Wednesday, October 26, 2011

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/1: Demotism


I. American Apparel

The 50’s never ended in Pikesville. Every child birthed here is a scion sworn at his Bar-Mitzvah to uphold the White Picket Eruv of the Jewish-American dream; a separate but greater than equal Jewish society of doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, realtors, executives, businessmen, stockbrokers, bankers and accountants.

The neighborhood begins right at the Pimlico Racetrack - at the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway. It goes down the Avenue for another dozen miles - well past Garrison Forest Road and trailing off into the neither regions of Baltimore County farmland. This road is the lifeblood of Jewish Baltimore; as important to us as The Nile to Egypt or The Vistula to Poles. In the fertile land that surrounds Park Heights Ave. lives 90,000 Jews with a median income well over $100,000 a household.

Only sixty years ago the entirety of this land belonged to a few farmers. In the meantime grew as perfectly realized a vision of the American dream as exists in the whole country. You may hear of crime in the area, but it never seems to happen to Jews. You may hear of drugs, but you’d have to go outside the neighborhood to find a mass supplier. You may hear of free love and extra-marital affairs, but they seem to be the ultimate exception that proves the rule, and the rule is this:

The 60’s never hit Pikesville. It is a place so bound by conventions, routine, and expectations that rebellion is virtually impossible within its town limits. The American Pastoral lasted for over half a century in Jewish Baltimore, and its an idyll well-deserved. No ethnic group save African-Americans paid for the American Dream in more blood, sweat and toil than Jews the world over. But there can only be two explanations for any community to experience the Postwar boom for nearly seven decades:

1. Jews were too new to America to yet se the problems that lurk within the American Dream.
2. The American Dream actually succeeded here.

For over a century, Jews worked in sweatshops, stores, factories and industry. And even those situations were preferable to the origins from whence they arrived. By the millions they left countries in which they were persecuted, discriminated, exploited and massacred. In their moments of deepest reverie, they must have dreamt of building a community exactly like Pikesville - a place where Jews could flourish free from want and molestation. It must have sustained them to have an idea that some distant ancestor might have a chance to build a community exactly like ours. And like all great dreams, perhaps the most damaging thing to happen to it was that it came true.

At the heart of our town lies the idea of a miniature America for Jews. As many subcultures of Jews live in Pikesville as there are ethnic subcultures: Modern Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitch, Messianic, Conservative, Reform, Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Soviet Emigre, Israeli emigre, Holocaust Survivors, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Italian, even (God help us) Republicans. In its microscopic way, Pikesville is as diverse as America itself. But now that the first Jewish generation raised North of the Pimlico Racetrack approach Social Security age, it suddenly finds itself as much a community in decline as its macroscopic counterpart. Baltimore can only decay for so long before its most promising children leave for better cities. The younger generation of Baltimore Jews never knew a time when Baltimore was not a dying metropolis. The best and the brightest of our generation are descending like flocks on New York, Boston, DC, even Philadelphia. Their grandparents slaved their way into the middle-class, but the grandparents had neither the money nor the connections to send their children to anything but state schools. Their parents slaved their way into the upper-middle class, and they did have the money and connections to send their children to Ivy League schools. Their children will be among the best and brightest of a city that can provide them with a greater future. In our generation more than any other, the average Jew has his and her chance to take a place among the world’s elite. From here, there is no mobility but down.

II. ...So much for partial disclosure....

Like all attempts at a perfect society, some people found Pikesville a prison. I suppose it’s no secret that I was one of them for a long, long time. We’re technically as unimpeachable a liberal town as any 90% Jewish demographic should be, with all the education and tolerance of a progressive community in the early 21st century. But like Red America, we have a nostalgia to recapture a moment of American innocence which lies fifty years in the past if it existed at all. The only difference lying between us and Red America is how successful we’ve recaptured it. But as with every lovely vision, it conceals some ugliness within.

For many years I couldn’t help hating this town, I had demons I couldn’t escape. So rather than escape the demons, I dreamed of escaping the place that birthed them. I suppose it was because like most members of my generation, I have a perverse sense of entitlement which no child should have.

In a certain way, I was horribly spoiled as a child. For a time, it looked as if I might be a child prodigy - possessing perfect pitch from the time I was three, not only able to pluck out once-heard melodies on the piano with my right hand but adding harmonies with my left. I learned algebra at a similarly early age, speaking fluent English and Yiddish (and even some Hebrew) by the time I was two, and by Kindergarten reading at a level many peers would not achieve until high school.

What can you do if you’re told that everything you do is wonderful, only to awaken one day to discover that everything you do is worse than the entire rest of the world? The memories are still as vivid as though it’s happening right now. When I was in third grade, I suddenly found myself unable to understand the first thing about the schoolwork I was assigned and bullied by other kids for being ‘slow’. It would take me an hour and a half to do ten simple math problems. Half the schooldays I’d arrive at school only to find that I didn’t remember most of the homework I had to do. I was screamed at by teachers simply for the zoning out in class which I could not prevent. I spent far more of my childhood than I care to admit hiding in bathroom stalls so that I couldn’t be humiliated by teachers and other students. All this probably sounds utterly trivial to most people. Perhaps it should, but few experiences could be more traumatic for a kid like me - I, Evan Tucker, told from birth by everyone I ever met that I was a changeling whose intellect would set the world on fire, am in fact a mentally disabled person: ADHD, severe executive function disorder, severely impaired spatial reasoning skills and some indefinable Personal Developmental Disorder that is neither Asperger’s Syndrome nor any form of Autism. I began third grade thinking I was the smartest peson I knew, and ended it knowing I was the very dumbest, and would be so for the rest of my life.

However trivial it may seem to an outsider, trauma like that stays with you. No matter how hard you try to forget, some things cannot be forgotten. A third of a lifetime later, I can say as a definitive pronouncement that these ‘issues’ have stalked me in every endeavor I’ve attempted. Thanks to impaired spatial reasoning, I never successfully learned math at any higher level than I’d known when I was in pre-school. As a result, I came within a hare’s breath of failing my musical Harmony or Counterpoint courses, subjects whose rules my perfect pitch made me understand implicitly. Thanks to my lack of organization, I could never get Voices of Washington off the ground - even if you get a thousand details right as a director, the thousand-first will ruin everything. It’s why I was rejected by every music graduate school to which I ever applied. It’s probably the reason I look ten years past my actual age. It resulted in two decades of daily fights with major depression, medication that at times caused me to be a hundred pounds overweight, a grab bag of unpreventable facial tics, and enough panic attacks to give me the daily chest pains of a man my weight but a quarter century my senior.

But what can one do? Experiences like mine don’t kill your drive to succeed, they amplify hunger for achievement by a factor of millions. And that very hunger is self-fulfilling, killing off whatever chance you’d have for stumbling your way to success because you feel a compulsive need to control everything about your life lest more failure creep its way in. It isn’t enough simply to write music, the first draft has to be a Mahler Symphony. It isn’t enough simply to form a theater group or conduct a choir, it has to turn upside down every expectation of what art can do. It isn’t ego that drives this need, for ego would imply a self-belief in any chance of success. It is insecurity which tells me that nothing except for the exceptional is worth pursuing, and everything else in your life is proof of the ‘disabled’ label.

This label delivered me to years spent dreaming for the day I could escape the environs of my birthplace for a place that could appreciate a person like me for who I am. It delivered me to decades of poisonous anger to anyone who dares find my disorganization to be ‘funny’ or a flaw in character. It delivered me to a lifetime of cancerous jealousy for anyone to whom achievement comes easily; two lifetimes of longing for precisely the type of hyper-achieving ‘resume girl’ who would run screaming in the other direction at the mere mention of my name lest my unbounded record of failures rub off on her; and three lifetimes of intellectual insecurity which drives me to hear every piece of music, see every movie, and read every book lest the world discover that I’m exactly as stupid as I look.

As far as genuine problems go, this is all pretty trivial. I’m not blind or deaf, I’m neither mentally challenged nor have I autism, I’m neither an addict nor an alcoholic (well...probably not...). I have had as difficult a life as a very easy life can be. And I know very well that I’m far from the worst case of failure to live up to the vision this town affords. Every month I seem to hear a new story of someone about town involving suicide, overdose, prison sentence, corruption, abortion, or abuse. Pikesville is a wonderful vision if you can live up to it. But it is a town like any other, subject to all the same chaos and the same problems that cannot be controlled.

III. The Malcolm Gladwell Chapter Generator

We live in an era of niches.

In today’s world, a person can go through his entire life listening to a single genre of music and never know of the riches that exist within another. Whether your genre is classical, reggae, hip-hop, punk, or the rich folk traditions of your particular region or country, you can go through every day of your life and only associate with the hundred-thousand people who like the exact same music you do if you so choose. Short of language itself, music has become the most ghettoizing, separatist force in everyday life.

Similarly, it has become all too easy to read only what you like. If you don’t like high literature, that’s OK because you can read science fiction. Don’t like Sci-Fi? That’s OK too, you still have fantasy. Wait, you don’t like Fantasy? That’s fine, you can read thrillers. But you don’t like to read? Sure, why not? We have graphic novels! Writers can do compelling work in each genre, and many often do, but how many people will ever know about them?

It’s not just a question of genre, it’s a question of nations themselves. European colonies have long since declared their independence, but even the leftover European nation-states now want their independence. Wales and Scotland now have their own separate parliaments from Great Britain. Among the French; Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, and Corsicans all demand varying degrees of autonomy from the government. Italy’s unstable governments forever produce talks about dividing the northern half of the country from the southern. Similar talks also occur between the North and South of Belgium, as does further talk about separatism among Basques, Catalans and Occitans in Spain. Germany is forever in talks about how to revive an East that still looks at the security of the Communist era with nostalgia. And that’s only in Western Europe, one of the world’s most stable regions. Civil wars rage continuously around the world for the sole purpose of separating one group of people from another. Freud’s old phrase, “the narcissism of minor differences,” means as much today as it ever has in human history.

Will people ever learn about and respect one another’s differences unless they have to? Is the price of cooperation worth the payment? Is unification only possible by authoritarian means? Is there a way to teach people to respect one another’s differences without the use of force?

IV. The Road to Peondom

Like everyone reading this, I am a product of my generation. We've been trained from birth to believe that individual freedom, due process, the needs of the few - negative liberties - far outweigh the need for unity, equality and the right to security - positive liberties. To be sure, all of these positive liberties are important, but the empirical evidence that we have (or that we choose to see) shows that a society is better off protecting the rights of the individual rather than the rights of the group. One day, sooner than we may know, that evidence could change. If the individual rights of America prove unable to protect us from fear or want, I think we would all surprise ourselves with how many infringements on personal liberties we’d endure without protest. Sooner than we can fathom, America could turn into a country much more like China.

How a nation becomes one like modern-day China is a topic for another chapter. But a nation has to be one like modern-day America before it becomes China. Instead, we are a nation which strives in every way to protect, defend and increase the freedom of the individual. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. But in the future we may pay dearly for this effort.

What is the greatest motivation for inspiring people to work together for a common good? I have no idea as to the answer to this question, but I would suspect that somewhere near the top would rank ‘shared characteristics’. But in order to perceive shared characteristics in someone else beyond skin color and creed, you first would have to learn things about them. You would have to learn that these people who seem so different love their children and want them to do well just as we do. You would have to learn that they enjoy art, jokes, sports, games, sex and one another’s company just as we do. You would have to learn that these people have developed their own separate history, culture and means to solve problems which worked for them even if it wouldn’t for us. And if no one ever teaches you those things, someone may one day teach you that these people do not love their children, have no culture, and do not enjoy themselves. And since they do none of the above, that would make them unlike you and not subject to the same rules of how you would treat one of your own.

But one of the great ironies of my generation’s education is that in our parents’ desire to make us free to fulfill our own potentials - in whatever direction they go - we may be as ill-equipped a generation to understand our potential as any in American History. In an era when public schools get lower subsidies than at any point since the 1920’s, when private schools care less for education than athletics, and when lunatics with a half-baked idea can receive a grant for a charter school that espouses the latest educational fad, we do not share more culture with our peers, we share less. In our parents’ desire to expose us to a broader cultural framework, we may have been exposed to less culture than ever. The history we share is usually taught poorly, and when taught with care is taught with hundreds of different interpretations. Who can deny that many of our generation don’t see the point of learning history at all? And since we were taught by a generation of teachers who saw little point in learning about history, who can blame us?

But the ultimate beneficiary of these change in educational philosophy is precisely kids like me. My acceptance into American University was contingent on admitting myself into a learning disabled program that was disbanded a year after my arrival. I graduated an honors student. How did I do it? I took as many electives as possible, avoided subjects and professors I didn’t like, and chose a major that didn’t have a single tenure-track professor until two years after I chose it.

As in everything else in my life, I got through college mostly by being an autodidact. I was left to my own devices, and hardly anybody oversaw my education. If my education were overseen in any real way, there is no question in my mind that I’d have failed out. My success does not indicate the success of our education system, it indicates the system’s failure. An LD kid like me should never have been able to graduate college. The education system was broadened so that kids like me could have a chance at success, but in the process it may have ruined the chances of success for everybody else.

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