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Last Post of the Decade

Published 2009-12-31
This is one of my favorite essays

I don't know anyone who says anything other than “good riddance” to the first decade of the 21st century. I know lots of people who hope it was the anomaly, that the rest of the century will get better. I know a probably-equal number who think it’s only going to get worse.

Personally, the decade was rock bottom and tip top. This was the decade I became a Real Grownup. I started it gliding along with a certain degree of dissatisfaction with success. I’d just stumbled into my new career as a web designer, and my new marriage to my first wife. I was six months away from rock bottom in that marriage but had no idea what was coming or why, only that the unstable place I was in wasn’t going to hold. On this subject, the less said, the better. That new career was subject to the whipsaw vagaries of the Dot-com boom — although in the long run I’ve never been worried about jobs or work or money in quite the way I probably should be.

In 2000, that all cracked up. The marriage wobbled through two separations and a little ugliness until it dissipated altogether in 2002. The cool new career ping-ponged between Real Jobs and freelance and outright unemployment, until I regained my footing at Curiosity (also in 2002). 2002 was the year I learned that I was boy who never quite figured out how to be a man. It took breaking my marriage totally and irreparably to figure it out. The pecularity of modern American manhood is that it’s defined in contrast to womanhood, which is all backwards. Manhood isn’t the state of not being a woman, it’s the state of not being a boy. Anyway, by the end of 2002 I was stable, back on my feet.

2002 was also the year I began riding my bike. A lot. I have one piece of advice for someone who wants to be happier: ride your bike.

Three really important things happened in 2003. I shaved my head. I met Jenny. I put Sitka to sleep. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those three things taught me to release vanity, embrace vulnerability, and accept loss. Together they taught me the only important thing I’ve ever learned: my life isn’t just about me. When Orion was born I learned that the rest of my life isn’t about me at all. The rest of my life until I die is about my children and their children. My haircut is not even remotely important any more.

The glide path of my life turned upward after 2003. Jenny and I married in 2005 — probably my favorite year of the decade, if you really pressed me. We moved to China in 2006, and back in 2007. Orion joined us in 2008. The only two years in which nothing much happened to me personally were 2004 and 2009.

So that was me: pretty good decade I guess. A little bumpy, but the bumps made it good, ultimately.

Impersonally, this was an awful decade for America. (It was a lot better for 2-3 billion other people, though, something I won’t touch on.)

I won’t dwell long on politics except to note that no one got what they wanted. The nation didn’t get the president it voted for in 2000, but we did in 2004. By 2006, we had serious buyers’ remorse. It sucked elephant balls to be a liberal this past decade, but it had to really grate to be a conservative. Conservatives got everything they ever wanted for six or so years and it was an utter failure. I wonder if the resulting cognitive dissonance isn’t driving the utter batcrap crazy nonsense coming out of conservative mouths these days.

Lots of people will want to think September 11, 2001, was a nadir for America (and maybe the world), but I think in a couple of decades it’ll look like the 21st equivalent of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. A big deal only for the stuff that happened around it. Really big objects are in motion, globally, stuff that only crackpots and visionaries discussed ten years ago. Global warming, peak oil, globalization, the shift of global capital eastward and southward, the imminent plateau of human population, the emergence of the infosphere as a pervasive element of society. Ferdinand’s death didn’t start the Great War; the Great War was the first, protracted battle of World War II. The whole mess fell out of the final crackup of the ancient world order of empires built by monarchs.

I wonder whether the 2000s weren’t so much the first decade of the 21st century as the last decade of the 20th. The 19th century didn’t really end until 1918. And then it got worse.

The Internet and mobile phones — the democratization of information, actually — are quietly and relentlessly euthanizing whole industries. 2009 was the year people stopped consuming printed matter. Think hard about what that means. 20 years ago, if you wanted to know a random piece of information — for example, who played the second Catwoman in the Batman TV show with Adam West, for example — it would require several minutes, perhaps hours, of legwork. Minimally, a trip to the library. That’s a measure of how free information has become: we no longer rely on institutions or interlocutors to tell us what apartments are for rent, what a used car should cost, or how much our neighbors’ houses are worth. When people say “information is power,” there’s a concrete case. Twenty years ago, I was at the mercy of the used car guy. I had to hope he was honest, or I had to do days of expensive legwork to keep him honest.

The democratization of information will have consequences. Lots of people depend on that friction for their paychecks. In just a few minutes I can name a dozen or so professions fast becoming obsolete: publisher, newspaper editor, used-car salesman, newspaper carrier, ad buyer, payroll clerk, shipping clerk, bank teller, real estate agent, travel agent (anyone with “agent” in their title, really).

On the other hand, and this really blows my mind, my job title didn’t even exist when I graduated high school 20 years ago. The industry didn’t even exist. The words “web designer” were a meaningless nonsequitur. Man did I luck out there.

All this change was in the air 10 years ago, but most people overlooked the “destruction” part of “creative destruction.” The 90s had been pretty good — pretty great, actually...remember when gas was 89¢/gal? — and the 80s were nearly as good. The 70s sucked a little, sure, but Disco wasn’t as bad as everyone remembered, and black people could finally sit in the front half of the bus. 1975 was the point at which the disparity between rich and poor was lowest in the United States. (I wasn’t alive in the 60s so I can’t tell you whether anyone felt nostalgia for the passing decade on Dec. 31, 1969.) 1999 was coming at the tail-end of 50+ years of economic, political, and military stability for the United States.

I understood this, growing up, in an indirect way. When I read about Henry Huggins in 1979, the life he lived in 1949 was pretty substantially like mine. No kid lives like that in 2009.

So this is where “personal” hits “impersonal.” I’ve led a blessed life: a trouble-free childhood, my teenage and twenty-something years no worse than usual, a career I stumbled into by a fluke of history. All the troubles of my life — the divorce, mostly — are entirely of my own doing. This blessed life is a result of a lottery I won at birth. I was smart enough to be born in America, smart enough to have middle class parents with a good marriage, smart enough to be born into a largish extended family in a prosperous midwest state. All at the point in history when America was doing great and we had plenty of everything we needed: energy, water, topsoil, forests, fisheries, family farms, colleges, factories, credit cards, doctors. We still have doctors and colleges in good supply, I’m not too worried about those. Some of that stuff — e.g. factories and family farms — we’ve surrendered more or less intentionally through economic relationships, so we can get them back. Most of the rest we’ve simply eaten up and crapped out. However much there may be left of topsoil, or forests, or energy, or fresh water, we aren’t making more of it nearly fast enough. For 50 years, America’s been on a pretty effortless upward path; but there’s nothing in history or our present situation to suggest we can rely on momentum alone. I think we need to grow up a little and get a little serious about what America can do (halt global warming) and can’t do (build shopping malls in Kabul). But none of that is gonna fix itself, the way my life just kinda sorta turned out awesome. I think the “era of stuff just turning out awesome” is over.

Before Orion I used to say: I could imagine a heaven no better than to live my life again. But that’s not the heaven I want any more. Heaven to me now would be: I want Orion (and his sibling[s], and their kids) to live a life as good as mine. I mean this literally, by the way, not figuratively. I would gladly surrender personal immortality in paradise for the guarantee that my progeny get to live happy, fulfilling, plentiful lives.

From a romantic perspective, I want that life to have the exact elements I had: snow in the winter, trees to climb, bears in the mountains, paper routes and bicycles, cheap college with cheap beer, travel to fun places, no military draft, and a little dose (but not too much!) of free love. But that world isn’t gonna happen (see above re: creative destruction, stuff in short supply), and nothing as good as that will happen again unless we make it happen.