Angry Grizzly Bear on This Generation

grizzly

 

Seen the #THISGENERATION graphics yet? The generation referred to in this series of red posters isn’t mine—the awkward demographic between Generation X and the Millennials. thisgeneration3The generation in question isn’t the artist’s own cohort either. From what I can tell, he’s a salty old fella from the beginning of the Millennial spectrum. #THISGENERATION—the one harpooned in his simple red graphics—is that of my kids and current classmates.

I spend almost all of my time with #THISGENERATION. Like the artist, I am part of a university community filled with people who get younger and younger than me every semester. In my growing family and in my volunteer activities, most of the faces I see and voices I hear are those of #THISGENERATION. By my own choice, I move through their sphere, outnumbered by them, and perfectly content to be so. What have I found in their sphere? I’ve found the full breadth and depth of human character, intelligence, and kindness. It exists there just as it does among people my own age and among people much older than me. Humanity isn’t something we age into or out of. We’re all equally a part of it.

Of course, I have a huge problem with the way these red posters fail so utterly in representing how or why my children and my friends live the way they do. It’s part of my general revulsion for any sweeping statement made about an entire category of people, especially when those statements appear to be based on fanciful anecdotes unsubstantiated by any proper data and, frankly, smack of the petty mean-spiritedness.

thisgeneration1Let’s pursue a methodical close reading of a few of the posters. In this one, #THISGENERATION is hassled for going somewhere private to take pictures of themselves to post in public. Sure, this is a situation that has and will continue to showcase a whole lot of terrible youthful judgment. But let’s hold our noses, take a page out of the gun lobby’s script, and remind ourselves that cameras don’t exploit people, people exploit people.

When I was in university, my bestie had a cheap, nasty film-camera and pestered me into appearing in ridiculous pictures. She was a genius, I guess. We were taking selfies before there were selfies. I wish two things about those pictures were different: that they weren’t so blurry and that there were many, many more of them. I no longer look like I did when I was twenty. And I certainly don’t blame anyone who is twenty right now for

oldselfie

An Aunthentic, Antique Selfie ca. 1994

understanding they will never be more beautiful and wanting to use the slick, cheap technology they have to document and revel in it. Heck, go ahead and pose in the bathroom if that’s the best place to relax and get a natural expression. Yes, some of today’s selfies will cause regret. That’s awful. But all those picture we don’t have from back in our day cause us a kind of regret too.

This one has more text so the weak points of its underlying assumptions are more glaring. First, the Candy Crush posts on my Facebook feed aren’t from #THISGENERATIONthisgeneration4 but from older people. Most of us won’t commit  to long, challenging gamer-ism so we play simple, free, throw-away games like Candy Crush. It’s mostly an old people game.

Beyond this sloppy misrepresentation, the larger problem with the comic is that it sets up a false dichotomy between online social contact and face-to-face contact. No one has to choose between these two options. Young people’s relationships span both social media and face-to-face life, just as they do for older people. The centre of young people’s social lives has shifted, moving toward a social space that didn’t exist in the past, the same way people’s relationships expanded to include phone calls during the twentieth century. However, the locus of new social contact points isn’t that different from what’s gone before it. My 19-year-old son observed that my 1990s social life required “a lot of legwork.” That’s true. But it wasn’t all about hoofing around, trying to find each other. We tied up our parents’ landlines, wrote notes to each other in class, wore earbuds and ignored our seatmates on public transit, sat together silently watching television because we had to share the same screen, bullied, and gossiped. Our social interactions weren’t always the rich, face-to-face encounters romanticized by “if you remember this your childhood was awesome” memes. My awkward generation also bored each other, hurt each other, wasted time, didn’t go outside enough, and let opportunities to enrich each other’s lives pass by.

In many ways, #THISGENERATION is more connected to their friends and acquaintances than young people have ever been. That can include being more connected to their parents. “So are you more of a friend-mom?” one of my classmates recently asked me. I do my fair-share of nagging and bossing but I do enjoy my kids. All those excruciating baby-years are paying off with these fantastic friends I made myself. That was the point of this parenting project all along— making people with whom to share my life. It’s come to include my online life.

I haven’t even mentioned the safety benefits of having kids in #THISGENERATION. When I was sixteen, my girls and I would get on a MetroTransit bus, leave Cole Harbour, and stay out until the last ferry brought us back from Halifax. We did this without any way for my parents to check on me, without anything in my pocket that could summon rescuers if something went wrong. My husband grew up in a rural area where he’d take a car and disappear into dark, icy prairies, unreachable for hours. I don’t know how our parents could stand it, and I’m glad I don’t have to.

How about this one?

thisgeneration5I was amused recently to read a twenty-year-old paper warning scholars they ought to take spoken literature (orature) more seriously since it was all #THISGENERATION was going to abide. In the early days of texting, a prominent Canadian author wrote a novel including a vision of the future where both written and spoken communication had morphed into flip-phone era texting shorthand. Of course, that hasn’t happened. #THISGENERATION doesn’t often use their phones as phones. When dealing with people at a distance, they prefer written over oral communication. A phone call means someone’s dead or in jail. #THISGENERATION has become extremely literate, plugging away on Tumblr writing heavy text posts about art and  relationships and social justice, learning creative writing in epic style on fan fiction sites, while older adults quip away in 140 characters. No one reads and writes more than #THISGENERATION.

None of this is meant as a glib “the kids are alright” brush-off of how hard growing up is for young people and the elders caught in the blast-zone. Things like pervasive online pornography, harassment, the permanence of online gaffes, and the ways compulsive gaming and social media activity can rob the achievements and relationships kids need to build their futures are all serious problems. So let’s stop snickering and get serious. #THISGENERATION ought to be able to look to older people for support, help, and love to ease their way. We can’t support people when we’re sneering at them. We can’t understand them when we’re oversimplifying them. We can’t show them much of anything if all we see can in them is their worst.

Sign Seeker

There I was, walking across the University of Alberta campus in 1992 – stupid, lonely, horrible — and at my feet on the concrete outside the Central Academic Building was a playing card, face down.  I’m a believer is signs and wonders (and I was thinking seriously about dropping out of my statistics class) so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing the card – a wild card, free-range, occurring naturally in the earth.

A Card in the Wild

A Card in the Wild

The back of it was printed with some tiny, uniform pattern, white and blue.  And I wasn’t so bad at statistics that I could fail to know the odds were ten to thirteen – excellent odds — that the side of the card still pressed against the ground would bear a number, pips.  There was a three out of thirteen chance it would be a face card with eyes and hands, a crown and a weapon, footless.  There was only a one in thirteen chance it would be a queen.  As I stooped to flip it over, I decided that if the card was a queen – just lying here, at this precise time — it would mean something.

It was a queen – the queen of clubs.  It’s the lowest suit, the flower queen, dark-robed, white-faced, grim.  No one writes songs about her.  And what is that clover thing of hers supposed to be good for anyways?

I picked the card up, right in front of everyone else walking by, as if it was mine.  No one asked.

I took the card to the library, found some kind of book – I have no idea anymore what it was called or even what term I would have typed into the clunky database to find it.  All I remember of what the book said about the meaning of the queen of clubs is one word: worry.  That was my sign.  Worry — it wasn’t good but it was true.

I kept the queen of clubs, took it home, taped it to the wall beside my bed, right next to a colour print of a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary that had fallen out of a different library book and landed on the desk, as if it was a sign too.  This Mary was languid, brown-haired like she’s supposed to be.  My hair is yellow.  They always said it would turn brown but it never did.  That’s why it was never me but my sister who they got to play Mary in the pageants at Christmas.  They told me to be the angel – which was embarrassing because, in the book, the Christmas angel is clearly a boy, a white-haired boy.  Little, neuter, dirty-blonde me, the fake Christmas angel standing on a kitchen chair.

The signs stayed posted on my wall until I moved.  The first time I unpacked, I hung them up again.  When I moved for love, they stayed in a box.  They’re still here somewhere – I think.  I could probably find them again if I wanted to but – signs change.

And today, as I walked over the wet ice and traction sand on the road in front of the mailbox, I stepped over a single playing card, face down in the freezing, dirty water.  Its back was printed in a pattern called “bicycle,” white and red.  I’m more of a believer in signs and wonders than ever and I did end up with an improbable A in that statistics class so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing one more wild card.  Signs may change but odds don’t.  The odds were still just one in thirteen that the card would be a queen.  If it was a queen, I would have no idea whether it meant anything.

I stooped in the middle of the road and picked it up.

I’m not stupid, okay.  I know that if this was fiction, I’d have to write this story so that the card was not a queen.  It would have to be something else or we’d all hate this story.  It would be silly.  We’d be right to sneer at it.  But this is a real story – the kind that doesn’t need my permission to be a little bit perfect.

Here I was, on a Tuesday in November, two hours before my kids got home from school, with a new sign,  a real sign — the queen of hearts.