31.12.08

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR.

At Hallowe'en, 1963, the New York Times editorial board lamented the coming redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station with an indictment of the times.
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
Pennsylvania Station was a symbol of the America that worked. Its loss, however, was a small visible symbol. The real destruction was the aggregation of small decisions. Taken together, however, the damage was much greater. New York Times guest columnist Judith Warner, a Thirteener, recognizes that much is broken. Her essay is devoid of any understanding of what worked, which testifies to how irretrievably the America that worked has been broken.
About seven years ago, not long after settling into a little house on a tree-lined street in a city neighborhood all but indistinguishable from the suburbs surrounding it, I developed a brief obsession with mid-20th-century American anomie. I read “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man.” I re-read “The Feminine Mystique.”
Round up the usual suspects. The cutting-edge mind-set of the late 1950s and early 1960s took the order and prosperity for granted and sought a corrective to a regimentation of private life born in Depression and Total Victory. (Perhaps there is material for further study?)
And I devoured Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” a then largely overlooked book that I found one day among the paperbacks in our local bookstore, snatching it up for what its jacket promised would be “the most evocative portrayal” of suburban “opulent desolation.” (“What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?” was the sort of gratifying payoff I found within its pages.)
I approached these books, I’ll admit, with a kind of prurient interest, a combination of revulsion and irresistible attraction, thoroughly enjoying the sad and sordid sexual repression, the infantilization of women, the cookie-cutter conformity imposed upon men. I couldn’t get enough of the miserable domestic underbelly of life in the period we like to call “the Fifties,” an era that spans the late ’40s to the mid-’60s. Some of the fascination was a kind of exoticism. More, however, came from the fact that, I found, in our era of “soccer moms,” “surrendered wives” and “new traditionalism,” the look and sound of the opulent desolation was eerily familiar.
The more things change? Or the loss of something good, for what?
Why is there such a desire, even a hunger, to recreate images from such an unhappy past? A past characterized by every possible form of bigotry? A past, furthermore, that people like the “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner and the directors of “Revolutionary Road,” “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours” can’t possibly remember, having been born, like me, in the 1960s?
“Part of the show is trying to figure out,” Weiner told The Times’s Alex Witchel last June, “what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are.”
Sometimes, those that do not know the past do not understand it. Perhaps in rooting out those perceived injustices came the destruction of useful traditions, a destruction that has contributed to the crudity of the Thirteeners.
Unlike the baby boomers before us, we “baby busters” of the ’60s never rebelled against the trappings of domesticity represented by our images of the 1950s. Many of us, deep down, yearn for it, having experienced divorce or other sorts of family dislocation in the 1970s. We keep alive a secret dream of “a model of routine and order and organization and competence,” a life “where women kept house, raised kids and kept their eyebrows looking really good,” as the writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker once described it in The Washington Post Magazine.
Perhaps the Thirteeners have lived all their lives blind in one eye, adapting as well as they can to the circumstances, yet comprehending that something is missing yet not understanding what it is. What is missing is the America that worked.
But that order and routine and competence in our frenetic world proves forever elusive, a cruel ideal we can never reach.
The fact is: as an unrebellious, cautious, anxious generation, many of us are living lives not all that different from those of the parents of the early 1960s, yet without the seeming ease, privileges and benefits. Husbands have been stripped of the power perks of their gender, wives of the anticipation that they’ll be taken care of for life.
How we seem to love and hate those men and women we never knew. What we would give to know their secrets: how Dad managed to come home at 5 p.m. to read the paper or watch TV while Mom fixed dinner and bathed the kids. How Mom turned up at school, every day, unrumpled, coiffed, unflappable. And more to the point: how they managed to afford the lives that they led, on one salary, without hocking their homes to pay for college, without worrying about being bankrupted by medical bills.
For that one-salary canard, go here. For the medical bills: consider a world without nuclear medicine or most of todays pharmaceuticals. For the rest of it: those ideas about anomie have consequences. No "seeming ease?" That was the America that worked.
How we make them pay now, when we breathe them back into life. Our cultural representations of them are punishing. We defile the putative purity of the housewives — those doe-eyed, frivolous, almost simple-minded depressives — by assigning them drunken, cheating, no-good mates. We discredit the memory of the organization men by filling them with self-loathing and despair. Each gender invites its downfall, and fully deserves the comeuppance that history, we know, will ultimately deal it.
That’s where the pleasure comes in. No matter how lost we are, no matter how confused, no matter how foolish we feel, we can judge ourselves the winners.
The comeuppance, however, is not to the America that worked. It is to the crude Thirteeners and indulged Millenials, who have lost the knowledge that would make it work. The ultimate monument that has been destroyed is in Ms Warner's judgement of her cohort as the winners.

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