming for the buildings in our town: Go ahead, take out the teen center and ice rink. Nail the McDonald’s downtown. That was how my classmates and I felt that day; there was no danger, no threat to anyone close, no damage done in our world. We made jokes because we didn’t understand why our teachers were so solemn, so quietly fearful of how everything would turn out and what the ramifications of the attack would be.
They remembered the draft and they remembered Vietnam, so at that moment all of our teachers and parents probably had visions of their students and sons forced to wear camouflage, ready to fight another guerrilla enemy in a long war. History was again going to be repeating itself, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
But there wasn’t a draft, only a generation of volunteers heading to the Middle East to fight for whatever we had lost that day. And many battles have been fought, and many lives have been lost, and many things will never be the same.
What happened and what changed and what evolved in the last 10 years is nothing short of astonishing.
We’re still involved in the same wars. We’ve seen the feeling of unity and “God Bless America” patriotism mutate into polarized political factions. One of them is an overwhelming celebration of anger, fear and jingoism hiding as“Average American” patriotism. The other party is full of idealists hiding under a veil of irony and cynicism because they just might actually believe in the “Hope and Change” rhetoric of yesteryear. Everything is black and white. And anyone in the middle better duck and cover, because there isn’t a place for reasonable people who see value in both sides. Politics isn’t a buffet, it’s a prix fixe menu. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.
Economically, we’ve seen empires crumble, then banks crumble, and then we crumbled. Jobs were lost, and many more Americans had to deal with layoffs and job reductions. Gas shot up, loans went unpaid, and houses still remain foreclosed. The rich get richer, the poor poorer. Again, the middle is no place to be.
We’ve now fully realized that we’re on our own. The institutions won’t make us whole. Our political parties will only keep fracturing and moving towards the poles. The banks will let us down, religion will not save us, schools can barely teach us, and the government cannot protect us.
But, as the Springsteen song goes, “at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.” We still have hope. The internet has evolved from a place for nerds to talk about episodes of The Simpsons and Star Trek into an all-encompassing ecosystem of its own. Social media creates communities of geographically-displaced human beings, and is even aiding in revolutions across the world. Pop culture is making us smarter and more aware. There is some light, even if it isn’t that much.
There will be good years, and bad years, and we will keep moving forward. Just remember that good things will keep happening. Kids will still laugh, friends and families will still get together, and comedians will still tell jokes. We will still smile. We have our freedom, and no group or institution or moment has been able to take that away. And we will never forget one of the moments that changed everything and defined our generation.