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  •   1990-2000
    The Triumph Over Reality


     '80s illustration
    (By David Plunkert for The Washington Post)
    Last in a series

    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 30, 1999; Page C1

    Everything was so unpleasant at first. Even after we won a nifty Persian Gulf War over oil, President Bush said: "People are worried, there has been talk of decline."

    The economy, the ecology, the homeless, a "nation at risk" ...

    And then one day you realized the mood had lifted, and life now possessed a pleasant and prosperous vacancy, like a July suburb where the only sign of inhabitants is the exhaust from air conditioners shaking the hydrangeas.

    Indifference was the preferred state of being, as if irony had become too much work. "Whatever" was the era's motto. Things drifted apart. Distance was desirable.

    Earlier postwar slang had celebrated hipness, the heightened awareness of reality. A new slang arose in the '90s to nullify reality.

    "Brooke," you said. "If you're going swimming your homework has to be done first."

    "Whatever."

    "You could end up grounded for the rest of the semester."

    "As if," she said.

    "As if what?"

    "Don't go there, Dad."

    "I just want to know the homework will be done," you said.

    "Sure."

    "Thank you."

    "No problem."

    Sometimes, being alive in the '90s could verge on thrilling, like watching an acrobat stack impossible objects – a stool, a bicycle, a ball – then stand on top with triumphant hands in air. The acrobat was O.J. Simpson with his impossible acquittal after the dagger slaughter of his ex-wife; or Bill Clinton, who ultimately won forgiveness for his repeated bouts of oral sex with an intern in the White House (did Puritan America envy his eerie absence of guilt and shame?); or the Dow Jones average, which quintupled for no reason anyone could explain except with words like "momentum," which said only that it was rising because it was rising.

    We hadn't lost our vitality as much as we'd conquered reality. We awakened one morning to find ourselves transformed by endless exoskeletons of technology: headphones, cell phones, Spandex, latex, Palm Pilots, laptops, Prozac, Internet porn, air bags, sneakers, Caller ID, Oakley sunglasses, whatever. We no longer had to rely on ordinary joys: the darkness of a June woods, the giddiness of a baby. Who had time for the idiot happenstance of reality? The age of epiphany was over. The age of downloading was here.

    We triumphed over reality the way we once triumphed over wilderness and we didn't know quite what to do next, except make money. It seemed as if existence itself had been franchised and outlets were everywhere: virtual-reality computer games, car CD players and faxes, MTV, Internet romance, theme parks, traffic jams, corporate cubicles, jail cells. (Nearly one in 150 people in the Land of the Free was in prison or jail by the end of the '90s. What was wrong? What had they done? What had we done?)

    Operation Desert Storm
    Operation Desert Storm proved you could win a war by remote control.
    (By Lucian Perkins – The Washington Post)

    White-collar women looked preoccupied and vexed, as if wondering whether they'd fed the cat that morning, or why their husbands were so boring. They moved through the world with an averted look, as if they were air-kissing reality itself. You watched them put on makeup while they drove to work, talked on cell phones and honked the horns of cars that encapsulated them like pantyhose. They lingered alone outside office buildings, smoked their exiled cigarettes and looked oddly bitter, as if to imply that once, when life was more than work and money, they'd had mothers who taught that a lady never smokes on the street, especially when alone.

    They worried sex made them happier than anything they did at the office, or it didn't didn't make them happier than anything they did at the office. Martha Stewart made them worry their homes weren't perfect. Television talk shows – Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer – consoled them with episodes like "Women Who Marry Their Rapists," or "When Daddy's Operation Turns Him Into a Mommy."

    Having been raised in the dark age of Freud, these women relaxed a little when they read that their children's happiness was now held to be controlled by genes, not toilet training. Breeding in; upbringing out. Nature over nurture. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans came to suspect misery was merely a matter of brain chemistry: That was the message of the mood-elevating pills like Prozac and Zoloft.

    "Manliness," as Teddy Roosevelt used it, became a word that verged on the politically incorrect. The new male mandarins of medicine, law, media and government didn't know how to do manhood anymore – even how to set their jaws and steady their gazes – but their power was so well buffered by bureaucracy that they didn't need the sort of face and walk that could command respect.

    The older ones had been educated to prove our superiority over the Commies in the Cold War (as long as they didn't have to go to Vietnam), but now the Cold War was over and they seemed wistful in their triumph. Occasional bombings of the Archfiend of the moment – Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic – didn't have the same Armageddon profundity.

    The younger ones sought careers where qualifications – SAT scores, titles – were more important than experience. The Doctrine of Experience had long since vanished – the Hemingwayesque notion that bright young men should go off and chip paint on tramp steamers or do some bar-fighting in El Paso as part of their education and manliness. But taking risks now demonstrated foolishness instead of courage, and the younger men seemed to believe they could live forever if they ate skinned chicken and always wore a helmet while riding a bicycle.

    Hemingway, of all people, was a hero to these guys. They bought Hemingway marlin-fishing hats and so on from the J. Peterman catalogue (which went bankrupt); but it wasn't the young genius they admired, it was the the crazy old graybeard celebrity – as if somehow, someday, they could cash in law partnerships, quit editorial boards and go off and be rich, admired and be true to themselves at last, the male equivalent of women planning to have one perfect child in their forties.


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