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Waiting for the World to Change in the Era of COVID-19

From a GenXer to the GenZs in the time of COVID-19: We know, the waiting is the hardest part.

There’s a twitter thread from author Lauren Hough that’s made the rounds. Hough lists all of the ways that Generation X is prepared for self-isolation during a global pandemic, based on our experiences as latchkey kids and our consequent familiarity with—nay, our expectation of—intense boredom. “Shout out to Gen X,” she writes, the only generation who can keep our asses at home without being told… the generation used to being neglected by fucking everyone. We’ll be the only ones left.”

We, the children of the ’80s who came of age when it was perfectly acceptable to leave kids alone after school with only a bag of Doritos and carrots cut half-heartedly into sticks, the soap opera Santa Barbara on the television, know just what to do with unsupervised time. We wait. And, sometimes, we dream.

I read the Twitter thread, sip my beer, and turn up the volume on the soundtrack from the movie Singles. “I go it alone,” sings alt rocker Paul Westerberg in “Waiting for Somebody”, his voice rising in an anguish of waiting. “It doesn’t even hurt.” I look at my children playing happily with some rocks that they found in the yard. Ah, I think. So I’m here again.


Robot by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

It feels slightly solipsistic to be writing about Paul Westerberg right now, when so many are actively working to challenge the inequalities and racism that COVID has laid bare. But then, listening to Westerberg and his band, The Replacements—as well as U2, Skunk Anansie, the Lemonheads, Veruca Salt, the Posies (oh god, the Posies)—was never anything but an exercise in navel-gazing so intense that I wonder why I’m not better at yoga. My high school years in Boise, Idaho (famous now for its soaring real estate prices and influx of Silicon Valley expats, but famous then for the indie rock band Built to Spill and word-of-mouth concerts at the all-ages Crazy Horse) were defined by mix tapes that my much-savvier friends compiled and copied, over and over, for those of us who didn’t have the ear for what defined Just That Moment.

In these days of job insecurity and a coronavirus curve that refuses to flatten, the songs from those tapes are all I want to hear. They’re why I’ve dug my old boombox (yes kids, that’s what we called them) out of my garage. I’ve learned some things, it turns out—in the intervening years between turning up the volume on my Walkman so I didn’t have to listen to my parents angrily whisper that if you give her an inch, she’ll take a mile—and now. And it seems to me that the alt and indie rock of the late ’80s and early ’90s—the kind of music that captures our ennui, our longing, our discomfort and liminality—is just what we need in 2020.

It’s impossible to remember a song without recalling the moment in which it was first really heard. I mean, if the Breeders’ “Canonball” (Last Splash) wasn’t an anthem for smoking a joint in some too-hot and almost-cruel guy’s walkout basement bedroom in the Boise foothills in 1994, then what was it even for? I can’t imagine that Kim Deal was thinking of anything besides the view from those sliding glass doors all the way to Table Rock (where everyone but me, it seemed, was having sex at the foot of the gigantic cross) when she sang, “I’ll be your whatever you want.”

And now, I’m astounded—in the way that all 41-year-olds are, even though I no more feel 41 than my parents must have felt when they were coming home late from Community Ed karate class to watch Northern Exposure on our blocky 19 inch television. (They probably don’t feel 70 now, though apparently they’re finally old enough to sacrifice their lives for the stock market.) Anyway, I’m astounded at how little I paid attention.

To anything, that is. Anything other than the minutiae of my often static, sometimes explosive, always lazy and dramatic and joyful life. Why can I remember the exact placement of that almost-cruel boy’s pool table in the downstairs rec room but not whether he ever stayed at his dad’s on weekends, or—god forbid—how he felt about his parents’ sudden divorce? Why can I remember the red lettering on the cigar box where he kept his weed (Parents then and now: if your child has a cigar box in their bedroom, it’s not to collect river stones and bits of glass, it’s for drugs), but not whether he liked non-fiction or poetry, math or physics. I certainly liked other things—hiking, reading, hunting for flannel shirts and ripped up jeans at Goodwill—and in fact felt a deep ambivalence toward drugs that sadly continued even throughout my 20s in New York, when I held the dubious honor of being the person at every party who continued to be shocked that there were people doing coke in the bathroom.

I didn’t pay attention to the greater world because I was too busy waiting. Every day, every weekend contained twin contradictions of unutterable boredom and infinite potential. Most of the time, nothing happened. Things almost happened all the time: track and field parties (I was not on the team) in which people divulged half-articulated secrets in whispers that carried the stench of vomit; meet-ups that could have been dates (but weren’t) at the movie theater at the mall; passing lanes that ended abruptly, leaving one hurtling toward a logging truck and swerving the car back into the proper lane just in time; swim team parties (again: not on the team) when people seemed to always be taking their clothes off and then putting them back on again. Things were always and never happening.

And now, so many years later, I’ve been watching a new generation grapple with the same feelings. My self-isolating students’ faces on Zoom this spring were grainy, sometimes frozen in scowls. I teach Ways of Knowing at the University of Montana—a course designed to ask Big Questions about community, the divine, nature, and above all, the place of the self in this chaotic world. This spring the class consisted of primarily first-years who were evacuated from university back to their childhood bedrooms. Posters and batiks are on their walls for all attendees with their computer cameras on to see as they sat listening to some 41-year-old who couldn’t possibly know (how could she, her childhood probably took place within the black and white confines of a Charlie Chaplin film) what they were enduring.

Well, they were right—to a point. I got my first flip-phone when I was 24, and even now I don’t know how to text with both thumbs and keep starting new lines with every other word. Each text I send reads like a Haiku. I was the asshole at the emergency faculty Zoom training who fucked around with her whiteboard, frowny face and hand turkey, until I realized that my artwork was on the overhead projector in front of 60 beleaguered colleagues. My students are connected in ways I’ll never be, so I can’t truly understand what their disconnect during COVID-19 feels like.

But I do understand what it’s like to press your cheek against the soft blush carpet of your sister’s bedroom while listening to Evan Dando sing in “It’s About Time” (Come on Feel the Lemonheads), “Patience is like bread I say / I ran out of that yesterday,” and to wonder when, sweet Jesus, would things start happening? I know what it’s like to stand between two worlds, understanding that one is no longer available, and feeling unsure whether I’m ready, or even how, to step into the next.

My first-year students have been hurtled into stasis. We all have—if we’ve been lucky. We’ve been marooned here in Montana—some of us comfortably, some of us far less so—and at first, we were confused, skeptical, eager to be the statistical anomaly. And I suppose we have been, but perhaps not for long: as of the time of this writing, the state has seen 21 deaths due to COVID, with cases increasing significantly every day. Now, we are in the same position as much of the rest of the country.

As stores and restaurants slowly begin opening their doors again, as universities grapple with the possibility of moving fully online even as the financial implications threaten them with permanent closure, many of us are still waiting to see how this will change the structures that felt fixed only because we were told they were. We wait to see how this pandemic will change each of us, and we ask ourselves what we’re willing to do to ensure that the change is meaningful and enduring.

“As the world revolved around me / I could only say / I could dream all day.” The Posies knew that sometimes, dreaming all day is a privilege and a prison. Perhaps, The Posies seemed to suggest in “Dream All Day” (Frosting the Beater), it would be better not to wake up. But what if the world they awoke to was the one they dreamed of? What if their brand of individual passion and anguish was a shared commodity? What might happen then? When Built to Spill sang in “Car” (There’s Nothing Wrong with Love), “You’ll get the chance to take the world apart / and figure out how it works”, we all felt the promise of knowledge yet unattained. We knew we’d be the ones to get it. “Don’t let me know what you find out”, they added. We would each find our way—together, and alone.

Back in high school, Angela Chase (Claire Danes) was my idol. When was it that show aired—Monday nights? Nothing could keep me from watching My So-Called Life and imagining what it must be like to be so affected and unaffected at the same time. Angela, with her flawless skin (so perfect that they wrote an entire episode about one zit!), her dyed cranberry-colored hair, her deep interiority. We all wanted to be Angela Chase. Her sometimes-boyfriend Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) be damned; we all wanted to be with Angela Chase.

Except now we are all Angela Chase, laying on our bellies, our heads at the foot of our beds because we just need something to be different, picking at our nails and staring at ourselves in the mirror, wondering who we see without the artifice of school and—for many—work. People are getting sick and dying, even some impossibly ancient 41-year-olds, but many of us—fewer every day—haven’t yet felt the devastating health effects of COVID-19. Many of us are just waiting to see what our lives will look like after all this is over. Just as we did when we were 14, 16, 18—we want things to be Just Like They Were but Totally Different.

We wonder, feeling a thrill mixed with grief and hope, whether this will be the thing that catapults us out of wake up-drink coffee-burn Eggos-brush teeth-find a blazer-since when do I wear blazers-my god this is a closetful of blazers and into a different way of being. A different way of thinking about routines and race and history and school and art. And we wonder whether, when this is over, we will have the communal strength to let go of what didn’t serve us (individually and as a nation), and move instead toward the world that we dreamed about when we had time to dream.

Back when we were just kids we had a very cool baby-sitter, Molly—she of Angela Chase-like renown, she of the side shave and the box of records that she picked up from her ex-boyfriend’s house and threw into the backseat of her car. My sister and I were breathless—imagining boyfriend, imagining records—music that must be better than the Gordon Lightfoot album our parents played on repeat. Indeed, Molly introduced me to U2’s The Joshua Tree, the album that would claim permanent residence in my tape player as I played “With or Without You” on repeat, hitting rewind as soon as the last drumbeat faded.

“Through the storm we reach the shore” the song promises, and I imagine that Molly must have felt—as my students no doubt feel now—that she was both the heavy ship and the waves, the unyielding vessel and the shifting, restless current. We don’t know whether the current storm will carry us to safety or destruction, joy or despair, but we can hope—as we did when we were younger—that it will provide positive transformation. “With or without you,” Bono croons, and I hear it as speaking to being unable to live with the world we previously inhabited, as well as the grief at letting it go and moving into unknown territory. I hear him singing for our turbulent present, our unknown future. “I can’t live with or without you.”

Works Cited:

Blakemore, Erin. “The Latchkey Generation: How Bad Was It?”. JSTOR Daily. 9 November 2015.

Gay, Roxane. “How We Save Ourselves”. The New York Times. 20 June 2020.

Golden, Hallie. “Seattle Protesters Take Over City Blocks to Create Police-Free ‘Autonomous Zone’“. The Guardian. 11 June 2020.

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. “New Cases of COVID-19 in World Countries“. Accessed on 23 June 2020.

Hough, Lauren. @laurenthehaugh. “Shout Out to Gen X.” Twitter. 15 March 2020.

Levin, Bess. “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy“. Vanity Fair. 24 March 2020.

Montana Department of Health and Human Services. “Analysis of COVID-19 Cases in Montana as of 06/12/2020.” Accessed 23 June 2020.

Packer, George. “We Are Living in a Failed State”. The Atlantic. June 2020.

Whitford, Emma. “How Much Did Coronavirus Disruptions Affect 2 Closing Colleges?”. Inside Higher Ed. 2 April 2020.