…in the Mail!
Hey, it’s a start!
I wrote a letter to the NYer in response to an article my Nathan Heller, “Semi-Charmed Life,” that I read during my hideous Aeroflot flight on my way back here in January. It is my tradition to buy a New Yorker while traveling (in places where one can find it), and while I often get immersed in their stories, it’s not usually enough to provoke a written response… though I had to do something when I was in my room, sleepless and suffering, after aforementioned hideous flight.
In the article, Heller writes through the lens of his own coming-of-age experience about today’s young adult population, which often seems irritatingly adrift, privileged yet powerless, and cursed with a specific kind of panic, somewhere at the intersection of too much choice meets too little.
It’s this kind of thing, spouted by a psychologist who makes her living off of the anxiety of young people, that really grates on me:
In professional life, a few lost years or lousy, aimless jobs could come to haunt you: “Late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier.” The frontal lobe of the brain launches a phase of major rewiring from the teens into the twenties, raising the stakes of engaged and productive behavior: “We don’t become what we don’t hear and see and do every day. In neuroscience, this is known as ‘survival of the busiest.’ ”
Firstly I just think it’s bullshit– that you’ll be playing catch-up your whole life if you don’t “start now,” that by 40 you’ll be noticeably less successful than all your friends who immediately jumped on the right track out of college, in a way that everyone knows but delicately avoids mentioning in social situations. That you’ll be a failure, in so many words. Also, it assumes that today’s young people deliberately choose to be lost, lousy, and aimless (“I could work at this unpaid internship at a fledging nonprofit…or I could get a top security clearance and start out making more than my parents … my ill-formed, 20-something frontal lobe seems to be pushing me towards the former…”). Some do, of course, choose to.
BUT MOST OF US ARE TRYING, DAMMIT.
And I think you can be “busy” even if you don’t seem to be rising in the ranks, climbing the ladder, making your way to the top, or any other height-related cliché you choose.
I think about the future, imminent and protracted, oh, almost constantly. That never-silenced voice that only speaks in questions is always present, at varying volume, like the radio in our kitchen with its charming mix of Russian hard rock and covers of American classics… “What are you doing here?” “Are you being productive? Is this helping you to make your life look the way you want it to look?” “What are you doing with your life?”
So I guess I took Heller’s piece a tad personally.
I enjoyed the article and he makes some good points. I just generally resist being thought of as part of A Generation, lumped in with their failings and neuroses. It’s the same reason Lena Dunham and stuff like this that Heller references make me uncomfortable– it’s too easy to get lost in that kind of self-identifying self-indulgence, spending hours hash-tagging and lamenting how it’s all so funny and sad because it’s true. Any person in their 20s (which is different, mind you, than a “20-something”) is better off, in my opinion, watching Planet Earth or reading about antiquities trafficking — whatever it is that inspires, fascinates, and teaches you something you didn’t know and want to know.
(I also think it’s a tad de trop that Heller refers, in his first sentence, to his post-college trip to Iceland as having taken place “many moons ago,” when all evidence points to it being approximately 2006. Which makes Heller approximately also still in his 20s.)
Obviously I’m also jealous and picking a fight with this cleverer-than-thou wunderkind (by “thou” I mean “me”), who is actually writing for the New Yorker instead of quibbling over things other people have written in the New Yorker.
They edited my letter for length so it portrays a somewhat skewed and simplified version of things, making it seem like I burnt all my bridges and whimfully* embarked on an itinerant lifestyle in a sort of fuck you! to convention. In reality, as you all know, things are not nearly so dramatic.
People in their 20s–and people who were once in their 20s– please chime in with your take. I’d like to indulge in a little unproductive self-identification.
*new word, combining “whim” and “willfully,” added not a moment too soon to the Allison Geller English Dictionary, the companion reference volume to the Allison Geller Manual of Style.