22 November 1963

 

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[Credit: marcocau.nl.

This Friday marks the 56th anniversary of the death of Aldous Huxley.

Midmorning on that day as a fifth grader, I sensed something amiss.  Miss McCue’s eyes were red, and she sniffled as we hunched over our worksheets, but for whatever reason, she decided not to tell us that author of Point Counterpoint had checked out of this Motel 6 of woe for superior lodgings in that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.

I guess she figured the news would bewilder us or that it would be better coming from our parents.

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I found out on the school bus from a sixth grader, Steve Ripley, who seemed delighted at the prospect of Huxley’s not producing any more novels that might be assigned as book reports.

I, on the other hand, was devastated by Huxley’s passing because his novel Brave New World had given me reason to hope that the 21st century was going to be a blast – an endless hallucinogenic phantasmagoria that included indiscriminate sex with a variety of partners.

What a miserable weekend with football games cancelled and regular programming preempted.  What’s an early late empire tween to do but stare at the short bio on his dog-eared copy of Chrome Yellow and think Huxley was alive when the book was bought.

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Sandwiched between the passing of eminent composer Cecil Forsyth on 7 December 1941 and American author Alice Stewart Trillin on 11 September 2001, Huxley’s death was especially eerie given that a very famous someone also expired on that day.

That’s right.  CS Lewis also died on 22 November 1963, a day that will live in infamy.

But let’s end on a positive note.  Those fifty years have come and gone, and many of Huxley’s prophecies have come true – we live in a hedonistic age to the tune of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”  As days pour at increasingly swift rates through our lives’ hourglasses, what can we do but embrace Richard Wilbur’s sage advice:

It’s almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.

If you must go,

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears

                                        “A Late Aubade”

Hell Hath No Fury Like YA Authors Scorned

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image by Violet D’Art via Flicker

As I was destroying my eyesight Wednesday simultaneously watching the Impeachment Hearing /Twitter feeds on the screen of my desktop computer, I ran across a linked tweet concerning a literary brouhaha originating at South Dakota’s Northern State University. A recent graduate named Brooke Nelson has provoked outrage from several Young Adult novelists for suggesting that a novel by best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen was too simplistic to qualify as mandatory reading.  As a junior, Ms Nelson had served on a committee to select a book all incoming freshman at Northern State University would be required to read. Several members on the committee, according to the Washington Post, “were pushing for a young adult novel by best-selling author Sarah Dessen.”

A quote in the local paper, the Aberdeen, ignited the ensuing furor: “[Dessen]’s fine for teen girls,” Brooke Nelson said, “ but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

Somehow Dessen caught wind of this slight diss.[1] Directly addressing Nelson by name, Dessen tweeted the following to her legion of followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally [my emphasis] how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

Let’s just say Nessen’s fans were not happy, including published YA authors Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay.  Jennifer Weiner accused Nelson of being misogynistic:

“It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.”

However, this comment ignores the question of whether the work possesses the complexity that required reading should possess. Are Nessen’s novels more profound than The Hand Maid’s Tale?  Are today’s in-coming freshman incapable of reading adult literature?  I was the English Department Chair of an independent school for six years and a teacher there for thirty-four, and I can assure you we never had a YA novel on our required summer reading list for the Upper School.

Here’s last year’s list, the last year I taught there:

9th grade  On the Beach by Neville Shute

10th grade: 1984 by George Orwell

11th grade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

12th grade The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

AP Language and Composition: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

AP Literature and Composition: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The majority of complaints from the YA authors cited in the Post story ignore the quality issue and focus on how Nelson’s quote marginalizes teenaged girls.  Here’s Jodi Picoult: “[Nelson’s quote] suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous.”

But Nelson didn’t say that novels about teenaged girls “matter less.”  She said that Nessen’s novels essentially didn’t “cut the mustard,” as we Boomers used to say.  I suspect that Nelson wouldn’t have any qualms with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Josephine Humphrey’s Rich in Love being required reading.

Well, Nessen should be gratified because Nelson has found it necessary to suspend her social media accounts because of a barrage of incoming hatred.  And Northern State University has publicly apologized to Nessen.

It brings to mind Dylan’s line “at pettiness that plays so rough.”


[1] I consider it a “slight diss” because I believe that it’s not terribly insulting to suggest one’s work doesn’t rise to the level of mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen of a college.  In fact, although it’s considered a classic, I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird rises to that level because of its black and white (no pun intended) portrayal of good and evil.  What I would consider a genuine diss is Carrie Courogen’s summation of Dessen’s work as “formulaic patronizing garbage of the lowest hanging fruit variety and deserves every criticism leveraged against her.” Courogen added in a subtweet “sarah dessen books are nicholas sparks but by a woman and even dumber and slightly less christian.”  I haven’t read any of Dessen’s books, so all I’ll say is that I can’t imagine they possess the ambiguity, complexity, and depth that would elevate them into the realm of serious art.

Show White, Bruno Bettelheim, and High School Seniors

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A few years ago, the principal at my school asked that the English Department develop elective courses to provide students with choices suited to their particular interests.

I came up with a course I called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.”

I spent the summer before its debut culling public-domain texts I could publish in a “reader,” a quite laborious undertaking —  almost overwhelming — but I managed to amass 376 pages of essays, short fiction, and poetry.  In addition,  I required students to purchase Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a copy of Hamlet.

I started with Freud, providing an overview of his theories,

then delved into fairy tales, using Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a guide.

I began with “Snow White” because Bettelheim does an excellent job of synthesizing Freud’s stages of psychosexual development with the plot of the tale.

He writes

While, psychologically speaking, the parents create the child, it is the arrival of the child which causes these two people to become parents.  Thus, it is the child who creates parental problems, and with these come his own [. . .] As soon as the position of the child in the family becomes a problem to him and his parents, the process of the child’s struggle to escape the triadic existence has begun. With it, he enters the often desperately lonely course to find himself – a struggle in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede the process [. . .] In “Snow White it is the years Snow White spends with the dwarfs which stand for her time of troubles, of working through problems, her period of growth.[1]

Typically, fairy tales don’t deal with a child’s pre-oedipal history, and “Snow White” is no exception.

“Snow White” begins

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.” Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died. A year later the king took himself another wife.

Bettelheim associates the drop of blood with menstruation, “a pre-condition for conception.”

Although her mother died in childbirth, and Snow White has a stepmother by age one, she doesn’t face problems until she starts to mature, and then her narcissistic stepmother takes notice.  Bettelheim points out that “[n]arcissism is very much a part of a young child’s make-up” and “a child must gradually learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement.”

He adds that “all children are jealous, if not of their parents, then of the privileges the parents enjoy as adults [. . .] Since a narcissistic (step)mother is an unsuitable figure to relate to or identify with, Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being jealous of her mother and all her advantages and powers [. . .] If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent (this is very threatening to his security), he projects his feelings onto this parent.”  The child wants to be rid of this parent, which again, according to Bettelheim, is projected onto the parent, i.e., the child perceives the parent wants to get rid of her.

So, essentially, Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed. The queen hires a hunter, a father figure, to murder Snow White in the forest, but “he fails to take a strong and definite stand,” not following the queen’s demand to murder her stepdaughter nor doing his moral duty of rescuing her. Rather, he abandons Snow White, expecting her to be killed by wild animals. “A weak father is as little use to Snow White as he was to Hansel and Gretel [. . .] It is such fathers who create unmanageable difficulties in a child or fail to help him solve them.”

Since Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, she has charged the hunter to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver, which she cannibalizes, though, of course, she’s actually devouring the lungs and liver of an animal the hunter has slain.

Bettelheim:

The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge.  It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wants to destroy.  The parent might suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments.  It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful.”

Which, obviously, isn’t the case with Snow White. She ends up escaping her original home and stumbling across the dwarf’s dwelling in the forest. To satisfy her hunger, she takes a little bit from each of the dwarf’s plates, which Bettelheim suggests shows that she can control her “oral cravings.” She does the same with the dwarf’s beds, settling eventually in the seventh dwarf’s bed.  When these workaholics come home, the seventh dwarf “slept with his companions, one hour with each, until the night had passed.”  Bettelheim argues that “Work is the essence of [the dwarfs’ lives]; they know nothing of leisure or recreation [. . .]  and the price of living with them is conscientious work.”  He adds, “dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development [. . .] They are certainly not men in any sexual sense – their way of life, their interest material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre-oedipal existence.”

Snow White’s sojourn with the dwarfs symbolizes the latency period, yet it is not a time free from dangers.  Her stepmother reappears in her life and tempts her three times, first with stay laces, suggesting that Snow White is now an adolescent.  Disguised as a peddler, the stepmother laces Snow White so tightly that she faints from a lack of oxygen.  Bettelheim argues that here the queen stands “for a parent who temporarily succeeds in maintaining his dominance by arresting his child’s development.”  Bettelheim posits this incident denotes Snow White’s becoming “overwhelmed by the conflict between her sexual desires and her anxiety about them.”

Indeed, vanity also plays into the queen’s second temptation, the poisoned combs that she places in Snow White’s hair.  The final temptation, of course, is the poisoned apple, which Bettelheim argues is a symbol for love and sex, harkening back to the Eden myth and the Judgement of Paris. The queen divides the apple in half, eating “the white part herself, while Snow White accepts the red, ‘poisonous half.’”  Bettelheim goes on to add, “Repeatedly we have been told of Snow White’s double nature: she is as white as snow and as red as blood – that is her being has both its asexual and its erotic aspect.

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“Eating the red (erotic) part of the apple is the end of Snow White’s innocence. The dwarfs, the companions of her latency existence, can no longer bring her back to life; Snow White has made her choice, which is as necessary as it is fateful. The redness of the apple evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity.”

He ends the essay by stating that the tale “teaches that just because one has reached physical maturity, one is by no means intellectually or emotionally ready for adulthood, as represented by marriage.”

“Like Snow White,” he writes, “each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined.  We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any effort on our part. Learning about good and evil – gaining knowledge – seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of conscience, the superego.  As we grow up, we vacillate between being overcome by the turmoil of the first and the rigidity of the second (the tight lacing, and the immobility enforced by the coffin). Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, in which red and white coexist harmoniously.”

***

Depending on the student, these high school seniors either dismissed Bettelheim’s analysis or had their minds’ blown.  I emphasized that Freud was not what I would call a scientist, that his theories are not empirically based, but that they do offer sometimes extraordinary insight into the realm of the unconscious.  I stressed that it’s not necessary to buy into a paradigm to be able to employ it in interpretation, that whether you believe in Freud’s theories or not, being able to synthesize them into a coherent argument is good exercise.  Indeed, for their exam, I provided them the text of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and had them provide a Freudian interpretation.


[1] Bettelheim is no fan of Disney’s version.  “[A] bowdlerization,” he writes, “which unfortunately emphasizes the dwarfs, who failing to develop into mature humanity, are permanently arrested on a pre-oedipal level (dwarfs have no parents, nor so they marry or have children.”)

Peeking into Poets’ Bedrooms

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I’ve only visited three famous writers’ domiciles  –  Yeats’ Tower, Thor Ballylee, in County Galway (1979); Shakespeare’s birth house in Warwickshire (1995);  and a home Frost lived in on a side of a road somewhere in New Hampshire (2007).

It felt like calling on the dead – the houses restored, sort of Disneyesque, way too un-lived in.

A while back, a friend posted on her FaceBook page a photograph of Walt Whitman’s bedroom back in the day. Alas, the image somehow conjured the Muse of PhotoShopping, Plagiaria.  Alas, I say, because no way I have the artistic talent to pull off the idea Plagiaria whispered in my ear.

Anyway, let’s take a peek into the Barbaric Yapper’s bedroom.

whitman's br

My idea, which I am bestowing to any 3-D artist out there, is to use the concept of a bedroom as a representation of an author’s interior life, his or her unconscious as it were, each installation with a window looking out (hence not an attic) onto the world the artist perceived – dingy Dublin brownstones for Mr. James Joyce/Lucy-in-the-Sky butterflies flitting just outside the window of Miss Emily Dickinson.

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Take Ernesto Hemingway, par example.

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His mother called him Ernestine and dressed him like a girl.

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the unhairy one ~ 2 yrs

Here’s a crude approximation of Hemingway’s unconscious installed in EA Poe’s dorm room at UVA:

hemingway collage

Obviously, an actual artist could do better, perhaps creating a doll-house, each room devoted to a different writer from a different era, vestiges of influence sprinkled about, La Commedia on Eliot’s bedside table next to an overloaded ashtray of unfiltered Pall Malls.

Art On Pall Mall

At any rate, what strikes me about the actual bedrooms of these writers, except for Whitman’s, is how spartan they are.  For example, here’s where Yeats slept at Thor Ballylee:

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Barely a step up from Thoreau’s:

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Of course, there are exceptions. Truman Capote lay him down to sleep here:

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And Virginia Woolf in this swanky boudoir:

The interior of Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monks House, East Sussex

And, finally, the bedroom where this barely published poet tosses and turns:

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At any rate, we all can be thankful that we’re not the inhabitant of this bedroom:

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And sleep tight, Marcel!

Note:  This post originally appeared in Late Empire Ruminations 20 November 2012

Night and Day, Henry Versus EL James

james and James

No, I’m not one of those self-flagellating must-do-it martyrs who vow to finish every book they start, no matter how unpalatable.  Not finishing a bad book is as easy for me as zoning out during the welcoming comments at a Chamber of Commerce convention, or to keep the previous metaphor going, declining to finish an undercooked fat-choked pork sandwich.

No, I don’t have that mitigating principle to explain my finishing (it’s been several years now) EL James’ pant-fest, Fifty Shades of Grey (which I have handcuffed to a library carrel and urinated on here).

Certainly, anyone who read the above linked-to-post might find it improbable that such a severe and sarcastic critic would continue to squander the few, precious, and dwindling hours of his life’s eventide following the escapades of Anastasia Steele and Christopher Grey, characters as finely wrought as a pre-schooler’s drawing of an octopus; however, this critic did, albeit skimming through the novel’s latter emails, sex-scenes, and interior monologues with the concentration of a meth addict perusing Henry James’s The Ambassadors.*

 

*Indeed, I dedicate that one-paragraph 83-word sentence to the Master.

But finish it, I did, as I might a 32-ounce Slurpee, knowing that it was bad for me, didn’t even taste good, but that it went down easy.  However, I will give Ms. James’ high school English teacher this compliment: ol’ EL has gotten the bit about active voice/vibrant verbs.  I haven’t been exposed to so much clambering since the fall of Saigon.

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3 April 1975

Whatever the reason – the active prose, its socio-historical late empire ramifications, the fairly well-choreographed sex scenes – I finished the damned thing, and I might add that Fifty Shades of Grey’s success demonstrates that the novel as a form is far from dead.  Future story tellers need not abandon first person narration and turn to screenplays to make their fortunes.

You go, fan fiction aficionados!

***

Nevertheless, I did finish Fifty Shades, but it left me famished for something beyond solid.  Yet, I wanted it to be very roughly analogous – Lolita perhaps – but then it hit me like a revelation – The Ambassadors, a novel about another naive American’s initiation into an exotic world.  Although universes apart in style, structure, and depth of characterization, Fifty Shades and The Ambassadors do share some shading in the Venn diagram of their thematic concerns.

Not to mention authors with matching surnames.

So I clambered up ascended the stairs to my drafty garret study to greedily snatch remove the 60-cent 1965 paperback that literally falls apart in my hands as I squint at negotiate its microscopic minuscule type.

ambassador page

Oh, my sweet Buddha, but we are in different universes.  Compare Henry’s description of our protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to EL’s description of Christian Grey.

As they say, age before beauty.  Take it away, Mr. James:

[. . .] what his hostess saw, what she might have taken in with a vision kindly adjusted, was the lean, the slightly loose figure of a man of the middle height and something more perhaps than the middle age–a man of five-and-fifty, whose most immediate signs were a marked bloodless brownness of face, a thick dark moustache [sic], of characteristically American cut, growing strong and falling low, a head of hair still abundant but abundantly streaked with grey . . .

Your turn, Ms. James.

I surreptitiously gaze at him from beneath my lashes as he stands in line waiting to be served.  I could watch him all day . . . he’s tall, broad-shouldered, and slim, and the way those pants hang from his hips . . . Oh my.  Once or twice he runs his long, graceful fingers through his now dry but still disorderly hair.  Hmm . . . I’d like to do that.  The thought comes unbidden into my mind,**and my face flames.  I bite my lip and stare down at my hands again, not liking where the wayward thoughts are headed.

** a thought comes unbidden “into [her] mind”  – as opposed into her genitals?

Which one is talking?

“I’m always considering something else; something else, I mean, than the thing of the moment. The obsession of the other thing is the terror. I’m considering at present for instance something else than YOU.”

“I’ve never slept with anyone, never had sex in my bed, never flown a girl in Charlie Tango, never introduced a woman to my mother.  What are you doing to me?”

Which passage ends with “His eyes burn, their intensity takes my breath away?”***

*** Answers available at 1-900-144-5412 ($1.20 per minute fee)

***

So what’s my point?

Good question.  First of all, despite egregious flaws, the plot of 50 Shades of Grey carries you along (and it has as at least as many sex scenes as Slaughterhouse Five has death scenes). However, it’s definitely lower middle brow. (I was somewhat interested to see how the narrative would be translated onto the big screen but but not curious enough to bother to go see or rent it).  I figured that the viewer would be doomed to a thousand voiceovers and that moviegoers might perceive Anastasia as more pathological than the reader does if they didn’t hear her story in her own words.

Once, when a parent called to complain about A  Clockwork Orange’s being on our reading list after having seen Kubrick’s film, I had to explain that in the novel Alex’s quaint phrase “a malinky little tolchock to the gulliver” on screen is transformed into the objective depiction of a woman being clubbed to death.  Likewise, Anastasia’s “organism ripping through [her], a turbulent, passionate apogee that devours [her] whole” could come off on screen as trite pornography

Second, the tsunami success of Fifty Shades must tell us something about sex in the Late Empire.  One, women who thirty years ago might have discretely ordered the book and read it behind closed doors are now reading it on airplanes and discussing it at happy hours with their girlfriends.  Sex is a powerful obsession, an innate need, and it is probably impossible to sustain passion’s fire on a marriage bed dampened by the constant distractions and stresses of the working world – getting the kids ready for school, picking up something from Harris Teeter, opening that audit notice from the IRS.

If EL James were to follow the adventures of our heroes into the second decade of matrimony, she may very well be writing sentences like this:

My back to him, I feel his hand reach over and touch my well-worn tee shirt, and I clench, trying to stifle a yawn.  He rolls over me and his gray eyes are red-veined and floating in a puckered slough of discoloration.  Holy shit, he wants me, but I want him about as bad as I want a yeast infection.

EL James 50,000 Degrees of Ennui

I’ll leave you with this.  Check out the first and last pages of the outline of The Ambassadors that James submitted to his publishers.

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What if Lenny Bruce or George Carlin Were Gen-Zers?

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The meme “OK Boomer” is — forgive me — booming[1] on Twitter and TikTok as an expression of Generation Z’s frustration with the older generation’s outdated ideas and technological cluelessness.  It’s a mild insult, it seems to me, a sort of bored sigh of “whatever.” It says,  “You’re boring and inept and unfashionable.”  In other words, you’re outdated, out of it.

For some reason, more than a few snowflakey boomers have taken great offense at this rather mild rebuke. It could be worse, fellow boomers. It could be Lenny Bruce on steroids. It could be Fuck You, Boomers.  Imagine a Gen Y or Z  Lenny Bruce or George Carlin ripping into Mitt Romney and me.

Fuck you, you old crone/codger with varicose veins mapping your legs/porcupine needles of hair poking from your nostrils/cottage cheese masquerading as cleavage/your freckled baldpate resembling some dying planet in a third rate solar system.[2]  Speaking of dying planets, you’ve made a shithole disaster of this one, not to mention robbing us of a portion of our paychecks with Social Security deductions that could be putting a dent in the gargantuan student debt we’ve amassed (or are amassing or will amass) so you can sit around in your second home condos stuffing your fat faces watching Fox News’ anchors thumbing their noses at science while we slave away as baristas or unpaid interns with no health insurance. Shut the fuck up about our dependence on our cell phones.  It’s not like we’re bound to see anything of interest in the over-crowded infrastructurally decrepit cityscape/boring commercial suburban sprawl you’ve bequeathed us . . .

I’ll admit the above lacks pithiness.  It would be difficult to fit on a baseball cap.

By the way, the phrase “OK Boomer” has already been merchandized.

This from the New York Times:

Hundreds of “ok boomer” products are for sale through on-demand shopping sites like Redbubble and Spreadshirt, where many young people are selling “ok boomer” phone cases, bedsheets, stickers, pins and more.

This, of course,  means the phrase will be co-opted by a multinational corporation, which along with the petrol-chemical component of its conglomeration might also feature a manufacturing side business that transforms plastic sludge into OK Boomer Frisbees.

Remember the grunge craze, flannel shirts pre-faded, blue jeans pre-ripped?

Ah, capitalism, ah Bartleby.

Bartleby2


[1] This lame Dad pun epitomizes the inherent essence of Boomer-unhipness.

[2] This gender balance can be a real pain in the posterior. It’s exhausting.