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Life Cage: Some Notes on the Millennials

Once you open the door, you can't shut it. It's best to leave something to hope for.


Who doesn’t long for a bygone era of answerable questions and clearer intentions? Most people born into the Western world in the last 50 years have been afforded a relatively stable material existence (food, water, shelter) and furnished with large blocks of time for socialization, entertainment, and some kind of education, whether standardized or freestyle. Born into this, world-historically-speaking, ludicrous prosperity, the children of the latter twentieth-century have developed some pretty twisted coping mechanisms. The (predominately white) counterculture children of the sixties fomented a benevolent and drug-fueled revolution in the colleges, eager to allay their bourgeoisie boredom and be accepted as “down” by those fighting for their lives in the American South, in Cuba, Africa and Vietnam. These well-meaning youth, entombed in the realm of material certainty, quickly turned from solidarity to writing about the poverty of student life, expecting the movement to help them get over their existential malaise. Bored, depressed, filled with impotent rage? Bad feelings can be vanquished forever with the magic cure-all of revolution! Social movements withered on the vine as this more personal, lifestylist approach emerged. Some of these priveleged latter-day nihilists in the US and Europe thought they could follow in the Third World revolutionaries' footsteps and tried to 'accelerate the contradictions' by turning to kidnappings, car-jackings, bombings, and assasination. They failed to learn the vanguardist lesson of John Brown—just because your little cadre is ready to really to storm the armory doesn't necessarily mean everyone else will be. In fact, there are few things more repellent than being prodded into violence by radicals who have less to lose than they do. The pendulum of emotional politics inevitably swings back in the opposite direction, and when the roulette wheel stops, the former militants have metamorphosed into neoconservatives, Kombucha-swilling spiritual cultists and tweedy leftoid professors. So perhaps it is for the best that Generation Y—the generation Jeff Daniels decries as the "Worst. Generation. Ever." in his Newsroom tirade—seems less interested in waging insurrection than they are in making a hipster appearances at the various simulacras of insurrection (are you going down to check out Occupy later?) or sniveling things like "First World problemmmms" to each other while drinking mojitos on backyard bar patios, their sad, docile hyper-critical faces forever illuminated by the bright blue cancer-beams of their always-vibrating smartphones.



While some are making bombs, others pack bongs, slouching into oblivion, their kinetic energy to do cool stuff killed in utero by some paralyzing understanding of its futility. The only picture that it seems appropriate to paint in 2012 is a painting of people having their picture taken by famous paintings. Who has time to paint anymore, when they can Tumble and comment and post to Pinterest? Artists are running out of original ideas and motivation as they become more and more beholden to their social network. Their work becomes little more than a social appendage of their personality, a mirrored hall refracting in on itself into infinity. Art is no longer a career path sure to lead to pariah social status. My peers, I must ask: who among you are missing digits?  Will those prodded on by some deep-seated compulsion, damned to feed those inner demons and always sweat-drenched seconds away from cutting off an ear or sticking your head in the microwave please stand up? The formula for winning is simple—the first will be last and the last will be first. Marina Abramovic is famous because she has sacrificed regularly. These bodies are on temporary lease, so why choose a crisp and stainless life obsessed with the condition of how they will be returned to the cleaners? As the cold-blooded O.G. Werner Herzog once said, “I believe the only underlying elements of the universe are Chaos, Hostility, and Murder.”  Smoke cigarettes, give yourself prison tattoos, debauch your name, and sully yourself in misguided action. Let your skin be dragged through the dirt and cold rain. Give yourself over to failure.



Generation X rationalized glacial laziness, gave it philosophical ground with masturbatory one-liners such as “Who’s ever written a great work about the intense effort required not to create?”  We shrug as the creative impulse floats into our field of vision, ripe for the picking—“Hey, there it goes… ” idly watching Louie as it drifts away, unfulfilled. People born between 1975 and 1986 have been dubbed “Generation Y" by some quack social scientists and "theoriticians" who are actually just aging Generation Xers out to make a quick buck. We are allegedly united by a single common thread—a tendency to go out and experience life, travel, work and maybe go to college but never quite grow up and eventually move back home. Well accustomed to sloping worldwide homogeny by now, crushed by the weight of history, the urban benefits of an “intellectual life” available for download as a podcast or Kindle edition, we have nowhere left to run. We go out and experience the world like the caricature of a haughty Southern aunt—texting the people we just left behind, begrudging from the moment we leave, complaining about the food, the rent, strange mores and customs, too much subculture, lack of Starbucks, etc., thinking we can somehow know a place judging it by it’s external cultural indicators. That said, in the city I find it hard to leave the apartment, because the metropolis spreads out limitlessly, a spinning rotoscope of ugly apartment buildings, parks, bodegas, bars. The self-questioning and untrustworthy sense of intuition that some of the more shiftless among us have come to expect. Failing to stop the Iraq war, dead broke from the financial crisis, many have turned to nostalgic pastimes like crafting, croquet, and classic cocktails to fill up the space between the yawns.



The world cries out for confidence and determination, for someone with a plan. Look at the widespread adoration afforded to singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens after he announced his intentions to make an album about each of the fifty states. Despite having only made it through two states, we respect his ambition, his gaul. Look at those relatively successful fascists like Hitler and Mussolini who really took care of business, compared to farm-league guys like George W. Bush who came off as fidgety and unsure, lacking a five-year plan like the rest of us. Ambitious undertakings like scale model-train recreations or building the Taj Mahal are absorbing preoccupations that provide a lifelong sense of fulfillment, but they are ultimately just distractions, skeletal architectures utilized to immure life with a modicum of manageability.


Flashback to my college independent study art class. It’s the end-of-the-semester show-and-tell session where everyone presents what they've been working on. One particularly quiet and demure girl gets up and front of the class and gingerly places her rectangular canvas up against the blackboard.  In the center of the canvas is a flat, gray two-dimensional square, surrounded by four light blue parallelograms, detailed with marshmallow clouds that look like they were drawn by a third-grader. It's a slapdash, late-night job. An all-too-common problem--too many nights spent out drinking and not enough spent working. Like any lazy artist, she seeks absolution through her charisma and spoken word:


“This painting is about being boxed-in. The gray at the center of the painting is representative of my life. It’s dull, bland and seems to continue without purpose. See the clouds? The blue surrounding it represents my freedom, my choices. Boxed in by my freedoms.  What kind of jelly to buy at the supermarket, whether I want to have kids or go to grad school. What brand or shade of gray to paint my little square. I am stupefied by the minute indecisions that add up to form who I am, whether or not I make something of myself. It’s all about chance and factors: If I’m at the right place at the right time. Where I live, what job I work, how many hours a day I spend on the Internet. This is about wishing I had one sole purpose in life, rather than this potpourri of options that I’m presented with.”


Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is for all of your wildest dreams come true. It’s good to leave something in the future to hope for. Like my friend Andy’s faux-hobohemia fantasies of finding a wealthy older woman to nurture and take care of him. Sure enough, in his travels through a small town in Mexico, he met a rich girl who knew all about Russian literature and Pasolini and fell for him. After two days of hanging out, she said,

“I want you to stay here and be my boyfriend.”

“But where am I going to live?” he asked sweating, checking his flanks for an exit.


“My father has this building you can stay in.”

“But how much will rent be? I don’t have any money.”

“Oh, you!” she giggled, “You’ll stay there for free, silly.”

This sounded like a tall tale old hobos tell each other to keep warm on lonely frostbitten nights, the kind of event that would warrant some kind of world-encircling round of Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers," but I assure you its entirely true. Andy stayed in the immaculately well-kept apartment building and played the role of the kept-boyfriend. He shakes his head, telling the story to me now, as we look out onto toxic waste from the Williamsburg Bridge, eyeing the foggy distance of our futures.

“It lasted about a week. Then it drove me crazy, man. I just couldn’t do it. I wish for things and then they just come true. It got too weird, and I had to just leave town.”

Drawings by Aaron Lake Smith.