If there's one thing in the newspaper that's more irritatingly predictable than "Cathy" comic strips and stories about Paris Hilton, it's the constant flow of vitriol from flabbergasted old fogies decrying the intellectual ineptitude of the younger generation. Every week, I'll read another scathing letter to the editor written by some cranky old fart bemoaning the fact that "these gol'darn young'ns don't know nothin' bout nothin!" The more astute Polygrip philosophers often grumble about the fact that they're incapable of having intelligent conversations with the kids taking their order at Starbucks — indeed, how could any of these gum-snapping, MTV-addled nitwits possibly begin to comprehend the inner workings of Catullus or Maupassant? Hell, the closest they'll get to Crime and Punishment is watching Law and Order.
I've had enough. To every apoplectic grandpa who feels his worldly acumen is not reciprocated, I wish to offer this response against demographic predestination.
Speaking as a first-time college student in my mid-twenties, I can understand how you feel. I harbor no knee-jerk Pete Townsend loyalty to my generation; in fact, I'll be the first to concede that my generation has some serious shortcomings. Many of my peers harbor little interest in international politics outside of ascertaining the legal drinking age in European countries. They think Henry Miller owns a beer company and that Voltaire is a brand of battery. I don't watch TV very often, but when I do, I bristle at the audition tapes of all these pathetic, desperate losers hoping to get on reality shows, looking as if their entire lives will be shattered if they’re denied the chance to dance with a washed-up pop star or shovel maggots into their mouths. After hearing what passes for informed opinion and worldly knowledge in conversational circles, I often fantasize about dragging my peers outside by their obnoxious bed-head haircuts and punching their shiny labret piercings down their tribal-tattooed throats.
But I don't. They're still learning. So am I.
In the meantime, I have a few questions for you, Pops.
First of all, at exactly what age did you achieve your intellectual apotheosis? I'd like to know, so that I can look forward to it with supercilious salivation. I can't wait to tear apart those good-for-nothin' whippersnappers and further alienate them from people my age, thus convincing them that anyone over forty who's not Will Ferrell must be Wilford Brimley. After all, a flamethrower is much more fun than an illuminating candle.
Think back to your early twenties. Were you leisurely pontificating about Joan of Arc and the Spanish civil war, or were you like us, terrified of the future, running low on sleep, working dead-end jobs and wondering how you were going to pay for college? Would your degree even be worth anything? Would anyone ever take you seriously? Were you like me, relegated to serving as a minimum-wage mercenary in Uncle Sam's extended summer camp for kids from the Midwest with limited job prospects?
By the way, kids today are smart in different ways than you were. How many of you in the Metamucil demographic know how to set up a wireless network, or even how to search for a contact on your cell phone? Do you know the difference between USB and a PSP? What's the purpose of defragging a hard drive? When was the last time you set up one of your newfangled gizmos without making at least one frantic phone call to your nephew for tech support? Anyway, I digress.
Here's my final question — Why don't you teach us? Yes, you.
I've come to believe that the initial years after a young man leaves home are spent searching for a succession of surrogate father figures, whether in person, in print or through a pair of headphones. I found several of mine in the military.
I'm referring to the overlooked, unappreciated twenty-year NCOs, the haggard souls with bad knees and rumpled uniforms who had been passed over for promotion because they weren't suited for the sycophantic ass-kissing and hoop-jumping that lubricates the military machine. They weren't there to suck up the glory, they just showed up, did their jobs, and quietly took orders from some baby-faced lieutenant who was born the year they graduated high school. While the officers issued paperwork and spouted insipid platitudes about "duty" and "integrity," these NCOs (some of them, anyway) took me under their wing and explained the rules of the game. They knew how things worked. They had served time in unfriendly places and were happy to tell me about it. They shared stories about being stationed in Germany when the wall came down, the Gulf War, and the best bars in Tegucigalpa. They taught me how to avoid getting overcharged by Korean cab drivers, how to find loopholes in the leave policy and how to get through a 12-hour shift with a brain-busting hangover. I'll always remember them.
This is where you come in. Instead of acting like a jerk and crystallizing our media-inculcated stereotypes of adults as stodgy old farts that ruin everybody's fun, why not share some of your knowledge? A lot of us want to learn, and a lot of us are willing to listen. What was it like seeing Eisenhower's farewell address on television back in the day? What were you doing during the Vietnam War? How did the Watergate scandal affect your perceptions of the government? The next time you fire off an angry, invidious letter to the editor condemning the widespread ignorance of the MySpace generation, why not recommend a few novels, plays or essays for us to check out? Why not toss us a few crumbs from your nourishing breadth of expertise?
If you're not willing to do that, then piss off, Gramps. You're blocking my signal.
Nick Vineyard [send him mail] hails from the American Midwest, though he's unsure as to where his home is at this point. He currently works at a print shop in Texas and enjoys talking about himself in a pretentious-sounding third-person narrative.