“It’s nice.” That’s how one early reviewer described…whatever this piece of writing is.
I wasn’t going for nice, trust me. “Nuanced and thoughtful in the interest of groin-stomping, or at least some light rude-awakening,” yes.
TL;DR: My daughter had a birthday in the midst of COVID-19. Then, I read something praising my generation’s response to said pandemic and I freaking lost it. But the kids are alright. Go deeper, and you can rage-read your way through the era-appropriate easter eggs I’ve sprinkled throughout. The nostalgia may be enough to save you from the pain of thinking about where it all started to go wrong.
Aren’t I nice?
“Tomorrow, I’m turnin’ 14…in quarantine!”
That’s how my daughter, sarcastically, said good morning to me on the day before her birthday. It was like a scene in one of those “Very Special Episodes” from an 80s sitcom. Playing along, I said: “That would make a good line in a country-western song.”
“What’s country-western?” she asked with a straight face.
“Billie Eilish…but with banjos?” I tried.
Blank stare, with hints of harsh glare. Canned laughter. Cut to commercial.
And so we bumbled into another week of “intelligent” lockdown here in the Slachthuisbuurt. Strange days, filled with comic absurdity and tragic loss, but little intelligence. My daughter seems to be handling it well. She mourns for her grandfather, who passed away last week in a Florida hospital from “complications related to COVID-19” as the journalists now say. She misses her friends from school, and was bummed, but surprisingly philosophical when corona ruined her birthday plans.
“I wish I could make it normal,” I wrote on her birthday card. “Or at least related to normal.”
“There’s no normal anymore, Dad,” she said after reading it.
“I Won’t Do It.”
I tried to spend my daughter’s birthday ignoring the unfolding horror show that is America’s response to the spread of COVID-19. I couldn’t manage it. We have friends and family across the US, and we worry about them. So, I looked for any hopeful sign.
“I won’t do it,” Trump said, when asked if he’d wear a mask to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The perfect slogan for our petulant, dyspeptic age.
“Here’s what smart people tell me might save millions of humans and keep the last vestige of civilization from pitching itself headlong over a cliff. But you know what? F— that. I mean, you can do it…if you want to. The so-called experts say it might help. I’m a very stable genius, though, and I won’t do it.”
It’s the same kind of magical thinking that underpins all the generational mud-slinging around COVID-19 that I’m suddenly seeing. It’s those Boomers, so set in their ways! No, say the Boomers, it’s the Millennials! Millennials, meanwhile, are blaming Generation Y. And won’t someone PLEASE think of what this is doing to Generation Z? Wait. Does that mean we’ve run out of letters? Are there no more generations to attack? Let’s blame newborns, then. They’re selfish little monsters.
If only those other people would fix themselves, this would all be over tomorrow! It’s not MY fault. THEY need to do it. Let THEM change. Not me. I won’t do it.
Smart money says sowing divisions like this in the midst of a global pandemic that so clearly requires a unified response is both counterproductive and stupid. And corona, as I’ve said before, thrives on stupid.
It All Just Trickles Down…
You probably noticed that I “forgot” some folks up there. Generation X. I left us out because we’re always left out, am I right? Rim shot. This is doubtless why someone felt compelled to write the dreaded, utterly predictable “Gen-Xers are the only ones really equipped to handle a crisis like corona” piece.
As a dutiful member of my generation, I call bullshit.
Oh, now you want to turn to us? Sorry, I’m too busy drinking my beer. Leave me alone. The truth, though, is that the entire premise is bunk. To use an era-appropriate reference, it’s the Zima of hot takes. Tasteless, transparent, and full of useless gas. It’s overpriced, lukewarm garbage that was past its sell-by date before it was even bottled.
Gen-X better equipped? Why?
Because we grew up watching the world’s most powerful nation—a country whose leadership publicly held it up, again and again, as some kind of “shining city upon a hill“—ignore the HIV/AIDS epidemic in its midst for years? And that many Americans—self-proclaimed, cheek-turning Christians who dared to call themselves things like “The Moral Majority“—publicly condemned it as “a punishment from God.” OK, yes. A horrific look behind the curtain in Oz, for sure.
Because we slowly started to see through the Schoolhouse Rock! rah-rah bull about America’s meritocratic democracy? Because the “trickle-down” Reagan years, and all the Gordon Gekko-level avarice that went hand-in-hand with it, put paid to the notion that “everlasting economic growth is the birthright of every American?” What a delusional crock of shit that turned out to be for most of us, right? But immigrants, people of color, and the working poor had already been saying that about America for generations. Did we listen? Not until the system finally stopped trickling on us, too.
What Have You Got to Lose?
Or maybe it’s that we looked on as moments of huge historical promise (post-Cold War “peace dividend,” anyone?) were squandered, in turn, by “a thousand points of light;” a semen-stained blue dress; falling towers; unwinnable wars launched under false pretenses; and political power further hardening in the hands of people with the same last names and pals from the same frat houses? Sure. But we just laughed at the irony of it all and let it happen. Blow that sax, Bill! But her emails!
Is it because we saw the good-faith efforts of our nation’s first African-American president undone, first by the country’s malicious, still-bubbling “You lie!” racism and then by a man we knew to be a spiteful, C-list TV celebrity? An entitled, failed husk of a steak salesman who harbored white nationalist sympathies and a love of our old Cold War enemy? My guess is that a lot of X-ers looked on in mock horror at Trump’s election from their suburban safe houses, blaming everyone else and thinking “at least he’ll be good for the economy, maybe…oh, and dude, whatever happened to Zima?”
How many X-ers voted for Trump despite the fact he was a punchline during every last moment of our formative years? Or because he was? How many didn’t vote at all?
Karma, Karma, Karma…
A true Gen-Xer, though, would dismiss such “too-close-to-the-bone” analysis.
We’re good at COVID-19 quarantine simply because we grew up eating microwaved Karma Chameleon alone in our rooms, playing Duck Hunt on NES and waiting for “A Very Special Blossom” to start. I’ll Be Watching You probably playing softly, yet always menacingly from the tape deck. Maybe later a 37th viewing of Red Dawn? Wolverines!
Let me get this straight. All we have to do to survive corona is stay away from other people, watch some mediocre stuff on a screen, and pretend we always knew R.E.M.’s song about the end of the world was not ironic, but prescient?
Yeah, Gen-X can do that. That’s our sweet spot. Gen-X Nirvana. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.”
Oh, wait. The light stays on? And you need us to help chart a path through dangerous waters—the destruction of the social contract, a public health threat ravaging a country that no longer believes in the idea of “public,” the sadistic whims of an authoritarian and a gaggle of sycophants, all of whom are as blithely brutal as they are willfully ignorant? You need someone to take decisive and selfless action toward a better future for ourselves and our children?
“Oh well, whatever. Never mind.”
Grab the Teen Spirit, because Gen-X is gonna need help. Sweaty times ahead. Trust me.
Trust, But Verify
As we enjoy a restful quarantine Sunday in our back garden, my daughter’s phone lights up.
“I have to look outside,” she squeals and runs to the front door. When she opens it, she finds a birthday care package loaded with her favorite vegan potato chips and cookies. She went “fully plant-based” more than a year ago, out of both environmental and animal rights concerns. She researched it, thought about it, and took action. She’s even managed to drag me and my wife along for the ride. Mostly. I mean, roast chicken. C’mon. But her conviction and belief in the future are, for lack of a better word, contagious.
Two of my daughter’s friends are standing across the street, waving to her. They blow kisses and sing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs. She asks if she can go out and see them. They’ve been nothing but faces on a screen since corona made everyone virtual almost a month ago. So we relent, reminding her to keep her distance and “no hugging.”
As we tell her this, I fight off tears. It’s her birthday, after all, and she can’t even hug her friends.
She’s a good kid, but over the next half-hour, we still check on them. “Trust, but verify,” right Gorby? Right, Old Mother Reagan? Old habits die hard in the Land of Confusion. Not to worry, though. The kids are standing far apart, making Tik Tok videos and laughing. They give each other elbow bumps, as suggested, and then say goodbye.
“Even the Ramen!“
Later, the doorbell rings again. Another of my daughter’s friends has cycled across town to deliver a similar package. She, too, is standing across the street by the time we open the door. We wave and ask her how she and her family are doing. “Tired,” is her answer, and we all get it. Tired of the virus, the lockdown, and of every last #COVIDIOT whose selfish actions prolong this crisis.
As my daughter reaches for the package, her friend yells out, “Don’t worry! We wiped everything down. Even the ramen!”
We wiped down the ramen.
Just take a moment and appreciate how completely messed up that sentence would have been a month ago. But my daughter doesn’t miss a beat. “OK, thanks. Love you!” She sets the box down in the kitchen and washes her hands.
There’s no such thing as normal anymore. These kids understand. They get that whatever day-to-day they return to after the COVID-19 threat is gone, if it ever really is, will not be the normal they’ve known. And they probably suspect that they will have to make painful, unselfish choices for many years to come because we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.
“We will,” they say. Not “I won’t.”
I want to be on their team. They might actually save the planet, instead of just mocking other people’s efforts to do so. At the very least, they can show me how to play Mario Kart on Switch. Because Duck Hunt is an 8-bit fever-dream whose time will never, ever come again.
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