mirror mirror

I’m trying to figure out what I think about this piece by Edith Zimmerman that appeared in The New York Times Magazine for November 13. (Do I even use the past tense for a piece that appeared in a magazine that’s not officially distributed until three days from now, even though it’s been online since yesterday? The very fact that I wonder this is a kind of answer to this entire post — I’m too OLD for this!)

Edith is 28 years old, an internet pop star among a certain young women —  including both Sam and her older sister — who admire her online humor magazine, The Hairpin. Her piece is a long rant about a viral video from a rap singer who is just 22 — a video that Edith herself doesn’t especially like — and how her dislike of it manages to make her feel old. What is she not getting? she wonders. She, who makes a living being able to put her finger on the pulse of youth? Is she maybe, God help her, out of touch?

Edith’s job is to find and distribute and comment upon lots of viral, youthy internet memes, like the videos of the guy with the tiny hat superglued to his head (and I’m so hip that already watched it months ago) or of the girls singing a capella accompanied by empty cottage cheese cartons (never heard of it till now, but I found it and I love it). How could Edith be savvy enough to love this

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and yet to find that this rap video, by a girl a full SIX YEARS YOUNGER THAN SHE IS, leaves her cold? Is she suddenly no longer culturally relevant?

To me, the answer about why she likes one and not the other is so obvious — the girls with the cottage cheese cartons are talented and adorable and look like they could actually have a conversation with you, and the girls in that rap video . . . well, they aren’t and they don’t. But that’s not the point Edith is making. She doesn’t seem to think there’s such a thing as objective value. I don’t think she believes that some things are just more worthwhile, more artfully done, more clever than other things. (Worthwhile is a stretch here, I guess — I mean, neither of these things is especially worthwhile, just a way to waste a few minutes when you should be working on a book.)

Instead, Edith is making another point. Her point is that now she knows what it means to be old and past it — because now, at the ripe old age of 28, her cluelessness about that video proves to her that she IS old and past it.

Oh Edith, Edith, you don’t know the half of it. You’re 30 years younger than I am — in other words, I’m more than TWICE YOUR AGE — and believe me, you’re not old. Not if you can publish an essay in The New York Times Magazine that’s there specifically because you’re the authority on youth. Not if you can punctuate that essay with excessive exclamation points as though The New York Times Magazine was your own personal blog, Not if you can sneak in the word “whore” into your piece not once, not twice, but three times. (OK, you’re ostensibly quoting the 22-year-old’s lyrics, but it’s still a coup.)

If you want to see old, take a look at a writer who’s not 28 but 58, and no matter what she does, she can’t sound or act or look anything other than, you’ll excuse the expression, old.

The part that throws me is that Edith seems to think this sensation is unique to Millennials. I suspect that the web might exaggerate the sense of aging, just as it exaggerates or amplifies everything. But I’m not sure about what she says about how her parents’ generation might have felt about things as we were passing 30 and then 40 and then, before we knew it, 50, and God how did 60 get here so fast.

Here’s a piece of Edith’s rant:

Then again, the Internet is a new kind of barometer for keeping track of exactly how old you feel: how many things you don’t get, how many mini-Internet worlds you can’t find the door to; exactly how many crickets in the world you can no longer hear chirping. Unlike in generations past, when (I imagine) you just kept doing what you and your same-aged friends did, and aged into obscurity in comfort on a cloud of your own tastes and generational inclinations, until you died either thinking you all were still the coolest or not caring anymore about being cool, these days the Internet exists in part to introduce you to all these things you didn’t know about, but in part to remind you how much there is out there that you’ll never know about.

But here’s what I think: I think in past generations, people aged no more gracefully than Millennials are going to. It’s not true that they kept thinking, until the day they died, that they were still the coolest. It’s not true for my mother’s generation, and it sure as hell isn’t true for mine. Edith writes that living online is like being at a house party and opening the wrong door on your way to the bathroom and instead finding a bunch of kids engaged in something — a game, a drug, an orgy — that you don’t understand. If she feels like this at the age of 28, how does she think my mother feels at 87? My mother has to pee and she isn’t even in the HOUSE. And how does she think I feel at 58? Edith gets out of the awkward wrong-door situation with “oops, sorry.” For me, I don’t think the kids would even see that there’s someone standing in the doorway.

In a way, I let myself feel compassion for this young woman, a victim of a web culture that only cares about the next next thing. But in a way, I think that her worrying is just a tad excessive — maybe even something she’s doing for comic effect.

What I take away from her piece, mostly, is that Sam and I should think about grappling with this issue in our book — this notion that Millennials’ sense of their place in the world, as they move through their twenties, has been twisted by the sensibilities of the web, which throws a laser focus on the slightest hint of being outside the flow. It’s a shame that so many of us feel extraneous and clueless so easily. It’s a shame especially that someone like Edith Zimmerman, who is right up there in the middle of it all telling the rest of us what to care about and whom to emulate, should feel extraneous and clueless now, or ever.

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This entry was posted in 20-somethings, aging, The New York Times Magazine. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to mirror mirror

  1. notquiteold says:

    Fascinating post.At sixty, I tend to think the internet makes me feel both old and young – I can quickly find out what the kids are seeing, doing, and saying now, but my knowledge is superficial and I know it, so it feels very fake.

  2. Hi, Nancy — Thanks for your comment, and how nice to meet you this way and find your charming blog. How did you find mine, anyway? Another clue to how clueless I am about how the internet works — I mean, I understand all this stuff conceptually, and can even handle my Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn accounts after a fashion, and blog sometimes, but I don’t understand how it all REALLY works and fits together. Another thing that twenty-somethings get that we fifty- and sixty-somethings just don’t.

    I’ll be watching for more from “Not Quite Old” in the future!

  3. The flipside is that on the web, every demographic, even micro-demographic, gets to endlessly recycle its favorite memes, endlessly. Magazines like Wired are shameless about this. They’re still talking about seeing the original Star Wars films *in the theaters,* as if that’s something that anyone younger than the leading edge of Generation X even remembers. But it’s like: so what? Nerd culture: yay!

    Now that we can all program our own media, it’s like: who cares what’s cool? There will always be someone, somewhere repackaging things to appeal directly to *my* tastes, whether it’s a blogger who writes about the news but includes in-jokes I happen to get (because we’re both in our early 30’s) or that corner of YouTube colonized by nothing but memorabilia from my earliest sentient memories (even old commercials!).

    If the web makes us feel dated, it’s because it never lets us forget who we are in the first place. Down to the minute.

    • The flip flip side of your flip side, Christopher, is that we’re all only talking to each other, our lives constrained by those micro-demographics you mention. I think that’s what Edith Zimmerman’s piece was about. I mean, from this end of the telescope, a 28-year-old has a LOT of features in common with a 22-year-old, but from her end all she can see are the infinitessimal differences. And it’s those differences that the web exaggerates. I’m pretty sure that I get a pretty easy kinship with most Baby Boomers, which is a HUGE age range, because our TV culture was less atomized and we were listening to top-40 AM stations instead of Pandora radio. We all watched I Love Lucy and discovered the Beatles at approximately the same time.

      Or maybe it’s all a matter of scale. Maybe the psychological and cultural gulf that separates 22 from 28 really IS as big as the one that separates both of them from me. And maybe it always was — even for my own cohort back when we were twenty-somethings in the pre-Internet stone age. Maybe it’s youth itself that creates and exaggerates these micro-demographics, and it all starts to smooth out and become less consequential as you age.

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