What A Gen-X Remembers

From a generational perspective, I have a bit of a strange family. My parents are older baby boomers, but I have a millennial brother. My child, on the other hand, is a post-millennial or generation Z. Therefore, most of the time I feel like a mediator of the generational and cultural gaps existing in my immediate family.

Even before I turned half-a-century, my child would always comment on how dull and boring my life must have been without the benefit of the internet. But contrary to his firmly-held belief, I feel privileged to have experienced both analogue and digital aspects to my life. I had a childhood where I played hopscotch, throwing pebbles and marbles. But I also played a version of pong, one of the first primitive video games on a black and white TV, and wrote simple BASIC code on an early programmable calculator.

My mother gets easily flustered by technology. She only reads physical books, and keeps all her phone numbers in a notebook. My brother, almost exclusively reads eBooks on his phone, and my child only reads Wikipedia articles and is more interested in YouTube and social media than he is in any kind of publication.

I might be the only one in this tight family group who is comfortable navigating between both mediums. For my cooking, I have handwritten recipes, magazine cutouts, and cookbooks (both printed and digital). However, I sometimes still do a quick search on my phone when I get an ingredient I have not worked with before. I do yoga classes online, but I still have my illustrated books. I make shopping lists on paper just like my mom, but I type the things I need to pack for a trip on my notes app. I journal both on paper and on an online multi-platform app.

I am far from being a digital native like my child. On many occasions, I have consulted that pre-teen on a hidden smartphone setting. And I am quick to cry for help when I suddenly see a split keyboard on my tablet, which I never intended to create, and do not know how to return to normal. I probably use about 20% of all the features on my phone camera, while my child knows most of them. But I am clearly more comfortable than my mother with the device. After all, I can do my own updates. New technology does not petrify me. I learn to handle it, albeit slowly. But I do not feel pressured to get the fastest phone, and I can manage for a day or so without internet connection. My child hasn’t learned this essential survival skill yet.

Digital did make my life easier on many counts. Given my poor sense of direction, I am grateful that I do not need to carry city maps in my car. When I drove in Cape Town, I never went anywhere without consulting my city map first. But even my diligent study did not help, and I often got lost. Then, I had to hunt for a safe place to stop and regroup, find myself on the map, and finally re-route the car back to my destination. My google maps helper does this for me seamlessly now. I do not miss the time I spent checking city map quadrants for an unknown street address. But I keep my city maps, just in case. I also have an Africa road atlas. I use it for my imaginary travels. Something about seeing the thin road lines and landmarks on paper and flipping through its pages, gives a more direct feel of the distance. I have a better perception of miles traced with a finger, or pages flipped than those just scrolled through.

Perhaps it is just me, or maybe it is something that I share with some of my contemporaries of Gen-X. Those of us who still hold on to some analogue and approximate perceptions of life, rather than the strict digital hyper-realism of technology. I am more content to look at my watch and register that it is a little after ten to seven, rather than find out that it is exactly 18:51:29.3. I am happy to live with the intangible less exacting, unless I am waiting for the precise time to say Happy New Year to my loved ones. And even this moment is never fixed since we might be in different time zones.

In trying to assimilate all new technology, I sometimes feel like a novice who had stepped outside of a heavy cultural tradition. I am pleased to have adopted a new easier way of life, yet still attached to some of my familiar symbols. Some aspects of technology, I have adopted wholeheartedly. But others I am still reluctant to embrace or accept fully. It is not entirely clear to me whether I have logical reasons for this, or whether I am only reacting to anecdotal observations mixed with sentimentality and superstition.

Technology has given us a lot, but I think we sacrificed small pieces of our imagination for all the things we received. Some of the magic has been lost. When we travel, my child looks at photos of the city we are visiting and checks out such details such as what the room looks like, and the view that we would see from our window. I am more happy to leave much of this as a surprise to experience on arrival. If I arrive there having seen everything, then what would be the point of taking the trip?

On the surface it seems as if the digital age has allowed for more freedom and democratised creativity. But true creative power has become more difficult to find within a crowded world, where each person is a content producer. Truth has also suffered, since everyone is now capable of expressing immutable beliefs, and getting likes for them. Fallacies sometimes get more support than the humble truth. So while it is easier than ever to find and produce stuff, it is more difficult to find quality and truth.

Collectively perhaps we now read more on the internet than we ever read in the past on paper. But in the past we had time to read longer books rather than bite-sized, and mostly irrelevant, status updates. I once read the entire Sunday newspaper, but now I rarely look at print media. I sometimes look at online headlines or read one or two stories from reputable news outlets, but I am reluctant to pay for a digital subscriptions when I know I will not have the time to take advantage of it. There is no such thing as buying a digital newspaper copy, when you feel like it. You are always pressured for a subscription deal.

We are bombarded with information, and have little time to digest and process. We are confused, and less likely to make a carefully reasoned decision on anything. The closest thing to online shopping I experienced while growing up was shopping by mail order. But instead of scrolling through endless suggestions of things that are not quite what we wanted, we only went through one big (but finite) mail-order catalogue. We studied it closely for weeks. We lived in the pictures and imagined what it would be like to own that dress, that toy or that kitchen device. The choices were many, even then, but the static catalogue was always there, and we could examine it for months if we needed. So we took our time, and consulted the colourful pages together as a family, or dreamed about the items individually. Now shopping is more complicated, with more variety, more decisions required, and more pressure to buy NOW. I am not sure this is all an improvement.

For my post-millennial child, this is just his old mother missing her childhood. The truth is more complicated than that. By being a generation X-er I straddle the digital fault line, and I can still remember what has gone missing. The new humans born today are unburdened by this memory, and will therefore proceed fearlessly wherever this digital age takes them. Sometimes I fear that this culture of technology will be detrimental to the way the human race will develop, that it will damage our aspiration to evolve in spirit. At other times I read some ancient text where a person who had died centuries ago, asks the same questions we are asking ourselves now. And I am then reassured of the essence of human spirit. Perhaps, the more we change, the more we will stay the same.

For more insight into the digital age, and how the internet changed the way we think, I recommend the following book: The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember by Nicholas Carr.

How to Read a Love Story

In my quest to exorcise the thoughts of my beloved from my mind, I started some months ago to read all the books that he raved about. I thought that once I finished them all, I will finish with him too.

First I read the English Patient. Perhaps I was not in love with the imagery and language as he was. He said he usually read it slowly to savour it, and always went back a few pages to re-read them when he dipped back into it. However, I did relate to the brokenness of love and heartache. I fully understood it on an emotional level.

Next I read  “An Equal Music” by Vikram Seth. My beloved is a musician, or at least a former musician, and he shares some common traits with the protagonist of the book. It is true that they play different instruments, but they are both of working class background, and hail from the northern parts of England. The book character also finished his music studies at the Royal Academy of Music in my love’s hometown. Without even reading the story, I suspected that he also related to the character on an emotional level, in the tragic and besotted way he fell in love.

The book was never a bestseller. Perhaps it did not find a large audience because chamber music is a part of its plot. But strangely enough it was one of the books I owned. One that survived the cull of several moves, from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape, to Cape Town to New York until it finally settled on a bookshelf in Nairobi. It was still on my To-Be-Read (TBR) list, when he mentioned it me, as one of his favourite books. I was amazed that we managed to agree on this obscure title too, one of many subtle connections we shared.  Please stop here if you intend to read the book because I will speak about it next, and might spoil the plot for you if you read any further.

In a nutshell it is a love story. One that does not have a happy ending. The protagonist, Michael Holme, meets the woman he loved and never managed to forget. The chance meeting happens ten years after they part ways and lose touch with each other. Next comes the resurrection of their love, which is a bittersweet interlude that threatens to unsettle both their lives. Julia is married, and is trying to conceal the fact she is going deaf, a terrible ordeal for a pianist who relies on her sense of hearing for enjoying music and presenting it to the world. Micheal himself is an accomplished violinist in a chamber music quartet, but I got the sense that he was still drifting aimlessly in his artist’s life, when he found Julia again. I accompanied him on his journey and understood its suffering and inevitable resolution.

Some books take you on a journey of knowledge and discovery, others on a roller-coaster ride of nonstop action, and the third type are the ones that invite you to accompany the characters on their emotional journey. This book is one of them. Since I discovered my own emotional intensity, I can appreciate and commiserate with the feelings of similarly broken characters. Michael and Julia are not perfect, each of them is flawed in his way, yet their responses are raw and real. Michael especially struggles with accepting Julia’s decision to stop seeing him, and this drives him into self-destruct mode, with a few tantrums thrown in for good measure. The book does not end in total disaster, there are small measures of joy, acceptance and redemption in Michael and Julia’s life. They survive, in their separate lives.

It was quite interesting that both love stories my Englishman recommended featured a forbidden love affairs that ended tragically or miserably. In both stories, the emotional bond survived separation or even death. At a previous point in my life I might have mocked either or both narratives. But today I know that those who wrote about love from first-hand experience never lied. The genuine descriptions of love whether in poems, songs or novels always speak to human feelings, and go on to become bestsellers. Love is essential to our lives. It is shared and expressed universally across cultural, spatial and temporal divides. At its best it is like an internal sun, that illuminates from within, lends glow to the eyes, and gives lightness to the steps. At its worst, It is a heavy piece of flint carried under the ribs, or a giant’s fist wrapped around the throat. Days, months or years might pass where the offending objects diminish until they are almost forgotten. Then, something shifts and the flinty stone would expand, hot and sharp to stab your insides and stop your breath. The fist would tighten its grip to choke the throat. Anybody who has ever grieved a lost love would relate to this pain, as I related to the heartache in the English Patient and An Equal Music, and to the emotional turmoil in half a dozen other love stories I read since I was similarly afflicted. The scars will always remain.

Such is the sentiment of a poem quoted in An Equal Music. You part from the one you love but they always leave their mark:

But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining –
They stood aloof, the scars remaining.
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.*


 

* Fare Thee Well by Lord Byron.

 

 

The Language of Heartbreak

I have been taking refuge in reading and writing. Sometimes I come to type my thoughts here. I also keep a daily counter of the days spent without my love addiction. The need and the craving are all still there, but at least I am keeping to my intention, no seeing him, if I can help it.

The trouble comes when I remember him. An image passes before my mind’s eye, or I cave in and let my eyes roam over his public Facebook photos. I read or hear something and it reminds me of something he said. I see his name somewhere, a curse because his first name is quite a common one, and I feel the stab between my ribs or the fingers of pain and regret squeezing my throat. It happens daily and I just need to breathe and let it pass, just like withdrawal symptoms of drugs or alcohol. It is quite painful to let go, and it will take a long time. For a recovering alcoholic even a single drink risks a return to addiction, so I might also be in for a lifelong battle.

My reading journeys are taking me into other people’s stories and lives, some real and some imagined. I have discovered a new empathy for the dysfunctional and heartbroken. Now it seems that there is a new language I understand, that of heartbreak, and I find myself quite touched by the stories of love and loss, especially love of the variety I found with Aquarius II. I am painfully aware of what I have lost, and I can empathize and recognize when one of my fictional characters is about to experience the same loss, whether they themselves realize it or not.

I have spoken before about my reaction to The English Patient. Aquarius II told me he loved the book and read it more than once. I loved it too, and this is perhaps a testimony to our twin emotional disposition. But even before I experienced my wild attachment to Aquarius, part of me hungered for a deep love connection. I was still married to my emotionally distant husband when I saw the movie Bridges of Madison County for the first time. I watched it on late night television, while my husband slept in our room. I should add here that this did not happen often, because he rarely allowed any light, television or any other noise or activity after his chosen time for lights out. Fortunately,  the movie was gentle and quiet, so I was able to finish it without disturbing the sleeping husband. When it ended, I quietly wept, knowing that I also craved these feelings, a love that transcends its temporal limitations and lives in the heart long after the lovers part. I might have eventually got my wish. Pity though that my love affair was completely devoid of love scenes.

The latest book that hooked me with its raw emotion is a collection of short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I usually find story collections hard to get into but these stories read like scattered experiences from the author’s life. After reading some, one begins to recognize the author in her many guises, her dysfunctional family, her lovers, and her wild and free life. Her creativity is electric, fueled by a free spirit and substance abuse. I admired her courage in raising four sons, while working odd jobs (including as a cleaning woman, ER nurse, receptionist, and teacher) and battling alcoholism. I was also emotionally bowled over by her experience of love. The fleeting love affairs she had with a Mexican diving instructor, the love of an older student in her university days, or the affair she had with a much younger man. All this, in addition to the men she married. Those lovers were not perfect, there were one or two losers and at least one addict, and all were broken and imperfect. Nevertheless the love itself is perfect in its time and place, in the way two people connect and become more than the sum of their individual selves. I am slightly envious of her emotional experience, and her abiding faith in the power of love. She describes the singular power of love even in the face of death. Her sister is experiencing and enjoying love even while having chemotherapy sessions for her terminal cancer. In almost all her stories, however, the hopefulness of love is intertwined with desperation. Lovers sometimes abuse, betray or abandon. And love does not survive poverty and abuse. The stories are sometimes strange and funny but they mostly left their emotional imprint. They spoke to me in the language of heartbreak.

Feeding Various Addictions

Time and again I find myself craving things. I go out to buy myself food, then I go to the wool shop and buy yarn, and of course my biggest addiction buying books. Our largest bookstore chain in South Africa has two annual sales, the winter sale and the summer sale, and I have been very dedicated in attending them from my days in Johannesburg to this day. I know I missed a few when I was overwhelmed with work at the garage, but I usually make it a point to be there as soon as my closest branch opens on sale day. This year I was there one full day too early, I showed up with Robert on Tuesday, and found an almost deserted mall. The staff at the bookstore were still setting up the tables of the sale books, which weren’t open to public viewing yet, so I had to try again the very next day.

Earlier this week Ron sent me a text message to say that he would like to “look after Robert” sometime, and I arranged for him to be with Robert on Wednesday, when I planned to go and hand in Robert’s registration forms for the daycare, and now I simply had to add checking out the sale books to my program. To make my life still more complicated a friend called on Tuesday inviting us to lunch with a few other moms, and of course I wanted to be there too. Plans were changed at short notice; Ron’s visit with Robert was rescheduled to an earlier time, I asked him to pick him up at 8 AM rather than ten, so that I can make the lunch date at my friend’s at eleven. On the day I rushed from home to the post office then quickly on board a bus to the Waterfront, and I spent a couple of hours browsing books. I did not spend as much as I used to in the old days, and even though I bought some books for Robert as well my purchases were relatively conservative this year. Perhaps the constraint of time also helped, I had to leave to make it in time for the lunch/playdate.

I picked up Robert just after eleven then I walked with him to where my friend’s place. I met W a few weeks ago at the park and we related to each other quickly because we are both single moms. Her story is slightly different, because she was not married to the father of her baby, but we still ended up in similar situations. In her case, the father sends money regularly but does not want to be involved in any other way. Sometimes I wish this was the case for us as well. Ron’s contribution to our finances is pathetic and in return for it I have to put up with his strange behaviour and venomous comments, and I do not consider it a fair bargain at all. Another thing that W and I have in common is that we both share accommodation with friends. W’s place is more chic and upmarket than this old home, but the problems are still the same. We both need to protect our babies from the dangers in the house – in her case there are open steps and banister- and at the same time we need to protect the house (or its contents) from the menace of little hands and feet. When the moms showed up we had a full complement of little boys, ranging in age from 4 months to just over a year. W’s son had just turned one on the 14th of July (Bastille Day – which incidentally is also my dad’s birth date). The older kids spent some time playing and generally making a mess while the little ones watched angelically from their cots or cushions, there was curry for lunch and then cake and muffins for tea, and we all enjoyed ourselves. Robert tried many new toys, and naturally they held his interest much longer than the toys at home. A rattle with a long handle was a hit with his as usual. I was very surprised though when he suddenly found interest in a ring stacker. He has a similar toy at home, and I have been trying to show him how to fit the rings correctly around the base, but he was had never shown real interest in the process until today. W’s son had loads of interesting toys, but Robert spent most of his time playing with the ring stacker. All good times come to an end though, and my queue to leave was Robert’s voice increasing in volume, announcing that he had enough and was really tired, so I had to leave in a hurry. The problem was fixed immediately once we started moving and Robert went to sleep in the stroller as soon as we cleared the block. I often wonder how I would deal with a similar situation on a long-haul flight, I get panicky just thinking about it.

Because Robert was peacefully sleeping I got to stop at the shops once again. I bought more books from the book sale, this time from the tiny branch near our place. Then I bought more goodies from the supermarket – savory muffins and a Thai Chicken. Robert and I arrived home shortly before sundown. Later in the evening I spread out my prizes for the day; there were books for me and Robert and a dozen baby pajamas from W’s son, and lo and behold there was a light sweater and two vests which Ron must have bought for Robert. Maybe I should think that it was nice of him to buy something, but since he is the father I find these items rather insufficient, something that a childless friend would buy because they did not want to spend too much money. When it comes to buying things for Robert, my ex is hopelessly outdone by my family and my friends. His own family made more effort for Robert’s sake than he did, and even Jackie’s mom made a bigger effort. Now I know what ex wife number one must have felt when her kids used to get silly birthday cards or cheap presents, and I know what my ex meant when he used to complain: “what’s the point of sending this?”. I really fail to see the point of two vests and a cheap sweater.