A new year. Time to think about time and how it slips past. A few weeks back, the subject of an interview, Elliott Woods, posed a question: How has America changed over the past decade? He was asking about how the country has changed since we went to war, but sometimes questions, like rivers, are hard to contain. I started thinking about what’s different in my life and in the world around me and I couldn’t stop at 10 years.
I went all the way back to 1997, the year I graduated from Princeton, because, by coincidence, I ended up reading Russell Banks’ book Rule of the Bone and he was teaching there then. The story is a proto-indie retelling of Huck Finn with Jim as a wise Rastafarian weed dealer and Huck as a teenaged dropout trying to escape sexual abuse and a dead-end town in upstate New York. There’s a scene in the book where the 14-year-old protagonist, Chappie, imagines killing his mother and stepfather and grandmother in graphic detail. It made me think about Beth Walton, our colleague, who was murdered last year, along with two of her children, by her son. We won’t ever understand what happened beyond knowing that a family was wiped out by someone they loved, who wiped himself out as well, most likely because he felt despair but also possibly because guns, like credit cards, have their own logic.
The Columbine High School shooting happened in 1999. We went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. We are still at war in Afghanistan. In March Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was accused of 17 murders after he allegedly executed a drug-and-alcohol-addled killing spree in an Afghan village. Two weeks ago Adam Lanza killed 27 people wearing combat armor and carrying an assault rifle with hollow point ammunition. I am connecting dots.
As a Gen X-er, I came of age in a world of material plenty and felt that there was something terribly wrong. Something spiritual that kept me from wanting to engage. I watched people a little bit older than me ride the dot-com wave. I watched contemporaries drift, toward finance in some cases, and toward rock bands in others. Fifteen years later, the material plenty has vanished. There is still something wrong. I am fully engaged, and I still don’t know how to solve the problem.