My memories of my 20s are more like bursts and flashes than a coherent narrative. There was a lot of upheaval. A lot of it was intentional, because I’d grown up in a placid SoCal coastal suburb and, as everyone knows, that must be somehow wrong. Perhaps in order to intensify the upheaval, I remember applying a test to any decision that seemed in any way big. It was not, Will I regret this?, but Will I regret not having done this? I meant this question not in any practical sense; I didn’t know what I wanted to be and was not good at self-positioning even had I known. Neither was the question a moral one; the decisions I refer to did not entail true victims—except, maybe, occasionally, me. No, I meant Will I regret not having done this? in a kind of cosmic sense.
I remember one bright afternoon in my early 20s: Sitting with a book on the corner seat of the wicker sofa in my Los Angeles apartment, I looked out the window and then willed myself to perceive that the light hitting my page and, at that moment, making a wavy spot on the wooden floor was that of an average star (which, of course, it was). I thought about the distance the light had traveled only to now bounce around on my roommate’s worn furniture. And I got a little dizzy pondering how daytime—so warm and reassuring, almost more like a place than a time — was basically just nighttime under a giant floodlight. In this helio-peripheral light, some of the questions that had been bothering me did not read the same way. “Is X, who was born nearly two decades before me, too old for me to date?”, for one, changed into “Isn’t it remarkable — given the staggeringly huge span of geologic time — that X and I both live on Earth during the same millennium, let alone the same years, months, days?”
Looking back, this approach seems, aside from self-justifying and possibly nihilistic, absurdly romanticizing — if only in that cosmic language and imagery is the stuff of poetry (especially the Shakespearean-tragic kind, in which I was, at the time, as a college English major, swimming). And yet, it’s the twentysomething’s job to be romantic. It was maybe the Gen X twentysomething’s job to be both romantic and nihilistic at once. And yet, romantic seems an absurd word to apply to a view that makes our precious Sun just your local gaseous sphere and that puts one’s time on Earth in the context of Earth’s time. And for all that facing my own vanishingly slight significance in the big picture was in some sense liberating, it was also extremely anxiety-provoking.
They say my cohort grew up getting used to being ignored by adults. We turned out skeptical, prematurely jaded, unwilling to play the game. NPR recently claimed that we didn’t even want the generational anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that Kurt Cobain was nice enough to write for us. Not because there was anything wrong with the song — on the contrary — but because we are just not into ceremony, into being the center of the universe even if only for a minute.
Given my location smack-dab in the middle of Gen X, the ‘90s were my 20s, perfectly aligned but for six months on either side. Generational explanations for how anyone turns out are limited — demarcating arbitrarily and generalizing based on majority experience. That one of my parents was an immigrant to the US introduces one variable. Also, there are idiosyncratic family dynamics to consider, not to mention social class, group-specific collective traumas, birth order, random accidents, and plain old disposition. But it’s striking to reflect on how quintessentially of their era my 20s now feel: Not just in the clothes I wore and the music I listened to, nor in the glorious affordability of my public college education. But also in the actions I took to somehow countervail what had come before, whatever you want to call the typical conditions of a 1970s-‘80s childhood — a surfeit of freedom, vague disorder, benign neglect, neglect.
To make up for the approximately 16,000 unsupervised hours I’d spent watching TV after school, I canceled the cable company. This left my roommate squinting at MTVs Real World, Season 2: LA, through a layer of snowy static as I looked on feeling not a little bit of pride. For the school-issued instrument I’d been allowed (encouraged?) to abandon in the fourth grade, I signed up for violin lessons… and practiced. For my part in the complacency that perhaps inevitably described my hometown, I’d show up for public protests, recycle obsessively, and start fights with people who had power over me. I argued with illiberal extended-family members and abusive bosses at the restaurant jobs I did to pay my share of my rent while in college. (Yes, my dad covered the rest; yes, this is probably how I had the courage to start said fights.) As further self-punishment for all the TV-watching, I applied to grad school. I got in, and grad school gladly took over the punishing. (It also eventually taught me that those who spent their childhood afternoons in music lessons and model UN are annoyingly prone to taking pride in how much TV they now watch. TV-watching is the new conspicuous consumption.)
I see how all these efforts might make me seem ambitious and optimistic — like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (2001), a self-improver striving to join the ranks of people who’ve been training for their positions since birth — rather than skeptical and unwilling to play the game. But then there’s the obsessive recycling, which was driven as much by anxiety as by idealism, and which also drove some of my anxiety. At one of my jobs, in a Beverly Hills diner, I took to intercepting the empty cans and bottles before they could be trashed, against the orders of the boss. Did my boss not understand about landfills and groundwater pollution? I confronted a customer after hearing him mock people worried about global warming. He was a physicist, he said, and I, in my maroon polyester waitress uniform, was bringing him his dinner. Did I really, he asked, believe that the actions of tiny humans could heat up the planet? Did I realize how cold the larger universe is? And I remember — because it was so dramatic — my coworker Colette saying, after I chided her for tossing a glass soda bottle: You’ve got to get less intense about all this, or you’re never going to make it. In those years there were indeed many clashes, which, in terms of my personal and professional interests, were guaranteed to get me nowhere, though in theory they were the right thing to do.
I can’t be sure, since I did do these things, whether now I’d regret not having done them. I’m also not completely sure how to define my actions. Maybe I could have achieved more with less drama. Or maybe the drama was, at least in part, the point. Was I, by scrapping and struggling, trying to compensate for the apparent unresponsiveness of the universe? Is there a similar romantic statement to be gleaned from my generation’s principled refusal to accept our “anthem”? Maybe this rejection — a denial — was our roundabout way of being at the center of the universe. There’s a certain romance in the act of framing one’s relative blipness.
Now, 20 years after my 20s ended, I don’t have many regrets about the big decisions I made. I do cringe, though, when thinking about the more dramatic moments. But why? Is it because now I know better — know that big things happen piece by piece, with no theme music and a lot of onerous heavy lifting and boring standing around, and that dramatic confrontation can over-personalize political causes and thus end up hurting those causes? Or do I cringe because I harbor Gen-X sensibilities, by which my style of defiance might have been judged as too intense, too effortful? Or is it because of something about life after grad school — about years spent playing a version of the game and seeing protest mostly taking place in highly controlled environments? From this perspective, it’s easy to see the messy, ad hoc kind of confrontations I initiated as vulgar and self-defeating.
But perhaps to cringe is to succumb to forces that are worth fighting — that discourage theatrics, that are embarrassed for anyone naïve enough to question the value of the game, that eventually break your spirit. Perhaps an occasional fight is in order, or at least some impertinence about how, given the consolidation of power within such environments, such fights don’t seem to make any difference in the big picture. There’s no new thing under the Sun, true. But would the old things look different if the Sun were just an average star?
Kim Shirkhani | email@example.com