Sunday, February 28, 2010

the "try to be happy and do the best you can" generation

From my old blog, Hidden Clapboard, 8 November 2005

I have a deep love and affinity for the domestic, for nature, everyday moments, and the like. But there's a part of me - is it my superego? - borne of my upbringing, formal education, cultural influences, and a parade of ambitious and class-conscious friends, relatives and acquaintances over the years, that devalues it. That says I should be doing something "better" with my "talent" and education. Well, I did for the longest while. It got me a nest egg and the satisfaction of a few professional accomplishments. But beyond that it's as though it never happened. The world doesn't care... so why should I?
I should give myself a break!

I was reading the
New York Review of Books. (I know how pretentious that sounds - but I'm a dumpster diver with the library's used magazine box and I got it for 10 cents.) In the issue is a review of a volume of Richard Feynman's letters. It turns out that not only was he a pyrotechnically gifted scientist and communicator, he was also an empathetic teacher, aware of the difficulties and uncertainties of many young scientists just starting out.

Lecturing in Athens in 1980, Feynman observed that the Greek educational system put (as the review states) "an overwhelming emphasis on the glories of classical Greece," which he felt gave children "a bad start in life, teaching them that nothing they do can equal the achievements of their ancestors." Feynman wrote:
They were very upset when I said that the thing of greatest importance to mathematics in Europe was the discovery by Tartaglia [a 16th century Italian mathematician] that you can solve a cubic equation -- which, although it is very little used, must have been psychologically wonderful because it showed a modern man could do something no ancient Greek could do, and therefore helped in the renaissance which was the freeing of man from the intimidation of the ancients -- what they are learning in school is to be intimidated into thinking they have fallen so far below their superior ancestors.
I may be mixing apples and oranges, but I have wondered if there's a pernicious effect to Tom Brokaw's designation of the American generation that came of age during the Great Depression and lived through World War II as the Greatest Generation. Not just a great generation - which it undeniably was - but the Greatest. Does it make later generations (never mind every other nationality that suffered the war) feel second rate by comparison? Such as, notably, the generation that served in Vietnam? How about those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (who, by the way, don't have the GI bill to come home to launch them on a prosperous civilian life)? Actually, we don't hear much about the Greatest Generation anymore - maybe because of the current wars, which may have hastened the exhaustion of that particular marketing scheme.

I'm not sure I literally agree with dooce when she says to "aim low." But I hear what she means.

When I was young my mother would express her hope that her four children would grow up to be like the Huxley family. No, I don't mean the family in Bill Cosby's sitcom. I mean, the English family with Julian and Aldous and who knows who else who were famously high achievers in whatever fields. I was supposed to be a concert pianist, or a great writer. One of my brothers was supposed to be a great doctor. The other - don't remember what he was supposed to be. My sister was to be a great artist.

I was a kid growing up in Connecticut. Who are the Huxleys, anyway? I would ask. What do they have to do with us? Why do we have to be so great? Can't you just wish for us to be happy?

Well, that too, she'd say. That goes without saying. (No it doesn't!) But there's no reason why you can't be very successful while you're at it.

Here I am decades later. When I'm done with Simple Abundance, I'm reading this next.

Thumbelina when first planted November 2005,
and Thumbelina this afternoon (with another Colorado spruce coming up too)

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