Couple years ago I was washing the dishes and listening to All Things Considered when I made a minor discovery about growing up. It was triggered, this discovery, by the transition music between stories. Some anonymous NPR sound tech had excerpted an instrumental passage from an M.C. 900 Foot Jesus song, of all things. If you’ve never heard of M.C. 900 Foot Jesus, you’re not alone. That boat you’re in contains nearly the entire human race. All I can tell you about him is that for a minute in the nineties he was probably America’s most famous white Texan rapper. (In a similar vein, I believe I am the most famous Devin Abraham Sorrell Walsh born on April 17th, 1980, ever.) Around the same time, I’d heard P.J. Harvey sampled on Marketplace. My peeps were growing up.
The kids I played four-square with were employed in public radio now, smuggling their culture into the larger American conversation vis a vis transition music. Siegel finishes talking and, boom: it’s 1997 again. It seemed possible that soon enough the whole country would sound different: just as our parents grew up in a world that sounded like Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and engineered it into one that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin, we would grow up in a country that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin and engineer it into one that sounded like Outkast, Radiohead and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.*
I remember getting pretty cheesed when it was reported that W.’s speechwriters coded allusions into his formal statements only the devout among his listeners could identify as biblical; the rest of us just whistling obliviously on as the chief executive secured camouflaged grappling hooks to the wall between church and state. (Actually not obliviously whistling, just pissed about something else.) But there’s something cool about it, too: a sneaky, sophisticated method of communicating different things to different audiences though reading from just one script; a way to say shibboleth without the enemy even hearing.
Anyway, that’s what the M.C. 900 Foot Jesus person was doing, too. Even though I was wrist-deep in suds in an Asheville kitchen, and he or she was punching buttons in a radio control booth in D.C., we were in communication. The tech was saying: Our turn.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because, even though musically the U.S. is still pretty firmly under the Boomer moon, the conversation I’m hearing more and more on the news and in social media does in fact seem to revolve around issues of emotional and intellectual development germane to the 30-something. People be talking about how they finally don’t care what other people think of them. People be talking about learning to be different without judgment, to respect difference, listen, stand up for themselves, admit their shortcomings, stop lying.
Meanwhile, the news is dripping with vaccines and saddled with college debt—issues my parents must be relieved they don’t need to worry about too much.
But this is always happening. In another thirty years the national dialogue I’m taking part in will resemble what my folks’ sounds like now (albeit with more flooding and less retirement security). People in their early 20s will be scheming their future greatness while preoccupied with sex. Middle schoolers will have their own Beavis & Butthead to mimic into exhaustion. Kids will rove into their back yards with whatever species of superhero action figure you have to have, and will pour their liquid minds into the console game they’ll ironically-unironically claim still to love a couple decades later. The conversations stay the same, the proper nouns change, the speakers cycle through.
The illusion is reinforced by the fact that I’m just not Facebook friends with many 60-year-olds or 8th graders.
I’m more capable of having better, more substantive conversations than I used to be. This stems in large part from figuring out how to better suppress my ego—that obnoxious little lunatic that lives between my belly and my crotch. If you come at a conversation from a position of wanting to inquire, rather than wanting to teach or show-off; if you’re uncowed by the prospect of being judged; if you insist on taking everyone seriously and you demand candor from yourself—all operations the little lunatic quakes against—you improve the quality of your conversation.
Arielle and I recently had lunch with a former real estate client who is suffering from a pretty bad break-up. Conversation-wise, heartbreak’s got a lot of juice. It can get you fairly heavily divulging to near-strangers. (If I were an evil genius professional interrogator, I would inflict heartbreak on all my subjects and then get them at their lowest.) Anyway, our pal had a lot to say, and I was struck by how rare an occasion it is: to be the audience for a genuine emotional outpour. This got me thinking about conversations in general; hence the blog post, the title of which is a quotation by the deceased Ogden Nashy American poet Richard Armour. How often have you had a conversation you let go into? If you’re like me, you can count them on both hands.
I remember one at a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was probably 12, another with my best friend during high school, a bunch with young women I’ve loved, a series with a pair of buddies in my early 20s… Age tends to be a common denominator, another is that I mostly don’t recall what we discussed, only how. At the heart of each was a mutual disarmament. That Jean-Luc Picard knew his stuff: if you want to make friends, try not raising your shields. Suddenly the world is busy with dimensions you couldn’t articulate before; rich with texture you couldn’t feel before; you’re not alone—or you’re still alone, possibly even aloner, but so is your friend, so is everyone.
I’m not sure if it’s sad that I remember so few or if I should be grateful to remember so many.
My nephew and I were watching Transformers: Rescuebots over the weekend.
(This must be one of the dearest privileges of parenthood: having a supple-minded little kid you can talk to. When else—and with whom but family—do we routinely engage in candid personal cross-generational dialogue?)
We got to talking about ghosts, ’cause of the episode, and one thing led to another, and I was defining “sexy” for him and discussing holograms and time travel and he asked me: “Is the future real?”
Judging from my own experience, he won’t remember that conversation for long. But I will. I mean, are you kidding? Is the future real? That just freaking wins.
*Full body chills moment: the afternoon after writing this, and after spending an inordinate amount of time mulling over which bands should constitute this final triumvirate, having settled first upon and having never once budged from Outkast, what do I hear as the first segue tune on the news? The opening piano riff of “Caroline”. Raise your hand if you’re over 35 and you know what I’m talking about. Raise your hand if you’re under.