Essay

Change and decay…and a little bit of hope

By August 24, 2012 No Comments
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The older I get, the more vividly I come to understand that scowl on the face of both father and daughter in American Gothic, an Iowa icon.  The longer I live, the more easily I know I could become just another of the grumpy old men.  “Change and decay in all around I see” becomes a mantra far too easily, because there’s things I just don’t get, lots of things easy to translate as the world gone just awfully awash.

Two articles in the latest Atlantic have me shaking my head.  “Boys on the Side” features the unforeseen benefits of what people call “the hook-up culture,” a way of life supposedly characteristic of not only college campuses but also unmarried singles.  Hanna Rosen’s article made the magazine, I’m thinking, not because it documented anything new, but because she flatly asserts that when young women “hook up,” engage in free-for-all sexuality at their leisure, it’s really an “engine of female progress.”

Just call me Walter Matthau.  But here’s the salient heart of things: 

“To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” she claims.  “And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.” 

Isn’t that reassuring?  But fair, I suppose, women having been victims for a long, long time.

Still, Rosen admits, “But that’s not how the story ends.. . .Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women.”

Thank goodness.

And then there’s “The Cheapest Generation,” a fascinating, but depressing (if your hook up is with Dow Jones) survey of why millennials act so strangely, why they stay around home, why they don’t get married, why they live in little clusters, like Friends

Here’s the heart of things, according to Derik Thompson and Jordan Weissmann: 

The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things. Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries.  Millennials may have lost interest in both.

Fascinating, and, from my point of view, sweetly progressive.  So we’ve reared a generation who doesn’t take their cues from mom and dad, sexually or financially, and who won’t make outrageous payments on the kind of monster house too many people got stuck with in the last few years.  On top of that, they may well not support General Motors.  Or Honda. 

Why?  Technology, say the authors, smart phones at a grand a month competing and beating the tired old investment in great wheels.  Cool means connected, not a chariot.

“In short,” the authors say, “the future of the house might look a lot like the future of the car:  smaller, cheaper, built for a new economy.”  Sound familiar?  If you’ve been to Europe it does.

Imagine that, the children of freedom may well be changing America into Europe.

An astounding thought, really:  the children of Republicans may well be opting out of the bootstraps rat race in favor of diminutive houses and denters, used cars that fit with their own new forms of urban living.  Now that’s interesting.

I’ve never been able to understand how it is that the right wing can demonize European life the way they do.  I know there’s Greece and Spain and even Italy, but there’s also Germany and the Netherlands.  The demon, of course, is in a word–socialism, which is to say communism, which is to say loss of freedom.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if all of that political combat were little more than semantics?  What millennials are up to is reforming the way they’re choosing to live their lives in ways that may well resemble Amsterdam more than Phoenix, Berlin than Denver.  Enough to put a smile on this old man’s chops.

Perhaps all is not lost.  And I while I do own a pitchfork, I don’t have bibs.

Yet.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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