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Twenty-Something Journals: Life-Changing Events. Or are they? 6 January 2011

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If you come here often enough, you’ll know that I don’t always talk about skiing and cycling. And that sentence might be enough to turn you away on its own. But on those weeks when I’ve been out of town, the snow is gone or something catches my eye, I wander elsewhere. That’s the purpose of this blog: to wander.

So I wandered home over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and by the time I returned, three of the people I know well were engaged. Engaged, as in “planning to marry.” Yikes.  As our society moves away from marriage (here and the excellent James Q. Wilson here), the compact has—maybe?—acquired a greater sense of significance. Marriage is no longer the necessary step a relationship, but to do it anyway, well, maybe that says something. Maybe it means more. Considering all that, though, and then considering my friends, I don’t feel much at all—no real sense of surprise, or anything really, that they’ve told three other people that they’ll spend their lives together.

Yes, I’m happy for them, happy that they’ve found that special someone, but they’re still the same people. Two of them are, to my mind, still high schoolers waking up in the morning to go to a student council meeting or heading out to a Friday night party. That they now have a ring on it (rings on them?) hasn’t registered because I can’t tell a difference. Until last year, the bubbles of “engaged people” and “people that are my friends” didn’t intersect. It was one thing to understand engagement in the abstract (something two people much older than we did when they loved each other lots, typically in movies) and another to see it. Other people got engaged. My friends didn’t. Now they were the same.

It’s a significant thing this “to-be-married” stuff, but it only seems strange when given any thought. Kind of like having a dog for the first time or a girlfriend or anything other supposedly defining thing or state. It’s as if we’re all expecting something entirely different to come over us since a life has changed, that a wholly new person should emerge because the context is different. “In a relationship.” Now, “engaged.”

In short, we anticipate that the single E— couldn’t, nor can’t, be anything like the engaged E—. But when we figure out that she’s actually the same, though probably a little happier, the disparity between the reality and our expectations makes us think a moment. E—’s still essentially the person we knew a month ago, and the context, no matter how much more extraordinary, doesn’t change that. It’s a funny feeling.

Come back five years later, though, and we’ll see a difference. On the scale of a life, it takes no more than a moment to lose a parent, to go off to college, to buy a house, to become a husband or a wife, but the change in ourselves takes so much longer. We react to each as the person we were on the day before. After that, our identities develop over time: we cope, we learn, we nest, we rely on one another, evolving an imperceptibly slow pace. Imperceptible, that is, until we reflect on how we were at another stage. When we’ve incorporated any number of things into our identity, we begin to realize just how different we were with or without them.

Which brings us back to today, the engagements. This is the beginning of a process, both for the engaged and for those of us for whom marriage still seems a long way off. Ten years from now, I suspect it will seem as though E—, K—, and C— have always been married. We’ll ask, with honest curiosity, “what was it like to be single?” When the first child is born, we’ll again wonder, “How is it that this kid who surfed down a flight of stairs on his knees going to take care of human offspring?” He won’t know. We won’t know. But we’ll all learn. And that’s the beauty of it.

Yes, what is it about (liberal, white, upper middle class, college-educated) 20-somethings? 23 August 2010

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The scene opens. The morning light casts contrast across the bedsheets as the camera rolls directly overhead. The shot is overexposed, the palette washed out, and young lovers lie in each others’ arms. They smile and look away and back and talk about themselves and their futures. Her eyes are brown, his are blue. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Their hair lies at appropriately considered angles–he probably wears skinny jeans to bars and skinnier ties to work. She interned with the Forest Service in Oregon one summer but found herself tree-spiking with EarthFirst. They are both in their 20s, and they could star in any culture piece or any indie film whose director thinks he has finally subverted the rom-com.

Last week, they could have appeared in the New York Times piece on 20-somethings—several thousand words on the phenomenon that we’re evidently living, several thousands words that distill to this:

DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal istic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.

A time of possibility, yes, with no thought to the grim future ahead. Or potentially grim future anyway. But to how many people does this actually apply? How many 20-somethings actually live the life described, still tethered to parents, uncertain of the future, shirking responsibility all the way? Our opening couple qualifies by default–it’s the skinny tie and the liberal values (they’re sleeping together after all). But reporters at the Times enjoy creating trend stories where they see themselves, not necessarily a plurality of Americans.

To be a 20-something is certainly to be something, distinct from an adolescent and a mid-career 35 year-old, but reporter Robin Marantz Henig touches on only one broad explanation: a brain that continues to develop. Her star source admits that the “emerging adult” life stage only seems to fit for part of the population. But pay no heed to that, the story sweeps along. To be sure, it captured perfectly the experience so many of us have shared, yet to say the 25 year-old who became a mother in her teens and the engineering grad still living in his childhood home are walking the same path seems, well, wrong. Perhaps a similar optimism exists, but the Times cannot have it both ways: its assignment editors can’t continue to follow the role of culture only to ignore its influence in the case of 20-somethings.

The problem in offering this critique, of course, is that I can only speak anecdotally–the sum of my experiences has demonstrated the variety of lives being led by those born in the 1980s and 90s. The idea that our twenties universally represent a period of open doors cannot square with the reality that so many doors have already closed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend college, who started a family at 19, who could never afford the cost of an unpaid internship on the other side of the county. By choice or by necessity, so many folks have missed out on a supposedly broad cultural phenomenon.

As fun as it is to wag a finger at the article, it’s really too bad that more 20-somethings don’t share the development Henig and Arnett describe. In his own academic articles, Arnett maintains that the idea of emerging adulthood applies only in industrialized nations, and because his experiences as a professor led him to the concept in the first place, I imagine the explanatory power here holds true mostly for college students and grads in recent decades.

We’re beholden to no mass movements, have grown up without the specter of nuclear holocaust, have never known or feared a national draft. We enjoy the luxury of possibility, the knowledge that should we fail in our endeavors, our parents can still pick up the pieces. We can take risks, and travel the world and ski-bum because we can fall  back on our education and our parents’ bank accounts if all hope appears lost–even if our parents have pledged no support whatsoever. No parent with the means to intervene will ignore self-destruction, except perhaps to edify. To follow Henig in her exploration is to acknowledge that so many factors beyond our control brought us to this point, these opportunities.

I’ve enjoyed the ride, but I’m sure not saying that everyone my age was on the same bus.

Deconstructing Over-Consumption 5 August 2010

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As a college-educated twenty-something it is your duty to hate consumerism, corporations and the hard-working American way of life that engineered the $.99 hamburger. It’s a hatred that evidently grows out of a critical blend of sociology courses and casual screenings of Supersize Me and Food Inc. Just as moderately bright high school students discover (and then hopefully ditch) Ayn Rand, wantonly idealistic college grads latch on to the notion that if only Americans could tear apart Western acquisitiveness, they’d find true happiness–empiricism be damned.

The whole of human history says otherwise: money has allowed us to satisfy preferences and to demonstrate status. Not perfectly, of course, and even very very badly at times, but overall it’s performed better than anything else we’ve imagined. The anti-consumerist sentiment on the other hand has found success only in religion where it accompanies a promise of Heaven. It’s nearly impossible to argue against a guarantee of infinite bliss, but undermining idea that going Thoreau forever will ensure worldly satisfaction requires substantially less effort. And it’s more fun.

Anymore, American “over-consumption” has become axiomatic in this sort of conversation, yet because of that, the term rarely receives definition. What constitutes over-consumption? Following the meme far enough seems to indicate that Americans have been over-consuming since about the beginning of the twentieth century—when this country began to speed ahead (imagine ahead in scare quotes if you like) of its peers. Recognize the sliding scale: if Americans consumed at 1940 levels now, it would no longer count as over-consumption. But the world economy is growing. With that in mind, over-consumption appears to mean “to consume more than most everyone else.”

Just defining the term reveals the argument’s core. All this turning American consumerism on its head stuff distills to a desire for a more egalitarian society. It’s about baselines. The average world citizen consumes at, say, C, a level most I imagine most anti-consumption apologists will say is okay. After all, at issue is over-consumption not consumption itself. But American s consume at XC where X is some multiplier. Ignoring the fact that relationship between the two is more technical than that, the point of contention remains: Americans consume more than the average world citizen.

That seems to raise another problem, however, namely that only a small percentage of the world’s population can consume at an American level–the Earth’s resources will stretch only so far. On the surface, that concern appears trickier, but in reality it’s the same Malthusian bunkum as always. When humans deplete the Earth’s resources, well, there’s a whole universe out there. And that will continue until the species destroys itself or runs out of universe to mine. (Downside: as I wrote a while back, we’ll be forced to kill every non essential living thing on the planet first. Sorry, giant pandas.)

The key point, then, is that it doesn’t matter what Americans consume, just how much they consume relative to everyone else. No one would be in a tizzy if everyone on earth lived in a Malibu mansion. In fact, if consumption is simply the satisfaction of preferences through purchases, then it seems even the anti-consumerist crowd would support spending at any level so long as it remained equal.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, though. Okay. If that’s then case, then consider two scenarios with the assumption that watching the sun set over the beach makes a person happy. In scenario A, he has the money to purchase a plane ticket to the beach. In scenario B, he’s broke and stuck in Decatur. Logic dictates that he’s less happy in Decatur. Funny how, if money doesn’t buy happiness, nearly everything folks enjoy doing requires it. And, please, don’t argue that socialization produces all of that. Skiing is fun. Cycling is fun. Watching a movie is fun. Given the choice between any of those things and picking berries for survival, I’ll go for bike ride, thanks.

To get around that point, you might argue that if we simply didn’t know about iPods and motorcycles and what have you, then we we’d never know what were missing. True, but not a case for anti-consumerism. If you can’t even conceive of the alternative to your present situation, you’re not in a position to state a preference either way.

If you liked listening to music on the go in the 80s, you would probably say you were happy. But you didn’t even know that you could be happier with an iPod. Ethically, this gets a bit complex, but if we know that American-style consumption drives innovation, and that innovation leads to products that create new forms of happiness, then we are denying ourselves potential happiness if we stamp out consumer culture.

If you tired of theory, try this:

Here’s global happiness.

Here’s purchasing-power-adjusted per-capita GDP.

I’d written another 350 words on status, but this is all that’s getting published for now. If you were looking for the smackdown finale, come back later and maybe I’ll have have an appropriately witty conclusion.

6 Tips for Pooping at Work 30 July 2010

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Image from Popsci.com

In keeping with the idea that this blog targets twenty-somethings, it occurred to me that so many twenty-something are new to real jobs–the kind of jobs that don’t involve cleaning company restrooms or getting high in them. So to help ease that transition, I’ll give you some tips.  You can use these the rest of your life. That’s how nice I am.

1. It is okay to poop at work. No, really. Everybody poops, and given that work generally takes up more than half our waking hours, that means most everyone poops at work. Obama works longer days that most folks, so I’d guess he poops at work a lot. It’s also a good way to break up an annoying project, like solving unemployment.

2. Scout the area. Pooping is not a social event until it reaches critical, anonimizing mass of about 4 concurrent poopers. Therefore, be sure to scout your intended restroom before settling in. This will prevent any awkward discoveries mid-poop. In the event you find the restroom occupied, you may choose from one of three options: the quick hand wash (preferred because it makes noise and sets your departure timetable); the unnecessary pee (deeply unsatisfying); or the the mirror check (which leaves the present pooper on edge about your intentions to leave).

3. The Courtesy Flush. Unlike your bathroom at home where no one is likely to walk in as you–what’s another term for this?–evacuate your bowels, there exists a strong possibility of interruption at your office. There, should you reach such a point as seems convenient during your tenure on the throne, you should flush. Even if your nose detects only the sweetest scent of lavender about you, flush. Your nose sucks at assessing your own fragrance.

4. You must not under any circumstances make conversation from the stall. If you are a man and are in a stall at work, there is only one explanation why. You are pooping. You are not peeing because 1) men don’t pee sitting down unless they were confused about whether they had to poop and 2) there is always an open urinal at work. This isn’t the seventh inning stretch. So, anyway, when you start chatting up the guy at the sink, he knows what you’re doing, and he doesn’t want to think about it. And if you like that kind of thing, then talk on the phone and wander around naked at home to get your jollies. No one wants to imagine your half-naked hairy self on a toilet.  Not kosher, dude.

5. Do not take a newspaper–unless you trust in your stealthiness. Yes, all your clothes come with you to the restroom, and yes, they, not a newspaper will follow you to the next meeting, but you simply cannot allow the women of your office to notice the path of the paper. They will not be pleased if they discover its journey includes layover in the men’s room. Will not be pleased at all. With that in mind, you face two options: forgo your restroom reading or learn to conceal the contraband. A happy co-worker is one who lives without knowledge of your role in the Times’s daily rendezvous with the toilet paper.

6. Alert newcomers to your presence. The flip-side of tip two. If you’ve employed tips three and four, it’s possible that the next poor soul to arrive will believe he’s entered a vacant restroom. Not so! He must be alerted to this before he can establish himself in another stall, lest the two of you realize your shared mistake in the eerie quiet that you both refuse to break. Or he might linger and primp, extending your stay. You must alert him, then, without giving away your identity: a shuffle of the feet, a clearing of the throat, a sharp inhalation through the nose. These things should be enough to speed him along.

I’m sure that other tips exist, like the point that no one should apply Axe body spray ever, but particularly not in a stall. But for now, I’ll leave it at this. If you have any suggestions, send them my way.

Independence Day Hipsterism? 8 July 2010

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Ian S. downs his glass of Jack Daniels and steps up to the piano, an 1880s Steinway baby grand. It was the first of its kind to arrive in Colorado, its owner says, and the instrument has since made its way to this house in Denver’s Lower Highlands. Ian clasps his hands, addressing the crowd. “I’m going to start with a Chopin waltz in C minor,” he says. “I know, usually waltzes are boring, but I think you’ll like this one.” His fingers fly. Conversation halts in the audience. Ian is a gifted pianist.

He is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and cut-off shorts. This is the Fourth of July in Colorado.

The night progresses, and celebrating America opens a window into the life of a certain brand of twenty-something in this county—over-talented, underemployed and not necessarily disappointed in that. It is, to give a nod to another country about to celebrate a birthday (of sorts), a seeming Frenchification of American young adults. For now at least, work has taken a backseat to other pursuits. It isn’t hedonism per se, but maybe another way of channeling energies? I hesitate to bring the term “hipster” to the conversation, but at the same time it seems to fit.

The internet overflows with investigations into hipster culture, but reading through it, the only insight available is that no one is actually a hipster. But then, no one really likes labels. Who wants to be the “kind of person who…”? It’s too simple to paint with that broad brush. Dave Matthews fans beware. Same to fixie-riders. In any event, let’s stick with the label for these Independence Day partiers if only for continuity’s sake. Hipsters. Of a peculiarly Coloradan bent.

To enjoy Colorado, you don’t necessarily need to wear cut-off jeans. You don’t necessarily have to ride a fixie or a cruiser. You don’t have to listen to music so new it hasn’t even been stolen off the internet yet. But it helps. Behind all that affectation, though, lies thousands of dollars in performance outerwear, mountain bikes, skis, climbing gear and helmets for every conceivable pursuit. The Colorado hipster is a geode best cracked on sunny weekends.

The personalities take on a similar structure. Hipster outside, enormous and diverse talent inside. It peaks out every once in a while, as it did in Ian’s performance, but more often it remains hidden under a bushel basket. A soft egalitarianism reigns. Perhaps it’s too cool to show off. Maybe egalitarianism masks feigned effortlessness.

I don’t really know, but as it appears I’m going to further insinuate myself in this culture, I’ll continue to study it. If I become a hipster, I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, I”ll keep on exploring the twenty-something life here.

Try on the photos for now. No fireworks, but it’s America just the same.

Worthwhile Quotations 22 June 2010

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I’m not usually one for quotes, but this one fits for twenty-somethings.

Some writers, the young and the dim ones, think being near something important makes them important so they should act and sound important which will, somehow, make their audience important, too. Then, as soon as everybody is filled with a sufficient sense of importance, Something Will Be Done. It’s not the truth. Thirty years of acting and sounding important about the Holocaust did nothing to prevent Cambodia.

From P. J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell

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