YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.
How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .
Last in a series
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."
"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.
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?)
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.
Who could imagine being nostalgic for the '90s?
A yearning for the past is best provoked by smell and by the '90s, we'd eradicated smell. People, animals, industries, seasons, love and death smelled of nothing at all except deodorant: no burning leaves, sweat, bacon and eggs (eggs fried in the bacon grease until the edges got a little lacy), mothballs in summer attics, cigar smell in a fur coat, cabbage hallways in apartment houses . . . all of it whisked away by chemicals, environmental protection laws, snobbery, range hoods, air conditioners and washing as a nearly religious obsession. (Women's hair lost its thickness and mystery with daily scrubbing--it looked so dry you feared it would ignite from static electricity.)
Perhaps the world seemed to have lost its perfume because we'd grown older and lost our physical susceptibility to the ache of lilac or the possibilities in a hall closet. The median American was about 36 by the end of the century, compared with 30 in 1980 and 23 in 1900. In any case, smell was bad. It was too real. Some people sealed their windows and never smelled the iron dankness of November or the onion grass of spring; they just flipped the climate control switch from "heat" to "cool." Weather was something we heard about on television.
Morality progressed, too. Hope became ambition, faith was optimism, charity was tolerance, honor was reputation, fame was celebrity, character was self-esteem, personality was lifestyle, absolutes were relative, unity was diversity, and destiny was whatever.
As always, we confused prosperity with possibility. After a bit of a recession there were jobs for almost everyone, and the poor came to believe with poignant certainty that they would never get poorer while the rich could believe with condescending certainty that they would always get richer.
Those who liked to fear for our Republic couldn't find much to fear. Campaign funding? Social Security? The globalization of American culture? The rise of Hillary Clinton as a Calvinist Eva Peron--a lady of perpetual personal sorrows, with a nobility that sprang from her refusal to do anything about them?
No bohemia or avant-garde worked at a threadbare usurpation of Establishment privilege--no Ralph Nader, Timothy Leary or Jack Kerouac. To be famous for very long you had to be rich, a rule that kept most troublemakers out of the public arena. The closest thing to young rebels were characters in Doug Coupland's novel "Generation X": "I seemed unable to achieve the animal happiness of people on TV. . . . I was on automatic pilot. . . . You really have to wonder why we even bother to get up in the morning. I mean really: why work? Simply to buy more stuff?"
No philosopher, scientist, revolutionary, foreign country or disease disturbed our equilibrium beyond the occasional static over schoolyard massacres or police maltreatment of African Americans. The gathering of black men in the Million Man March on the Mall comforted white America more than it threatened it.
Artists had been castrated years ago by the corporate and government-funded bureaucracies of museums and universities. No musician threatened to change the world in the manner of Elvis Presley--popular music had been conquered by dividing it into a thousand tastes. Music was under corporate control. Rap artists stopped advocating the assassination of policemen. Outrage was impossible--vulgarities vanished into the tar baby of indifference. Nobody even whistled anymore.
Was there some kind of conspiracy here?
The most admired literary figure was the screenwriter, who surrendered all integrity and independence to producers, thereby practicing the aesthetics of indifference, of whatever.
Fashion became marketing, and slack-faced fashion models made '90s indifference visible with the look called "heroin chic." In the age of credit cards, cash came to seem exotic until the Treasury produced new bills that looked as if they'd been printed in a country that spoke Esperanto. The new quarters had a Canadian lifelessness.
For a whole century, cultural terrorists like D.H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer had been firing torpedoes at repression, conformity and power. By century's end, they had all proven themselves to be duds. Sex replaced sewing patterns as a how-to item in women's magazines: "How to Push His Hot Buttons and Make Him Beg You for More!" "The Non-Stop Orgasm--It's Real and You Can Have It!" It became a multi-billion-dollar industry of pornographic videos and Internet smut, and nobody cared much because nobody was scared of it anymore.
Sex wasn't really a '90s thing. The New York Observer wrote: "They love sex, but not as much as they love their Prozac. Forced to choose between designer drugs and prowess in the boudoir, the most fashionably medicated people go for the drug every time." The problem was that mood-elevators could be libido deflators, and they were best-selling prescription drugs. Sensing a market, pharmaceutical scientists then came up with Viagra, a cure for impotence.
Whatever. In a 1998 Gallup Poll, 85 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with their personal lives--one of the highest percentages since Gallup began asking the question in 1979; and 76 percent said they were satisfied with the future facing their families--one of the highest levels since 1963.
They worked harder than ever. "Multitasking" was a new work ethic: Your boss flipped through memos, listened to somebody on the phone and watched a computer monitor while he talked with you and his secretary. He seemed so distant. You felt so alone. Multitasking was the art of managing indifference, distance and solitude.
A quarter of all households were occupied by just one person. In your office, you worked next to people you spoke to only by e-mail. Computer systems kept crashing to remind you that your life was controlled by distant, unpetitionable forces, not unlike the God of the 18th century, who retreated behind the clockwork of His universe and left man to his fate. Except the 18th-century God didn't crash. Computers did, ultimately teaching the virtue of indifference to those who had once raged at them. Why bother? No one was responsible for these things, things were responsible. "The server is down." Or "We can't access the C drive."
A new choice had been brought to America: elective loneliness. Memoirs replaced novels as the fashionable literary form. Golf replaced tennis as the fashionable sport. Internet games and chat rooms replaced social life, even offering the chance to change your identity and sign on as someone else.
We fled reality and ourselves. It was our right to do so. By the end of the century, it was a tradition, this fleeing that had begun with the great escape from a Victorian gloom of fathers and Victorian brightness of theology; the shame and guilt of thinking we're responsible for ourselves; the smell of woodsmoke and the ozone sparks of streetcars; mothers preaching good posture, progress and patriotism; wool-clad crowds in seaside photographs, the glassy-eyed slums, the families with no choice but listening to Aunt Lil sing "'Tis the Last Rose of Summer" while a Sunday afternoon ticked away.
CAPTION: Point and click: In the '90s you could win a war by remote control and amass millions with what seemed like hardly any effort at all. The morbid lyrics of singers like Marilyn Manson spoke to the dark underside of the new gilded age; the homeless experienced it firsthand.
CAPTION: It was a decade of multiple choices: Alternative rock, alternative therapy, alternative lifestyles. Impotent? Pop a pill. Stuck in traffic? Yak on the cell phone. Painfully thin? Become a model. Unhappy with the way things are going? There's always the next millennium.