Gordon: Ashtrays and other ironies

No caption.
No caption. Photo by Claire Gordon.

We start college. We graduate.

Our resumes brag in elegant Georgia about our “working knowledge of Spanish” and “competency in Adobe Photoshop.” We spend a year building houses in Bolivia or making photocopies for an NGO, the dubious real value of our social work overridden by the overwhelming compulsion we, the overscheduled generation, have to delay the unstructured endlessness of real life.

Most of us grew up feeling extraordinary. Very bright, said our kindergarten report cards. Such attention to detail, said our 5th grade social science teacher, admiring our vivid diorama of Inuit life. So original was our choice to perform, as opposed to write, a response to Lord of the Flies. So creative, raved our parents, pinning “Life is Like A Popsicle” on the refrigerator door.

If you suck your sticky palms and chase the drips,

It’ll melt before you know it between your fingertips.

But seize that sweet relief, the sugary sin,

And at the end, with a cherry-stained smile,

You can lick the juice around your chin.

Back then, we were so brave! We penned coherent philosophies in incoherent meter and let other people read them! With some paste and magic markers, those popsicle sticks became an ashtray for Father’s Day. Now my regenerative optimism just seems morbidly ironic.

God bless grad school.

We flirt with a life academia, but then we realize that our thesis on the tropes of erotic desire in 1950s food packaging will be read by only a handful of other specialists, competing with us for tenure at some liberal arts college in a Midwestern town, where our students don’t do the reading and our pebbled driveway and defrosted Lean Cuisine start to feel painfully suburban.

And school, without all the recreational drug use and sexual awakenings, seems suddenly way less fun.

We soldier on through our twenties, in sneakers and semiscruff jeans, a brain worth a quarter of a million, and a Brooklyn box worth $1,500 a month. Could our life dedicated to Third World development, we think, actually affect less good than the douchebag econ major turned security trader’s mid-life white guilt six-figure donation to UNICEF?

At some point we start, labor over and abandon an embarrassingly autobiographical novel.

What happened to that feeling of boundless world-shaking power as we clicked and discovered our Yale acceptance, our invitation into a world of aged scotch in private hotel bars, cooling a recession over a handshake with our new best friend, the chairman of the Federal Reserve?

Between my first and second sentence — the first for four years and the second for life — we hit the Big Decisions, just when our high school wunderkind courage starts to slip. The goals of college acceptance and parental approval gone, we have to try and remember what we loved before we did all those other random activities to get here in the first place. Maybe we never actually knew, and with a stellar high school transcript and 200 hours of community service, we find ourselves starting from scratch.

During our undergraduate years, we do some of our reading. We learn that knowledge is power and power is sex and sex is oppression and oppression is history and history is fiction and fiction is repressed desire, which isn’t a real thing because Freud was actually a quack.

Since everything boils down to stories, we may as well pick up some lighter material once in a while. Read a pretty one.

Maybe write one of our own, something embarrassingly autobiographical, and let other people read it. Let it drip.

Claire Gordon is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • Matt S., DC ’10

    Claire Gordon’s columns are consistently brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. This is one of the finest essays I have ever read, anywhere. Claire Gordon, you know the depths of my soul. I hope the YDN is paying you gobs.

  • Hamburgers

    to some extent, i’m glad that this space has become a means by which gordon can cathartically — or at least ostensibly — smooth out the rough edges within her life. that it is a public display, though, makes me a bit skeptical about the work’s (or, rather, works’) sincerity. on a smaller level, that the work is inherently self-justifying and a bit self-promotional also gives me pause. that the essay also seems to showcase its creator as having no qualms about speaking on behalf of the never clarified “us” is also interesting, if not dishonest.

    some food for thought.

  • Samuel Bagg

    really beautiful writing, claire.

  • nitpicking

    “Could our life dedicated to Third World development, we think, actually affect less good than the douchebag econ major turned security trader’s mid-life white guilt six-figure donation to UNICEF?”

    You meant “effect,” not “affect.” Your high school English teacher was lying when she told you “effect” was always the noun.