Providence's Alternative Source!

Coming of age in a time of cataclysm
The end of unbridled irony

Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Generation X, Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, describes the supposedly listless, sullen, slacking members of its title age group as inhabitants of "mental ground zero -- the location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb: frequently a shopping mall." And though Coupland wasn't necessarily aiming for clairvoyance, his choice of metaphor seems chilling today, given that last week's apocalyptic destruction of the World Trade Center no doubt redefined the latter half of Generation X.

Within pop-cultural parlance, the term "Generation X" seems dated. And it is, especially in contrast to the cutesy terms coined during the teen-pop-dominated dot-com era -- a time when a demographic of disaffection segued into a glittery thing called both "Generation Y" and the "Nintendo Generation." But classifying age groups in terms of luxuries like video games, purchasing power, and musical taste now seems outmoded. After a day like September 11, 2001, our cataloguing tools may need some recalibration.

Think about it this way: depending on what source you check, the youngest members of Generation X are either 23 or 24 years old, and the oldest are 36; Generation Y spans the ages of approximately 15 to 22. A 36-year-old was a teenager during the throes of the Cold War and the arms race, and nine or 10 when the Vietnam War ended; a 24-year-old wasn't alive during Vietnam and barely remembers Ronald Reagan's first term. That leaves a large cleavage between the two ends of the Gen X spectrum.

Generations shouldn't be defined by pop-culture benchmarks, but by historical events that alter the collective consciousness. Take me, for example. I'm 25. By some flimsy measuring tool, I'm more Gen X than Gen Y, more Nirvana than 'N Sync. But I don't really fit into either category. People 10 years older than I am, after all, remember life when nuclear meltdown loomed darkly over each day. Sure, I have vague memories of hearing about the horrors of The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie about post-nuclear holocaust. But such doomsday scenarios never had much effect on my world-view, mostly because at the age of seven, I could still disentangle myself emotionally from things I couldn't comprehend.

That same youthful detachment shades much of my generation's experience with American national tragedy, and I think that this separates today's twentysomethings from today's thirtysomethings. My experience with national sorrow began when the Challenger exploded, when I was in fourth grade. When my elementary-school teacher got word of the accident, she collapsed into a chair and sank her head into her arms. No one in my class could figure out what was going on, but we obviously sensed that it was something grave. Then a boy heading down the hall with a bathroom pass jumped through our open classroom door and said, "Didja hear that a teacher blew up?" His squeaky voice hit a note somewhere between excitement and confusion. My teacher shooed him away, but in her red eyes we sensed that he wasn't lying. A half-hour of silence followed, but my classmates and I were so astounded that the teacher was crying -- at that age, teachers are still invincible -- that we whispered and passed notes about it. That way, we could ignore the fact that a tragic accident had just occurred.

The same sort of naive disengagement allows kids to feel enmity without understanding. For us, hatred began when we heard that the Soviets were bad people: my neighborhood pals and I often played "Americans and the Commies," a version of cops-and-robbers. Later on, in elementary school, we were told to revile Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, so most of us did -- not because he was connected to a terrorist attack on American military barracks, but because his rubbery face was so ugly. A few years passed, and we saw Europeans partying on the Berlin Wall, an act that quelled our anti-Communist spite, mainly because social-science teachers made us write essays about how "the world had changed" and how "Communism had fallen." But as awkward, obnoxious teens, we needed a new figure to hate. And since Tipper Gore wanted to raise G-rated kids in a G-rated world -- her anti-censorship army had already tried to snatch away our Prince and 2 Live Crew tapes -- we whined about the oppressive Parents Music Resource Center.

High school brought the Gulf War. And though images of moustached Saddam Hussein became the bull's-eye of our rancor, I often wondered whether the critics were right -- whether we were really bombing Iraq so that we could keep our houses warm and our cars lubed. But eventually, noise about the Middle East quieted down, so it became easier and easier to ignore the rest of the earth. Instead, we pointed fingers at bad guys within our own borders: Bill Gates was a symbol of greed, monopoly, and tyranny; Starbucks and its $4 venti caramel macchiatos were emblems of corporate evil because they helped close down our cool coffee shops.

But we twentysomethings never really relinquished our naïveté. In the last eight or so years of unprecedented prosperity, years when we were supposed to be maturing and growing up and taking responsibility and preparing to be leaders, we had a fat cushion of wealth, national security, celebrities, movie theaters, cell phones, clubs, party pals, micro-brewed beers, designer drugs, and dot-com jobs. At least thirtysomethings (the frontline of Generation X) had already felt the burn of the early-'90s recession, when joblessness had them paying rent to Mom and Dad. At least they knew this opulence had an expiration date. Most of us didn't, and unmitigated prosperity allowed us to stay ignorant, screw around, and act spoiled, jaded, and exclusive.

UNTIL LAST week, the phrase "die for your country" smacked of oppression and backslapping machismo to many of my peers: why would you die for a label? Before last week, I'd never seen real national unity, real similarities between Texans and Bostonians, real brotherhood. Genuine displays of patriotism gave me the creeps: unguarded allegiance to anything seemed so gauche, so suburban -- unless you were a veteran or Kid Rock, or it was the Fourth of July. Only with a wink and a snide sense of irony did it seem fitting to walk around with an American flag on your chest. But irony, it seems now, is a product of luxury and security -- as are sarcasm, snobbery, and criticism. Last Tuesday's terrorist attacks struck all those public indulgences down, at least temporarily.

In her essay "The White Album," Joan Didion writes about her discovery of personal mortality after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis: "I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife." And last Tuesday, as America realized that if we left our windows open, the stranger with the knife might actually crawl in, people my age were shocked to learn of the stranger's existence. As Didion elaborates, "The improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone."

For us twentysomethings, it meant that blaring sirens could be the horsemen of the Apocalypse, that AP news feeds could be inextricably linked to horror, and that even Howard Stern (who once wondered on air why the Columbine kids didn't try to have sex with the good-looking girls before they shot the place up) could rise to the occasion and demand that tabloid reporters use their extraordinary skill at smoking out celebrities to hunt down terrorists. It meant that Times Square could be eerily vacant, that MTV's Carson Daly could hint at undergoing self-evaluation, and that the Big City -- where friends went to chase dreams, and where everything was cooler, dirtier, and open later -- could erupt into an epochal nightmare.

For twentysomethings, last Tuesday also meant that we could die. Personally, I don't think I was entirely convinced that Americans under 30 were destructible until last week. A month ago, I would've told you that of course we are mortal, of course I could get caught in crossfire, of course I could be diagnosed with terminal cancer tomorrow. But on some subconscious level, I didn't believe it: I thought mortality nabbed Americans after our children were in kindergarten, after we'd bought a house, or after we turned 40.

But as it turns out, we're not invincible. Jobs can dwindle, cash flow can dry up, and Asia isn't just a place to go backpacking. Anyone old enough to be incensed and frightened by last week's calamity, yet young enough to have never known America vulnerable, now knows for certain that everything isn't rosy. Sadly, we had to learn this in one of the worst ways possible.

Every day, I wake up and think I've grasped the magnitude of this tragedy, accepted the fact that we've been attacked, come to terms with the reality that someone overseas who knows nothing about me wants me dead. But each new day brings new videotape, new testimony, new perspectives, new headlines, new evidence of the violent racist backlash brewing here at home. By the time this is published, America could be at war, the stock market could have bottomed out. Undoubtedly, the world -- still uncomprehending -- will still be bracing itself for the future.

So where does that leave us? We could employ clichés: the end of innocence, the future is ours, life will never be the same, the end of ignorance, the rules have changed. But platitudes seem garishly irresponsible, given that more than 5000 people are dead and that we, an unprepared straggle of twentysomethings, will inherit the repercussions of a monumental terrorist attack. Maybe we've just witnessed the end of unbridled irony. Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we'll stop acting so jaded and start addressing the problem. Maybe not. Maybe we don't know where the events of the last week have left us, and maybe that's the least shocking thing we've learned.

For myself, the story isn't all bad. Like many of my twentysomething brethren, I am a product of a broken marriage. And in my personal narrative, at least one good thing came of last Tuesday's cataclysm. On September 11, 2001, for the first time in 20 years, my 64-year-old mother told my 70-year-old father that she loved him. Two weeks ago, I would've been embarrassed by the moment; last week it practically moved me to tears.

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

Issue Date: September 21 - 27, 2001